How then does one address the inevitable negative critiques of one’s work? It would be easy to simply use this space as nothing but repeated cheerleading and sales pitches. But while that makes marketing sense there is an element of hollowness if not deceit; a convenient blind spot. Certainly one of the hardest things for an artist to do is accept that their creation is not without blemish in the same way no parent wants to hear they have an ugly baby. But no song ever played has been all things to all listeners, especially the critics, so I’m hardly without company when I get mixed reviews (or worse). Since I possess the distinct advantage of having no brand to protect or a publicist to argue about it with I’ll just hit this head on. Below is a review of “Self-Evident Truths” from the music website www.SeaOfTranquility.org:
Tom More is a self confessed independent progressive rock multi-instrumentalist based out of Dallas Texas. According to his press release the lyrical themes on his debut CD entitled Self Evident Truths revolve around "our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and our struggle to actualize those in the tumult of modern life". His bio also states that he plays bass for prog band Supernal Endgame.
On Self Evident Truths More assumes all the instrumentation, including the lead vocals, save for the majority of the guitar solos which are performed by a handful of guest musicians. All though I wouldn't say that this eight song album displays a lot of progressive rock qualties , there is a degree of prog running through these tracks. These compositions are all peppered with accessible sounding melodies and arrangements, proving that More is both a competent musician and songwriter, not to mention he has surrounded himself with some very solid guitar players, who turn in some great solos when called upon. If there is a noticeable weak link on Self Evident Truths it has to be More's vocals. As competent a musician that he is, his lead vocals are not what I'd call his strong suit, and I have to be honest in saying that his lack of vocal prowess marred my overall listening experience. Another of More's obvious strong points is his penchant for writing intelligent lyrics so I found it to be real shame that he didn't opt to have someone come in to really belt out these socially conscious lyrics of his. In the end I think this would have easily elevated these compositions to the next level and boosted its overall ranking by one star.
Added: October 13th 2010
Reviewer: Ryan Sparks
Score: 2.5 (of a possible 5 stars)
First of all I believe Ryan took the time to listen through the whole album (sounds strange, but reviewers of unknowns sometimes skip around and just come away with an impression) which I’m thankful for and did a balanced job identifying the strong and weak points. I’m not quite sure what other “progressive rock qualities” he was looking for although in any genre different ears have different impressions of what “right” sounds like. Certainly this is not a “concept” piece with each song telling part of a grand story, nor do I dabble in abstract lyrics or images. The arrangements are not symphonic indulgences stretching ten or fifteen minutes and spanning half-a-dozen movements nor do they contain extended solo improvs and mind blowing feats of sonic virtuosity. The instrumentation is pretty standard rock fare (guitar, bass, drums, synth) and there’s no flirtation with the avant garde or grinding atonality, no daring vocal departures or choral surprises. Perhaps you could say it lacks a lot of the elements of “classic” prog music and I suspected this might become an issue when I wrote it. I have described the music as landing in that dangerous territory of “crossover” material where the writer runs the risk of indifference from both the purists and the mainstream, and since no publicity is bad publicity indifference might just be the worst thing to have to face. My personal taste is for complexity with a groove and a nod to rock music’s roots which comes through in my songs. Think of later Yes, Rush since the 90’s, Dream Theater’s shorter works. The penchant for more melodic or groove/hook oriented songs runs afoul of much of the prog community. I once heard someone say “if you can dance to it it’s not prog” and these folks will likely not be pleased by the ground I’m covering. I enjoy something you can periodically tap your foot to but which also contains unexpected events and changes in direction. On the flip side four-and-a-half to six minute songs don’t play to the pop crowd. Neither do time signature changes and suspended chords. Need I mention you’ll never hear a cover of my material on a Bon Jovi or Black Eyed Peas album? So this CD isn’t the fare of commercial radio or the bar crowds, instead it inhabits that semi-no-man’s-land where labels look at you with a jaundiced eye and the old guard views you askance. Perhaps this is too harsh a description but as I listen to a lot of the modern progressive music the two strains I hear most clearly are the adherence to the classical prog sound and a dark, metalish, “contemporary” vibe. I suppose neither of these is surprising considering the older generation harkens back to the heyday of the 70’s and the youth have been heavily influenced by the many forms of metal and the brooding angst of harder alternative. For those of us who fell into the “tween years” of the eighties and nineties it’s just a tough road…neo-prog notwithstandingJ.
The most direct criticism Ryan makes concerns my vocal delivery and he has quite a valid point, nor is this the first time I’ve heard such comments. It was my singing specifically that caused one label to pass on the album, and I’m pretty sure the reason another did, also, plus the genesis for some sad-faced disapproval from musician friends of mineJ. I am well aware that the vocals are the stand-out part of any song and have a make-it-or-break-it quality especially when it comes to grabbing and holding the listeners attention. I’m behind the curve in several regards here. First I’m a baritone which is just not really a “rock” voice. The deeper timbre doesn’t have the projection and cutting power of a tenor or alto in the tonally crowded and high volume world of rock ‘n roll. It also falls right amongst the busiest frequency range of the guitar and bass, their E, A, D, and A, D, G strings respectively, so my voice competes directly with these in trying to stand out in the mix. Second I don’t have the widest range; I’ve basically got two octaves to work with. The lowest notes tend to disappear except in quiet sections of the other instruments and I don’t have the option of rising very high to emphasize areas or build to a climax. The challenge is avoiding the melody developing a chanting style because of the narrow range of notes I have to work with. While I tried to craft the vocals with as much variance in the pitch, phrasing, and cadence as I could I have heard the criticism that in some places it sounds more like intoning than singing. Finally there is the tonal quality of my voice which tends towards the smooth or mellow. It’s the rasp and grate of a Bruce Springsteen, Kurt Cobain, or Ted Nugent that puts a great deal of the edge in what they’re singing. While there are many examples of smooth, male voices in rock they tend to lean on great range and power to deliver intensity. Smooth and low is normally the domain of the crooners and balladeers. Consequently, while I feel there are several tunes on the album where my vocal type works just fine (although maybe not quite what is expected) there others in which I lack real “punch.” But “expected” is a word that should be considered, too, since expectations have a sizable impact on our perceptions. While it sounds like a sour grapes defense to say that someone’s preconceived notions of what constitutes the “correct” voice is too narrow and that my vocal style is simply a unique part of my sound, these are legitimate points. And there have been a number of reviews that stated nothing negative about the singing at all so some listeners seemingly are not troubled by its unusual aspects. The sway of convention, however, does tend to trump notions of individual artistry especially if one is interested in winning over a large audience. So while I don’t think my vocal performance was ever “bad” I will readily admit there are a number of tracks where a higher, stronger voice would have had better effect. And, in listening back, I can identify some spots where I oversang, forcing my voice to try to create the intensity I worried was lacking. Perhaps I should have stuck with what was natural.
So why did I release the album as I did? Why not get a great voice in to raise the roof? Several reasons, each with strong arguments for or against. Number one is the type of voice that would have been needed to keep from making major changes in the key or requiring rewritten melodies. I wrote the songs the way I did so that I could sing them myself because I wasn’t working with a vocalist at the time and to limit the need to find additional band members if the point of playing shows was ever reached. I liked (and still like) the way the melodies fit into the songs so a higher voice would have essentially meant someone singing comfortably an octave above me, which is reaching into the alto range. Those are very hard voices to find (and by extension keep) making the vocalist a single-point failure for the band and extremely tough to replace. Early on, when I was working with some other guys to record and then be the performance band, I originally held the lead vocal duties. We agreed that I lacked some oomph in the lyrical delivery so we found in a guy who was primarily a metal vocalist. He had great power and energy but couldn’t effectively reach notes as low as I had in the melody and so was forced to sing thirds and fifths above the original part creating some awkward sounding vocal lines. I suggested we try changing keys for him which met with little enthusiasm since we were in the easiest keys for these complex songs already. Changing would have made them really hard plus all the time required for relearning. Later, when it became a solo project, I was faced with the same complications of finding a rare voice, changing/relearning the music, and having a much harder time reproducing it live.
Time and expense were the second reason. While I might have found the voice I needed by going on-line like I did with guitarists the additional cost would have been significant and I was already WAY over budget just to get all the instruments on tape and have the minimum mixing done. Additionally there would have been time (perhaps a lot) needed for the vocalist to get the songs ready and I was struggling to schedule recording around my other commitments and spotty studio availability. I had to find the balance between getting something done and waiting indefinitely in the hopes of doing something perfect (and there’s a huge argument among artists!).
Lastly I was using this album as my flagship for a fledgling music production business and as a means to attract other musicians who might be interested in collaborating so I wanted to demonstrate everything I could do. Was that putting my best foot forward? Maybe not, but it was certainly being honest, a good starting point for any type of partnership. From a sales perspective I realized this style of music, independently released, was unlikely to be a huge seller anyway so it wasn’t as if I was assuredly cutting my throat by not hiring a superb vocalist.
So was I right or wrong? I’m waiting to find out. While negative criticism always makes you want to second-guess yourself I’m being patient and reserving final judgment. They say you can draw no conclusions even with the best marketing techniques until the product has been out a year. Considering my marketing is anything but the best I probably have more time than that. What I can say is it’s a start, and a pretty good one for a guy working alone and paying out-of-pocketJ. And as I’ve stated from the beginning I’m not above re-recording this all one day under more favorable conditions so when Mike Portnoy calls me up and says he’d like to make me yet another of his many projects I’ll be ready!:-)