NIACIN — High Bias (review)

NIACIN — High Bias album cover Album · 1998 · Fusion Buy this album from MMA partners
3/5 ·
M.Neumann
This early album by the celebrated Fusion trio leans more to the jazzier side of the Jazz-Rock spectrum, and suffers a little for it. Later recordings would foreground the heavier elements of the band's distinctive instrumental attack, but here they clearly pulled too many of their punches.

A conservative production certainly doesn't help. The grindhouse grunge of John Novello's Hammond organ, normally the heart and soul of the Niacin sound, is diluted into a flavorless stew of generic digital synth textures, and the usually dynamic rhythm section is undermined by bass guitar virtuoso Billy Sheehan's uncharacteristically reserved performance: at no point on the entire album does he rip into one of the trademark pyrotechnic solos that would spark other Niacin efforts.

But let's be fair: the material here doesn't really demand any fireworks. Remember this is a band that likes to supplement their original music with an eclectic mix of occasional covers, but look at the selection this time around: instead of the heavy metal art rock of King Crimson's "Red" (a highlight of their 2004 "Time Crunch" album), there's a tasteful but unexciting version of the old Joe Zawinul/Weather Report standard "Birdland", not exactly an ideal vehicle for the sort of powerhouse interpretation these guys are capable of.

A silver lining can be found in the able support offered by several guest musicians, including three additional drummers substituting (why?) for band regular Dennis Chambers, plus percussionist Alex Acuña on the nervous Latino-tinged rhythms of "Montuno", one of the album's standout tracks (in part because of Novello's more aggressive touch on the acoustic piano). And the rich icing on an otherwise flavorless cake is an appearance by Return To Forever legend Chick Corea, adding some graceful Fender Rhodes filigrees to his own original composition, the 11+ minute "Hang Me Upside Down".

Bottom line: it may not be the band's strongest effort, but on the other hand the album showcases a more relaxed side of a power trio typically known more for their muscle.
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