The word “polydactyl” makes me think of some kind of dinosaur, probably for no reason other than the phonetically similar “pterodactyl,” but even if Ed Bernard did opt to title his first solo album after the kind of cat that has extra toes (and one of these does certainly reside with him) as opposed to something more mythic, I find that this unusual comparison only highlights the unusual caliber of the material presented here. And if feline characteristics have anything at all to do with the record, it’s in connection with Ed’s remarkable nimbleness on the vast array of instruments he plays. In fact, sometimes I wonder if he’s the one with six fingers.
Ed is the primary composer behind Canadian progressive rock band Druckfarben. He also teaches and produces music when he’s not writing his own, and has done session work with the legendary Canadian prog act, FM. Polydactyl, a late 2015 independent release, is Ed’s first solo album, and is certainly a debut worthy of recognition. The album has as many personal nuances as it does echoes of classic and modern prog influences, but altogether its compositions sound fresh and new. Polydactyl feels a little like Dream Theater meshed with Kansas, mixed with some Boston rock, some Yes eccentricity, and even some Floydian ambience as well. There’s heavy emphasis on guitar work throughout, which only makes sense considering Ed’s primary instrument, but there isn’t really a spotlight anywhere to be found here. In composing Polydactyl, Ed intentionally orchestrated the album’s melodic responsibilities across all represented instruments, as each track required: acoustic (nylon-, steel-, 6-, and 12-stringed) and electric guitars, violins and violas, keys and synth, mandolins, and even the bass.
In that regard, Ed particularly demonstrates his prowess as a multi-instrumentalist with this album. While the vast majority of Polydactyl’s percussion is played by Zed Murmer (with additional drums on “Derealization” by Paul DeLong), Ed provides… well, just about everything else. In fact, on both “Withywindle” and “Bring it Home,” Ed himself performs every instrument. Perhaps that is the most impressive thing about Polydactyl: it is truly a solo album that contains not only its creator’s grand vision, but also his personal touch throughout.
I won’t mention every track in detail, but each is unique in its own right. The album’s roaring opening track, the instrumental “Symfoprogru,” has a strong Liquid Tension Experiment vibe – lots of John Petrucci-style guitar work with layers of synth and bass inserts, centered on several pentatonic riffs shared across all instruments. The album’s second song, “Derealization,” is an 8:00+ minute composition with multiple internal movements – an epic at heart if not in length. Its first three minutes are a ballad featuring lush, 12-string acoustic guitar with piano accompaniment and aching vocals; a swaying 6/8 bridge of growling guitars leads into a series of Kansas-style string sections, interspersed with Dream Theater-inspired guitar breakdowns and a strong synth solo. The only complaint I have about this monster track – which, nitpicking aside, might actually be my overall favorite tune on Polydactyl – is its indecisive, fade-out ending.
The “dark and stormy daydream” of “Entitled” channels a strong David Bowie vibe, both in instrumentation and in Ed’s vocals. “Eyes Everywhere,” another favorite tune of mine, represents Polydactyl’s first helping of Ed’s Celtic-flavored mandolin. After a soft entrance, the track kicks into high-gear with mandolin filling the undercurrent until the verse, when grooving bass takes over. The gorgeous, arpeggiated piano inserts on this tune are performed by William Hare. A furious run of guitars, bass, and mandolin bring the composition to a sudden conclusion, and transition almost directly into “Running,” another track with a mandolin-and-guitar-based introduction, beautifully orchestrated with accenting woodwinds, strings, and additional vocal parts. The latter section of the song would be better characterized as a powerful organ-and-guitar ballad.
As mentioned, Ed performed every instrument himself for the brief and mostly unplugged instrumental, “Withywindle” – a strongly Celtic-flavored piece with mandolin, nylon-stringed guitar, and string parts. The dark ambience of “1000 Hates” enters immediately on the heels of “Withywindle’s” conclusion, establishing a central melody on the viola that the guitars and synth will cite as the track progresses. For this track, Greg Wyard plays bass and Joel Lightman provides work on the piano.
“The Quiet Race” features Ed’s bandmate and longtime friend, Phil Naro, and FM’s Cameron Hawkins as additional vocalists, as well as ethereal layers of spacey guitars and synth pads. Polydactyl’s closing track, the aptly titled “Bring it Home,” is a gentle and lilting conclusion with careful orchestration. This is the only track on the album that I feel compelled to indict for less-than-stellar vocals, but even the little moments of weakness here are not enough to descry the overall vocal work Ed has done throughout.
While Polydactyl certainly includes a healthy dose of retro-style prog, it is also very modern – and not just from a production standpoint. This is a showcase of mature musicianship, paired with songwriting of the same caliber, and Ed has certainly brought to the table all of his musical expertise, along with a clear vision of what he set out to accomplish. His influences – Petrucci, Govan, and Livgren amongst others – are well-represented; his solos are crisp, rich with emotion and innovation; his performances on all other instruments reach an impeccable yet soulful level of professionalism. Polydactyl isn’t quite a strange cat, but it is both polished and graceful, and it lands unerringly on its feet with every spin.