I don’t know the actual origin of the band’s name, but “The Barstool Philosophers” moniker puts me in the mind of those who wax eloquent under the influence, perhaps solving the world’s problems in an evening of scotch and contemplation, but remember none of it in the morning. The thematic content of Crossing Over can certainly be interpreted in light of that notion, as songs like “The Space Between,” “Freeway,” “Beyond the Stars,” and the album’s title track in particular all riff on some of the larger themes of human existence: loss, uncertainty, self-criticism, love, risk, and sacrifice.
Founded in 1997 by Martin Kuipers (drums), René Kroon (keys), Ivo Poelman (guitar) and Mark Portier (bass), The Barstool Philosophers was created as a side-project to each of its members’ current bands. Together, they released one album back in 2009, Sparrow, and returned to the market late last year with Crossing Over, releasing this sophomore project on 11 December. The current lineup still includes Kroon, Poleman, and Kuipers, but now features Bas Hoebink on the bass, and Crossing Over serves as the debut of Peter van Asselt as the band’s lead vocalist.
Traditionally, a good philosopher is one who incorporates the best conceptions of his peers into his own original ideas, and that’s very much what the Philosophers have done. Comparisons to the likes of Marillion and Queensrÿche are almost inevitable, but there’s also plenty of Dream Theater, Fates Warning, and Pain of Salvation in the mix as well. Crossing Over’s writing is undeniably less technical (though certainly not less nuanced) than some of these latter influences, but it is still unquestionably a prog album, surfacing perhaps a little closer to the Marillion end of that artistic pond. More melodic, spacey, and hook-oriented than some of their contemporaries’ writing, the Philosophers’ music is more oriented toward songwriting than album-oriented composition. Yet despite the numerous metal influences and a certain 80‘s-style, neo-prog bend, Crossing Over remains a distinctly modern album with roots in a multiplicity of styles. This diversity is due at least in part to the album’s plethora of guest vocalists (in addition to van Asselt), and also to the fact that its compositions span a number of sub-genres.
“Freeway” opens the album with an introduction to both the Philosophers’ primary style, grooving rock-and-roll, and also to van Asselt’s songwriting. There’s some Geoff Tate and some James LaBrie in his high-throated, metal-influenced singing style, but his versatility is more apparent on his performance of “On My Way to You,” the album’s later, soulful ballad. His introspective lyrics render the most significant of life decisions as analogous to freeway driving, where the decision to choose a new direction involves an all-or-nothing u-turn. This tune is really the only on the album to feature extended soloing, traded between Poelman’s guitar and Kroon’s synth, and also strongly emphasizes the joint foundation provided by Kuiper’s percussion and Hoebink’s bass.
“Fine Lines / My End of the Island” is two songs melded into one, forming the album’s longest track at 10:00 minutes long, and is my favorite overall composition on Crossing Over. Paul Adrian Villarreal, Kroon’s cohort from Sun Caged, lends his voice and lyrics to this linked pair of songs. I appreciate the weight of the observations contained here: the sensation of living as a castaway, a man adrift and “liv[ing] out [his] days on infinite seas,” and coming to the recognition that the land he esteemed as his own principality is merely “borrowed sand” on the end of an ever-shrinking island property. There’s also an intentional shoutout to the album’s title, “Shadow, I’m crossing over / Shadow, I’m crossing over,” a theme carried throughout the album’s material, but most fully fleshed out on the later title track.
“Tedious” is the album’s snarler, a heavy metal tune with bite and brass that moves between dirty 4/4 and 7/8. Michel Legrand’s (Cirrha Niva) lyrics descry living within “our stationary kind of being,” of being infuriated with stagnancy, expressing desperation for growth and vivacity.
Erik Masselink’s (ex-Symmetry, Gate 6) voice carries all the painful emotion of his lyrics for the next song, “The Space in Between” – of being unable to let go of the deceased, and suggesting that the haunting of lost souls is not the result of spirits lingering for the sake of unfinished business, but because we are unable to release our lost loved ones to the afterlife. Appropriately, this composition features Mark Ashby (progtopia.com, thundergrunt.com) reading “I Did Not Die,” an unaccredited poem with explicit life-after-death implications. Octaves on the keys and guitars accentuate the dreary bassline undergirding the verses, and the gentle trill of the piano’s higher register renders the progression gorgeous and ethereal. Masselink’s vocals remind me strongly of David Longdon (Big Big Train), as do the more balladic sections of this composition.
“Beyond the Stars” is restless and driving, featuring Marleen ten Hove as its lyricist and powerful lead vocalist. Thematically, it appropriately follows on the heels of “The Space in Between,” taking the perspective of the one who has passed on (or crossed over), attempting to identify his or her current state of being, feeling acutely the new separation from loved ones.
And then we come to Van Asselt’s “On My Way to You,” another of my favorites on Crossing Over. Piano-based, the gentle composition is simply accompanied by acoustic guitars, light percussion, Hoebink’s warm fretless bass (sounding more like sticks on this performance), and choir-style vocals, altogether invoking a lush, gospel feel. The instrumental components to the bridge are gorgeously orchestrated, sharing melody across guitar and keys, moving against the bass.
“The Scent,” performed by Maikel Hergers (Mystrez), follows on the heels of the previous track. The opening seconds of this tune, with their eerie combination of ambient guitar and whistling, put me in mind of Guns N’ Roses – “Civil War” or “Patience.” As the track progresses, it modulates into a Floydian composition (half-spoken singing, lingering guitar ambience, atmospheric synth), and then into something much darker, more akin to Anathema or Opeth.
The album’s title track was penned and voiced by Erik Masselink. “Crossing Over” opens with synth padding and a dissonant guitar lick, reminiscent of some of the compositional tactics of Mike McCready or Jerry Cantrell, guitarists of the grunge movement. The tune roars into high gear almost immediately, and continues in that vein predominantly throughout the composition, all the way to its strong conclusion. Hoebink’s bass is again a highlight here, moving rapidly beneath the spacey guitars and synth, accompanying Kuipers’s restless percussion. And again, the orchestration of the balladic verses, coupled with Masselink’s voice, put me in mind of The Underfall Yard era Big Big Train.
Crossing Over’s concluding piece, “‘Til We Meet Again,” employs a funk groove and thick, ambient synth – both as undergirding, and later as an overlying texture, doubling the soaring electric guitar for the final climactic moments.
I like this album a lot. It’s rich, listenable, energetic, and also surprisingly pensive. There’s a significant emotional weight behind each song, an intensity that each guest vocalist leant to his or her performances, tightening each song’s individual connection to the comprehensive whole. Unlike other albums that feature multiple guests, in which the writing tends to feel disjointed and erratic, this collection manages to be unified even in its diversity. Ultimately, Crossing Over is a visceral and highly engaging album – a quality release not to be easily dismissed.