Michael Whalen – “Future Shock”


And now for an album that I’m completely torn on how to rate.  The new Michael Whalen album is set to release on April 23rd, and it has a lot going for it.  Despite this, I’m not sure how I feel about “Future Shock”.  Let me explain.

Michael Whalen is a veteran composer.  His primary work has been through scoring commercials and TV shows, and he has won multiple awards for this.  Yet, his true love is progressive music, and last year I was pleased to review his ambient/electronic album “Sacred Spaces”, which is absolutely stunning.  For his next album, Michael decided to do something different, and in doing so he enlisted the help of some familiar names.  The lineup for this album includes: Michael Whalen on synthesizers, keyboards, electronic percussion, and programming; Simon Phillips on drums and additional percussion; Bob Magnuson on saxophones, flute, and shehnai; and Tony Levin on bass and Chapman stick.

The music on “Future Shock”, while still being full of synth and electronica, is mostly jazz fusion and progressive rock.  Sax plays a key role on almost every track, and the rhythm section is nice and tight.  The sound is definitely lighthearted, almost like an impromptu jam session between friends.  They follow each other’s leads, and Michael is heard and felt throughout as he creates wicked solos and ambient textures all over the place.  It’s an interesting sound that does make jazz fusion sound younger and fresher, I will admit.

But therein lies my problem.  The musicianship is obviously of a very high level, but the album can get an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer vibe to it wherein the songs are just made up of competing solos from the respective musicians.  Yes, they are played masterfully, but the substance is lacking.  Again, the jam session vibe is strong.

Some of the songs transcend this.  For example, I love the title track opener.  It has spunk and a cool factor I did not expect.  With bubbling loops, vocal samples, and Asian melodies, this song has layers of complexity and enjoyment.  It reminds me of a proggier, sanguine version of 90s Moby or something.  I love this song.  Another strong song is “Lights of Home”, a track that could have been on Whalen’s “Sacred Spaces” album.  It has breezy electronica, emotional sax, and an ambient atmosphere.  This song gets better every time.

Yet, then there are tracks like “La Hermosa Noche” and “Miracle Mile”, both which sound like music from The Price is Right or some other gameshow.  They are too lighthearted and familiar, and come across as cheesy to my ears.  I honestly do not like them at all.

Some tracks are in the middle.  “Memories of You” rides the line with its “smooth jazz” tone which gets me on edge, but then the second half is pretty amazing with some great synth and melodic transitions.  “Your Eyes, Your Touch, Your Kiss” is another one like this; it has some moments that don’t sit right with me, but then other segments that have depth and character.

Overall, the good outweighs the bad.  “Poly Jam” and “Wanderlust” are two more strong tracks that solidify my enjoyment of the album.  The former has some serious keyboard rhythms in play that really feel great and the tones are unique.  The latter is even better with a cinematic vibe and something of a hardened exterior.  I love the razor sharp solos and the vivid progression of the central melody.

“Future Shock” is a solid album, but one that is something of a mixed bag for me.  No doubt, fans of old school prog rock will probably love it, but I’m definitely more of a fan of Whalen’s emotional electronic abstractions, I think.  This is one of those albums where I’ll find myself listening to a few tracks, but not the entire thing.  There is nothing wrong with that.

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