It takes a lot of gusto and ambition to make a concept album. Seamlessly melding together an album's songs so they not only compliment one another but form a cohesive musical narrative as well. A daunting task to be sure but one that allows the artists a tremendous amount of creative freedom. Concept albums are by their very nature highly experimental pieces. For a band that claims on their website to have been “founded on the notion that there is still some unique noise to be made”, experimentation should be the name of the game. The Ben Levin Group is a Boston based alternative rock band with an artistic bent and a classical twist. Their third album to date, Pulse Of A Nation is haunting sonic chronicle of mankind coming to terms with an impending apocalypse.
Over the course of forty-one minutes the listener follows humanity's painful journey. First there is growing resolve and defiance. The driving guitars and hammering drums of “One Slip's Through” build in tempo, volume and ferocity. As defiance begins to give way to desperation, the music takes a turn for the discordant. In “Pulse” The percussion becomes even more violent, the guitars fiercer. There are even vocals, which appear in only two tracks on the album, harshly screamed over top of the building cacophony. An auditory assault which culminates at the end of “Ill From The Poisons Of Your Loving”. When humanity's desperate resistance finally gives out, the music becomes quieter and sorrowful. Which is when Ben Levin Group's classical influences shine through. In songs like “Sleep”, piano and violin take centre stage before once again being swallowed up by tumultuous guitar and drums in “Catacomb”. A track which ends with such fury that it's not so much music as it is heavily distorted noise. Noise which eventually whimpers into defeated silence. Following this breakdown there is an acceptance of sorts in “Braintree”. The graceful guitar work and sultry piano echoes the rhythms of “Overture” and “One Slip's Through Time”. A return to sanity following the emotional disarray. Finally Pulse Of A Nation ends with “We Deteriorate, We Thrive”. A song which once again begins quietly and builds to a climax. However unlike “Catacomb” or “Pulse” this climax is not all harsh screeching, but rather a grand ending. Boisterous yet well ordered. Guitar, piano, percussion and chanting vocals melding together to bring the album to a suitably operatic conclusion.
Pulse Of A Nation's producers were good enough to include both the whole piece as a special forty-one minute track and individualized versions of the songs. The former option is without a doubt the superior choice. Levin's composition was meant to be listened to as a single work. This is supposed to be a story after all. If you listen to the album from start to finish, the arc is easy to follow. Listening to only bits and pieces lessens the experience and makes the narrative a bit murkier. However this is a minor quibble. Musically there is little to complain about with high calibre performances all around. Ben Levin is an exceptional guitar player while the keyboards of Josh Friedman and Chris Baum's violin bring a new dimension to already excellent alternative rock band. Ben Levin also proves himself to be a talented and audaciously creative composer. While I wasn't personally fond of the segments where the album degenerated into erratic noise, I must admit it is well arranged noise which serves a narrative purpose. Levin is wise enough not to sacrifice cohesion in the name of pure experimentation. A fine balance, which when not maintained, can spell the doom of a project this ambitious.