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Mike Mangini Brings His “Invisible Signs” Into Focus Album Review by Bernard Romero

 I have a confession. I am no groundhog. If you come to me looking for prognosticating, you should probably look elsewhere. Here are things that I did not predict accurately:

-I did not expect to have to refer to Mike Mangini as the “former” drummer of Dream Theater
-I did not expect that he had written roughly all of the music himself despite really only excelling at percussion.
-I did not expect upon hearing his first single that it would be so mainstream sounding and not very proggy.
-I did not expect to be completely underwhelmed upon listening to it
-I did not expect to come full circle and find myself immensely enjoying Mangini’s first solo album, Invisible Signs.

Having met Mike Mangini briefly a few times and having the privilege of seeing him at a drum clinic and hearing a Q&A afterwards, as well as reading and/or listening to many interviews he has given over the years, I also can’t expect to know what will come out of his mouth. Sometimes his answers to simple questions run the gamut of topics leading to false endings only to wind up with an unexpected finish. Sometimes the audience, i.e. me, has to run through everything he said to figure out what answer he gave. Listen, I know this doesn’t make sense, but if you’ve ever heard him talk, you know exactly what I mean. 

I don’t say this to criticize. In fact, if anything it makes him a more fascinating individual who is constantly calculating an appropriate response to a question or even a drum pattern for a song. So when he releases a solo album filled with much more easy to digest music, it kind of got me transfixed…at least when I got over the initial shock. 

With his first single, Freak of Nature, you certainly get a taste for what the album has in store but even though I’ve come around to the song, I still feel it’s one of the weaker on the album, which is filled with tracks with much more distinct riffs and catchier choruses. One motif you will find throughout is Freak of Nature and most other songs do not feature the drums as the vanguard of the song structure. So if you come to hear Mangini let loose, you’ll hear it but you’ll have to wait mostly during the solo section or the occasional chorus.It’s an odd creative choice but it grew on me.

With the title track, Mangini displays much more of what you can expect throughout the album with a killer riff played by Ivan Keller. While Gus G. also appears on the album as well, he is primarily only playing the solos. It isn’t clear exactly when and where this was recorded but like many albums nowadays I’m assuming it was pieced together in several locations. Regardless, the album sounds killer. The mix is excellent with enough room for each instrument to be heard including some subtleties of keyboards and midis played by Mangini himself. 

That keyboard/midi work really shows itself in the first minute of the next song Habit to Change and this is also where the vocals go from good to addictive. With the concise nature of each song, most clocking in at about 3 minutes flat, it’s captivating how efficient Mangini has made every track, especially given his background of participating in music that’s been accused of bloviating on occasion. 

The second single, Not Drowning, represents the album better than Freak of Nature, but I still feel there are better songs he could have chosen. One standout aspect is Mangini’s rapid use of the snare during the verse, an unorthodox way to bring the drums to the forefront while not stealing the spotlight. It actually reminds of the outro to Dream Theater’s Answering the Call which easily became one of my favorite Dream Theater songs upon its release. 

Deep Inside really begins to showcase Jen Majura on the vocals which up to this point left me a little let down, at least on the first several listens. Since my introduction to Mangini was through Dream Theater, I was at least expecting a few areas where the vocals would be over the top and there really aren’t any examples of that. Finally though, with this song, we at least get to hear Majura really let loose some moody and almost theatrical vocal work. 

One of the oddest tracks is Saying Sorry. While the music itself fits perfectly into the styling of the rest of the album, the subject matter is almost off putting. Perhaps that’s a flaw of my own that I need to cope with but I’d rather not hear a metal song lecturing me about the importance of apologizing especially when that song is catchy as hell and I’ve been hearing the chorus constantly in my head. Perhaps scaling back on the vocal gymnastics was a ploy to get me singing the songs when I least expect it. 

I think it’s clear that my viewpoint is not that this album will necessarily make a list of top albums of all time but it’s enjoyable, it’s memorable, and let’s face it, it just plain rocks at times. So Alive is one of those moments and damn it, the song is not even three minutes long. After giving the album two listens and not yet being impressed, this earworm must have dug itself in without me knowing. I kept singing the chorus through the following day when I realized that the third time would probably be a charm. Yes, I really do like most of the album but So Alive is definitely the high point. While my view at first that Mangini might have screwed up by making this album too commercial, I can say unequivocally that keeping this song so short and commercially digestible is a major flaw. If ever there was a song that called for it to be twice the length or more, it’s So Alive.  

The followup is another rocker with odd subject matter. Glamorous Shades, from what I can tell, is about….sunglasses. A shocker, I know. While I meant that sarcastically, I am truly shocked that this track has one of the most Dream Theater-esque moments hearing the tradeoff between Mangini and Gus G. I can’t say I hate the song but I will certainly hate how awkward it’ll be if someone hears me cranking it and asks what the song is called. 

The memorable riffs keep piling up along with more examples of how excellent the mix is. In this instance, Its Noise showcases the bass of Tony Dickinson. Dickinson being heard loud and clear is not an exception for Invisible Signs. This is just one where it really stands out whereas the next song, Let Me Shine stands out because it has a slight 80s feel to it, almost to the point of feeling like it may be left over from another project in the infancy of Mike’s career. Even if that’s the case, its inclusion here is still welcome and shows a bit of diversity.

As we begin to close out the album, Seek and Find has a bit of an epic feel to it thanks in no small part to an excellent drum intro. Additionally, I detect more hints of the 80s with a bit of synth as well as a sense of finale. I was surprised to find this was not, in fact, the last track and furthermore it doesn’t come close to breaking 3 minutes in length so we can hardly call it an epic. 

The chorus itself has a bit of a monumental feel but as I zone in on the lyrics, I’m wondering if I’m getting this right. “It lies in our food, in our youth, in the voice of every fool. It flies in the night, it needs to be invisible. Seek and find layers of corrosion.” So just what is this about?  Monsanto? PFAs? Did he really just reference food? I need a lyric sheet immediately. Even then I think I may need a sit down with Mangini to find out just what this, and everything else is about, setting aside 20-30 minutes for his explanation of each song of course.

Rounding out the album is Black Box which gives us a bit of an industrial sounding intro. Marching towards its unusual length of closer to four minutes (when you round up), I was afraid the album would end on low note but approaching the chorus you find another memorable melody to add to your arsenal of earworms. 

I really didn’t want to “go there” in this review but I can’t help but notice some similarities between Mangini’s CD and the first album released by a previous former drummer of Dream Theater. Specifically, the title of “former” and the fact that both projects are heavy. The similarities stop there though. Mangini has the hooks, the riffs, the melodies, and even the lyrics as strange as some may be. Mangini also has a ton of goodwill. While Portnoy’s return has had an overall positive reaction, it seems just as many people at the very least feel bad for Mangini and even some sadness. Count me in as one of those people. 

Yes, art is subjective. Part of that subjectivity is letting your emotions get in the way of your outlook. While I may do a decent job of separating the art from the artist most of the time, I can’t help but admit I want Mangini to succeed. Moreover, it isn’t that hard to contribute in a small way by recommending this album when it’s such a joy to listen to. If you’re in the mood for heavy riffs, catchy tunes, a range of interesting to eyebrow raising lyrics, with a degree of prog thrown in, then you’ll dig this. I didn’t even realize I was in the mood for it and I dig it. So dig in because Mangini is writing a new chapter in his career and I’m here for it.

Bernard Romero is a history teacher by day and a music and film fanatic by night. Since none of his predictions have materialized, he would also like to predict he will never win the lottery, Mike Mangini will not tour in support of Invisible Signs, and John Myung will not perform guest vocals on Mangini’s next album.

RATING: 8/10

Preorder the album HERE

Mike Mangini invisible signs

Tracklisting:

01 Freak Of Nature 

02 Invisible Signs

03 Habit To Change

04 Not Drowning 

05 Deep Inside

06 Saying Sorry

07 So Alive

08 Glamorous Shades

09 Its Noise

10 Let Me Shine

11 Seek And Find

12 Black Box

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