Over on this month’s Missive, I lamented the terrible death of Sean Malone. If you’re unfamiliar with the details, or why I’m bringing this up now, I urge you to head on over there to read it. I don’t want to burden this post with them again; I want this post to be a celebration of the life, and work, of Sean Malone. While his discography isn’t the most extensive, perhaps owing to the depression that he suffered from or to the fact that his death came when he was only fifty, there is much to select from it. Sean Malone was truly one of the more unique and thoughtful bass players, and musicians in general, that have ever intersected with metal. Some of his tracks are famous, others are obscure. But through them all runs his deep understanding not only of how music should work but also of how music should feel. And so, without further ado, I present to you my top five Sean Malone creations, in no particular order. In case you’re a fan, I hope this post motivates you to get reacquainted with the man’s music; there’s certainly a lot waiting beneath the surface, even for the veteran diver. If you’re unfamiliar with his work (perhaps beyond Cynic, at least) then I urge you to use this post as a springboard into one of the more unique musicians. Rest in peace, Sean. You will be sorely missed.
Gordian Knot – “Rivers Dancing”
This is perhaps the quintessential Gordian Knot track and is thus the obvious pick to start with. But it’s obvious and quintessential for a great reason: it features what is perhaps the group’s best exploration of the type of heavy, technical, and progressive music that flourished in the years surrounding the new millennium. This is when Liquid Tension Experiment would release their two albums, when OSI (which Sean Malone also worked with) released their debut, and many more. But Gordian Knot’s self titled album stands out amongst them and “Rivers Dancing” is a great showcase of why.
Blending Sean Malone’s prominent bass with Jarzombek’s iconic playing and none other than King Crimson‘s Trey Gunn on a Warr guitar of all instrumnets, “Rivers Dancing” has that delicate weirdness that Gordian Knot were so good at. It opens with thunderous, present progressive metal which it freely explores before alighting on a more melancholic segment which has Malone’s compositional style all over it. Afterwards, it fiercely and without apology oscillates between the two moods, producing moments of tender, intimate expression (the passage which begins around the five minute mark is, simply put, a tearjerker) alongside explosive, flamboyant solos and riffs. Put together, these two parts make “Rivers Dancing” one of the most intricate, and the most accomplished, of Gordian Knot’s work and a perfect introduction into the band’s genius.
Cynic – “Veil of Maya”
You didn’t really think I was going to leave Cynic off of this list, did you? Being the first track on Cynic’s first album, “Veil of Maya” is probably where many of us, myself included, first heard Sean Malone’s work. It’s right there in the first minute of the track, chugging along in such a satisfying way with Sean Reinert’s drumming, creating the intricate sound and groove that became the Cynic staple. Interestingly enough, the weirder, calmer, and more progressive segment which follows it has clear echoes of Sean Malone’s future sound; it almost sounds like a Gordian Knot passage!
Throughout this part and, indeed, the entire track, Sean Malone’s bass is one of the more standout sounds (alongside Masvidal’s growls and Reinert’s furious drumming). It does so much to pierce through the “back” of the (famously contentious) mix and “thicken” the sound of the music. It lends it heft and is much of the reason that Cynic were seen as innovators; there’s really nothing like it, nothing that integrates such complex bass work into its sound, in 1993. Sure, progressive bands existed. Death metal existed. But something this out there and, yet, this furious and uncompromising? There was magic in the way this band worked back then, lightning in the bottle that I don’t think has quite been recaptured since (even though I love Traced in Air as well) and much of that was due to Malone’s unwillingness to compromise his instrument.
Sean Malone – “Big Sky Wanting”
Cortlandt is perhaps Malone’s least known album and, while I understand why that is, it’s a damn shame. Cortlandt is arguably Sean Malone’s weirdest work but it’s also his most intimate and exposed. “Big Sky Wanting”, is a fantastic example of this. Once again featuring Malone alumni like Trey Gunn and Glenn Snelwar, this track is almost mystic in its repetitive, steady drum beat, underpinning the explorative piano and guitar work that runs through out it. Of course, Malone’s bass plays a big role in that exploration; here, it’s almost like a wandering bird through the titular sky, smoothly appearing into the scene with the more elaborate guitars create for it.
The compositional work for the guitar (again Gunn’s Warr guitar) is the highlight for me here but there’s no doubt that Malone played a part in it. There’s something so beautiful in its lonesome voice and how it is written into this track, playfully running circles around the bass, communicating with it in their dual voices. The drums are also clever; while they do have that tattoo, ritualistic feeling to them, they are nowhere near simple or obvious. Their intricate time-signature provides unstable, open ground for the rest of the music to work off of. That is, until they fall away and the lazy, somber, and atmospheric part of the track leads into the metallic, aggressive outro. There, the drums are more feverish, as the guitars take on a more saw-like tone and everything comes to a head at the track’s emotional crescendo. Masterful, intricate, and wholly unique, “Big Sky Wanting” is the perfect case for why you should listen to Cortlandt, Malone’s most underrated release.
OSI – “OSI”
OSI was clearly the brain-child of Kevin Moore and Jim Matheos. As such, this track will probably stand out here as the most directly aggressive. It belongs to a different sub-genre of “new millennium” progressive metal and rock, one which, interestingly enough, is perhaps most famously populated by Dream Theater‘s maligned Falling Into Infinity. It’s more alternative rock influenced, more rock-pop than anything else. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic and has much to love, it just approaches things differently. The main thing that I love about it is that we get to hear an incredibly powerful duo playing together: Mike Portnoy and Sean Malone.
Oh, what could have been! Malone and Portnoy’s work is perfect for each other; you can hear on this track that they have absolutely no trouble working together. Malone’s tone and style of execution works incredibly well with Portnoy’s signature flamboyance and presence, creating and undeniable to this very metallic and direct track. The end result, on this track as well as the entire album, is perhaps one of OSI’s most significant strengths: a rock solid backbone made up by an excellent drummer and a fantastic bass player, giving their all to support the band’s vision and sound.
Gordian Knot – “Fischer’s Gambit”
Yes, I saved the best for last. This is, hands down, absolutely, my favorite Gordian Knot track. I love the contemplative mood set by the bass here, punctuated by the echoing tones of the piano. They work so well, tied together by the emotive percussion that runs throughout the track and the mournful, sunset-filled guitar work. Honestly, at this point in the post, I just want you to listen. “Fischer’s Gambit” is one of those Gordian Knot tracks that just speaks for itself. It speaks volumes of Malone’s ability to write music which was both intricate and non-obvious but still communicative and emotional, still personally relevant to the listener. So, just turn this on and let it carry you away.