How can a single drop perceive the whole surrounding sea? Better buckle your britches, this is a big one. Released in 2012, The Old Man And The Spirit is the debut and so far only album by German prog metal group Beyond The Bridge, led by lead guitarist and songwriter Peter Degenfeld-Schonburg. I only rediscovered this album fairly recently - having heard it previously, but apparently not thought much of it then - when going through some of Herbie Langhans works. And make no mistake; The Old Man And The Spirit is quite possibly the greatest progressive metal album of all time, and one of the most mindblowingly awesome albums in metal, period. Likely it needs to be heard multiple times, because even as I rediscovered it, it took me a few spins to fully grasp the album and how ultimately moving it is. It tells the tale of a man (Herbie Langhans) who seeks understanding and knowledge, and comes across a spirit (Dilenya Mar) with whom he starts to interact. The story is told through their shared vocal duties and through emotive musical numbers that lend from the likes of Haken, Dream Theater and Threshold, while also outshining them all in terms of emotional pull and outstanding musicianship.
While they mostly share vocal duties through the album, Langhans and Mar fit marvelous together, both being able to tap into exactly what is needed when it is needed. The Struggle sees them arguing and shouting while The Appartion conjures up their first, wondrous meeting. There are two ballads on the album, each devoted to one of the vocalists. World Of Wonders is Mar’s moment of glory, as she divines with a heavenly voice of the beauty to be found in the world. The song has some reminiscence of Dream Theater's Hollow Years, in melodies and vocal lines, but outshines the latter greatly, containing sweet guitar harmonies and trilling keys to go along with Mar’s performance. The second is the far gloomier Where The Earth And Sky Meet, which is likely the finest moment in Langhans' career yet, with its weighty tone and feels-laden guitars. It touches upon the meaning of life, what it means to be human and to feel, but ultimately gives no clear answers because that’s never the point.
If possible, Degenfeld-Schonburg shows just as much emotive and dynamic range in his guitars, as Langhans and Mar show off in their duets. From the aggressive pull and furious soloing, found in tracks like Doorway To Salvation and opener The Call, to the slow, hauntingly beautiful melodics of the aforementioned World Of Wonders or the gritty riff parts going hand in hand with Simon Oberender’s keys that are strewn like progressive sprinkles all across the runtime of the album. He shines perhaps strongest in (almost) instrumental Triumph Of Irreality with those epic tunes conjuring the gleaming skies and streaming rivers; a reason to wonder. The album features some of the last work of Simon Oberender, who passed away a few months after its release, and his input is simply magical. His keyboards never take the upper hand over the fresh delivery of Degenfeld-Schonburg’s guitars, but always delivering that extra emotion with subtle melodies and building background pieces.
To pick a single highlight or even a few out of the eleven tracks would be a mission impossible; they all deliver a certain irreplaceable magic and air. There is no song that does not contribute massively to the whole in terms of musical flow, direction, storytelling or even emotion. They all fit in their space, and with Degenfeld-Schonburg’s songwriting always stay interesting, even after the 100th listen; the album ranges from the tranquil and serene to the furious and to the melancholically dark and to the hopeful. The progressive build that sees every song flow seamlessly into the next is crafted with precision and delicacy and it pays off in the end, where it’s impossible to listen to just one song - you need them all! There has, as of 2018, been given no news with regards to a potential follow up, sequel or even a new output by Beyond The Bridge, and perhaps that is just as well. This album is perfect and needs not be touched or expanded upon; finally peace and silence all around my grave. The Old Man And The Spirit is, quite simply, perfect.
Standout tracks: Uhm… all of them?