Being in a band that managed to establish a legacy is a blessing for a musician, and it can also be a curse. Once public opinion makes a verdict on your abilities, and your best works, it becomes nearly impossible for anyone to overcome those perceptions and establish a new reality. For Jeff Loomis, who for the last twenty years has been synonymous with Nevermore, everything he accomplishes both with this album and in the future will be seen through the filter of his previous band. Nevermore's breakup seemed inevitable. After the towering success of “This Godless Endeavor”, lauded as the band's immortal masterstroke, both Loomis and frontman Warrel Dane took a step back from the band to release solo albums. Those records showed the divergent paths that Nevermore would not be able to straddle without falling into the abyss.
With each passing Nevermore album, Loomis saw his stature grow in the metal community as one of the most gifted guitarists of his generation. Every album was a canvas for him to showcase his still growing mastery of his instrument, culminating with the technical fury that “This Godless Endeavor” was built upon. “The Obsidian Conspiracy” reigned in the sound for a more melodic approach, which fans accepted coldly, and did little to increase Loomis' reputation. Perhaps the perception of Loomis as a guitar god pushed him in this direction, but rather than form a new band where he could dictate the direction, he has produced his second (mostly) instrumental album.
His first, “Zero Order Phase”, was critically lauded, but suffered from a perception that it was merely a Nevermore album without vocals. Much of that criticism can be leveled against “Plains Of Oblivion” as well. Loomis has a distinct style of playing no one else in metal has been able to copy, a coldly mechanized sense of rhythm mated to effortless sweeping solos. The riffs “Plains Of Oblivion” builds songs atop are straight out of the Nevermore canon, pummeling with the same sensibility that made Loomis' name.
It's that welcome sense of familiarity that ultimately makes the album less than the sum of its parts. Loomis rips his way through the tracks, savaging his fretboard for our amusement. While every blistering rhythm and shredding solo is nothing short of impressive, there's a feeling of musicality missing from many of the tracks. His playing is so precise that notes and melodies fly by before they can be properly ingested. Whereas these solos were the icing on the cake of Nevermore songs, they aren't filling enough to be the entirety of the entree. They blend together, leaving the rare respites as the moments that most stick out. The clean breakdown and soulful solo in the middle of “Escape Velocity” is a perfect example, a simple but memorable section of music that then gets swallowed up by another section of shredding virtuosity.
The best decision on the album was the addition of guest vocalists on three tracks, all of which feel more composed than the purely instrumental pieces. Black metal legend Ihsahn guests on “Surrender”, giving the song a ferocity no guitar can achieve on its own. It is perhaps no coincidence that the songs utilizing vocals ease back the playing to give the singers room to work, and by extension make the inevitable solos stand out.
There is nothing about Loomis' playing that can be criticized. He is a phenomenal player possessing remarkable skill. Unfortunately, he has not yet developed a sense of songwriting that works without a partner filling space with vocals. Whereas players like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani can use their guitars as voices to build their songs, Loomis can't escape his desire to impress, which makes his instrumental pieces slightly hollow exercises. He has more talent than this, but hasn't fully realized it yet.