Rausch — “Book II”

Mastermind pianist/composer Doug Rausch is back with “Book II,” the long-awaited follow-up to his acclaimed 2009 self-titled debut album.

Rausch, who has remained virtually silent since then, has risen from the ashes and once again assembled a cast of top-notch musicians to help him deliver round two of his continuing prog-rock vision, including bassist Joe Fine, guitarist Gary Wehrkamp and drummer Chris Ruffini.

But the question remained — could Rausch hit another home run, a full nine years after his last offering?
The answer? Mostly.

Although albums of this ilk are some of the most painstaking to write and record and run the risk of feeling disjointed and unfocused due to the complexity, “Book II” manages to escape most of these pitfalls with a sheer force of musicianship that simply cannot be ignored.

The nine-song album sounds superior, thanks to mixing by Rich Mouser (Chris Cornell, Dream Theater, Weezer), additional production by David Ivory (The Roots, Halestorm) and guest musicians Mark Zonder (Warlord, Fates Warning), keyboardist Ryo Okumoto (Spock’s Beard) and Shadow Gallery guitarist Brendt Allman.

Album opener “Greener Grass” begins in bare-bones style, with Rausch singing over a lush piano arrangement before the band breaks in and picks up the pace considerably, setting the tone for what will be a roller-coaster of a ride in virtually every piece.

“Swansong” will draw the obvious Queen (and maybe a hint of heyday Kansas, too) comparisons in its vocal harmonies and soaring guitar solos, but still manages to retain its own identity in the shadows of those aforementioned rock heavyweights.

The album’s gem is “Irked,” which clocks in at 9:39 but feels like half that length — the sign of a damn-near perfect track that has it all: brilliant production and interplay of clean electric guitar and piano, bringing to mind a dimly-lit, smoky jazz bar; a mid-song, rip-your-face-off, guitar shredfest; and finally, the resulting quiet culmination with Rausch’s poignant, lonely vocal.

“Time Out” is the lone drifter on the album, beginning as a catchy, mid-tempoed, almost radio-friendly track before diminishing into a quiet breakdown. While not totally off-kilter, its lighter hues amongst a sea of darker compositions is a well-intentioned misstep that simply does not work in the scheme of the album’s grand tapestry.

For those who like their music on the heavier side of the tracks, “Speechless” is a standout track, with its Dream Theater/Fates Warning comparisons sonically. The track is relentless and a good lead-in to the album closer, the brooding “Slow Suite II. Isolation” in which Rausch repeatedly sings “I am not an asshole” over a chorus of background vocals.

And Rausch is right: He is not an asshole — at least on the talent scale.

Let’s be clear here: “Book II” will not be for everyone. Although coming from a different musical angle than Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” Queensryche’s “Operation Mindcrime” or Iron Maiden’s epic “Seventh Son of A Seventh Son,” all of the albums share one major common denominator: they aren’t pieces of work a listener takes a couple of minutes to listen to and then moves on. Like a good story inside a seasoned and worn hardcover book, they were created to be enjoyed front to back. Miss one chapter, and you might as well miss them all.

Track Listing:
1. Greener Grass
2. Swansong
3. Drain
4. Irked
5. Good Day
6. The End
7. Time Out
8. Speechless
9. Slow Suite: II. Isolation