As with any debut LP from a supergroup, the eponymously titled The Fringe has been highly anticipated since it was announced. After all, the progressive/rock/pop/jam (as they define themselves) trio includes two of prog rock’s most popular musicians—drummer/vocalist Nick D’Virgilio (ex-Spock’s Beard, Big Big Train) and bassist/vocalist Jonas Reingold (The Flower Kings, Karmakanic)—as well as one of its best up-and-comers—guitarist/vocalist Randy McStine (whose own project, Lo-Fi Resistance, has featured guests like ex-Porcupine Tree players Colin Edwin and Gavin Harrison). Indeed, there’s a lot of talent involved here, and thankfully, none of it is wasted. Whereas many other similarly promising collaborations ultimately fail[ed] to deliver, D’Virgilio, Reingold, and McStine's does because they fuse their idiosyncrasies masterfully to yield something familiar yet fresh. It’s a consistently impressive venture from beginning to end, and it marks The Fringe as an auspicious new act.
Considering that the three musicians are spread across the globe (McStine and D’Virgilio in America, Reingold in Europe), it would make sense if they made The Fringe remotely; however, they didn’t, choosing instead to convene at Sweetwater Studios in Ft Wayne, Indiana in 2014 and do it all in person. While you may not think this has much impact on the sequence itself, it actually does, as there’s a certain level of excitement and rawness in the DNA of these nine tracks that could only come through if its creators were together to generate it. In a way, it feels like you’re in the room with them as they record it.
Opener “You” begins with a quintessentially McStine-esque morose guitar arpeggio that erupts into an equally trademark combo of irregular rhythms and crushing riffs. Soon, they give way to a more atmospheric break as his seductive, gritty verses take over. D’Virgilio joins him for some harmonies, too, and their voices blend well into a sleek but cautionary amalgam. Rhythmically, he and Reingold keep things interesting with peppered flashes of intricacy, and D’Virgilio also lends his fuller and warmer (compared to McStine) vocals to the chorus, which is poppy and upbeat. Though it’s more multilayered and complex than your average rock song, “You” is highly accessible and catchy, making it a fine way to start off.
“Opening Day” seems more like a lost Lo-Fi Resistance track than anything tied to a prior (or current) D’Virgilio or Reingold project. It’s dynamic shifts, feisty momentum, and call-to-action drive make it engaging, as does the impressive apocalyptic break three-fourths in. Afterward, “A Second or Two” glides along with the kind of colorful eccentricities and heartfelt subtext that made D’Virgilio’s last studio effort with Spock’s Beard, X, so strong. McStine issues a killer guitar solo at one point, too, and you can’t help but adore the vocal dualities present when the two join forces. Lastly, Reingold evokes the late Chris Squire (Yes) near the end byadding some bouncy bass playfulness.
At roughly ten minutes in length, album centerpiece “Flare” packs quite a lot of punch and diversity. Initially another voyage into off-kilter rhythms and impassioned singing, it eventually transforms multiple times¸ from a more sinister passage to a tranquil bit of contemplation a third of the way through (during which Reingold takes the reigns over delicate arpeggios and cymbal crashes); from there, McStine’s guitar solo lights up the sonic space while the rhythm section maintains the mellow vibe. In contrast, the following part is dense and urgent, with distressed layers colliding to escape the danger. Naturally, the opening arrangement returns (with some modifications) for the closing section. All in all, the track showcases the trio’s proficiency and ambition when it comes to crafting something trickier and lengthier than your normal rocker.
“Go” is slower and gentler for the most part, with lovely harmonies throughout, as well as a Magical Mystery Tour-esque bit of psychedelic zaniness thrown in for more variety and vibrancy. Next, “My Greatest Invention” plays it pretty safe and straightforward (which isn’t necessarily bad, of course), with a touch of ‘70s blues rock thrown in, while the penultimate “Snake Eyes” is fuzzy, sinister, and manic, placing hypnotic syncopation and biting riffs beneath McStine and D’Virgilio’s vocal tradeoffs. The Fringe closes with “Yours to Steal,” whose opening arpeggios, warm harmonies, rich acoustic guitar strums, and bubbly programmed beat are alluringly folksy and romantic. It’s clearly the ballad of the record, yet it still feels edgy and earnest rather than clichéd or saccharine. It really proves The Fringe’s melodic and singing prowesses; although there’s some showy musicianship as it concludes, it’s clear that the songwriting was the main priority here. As a result, “Yours to Steal” is a robust and emotional way to go out.
Anyone hoping for the symphonic virtuosity of groups like The Flower Kings, Big Big Train, or Spock’s Beard may be disappointed to find that The Fringe sticks closest to McStine’s penchant for cool and collected pop/rock with tinges of intricacy scattered around. (That said, the band never gave reason to expect otherwise, so it’s your fault if you’re let down). Really, they always set out to do something like this, and on that end, they’ve succeeded expertly. This is a highly polished and posed initial effort from three stellar musicians, and while their team-up may’ve sounded odd at first, there’s no doubt that they work together flawlessly here. After all, each has a proven track record of fantastic releases, so it only makes sense that their finished collaboration would be this outstanding.