Simon Phillips - Protocol box set

Simon Phillips – Protocol Box Set (Part One)

Simon Phillips is a legendary drummer in modern music, his résumé features a staggering list of greats, including Jeff Beck, Judas Priest, Michael Schenker and many others, but his 30-plus years as the drummer for Toto (after the gardening accident heart-attack death of Jeff Porcaro in 1992). Simon ended his stint with Toto in 2014 to concentrate on other interests, including his own fusion outfit, Protocol, with whom he has recorded four albums. This box set pulls those albums together, along with two full CDs of outtakes and demo versions of the material on Protocol 2 and 3.

The music is jazz fusion with an incredible group of musicians featured alongside Simon’s drums and production, including Earnest Tibbs on bass, Greg Howe’s guitar and Dennis Hamm on keyboards. As one who grew up on fusion in the seventies, with the likes of Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, this is a style that I enjoy, alongside my more traditional rock and progressive leanings.

The music of Protocol is not wild or extreme, but it is certainly well constructed, well delivered and produced, and whilst generally mellower than certain fusion groups, it is certainly not bland or muzak in any way, in fact, its memorableness quickly becomes very apparent.

The first album opens with a gated drum sound before real drums and synth kick in with a guitar line from Ray Russell on Streetwise. It’s a fine example of Simon’s steady metronome-like pace and consistency, he certainly shows his skills without showing off – a rare thing with restraint at play, although he does display his chops in a brief solo section. It’s a great track and one that encourages further and deeper listening to these great tunes, continuing with Red Rocks, with its steady backbeat and swirling keyboards with another highly melodic guitar line floating over the beat, on the edge of distortion yet somehow managing to stay on the clean side of the line. Utterly beguiling.

The more I hear this, the more I hear, if that makes sense. Whilst not very progressive as such, it does have a great ebb and flow that certainly captures the attention. The third and title track opens with a mass of tuned percussion, with great syncopation and an almost Caribbean beat it’s a real tour de force in itself. Whilst these are all shortish tracks, they display imagination and variety, which is to be applauded. In fact, this track sounds very much like something that could have come from the mighty Spirogyra. There are formidable drum patterns in the later sections that are highly effective and should be heard loud to feel the full power. An astounding piece of music, very enjoyable, makes you feel happy and is sunny listening.

Slofunk is another fine piece and one that shows the fine bass playing of Ernest Tibbs, fine groove playing with sweet guitar from Ray and the keyboards of Dennis Hamm. It’s followed by the fast-paced V8 which powers along very nicely with a muscular beat and some great drum fills, showing Simon’s skills to good effect.

Rather marvellous all told, this is followed by two alternative mixes of Streetwise and Protocol, both with significant differences; Streetwise has more fiery guitar whilst Protocol is more percussive to start and with a slightly faster pace, the guitar line more accentuated to great effect.

Next come three solo drum pieces, Wall Street parts 1, 2 & 3, which are undoubtedly skilful and well-executed, but unless you’re a drummer they’re not staggeringly interesting. The only drum solos I really enjoy are those from Rush’s Neal Peart, these leave me a bit cold somehow. Like Ginger Baker’s solos, they’re good but not very entertaining.

So that’s the first disc, disc two opens with Protocol 2, which opens with the instrumental Wildfire, where it becomes clear that the band members have changed. Gone is Ray Russell, replaced by Andy Timmons, and out goes Dennis Hamm, replaced by Steve Weingart. Ernest Tibbs remains and once again Simon has selected very good musical companions for this journey. The first track is very good indeed, with fine guitar lines throughout. The tracks on this album are longer, around the 8-minute mark in several cases, and this allows the band to stretch out a bit more with some tasty playing, especially from Timmons who reveals himself to be a very tasteful soloist on tracks like Gemini, which is a real guitar classic.

This is a very good fusion album, superior in every way to the first and a really good listen. I particularly like the guitars throughout. Next up is Moments of Fortune, another longer track with a very good guitar introduction. Timmons’ playing is really hot, no wonder he’s part of Guitar World‘s roster of muso’s/writers. He is like a less showy fusion version of Joe Satriani or Steve Vai, a very melodic player with the right degree of chops. He is, of course, backed by the formidable and muscular rhythm section of Simon Phillips and Ernest Tibbs, plus the fine keys of Steve Weingart. This is accomplished music that grows in stature with every listen.

Upside in Downside has some good wah-wah guitar lines and great Rhodes playing from Steve Weingart alongside Phillips’ tasteful drumming. First Orbit follows, opening with shuffling beat and guitar lines with more gentle keyboards, is a far more atmospheric track and one that works well, tasteful guitar exhibited throughout. Octopia is shorter and more pop-orientated, but no less enjoyable with its rather chirpy keyboards taking the main riff. Enigma is the album’s longest track, clocking in at over 9-minutes. Again it’s very strong, showing the skill and versatility of these players and why they are so highly regarded amongst fellow musicians. More glorious guitar and keyboards parts abound in this epic track, another that will make you smile. It also features another great solo section from Andy Timmons, shredding wildly and duelling with Steve Weingart’s keyboards to fine effect. All in all, a spectacular piece of music, probably the highlight of the album.

An exceptional album of fine jazz fusion which leads us to disc three, Protocol 3, which features the same line-up as Protocol 2. This stability pays dividends as the album carries on the fine music displayed in Protocol 2, opening with the very fine Narmada, with its funky guitar parts and great solos. Timmons is again on fire, mixing choppy rhythm parts and solo lines with great dexterity.

Imaginary Ways is another blinder, great guitar and brooding basslines move it along with taste and style, which leads on to a very interesting and different track, Outlaw, opening with AC/DC-like guitar chords. Andy shows great feeling and expression here, the rhythm style works well with the syncopation laid down by Simon, and you can hear the cowbell in the mix beautifully. A fine piece with great drum fills throughout.

Catalyst opens with keyboards before guitar comes in over the top with an interesting rhythm and taking the main riff, Andy’s fiery guitar well displayed. Certainly, between the previous album and this one, his playing has got a whole lot hotter and more inspired somehow, maybe the live work the band undertook lit a fire under him. Whatever it may be, it’s a joy to hear his great shredding on this album, tasteful and fitting the music rather than being mere ‘fretwankery’ like many other widdly-widdly exponents; there is restraint at play here, alongside the fire.

Amrita is another longer piece, with gentler melody lines played by Andy and Steve, followed by Circle Seven, again longer with more fluid guitar from Andy, who is proving himself to be a very underrated and melodious player of rare taste and style. You Can’t But You Can follows, slower and more groove-led, again giving space for expressive guitar and atmospheric keyboards, alongside the steady walk of the bass and the drums, revealing a simply gorgeous track. Finally, Undercover, opening with Simon playing his floor toms, moving to snare with keyboards brought in with piercing guitar notes. Another long track with great dynamics and more fine guitar lines, this piece has a real sense of urgency and proves to be a great finale to what is a most remarkable album.

[To be continued…HERE]

CD 1

01. Streetwise
02. Red Rocks
03. Protocol
04. Slofunk
05. V8
06. Two Socks
07. Outback
08. Harlem Nights
09. Cosmos
10. Force Majeure
11. Wall Street, pt.1
12. Wall Street, pt.2
13. Wall Street, pt.3

CD 2
01. Wildfire
02. Soothsayer
03. Gemini
04. Moments of Fortune
05. Upside in Downside Up
06. First Orbit
07. Octopia
08. Enigma

CD 3
01. Narmada
02. Imaginary Ways
03. Outlaw
04. Catalyst
05. Amrita
06. Circle Seven
07. You Can’t But You Can
08. Undercover

[Discs 4 to 6 are covered in Part Two of this article, HERE.]

Simon Phillips – Drums & Percussion
Andy Timmons – Guitar (disc 2 & 3)
Ray Russell – Guitar (disc 1)
Dennis Hamm – Keyboards (disc 1)
Steve Weingart – Keyboards discs 2 & 3)
Ernest Tibbs – Electric Bass

Record Label: Phantom Recordings
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 12th April 2019

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