I was fortunate enough to catch Sifting, the progressive metal band from Los Angeles, California at the Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia on May 16, 2018. They opened for Felix Martin followed by Sons of Apollo, the former – a three-piece project featuring Martin playing a self-designed fourteen and sixteen string-guitar combination. Martin’s double-handed hammer-ons from opposite sides showed an extraordinary left to right-handed independence, and the band was more than proficient. In turn, Sons of Apollo really worked the crowd like the super-group that they are, total pros, extraordinarily tight, and performances by drummer Mike Portnoy and singer Jeff Scott Soto were especially memorable.
Still, the stage had already been long conquered, and it is a story like this that makes writing reviews such a personal mission for me, one of spectacle and wonder that never gets old. To begin, I was in the equivalent of the second row, stage center, and like the extrovert that I am, I had taken it on myself to tell those around me about Sifting while everyone was filtering in, jockeying for positions. My new friends were quite amicable like metal fans usually are, and they were also gently skeptical. They were here for Sons of Apollo. Sifting’s equipment was set up very close to the front of the stage, positioned before all the gear for the headliners, and the only stage-dressing they had was a pair of small light green vertical banners stage right and left, that my new pal Steve thought said “Sir Ting” instead of “Sifting.”
To start the initial conversation, I had opted to ask those within a ten-foot radius if they recognized some of Eduardo O’Gil’s foot pedals, all arranged right there a few feet away in a complicated nest of cords and hand-sized steel cases. I happened to mention that Anthrax’s Jonathan Donais preferred three Maxon effect pedals, the green Overdrive that he leaned on for the power and crunch, the red Compressor for the rich creamy texture of his leads, and the purple Analog Delay for that big room sound and long bends, and it turned out there were a lot of Anthrax fans around me. Before I knew it, we were all talking nerdy-tech trivia, comparing concert experiences, trading our war stories. Again, I vouched for Sifting. Then at 8:02 PM the lights dimmed, and it became quickly clear that this band did not need my sales pitch.
There was some heavy intro music, and in the dark, new drummer Joey Aguirre entered first, giving us a pop and slap back there for the sake of suspense. And when the lights blared on and the band roared into their opening number, the crowd around me responded with joy and surprise. To be clear, Sifting owned the stage, and it wasn’t because of a bunch of cliché things like “volume and lights,” or any of the other advantages bands have when they are erected three feet above a crowd with equipment meant to blow out the windows no matter who is hitting the power chords.
Sifting won this audience with three distinct elements: dynamics, personality and incredible musicianship, in that order, though no feature is less important than the other. In terms of dynamics, quite simply, playing live is a strange animal, requiring a slightly different rubric as is used for studio product. As far as the latter, Sifting had already demonstrated with their 2017 release Not From Here, (including tunes like the title track and “Epsilon”), that they were and are superior songwriters and musicians, delivering compositions with intricate patterning and innovative section-choices, always leaving the listener in a state of mild, sweet disequilibrium, not knowing where the band was going, but loving it when they always seemed to get there, if you know what I mean.
Live though? As said, you have to take that strong and complicated structural base and deliver it, with visual and audible differences between the extreme and the subtle. In other words, playing live is just as much about managing the empty spaces as it is pulling off blistering sweeps on the fretboard, and Sifting rocked the living shit out of the variances, not only unleashing terrific, thundering songs, but illustrating moments that pounded into our blood, making us fist pump and shout to a distinct rawness (I still can’t talk the morning after the show).
In order to work the proverbial spaces however, a band has to have personality, and while some groups live or die here, often coming off stiff and choreographed, Sifting simply used what came naturally. I don’t know any other way to say it, but each player in this project has star-power. As the rest of the field goes, many metal bands go faceless, banking more on the team-look and emotionless, mechanistic perfection.
Then at the other end of the spectrum, we sometimes get the band with four or five members going off in such different directions it is difficult to find the seam of cohesion. Conversely, each member of Sifting adds to the others as part of a gargantuan whole, while individually commanding their part of the stage-space in a manner that is just fun to watch.
Eduardo O’Gil (guitar / vocals) is a boss. Not only does he hit all his vocal notes, never deferring to lower alternatives, (and the songs have extraordinary demands in terms of pitch and tonal diversity), but he is a powerhouse of a front man. Visually, he is an anomaly, with his hair so long in the front that it can cover his face and shaved in the back almost in protest. This becomes his metaphor of sorts, a kaleidoscope of opposites, as he comes off super-humanly big on stage, almost intimidating, yet wins everyone over with an aura of welcoming exhilaration.
He plays second guitar, backing Richard Garcia brilliantly, but has moments where he shows he can shred with the best of them. Of course, he handles the stock choreography with professionalism and believable exuberance, at one point dramatically going back to back with bassist Winston Jarquin, and at another, positioning himself next to Garcia to strum each other’s strings in a clear salute to Cinderella, but like the other members of this band, the stage-craft and blocking are not finally the point. It is the “X-Factor” we see from all four, that translates to a love of playing live and a deeper love for winning that particular night, performing with power, right there at the moment, down in the trenches, in front of witnesses.
On bass, Winston Jarquin is electrifying. Before I offer this part of the analysis, however, I think it is important here to reveal that since I was on the guest list for Eclipse Records, I had been told I might get access to the band for a question or two. Amazingly, Winston was there at their merch table before their set and after, making himself available! I will talk later about my interview with the whole band after their performance, but in my candid conversation pre-show with this superior musician, I found that he is actually a guitar player. O’Gil convinced him to play bass for this project, and Jarquin took what would have been a sacrifice to many and turned it to an advantage.
On stage, he is the epitome of what I would consider the ideal performer. First, musically, he is superlative – a bass player who never settles for roots or muddy background production. His instrument is incredibly powerful in terms of technical amplification and setting, clean and ornate, like black iron with a lot of decorative etching. And his playing is fast and tasteful. Sure, his hair has purple tints that show up well in the lights, but the thing the audience most gets from him is a feeling of absolute glory…for being there on stage, ripping off licks effortlessly under a spotlight and giving you everything.
On the other side of the stage, Richard Garcia plays it ultimately cool. This works famously, since the level of dynamics that Sifting achieves with such force and distinction, is not just a product of O’Gil’s dichotomous personas, but those of Garcia and Jarquin working off of each other in perfect balance. As said, Jarquin is a beacon of energy, while Garcia presents himself to you as the consummate technician.
Garcia is one of those guitar players who can do anything he pleases and take us on a journey. His sound is as full and rich as his technique is multi-faceted, and much of what he does instrumentally (in tandem with his image) winds up also interconnecting quite effectively within this model of thematic dichotomous interplay I have been raving about all through this review. Garcia can shred. We’re talking lightening quickness and complicated scale-design, but often he plays for feel, for the bends and wails that make our hearts fucking leap. The reason, again, why this is so potent in the overall appeal of this band’s superstructure, is that O’Gil often takes the role of the “speed-guy,” allowing Garcia to paint the portrait of overarching emotion. Of course, there are moments where both play “very fast,” but it is Garcia who defines the band’s holistic sound, both technically and semantically.
As far as the drumming goes, the new guy, Joey Aguirre kicks ass. It is ironic that I mention him last here, since I always look at the drums first, almost like a prerequisite, and this guy flat-out can play. Since Sifting is progressive, Aguirre’s requirements are not just to “bang” or simply impress us with speedy double bass work. One of my questions for him after the show was centered on the idea of doing these mixed meter changes while still managing the powerful dynamics. Smiling broadly, he said that this was the way he’d always liked it, complicated and heavy so he could translate it straight to an audience’s backbone.
Plainly, Aguirre was phenomenal. Of course, he had the introduction mechanics I spoke of earlier, and even a short solo at the end of the set, but the thing you noticed most about him was the mix between passion and precision. Very often, drummers are in their own world back there, but Aguirre played it almost like a front man, emphasizing his fills and feature moments, not with theater, but more a sense of confident levity, like a grinning tiger letting everyone know from square one that he was going to define the night right here at square one and own this fucking joint.
After the show, the band was kind enough to talk to me for about a half hour, but I must apologize to them formally here. I confess, I was so pumped to meet them that I was the one who did most of the talking, raving about their show: about how O’Gil threw me a guitar pick and I actually caught it; about how much I enjoyed their rendition of “Not From Here;” about the way everyone around me thought that Sifting were the surprise of the century, kicking ass and taking names, and that the only criticism I had was that their set was too short, featuring only “Overture,” “Alone,” “Lone Dimension,” “Not From Here,” and the new and unreleased “A Critical Affair.”
The one thing I did get from the interview, (in the brief moments I actually did stop talking and let them get a word in edgewise) was the idea that the upcoming album is going to feature each player even more specifically, while O’Gil allows more and more of the band’s talent and diversity to be channeled through his original vision. This is the most important factor. Sifting is a band on the rise, and those who catch them at this early stage of their odyssey can only marvel at the impact of their starting point. And as they leave their mark on the world, we can say we were there for the lift-off, with a couple of signature stage banners and the epitome of courage and swag.