Part of the allure of extreme metal is the challenge inherent in the execution. Coming of age in heyday of the 80s guitar wizardry I was obsessed with the technical prowess of shredders like Vinnie Moore, Cacophony (Friedman and Becker), Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and – of course – his Swedish Harmonic Minor Majesty Yngwie J. Malmsteen. Kevin Hufnagel has in his many band configurations been leading the charge in creating and shaping music that rivals and at times surpasses the heroics of the previous era, but his instincts to ground that technicality in solid song craft has always been priority. That ear for composition has never been more exposed in Messages to the Past, which acts as fond recall to the era of incredible instrumental albums while simultaneously exposing his influences and melodic sense in a beautifully layered set of songs.
The aggressive rush of opener “Pulse Controller” aside, this is not a particularly heavy record in the extreme sense folks might expect if you’re coming from the perspective of Hugnagel’s work with Gorguts or even Dysrhythmia. But the attention to overlapping lines and syncopated arpeggiated attacks are right there, laid bare and exposed with no instrumentation other than Hufnagel’s layered guitars. And truth be told, it’s when Hufnagel moves away from the more “metal” leanings that Messages to the Past really comes into its own.
“Seperations” really sets the tone for the record, and it’s a sublime melody over fragile picked chords. The main line switches from a warm clean to a super saturated high gain that moves in and out of harmonizing with another lead. Without other instruments it’s left to Hufnagel to provide the dynamics, mood, and tone for each track, and by utilizing subtle nods to his guitar heroes of the past the album never comes off as boring or staid. Listening to how he colors note choices in my early favorite “Through the Neon Forest” brings to mind Jim Matheos solos in Fates Warning: the tone is exquisite, and the way he harmonizes against himself provides a tension that intensifies and releases as he shifts to each section of the song. “The Eyes of Another” channels an anxiety-ridden Joe Stariani trying to figure out “Always With Me, Always With You,” and finding a beauty in the anxiety lost in the saccharine approach Satriani employs on Surfing With the Alien (full disclosure: I love everything about that song and album. Saccharine is fine with me).
Whether it’s acoustic loss of “Moment of Leaving” and “Inner Unseen” or the (slightly) heavier moments of the aforementioned “Pulse Controller” and “Circling the Grave” what becomes apparent is that Kevin Hufnagel isn’t just an incredible guitarist more than worthy to stand and shred next to the virtuosos of yesteryear. His attention to craft and melody is always at the forefront, and each note played is in service to that craft. Messages to the Past feels timeless and immediate, and conveys the impression of an intimate look into one of the best players in the scene right now.