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Distractions From Above: Ohio Sky Drops its Strongest Album Yet, Solidifying its Progressive Songcraft Cred 

The first track they cut for this one was a thrilling statement to themselves. That much was clear after the long day in the studio, after the months of toil and excitement.

Ohio Sky began the recording work for The Big Distraction, which will be released Jan. 24, by cutting "Vulture Cascade" live at Suma Recording Studio in Painesville, mixing it live to tape (a first for them), and leaving the studio feeling great. Any trepidation they may have had about the process disappeared completely. And while that song ended up as the last track on the album, its moody, reverb-soaked atmosphere set a precedent for the rest of the trip. One can hear the heart and soul of Ohio Sky in that tune (oh, and that heavy, heavy coda ...).

The band — Vinny DiFranco (vocals/guitars), Michael Bashur (bass), Eric Bambic (drums) and Patrick Finegan (keys/synth) — has notched a strong foothold in the Cleveland music scene. This House Is Old and Full of Ghosts (2013)built somewhat on the post-metal foundation of their full-length debut, Curses. This time around, as if this were even conceivable after the great stuff on those earlier efforts, Ohio Sky is going for a bigger, more expansive world of sound.

DiFraco and Bashur take some time to discuss the history that led us here over a few pints on a December-cold patio in Tremont.

Line-up changes have marked the band's past like meteorites on an young planet. When their former bassist left about a year ago, the guys came to the decision that Bashur would take over four-string duty.

Moving from two guitars to one pushed the band to think about song composition in different ways. Rather than surfing the waves of progressive sensibilities, the musicians stripped the whole process down and focused on pure songwriting.

"What we found was that it opened up our music," DiFranco says. "It actually allowed us to achieve a wider sound, which when I think about it doesn't make any sense, but ... ."

Cue up album opener "Slow Down Stay Alive" somewhere around the 2:15 mark, when DiFranco's chugging guitar chords steamroll the listener alongside swirling synths, pulsing bass and head-banging drums. As evidenced even more clearly by the song's outro one minute later, these guys are showcasing a knack for dynamics all over this LP.

This is strong music, born out of months of rehearsal and work. More so than in previous albums, the guys chose a more collaborative path. They zeroed in on nine songs — no more, no less — and gathered in pairs to perfect everything. Bambic and Bashur went off to work on rhythm section stuff ("That was a blast," Bashur says), and Finegan and DiFranco would flesh out melodic progressions. The band would get together as a whole at the end of the week and blend everything together. That process cultivated the base of the new album, differing dramatically from the old days of one member writing a song and then transposing those ideas onto the other members' instruments.

"This process changed everything completely," DiFranco says.

When Bashur picked up a house-sitting gig in Gates Mills last winter, he and DiFranco began shaping the album. Soon, Bambic and Finegan joined them; Bashur soon decided simply to move out there and set up shop on the property.

Thus began a busy year. Up through May, the guys handcrafted each song until they felt great about them. The result — heard in dramatic musical bridges, mysterious and brooding verses — is clear.

Summer drew out at Suma Recording Studio in Painesville. Initially, the band wanted to trek to Chicago and get Steve Albini to work on the album. He and his crew were on board, but the seven-day recording and mastering window was brief and the geographic fit never seemed ideal. The guys were losing sleep, pacing around nightly and debating whether this would be a good idea. The band opted for their good history with engineer Paul Hamann and Suma. "He is an absolute fucking genius," DiFranco says.

They cut "Vulture Cascade" on the first day at the studio before splitting for a monthlong vacation break. Laying it down live gave the band a sense of continuity from those wintry days in rehearsal. The in-the-moment feel of both practice and, later, the onstage show is replicated throughout here. Hell, even the demos for this album sounded polished, they're saying.

In the band's canon, The Big Distraction has the band pulling off innovative choices in a real all-in group mentality. It's no wonder they wanted to take their time and patiently ensure the beauty here. Check out Bashur's Fender Bass VI on the title track, in particular. "It showed us we were capable of doing much more with the four-piece than the five-piece," DiFranco says. Bashur concurs: "We were doing something different."

Later on the album, the pulsing "Transformations" saw Ohio Sky working with some in-studio magic. It's a gentler song, and one that the band decided to massage on the fly once they arrived at Suma. Its ambient outro segues nicely into the final track, which, again, combines the best of everything this band has been working on for years now.

It's all a harbinger of good things — both for Ohio Sky and for the rich rock 'n' roll scene in Cleveland. With these guys hitting stages around town and beyond, we'll be all the better for it.

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