Legend has it that Bill Berends was born with a big black tattoo stenciled across his forehead spelling out "MY WAY!" Doctors, who would privately accuse his mother of playing too many Frank Sinatra records late in her pregnancy, spent hours trying to scrub away the newborn's indelible mark with 90-grit sandpaper and harsh solvents.

Bouncing baby Bill was presented to his proud parents with the tattoo successfully removed, his head as smooth and unblemished as a porcelain doll's. But legend also has it that the doctors did nothing, that the tattoo quickly faded on its own and sank deep into the recesses of Bill's impressionable young mind. That's what legend says, anyway. And who's to argue with legend? Then again, who's to argue with Bill Berends -- the mastermind behind Mastermind?

Those who've followed the evolution of this ruggedly independent New Jersey band know that Berends is unafraid to take chances and to drag -- no, push -- his bandmates along for the often bumpy ride.

Witness the group's new all-instrumental opus, Excelsior!, an album best described as heavy symphonic fusion with lofty flights of improvisational prowess. After 10 years of pursuing an original spin on the progressive power trio motif, Berends figured it was time to blaze some new trails. So he fired himself as vocalist, recruited well-known keyboard virtuoso Jens Johansson (Stratovarius, Yngwie Malmsteen), and let it rip.

"I need progress. All the great artists I can think of through the history of rock have evolved and progressed," declares Berends, a fiery guitarist known for his innovative use of MIDI technology in crafting Mastermind's lush symphonic framework.

"Most of the artists I've liked all my life and thought were great had no fear of making radical departures. To Mastermind fans, I've got this to say about Excelsior!: We don't feel it's all that different from what we've done in the past. We're still pursuing the same kind of goal, which is musical expression."

Certainly, a lot of familiar Mastermind shines through Excelsior!'s dense complexities -- the soaring fanfares, Rich Berends' muscular yet precise drum work, and the Berends knack for balancing virtuosic brinksmanship with firm compositional structure and melody. Plus, it rocks hard, despite a liberal infusion of jazz modes and breakneck interplay between Bill and Jens.

Considering how pleased the Berends brothers are with Excelsior! ("Rich and I think it's our best record so far" Bill enthuses), you'd think another one just like it is in the pipeline. Think again. Mastermind is undergoing yet another transformation, this time adding a female vocalist, the young powder keg Lisa Bouchelle.

The other key addition to Mastermind's musical arsenal is, of course, Johansson. The gifted Swede, now a New York resident, is committed first and foremost to Stratovarius -- a Finnish progressive metal band that enjoys acclaim in Europe and Japan. But he has committed to future Mastermind recording projects, and has promised to play live with the band when his schedule allows.

"We've always wanted to do a fusion thing," Bill says. "You hear that as far back as 'On the Wings of Mercury' from our first album and 'Inferno' on Until Eternity. But the fusion/jazz thing is all about interaction between players, and we've never had another soloist in the band. So working with another soloist is something that I want to continue to explore."

Bill Berends once remarked that because he already could fill a hall with guitar-driven keyboard sounds on his sophisticated MIDI setup, no keyboardist would ever want to join Mastermind. But Johansson's unexpected involvement changed that perspective. In Johansson, Bill now has a partner for exploring the uncharted heights of improvisation.

"What Jens lends the band is his playing ability, the interaction with his surroundings, his chops, phrasing, etc. -- not just sounds," he says. "We weren't looking for a Rick Wakeman mountain of keys/zillion sounds kind of guy. I wanted to work with an individualist who can express himself distinctly as a player and soloist. Believe me, there is a big difference between keyboard sounds and keyboard playing!"

Bill Berends first met Johansson at a Trenton, N.J. music store clinic back in 1987. It was a chance meeting, as Bill had only gone out for strings and Jens was flown in for a solo clinic in the midst of recording his swan song with classical metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen.

Unfamiliar with Malmsteen, Bill was amazed by Johansson's playing. Upon introducing himself he learned that Jens already knew of Mastermind through shred-guitar guru Mike Varney, owner of the Shrapnel label. While it was only a month since the first Mastermind demo had been printed, a seed for the future was planted that day in Trenton. The pair shook hands and said goodbye.

A few years later, Bill again by chance encountered Johansson on the Internet. The two began exchanging e-mail and trading discs, and Jens attended Mastermind's gigs in Manhattan. They began discussing the possibilities of working together, and ultimately, the musicians' schedules coincided to enable work on Excelsior!. Bill decided it should be an instrumental effort after hearing Johansson's work with Allan Holdsworth on Heavy Machinery and his latest solo work, Fission.

"What do I like about Mastermind?" says Johansson. "The music is nice. That is basically the only reason there should be. It's got some depth to it you should say. But it is still accessible; melodic..."

While Berends tends to wax philosophic over the esoteric improvisational aspect of Excelsior!, Johansson prefers to view the Mastermind experience as a total package. "It's material that sounds easy on the ear, but is not necessarily easy to play. It has depth, but is not complicated just to be complicated. I like that type of stuff. You don't hear it immediately, but it has some clarity to it also. I just like it." Working with Mastermind will probably continue as time allows, he says, because he enjoys Bill Berends' compositional style.

"Excelsior! is definitely an album we've been dying to make for a long time," notes Rich Berends, whose training as a jazz drummer was challenged in creating a platform for Bill's and Jens' improvisational sparring. "Bill and I talked a lot about the influences and directions that brought us around to this, and bringing Jens into the picture made it come around very well. Working with Jens is amazing, and I hope to do a lot more of that in the future."

Beyond Johansson's initial influence, other factors steered Bill Berends toward an all-instrumental recording. While touring Japan in 1997 Berends shared a stage one evening with jazz-rock group The Soh Band. For Bill, the back-and-forth jamming with keyboardist Tatsuya "Chernobyl" Watanabe seemed to awaken a sleeping giant.

Calling improvisation "the pinnacle of musical greatness," Bill Berends makes a firm distinction between improv in the rock and jazz-fusion contexts. "The jazz thing is where the player is the messenger, and the message comes through the player from a higher source," he says. "It's not like someone who sits around and plots and plans what they're going to do -- it's an instant connection to the 'other side,' so to speak.

"Soloing as a rock player is more fixed: 'Here's your section to solo, now you're finished.' Fusion tends to be discursive, like a discussion back and forth between instruments. That kind of discussion can take you places you might never have planned. I hate soloing where it sounds like a guy has worked out every note beforehand."

This all may be well and good for the lead players, but where does that leave the drummer? Rich Berends says he's not the least bit intimidated by all those seat-of-the-pants excursions. In fact, he relishes them. "This just lets me take it out even further, the addition of a second soloist. By the time one solo comes to a peak the next one comes up right after it, and I get to push behind both soloists and bring it to even more of a frenzy," he says. "I get to push them along and get the most out of the soloist, supporting the whole piece.

"With Jens, it's a whole new fresh voice I get to play behind. There is a lot of over-the-top playing on Excelsior!, which I really like. I like the mixture of the jazz and the metal along with the symphonic stuff." The fact that Rich Berends resembles ELP's Carl Palmer onstage and on record is more than mere coincidence. Like Palmer, Rich comes from a jazz background. He studied under Tony DiNicola, longtime drummer for big-band legend Harry James.

Looking back over Mastermind's career, Rich observes how the band's albums segue from one to the next, like chapters in a book. The same applies from song to song within each disc, he says: "Playing our albums back to back, I think you can tell where the last one came from and where the current one's going."

Undoubtedly, the band has come a long way in its 13-year existence. Mastermind was founded in 1986 by the Berends brothers based on the concept of performing Bill's original progressive compositions. With bassist Phil Antolino filling out the trio lineup, the band gigged extensively on the New Jersey club circuit and 1987 saw release of the self-produced Volume One on cassette.

The aforementioned Mike Varney featured Bill in his "Spotlight" column for Guitar Player Magazine in 1988. Shortly thereafter, Mastermind was the first band signed by the newly formed Magna Carta label. Distribution arrangements were slow in coming, however. After a year of waiting, the brothers turned to Louisville, Kentucky-based indie label ZNR for the CD release of Volume One in December, 1990. The album's strong melodies and hard-driving symphonics firmly established Mastermind as a bright new force on the resurgent progressive rock scene.

The second album, Brainstorm, was released in January 1992 by ZNR, with an even heavier sound than the first. Its 20-minute title track suite is often described as the Mastermind answer to ELP's "Tarkus," and proved a concert highlight for years to come.

Live shows continued with constantly changing bass players. By mid-1993 the brothers were again in the studio working on their third recording, completed in early 1994. Zero/Toshiba-EMI of Tokyo licensed Tragic Symphony and released it in Japan in November, '94. There, it received an impressive 85 rating in BURRN! magazine, introducing the band to a legion of new Japanese fans. Once again, Mastermind appeared to "one-up" ELP with the incredible power ballad "All the King's Horses" -- a contemporary reflection of the classic "Lucky Man."

The dramatic symphonic rock sound of Tragic Symphony opened new doors for Mastermind, and the album was released worldwide in June 1995 by Cyclops/GFT in Europe and by Dutch East India Trading in North America on their in-house Prozone label. The album also was released in Korea by Jigu Records, making for total sales far exceeding any of the band's releases to date.

Work on a fourth album had commenced by mid-1995 as Mastermind continued to hammer out powerful live performances along the Eastern seaboard (with bassist Antolino returning to the performance lineup). They even opened for John Wetton's acoustic tour by playing a special unplugged acoustic show! Well received wherever they played, Mastermind brought down the house opening for Joe Satriani.

By early 1996 the fourth album, Until Eternity, was completed and released in Japan that June. The album was once again lauded by the Japanese music press. Until Eternity was released in Europe and North America in October 1996 to a growing legion of Mastermind fans.

With album sales strong and interest high, the first two Mastermind discs were re-released in Europe and Japan and the band set off to tour the globe. In 1997 Mastermind performed live headlining in Japan, played festivals in Europe, supported Rush in New Jersey, and opened for Fish (of Marillion fame) across America, introducing their unique brand of high-intensity rock to thousands of enthusiastic new fans.

To help underwrite touring expenses, the U.K.-based Cyclops released a limited-edition Live In Tokyo disc in June, '97 (recorded earlier that year at On Air West), which quickly sold out its limited collectors' pressing. As the touring activity of '97 wrapped up, the brothers decided after 10 years it was time for a change. Longtime live bassist Antolino was replaced by Bob Eckman (who had played with Mastermind briefly in 1992), and Johansson was invited to record.

The band spent most of 1998 polishing Excelsior!, and working Eckman and Lisa Bouchelle into the stage show. The group's showcase performance at Baltimore's POWERMAD 1998 festival last August exhibited Mastermind at its most potent level yet.

If Rich Berends' concept of each new album picking up where the last ended holds true, then the 13-minute "When the Walls Fell" -- the final track on Excelsior! -- is where the Berends are headed. "It has a little more contemporary metal influence, still with the soloing," he says.

Bill explains further. "I think the next album will be an even more radical departure for us than Excelsior! was," he says. "The new material we've done so far sounds more like metal in terms of the drums and rhythm work. What I want to do is take the concept of what prog-rock was and replace the 'old' parts with new parts.

"Rock in the '90s means metal to me. Cream and Hendrix in the '90s would be cool metal bands. So we are trying to inject contemporary rock, metal, into what we do. There's also the fusion element. I just want to do something relevant. The next album will be a blend of everything we've ever done, but it's tied to Excelsior! because there again will be a lot of discursive solos back and forth."

The next album will mark Bouchelle's recording debut with Mastermind. Bill recalls approaching Lisa about possibly making an album together, "She was into it, and I toyed around with some compositions with her in mind. We tried it out in a local club and people went nuts over it. What she brings to the table is a tremendous vocal ability, a new vibrant energy. Since entering the progressive realm with Mastermind, Bouchelle has endeavored to learn more about the genre's prime movers. A longtime Rush fan, she's recently explored the works of Yes, ELP and King Crimson.

Bouchelle is impressed by Bill Berends' writing skill and his ability to push her as a performer. The collaborations have encouraged her to rewrite her own material and experiment with broadening her approach to vocals. To date, Bill Berends has written every original song in the Mastermind repertoire, with he and brother Rich sharing producer credits. Rich says he likes it that way: Certainly, no sibling rivalry here.

"We talk about the music quite a bit and share a very common vision of what Mastermind should be," Rich says. "We really haven't had any conflict over the band or its direction. I haven't come to the band as a writer, so basically my goal is to support the music and try to give Bill his vision of what he has written."

"Do I like what he writes? Absolutely. We talk about the pieces, I get the music before we go in and record it, and we get to discuss direction, what works and what doesn't work, etc. I think working together as brothers is why the band has lasted as long as it has. While a lot of other bands break up over musical differences, our similarities have held us together and will continue to."

Who knows what permutations await Mastermind in the years to come? If you consider that the name Mastermind "means Rich and I playing music that I write, then yeah, it will continue indefinitely in one form or another," Bill Berends says.

Of course, whatever happens will have to be done his way. Not that Bill is averse to creative input, but who's to argue with success? It just might be that Mastermind is on its way to becoming the stuff of which progressive legends are made.

No argument there.

-- By John Collinge, Editor, Progression Magazine

From Progression Magazine Issue 31 Spring/Summer 1999 Used by permission.