1. Ancestors’ Tale (5:24)
2. The Departure (0:58)
3. Hopperknockity Tune (4:01)
4. Selves Unmade (5:56)
5. The Raw, the Cooked and the Overeasy (5:27)
6. An Elephant in Berlin (8:29)
7. Dinosaur on the Floor (3:51)
8. The Grotesque Pageantry of Fading Empires (9:17)
9. Zodiac (7:17)
10. Walk the Plank (7:37)
Jackie Royce – bassoon, contra-bassoon, flute
Steve Roberts – piano, electric piano, organ, mellotron, marimba, vibraphone, samplers
Gary Pahler – drums, percussion
Steve Good – clarinet, bass clarinet
Joee Conroy – fretless bass, Chapman stick, electric guitar, acoustic 12-string guitar, electronics
Cheyenne Mize – vocals, violin (1, 3, 4, 5, 7)
Sydney Simpson – double bass (6, 9, 10)
Gregory Acker – saxes, flutes, percussion, didgeridoo (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
In my years as a reviewer, it has rarely happened for an album to make such an impression that – barely halfway through my first listening – I felt inclined to claim that it was one of the best I had heard in a long time. Listening to the apparently endless series of releases filed under the ever-growing “progressive” umbrella tends to make one a bit jaded, so that even albums received enthusiastically rarely make it to the status of regular presences in a reviewer’s CD player. However, my very first exposure to Ut Gret’s latest effort, Ancestor’s Tale – their first release for AltrOck Productions – was one of those moments in which the sheer beauty of the sounds coming out of the speakers caught me by surprise, and elicited superlatives that I normally use very sparingly.
Founded in 1981 by multi-instrumentalist Joee Conroy, a native of Louisville (Kentucky) while living in California, Ut Gret went through different incarnations before Conroy moved back to Louisville and teamed up with former collaborator Steve Roberts (founder of Avant-Prog outfit French TV), where the band’s debut album, Time of the Grets, was released in 1990. The band is currently a five-piece, augmented by a number of guest artists, and all of its members have an impressive amount of experience in a wide-ranging array of musical genres.
With a distinctive handle combining the medieval name for the C (or Do) note with the name of a fictitious tribe of barbarian invaders, Ut Gret label their output as “pan-idiomatic music” – a definition borne out by the eclectic, often markedly experimental nature of their musical pursuits in the course of the past three decades, and which at the same time niftily dispenses with the often pesky “progressive” tag. Their variegated history is also reflected by their recordings, with a 3-CD archival box set of mostly experimental material (including a live performance of Terry Riley’s “In C”) titled Recent Fossils released in 2006, followed by Radical Symmetry in 2011.
While there is progressiveness aplenty on display on Ancestor’s Tale, the music is also surprisingly accessible: multilayered and eclectic, yet consistently melodic, it might well be tagged as “Canterbury by way of Louisville, KY.” The influence of the seminal movement is openly acknowledged in the mind-blowingly intricate but appealingly fluid “Hopperknockity Tune”, a tribute to Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper (though Conroy’s glissando guitar also nods to Gong’s Daevid Allen), but is quite evident on most of the album, not least in the quirky yet literate song titles. On the other hand, the band’s origins notwithstanding, there is very little, if anything, suggesting traditional American genres such as blues, country, or Kentucky’s own bluegrass; while the weird, improvisational duet between Gregory Acker’s sax and didgeridoo and Gary Pahler’s drums in “The Departure” provides almost the only instance of the “difficult” music generally identified with the Avant-Prog tag.
While featuring all the traditional rock staples (not to mention a mellotron), the rich instrumentation emphasizes the woodwinds, according a starring role to Steve Good’s clarinets and Jackie Royce’s bassoon and contra-bassoon (the undisputed protagonists of the dramatic, expressive “An Elephant in Berlin”, a piece strongly suggestive of late 19th century classical/chamber music). Both sets of instruments also come into their own in the three final tracks, which together form almost one half of the album’s 58-minute running time. Low-key moments and flares of intensity alternate in the 9-minute “The Grotesque Pageant of Dying Empires”, whose middle section also showcases some gorgeously atmospheric six-string action from Conroy. The mellotron-drenched “Zodiac” pays homage to Robert Fripp and early King Crimson, with hints of Maurice Ravel in the subtly tense build-up. while album closer “Walk the Plank” begins with a swaying, nostalgic waltz-like pace, then suddenly veers into Univers Zéro territory with a somber, riveting tone in which guitar, flute, vibraphone and eerie, bird-like effects interweave on a solemn mellotron backdrop.
Besides the effortless complexity of the instrumental parts, much of Ancestor’s Tale’s unique charm resides in Cheyenne Mize’s star turn on the four tracks with vocals. The Louisville-based, indie folk singer-songwriter’s sublime pipes will cause jaws to drop right from the opening of the title-track – her voice gliding smoothly and caressing the ear like warm honey, crystal-clear but with a haunting note of sensuality, and not a hint of the stilted theatrics so frequent in so many female prog singers. Never domineering, though not submissive, Mize’s voice blends with the instrumentation and sets the mood: whimsical yet somewhat pensive in the multifaceted “Selves Unmade”; sober and wistful in the stately “The Raw, The Cooked and The Overeasy”, where Royce’s puffing bassoon offers her a perfect foil; more upbeat in the title-track, though with a hint of torch-song flavour in the song’s second half; and, again, sedate and melancholy in the heavy, oddly cinematic “Dinosaur on the Floor”, which also features a spectacular contra-bassoon solo.
While my reviews always convey my own personal enjoyment of an album, I rarely wax lyrical as other writers are wont to do. Ancestor’s Tale, however, is one of the very few albums released in recent years that deserve to be called perfect. From the quirky, Oriental-inspired cover artwork (titled “Moby of the Orient”) and lavishly illustrated, detail-rich booklet to the astonishingly accomplished performances of all the musicians involved, the album is a joy from start to finish, and one of the most rewarding listening experiences I have had for quite a while. Moreover, it is one of those rare albums that, in spite of its complexity and sky-high technical quotient, can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in great music – regardless of labels.