1. Touch the Stars (4:21)
2. Carousel (4:16)
3. First to Last (5:24)
4. A Far Cry (5:37)
5. Rush of Blood (6:00)
6. Darker Sun (6:54)
7. Wake Up to Reality (5:08)
8. Missing Years (4:45)
9. Scenario (6:32)
Dave Foss – vocals
Nick Hampson – guitars, voices (spooky)
Neil Foss – guitar, backing vocals
Steve Watts – keyboards, backing vocals
Paul Caswell – drums
As my long-time readers probably know, I have never been a keen follower of either neo-prog or AOR. In the Eighties – that supposed wasteland for good music – I mostly listened to heavy metal or new wave, and I never went much further than Fish-era Marillion in my exploration of the neo-prog scene. In recent years, thanks to my activity as a reviewer for several progressive rock websites and, I have got acquainted with a lot of diverse, challenging music, which has shaped my tastes in a direction that is often quite the opposite of radio-friendliness. Anyway, whatever my personal tastes, it is essential for a reviewer to keep an open mind and be able to step out of his or her comfort zone – which can lead to pleasant surprises, such as Exhibit A’s third album, the quaintly-titled Make Mine a Lobster.
Based in the county of Essex in southern England, Exhibit A were formed in 1986 after the demise of another band called Mithra. They released two albums in the early Nineties, then went into a lengthy hiatus that lasted until 2007, when the five members of the band got back together to discuss recording some new material. In the second half of 2010, Make Mine a Lobster was finally released – sixteen years after the band’s second album – attracting the attention of fans of the more melodic, listener-friendly variety of progressive rock.
Unlike so many modern outfits that do so while blithely ripping off other bands or artists, the members of Exhibit A do not claim to be purveyors of wildly innovative fare. Their album – skilfully composed, arranged and performed – is a tribute to the sheer joy of making music that has nothing to do with a desire to rake in the big bucks. They clearly play the music they like, without caring about whether it is trendy or rather a bit on the dated side. Although some reviewers have compared them to Asia, there is a world of difference between that custom-built supergroup, put together with the clear purpose of scaling the charts, and Exhibit A’s genuine enthusiasm.
After reading reviews of Make Mine a Lobster, I was somewhat doubtful about what I was going to find – and was, instead, confronted with a genuinely pleasing listen, something that I might slip into my CD player for pleasure and not just for reviewing purposes. Thankfully, my attitude towards ‘pop music’ (a definition that is, in my opinion, way too broad to be used with any real accuracy) is anything but snobbish and narrow-minded. It takes quite a lot of skill to write a good pop song, and I would take good pop over bad prog any day. Bands like Exhibit A, who are not afraid of labelling themselves ‘prog-pop-rock’, are perfect for those times when I need music to please my ear without challenging it too much – and I do not mean this statement to be in the least patronizing. Weary as I am of the endless posturing and waving around of the word ‘proggy’ as if it was the greatest accolade, I found Exhibit A’s approach to music-making extremely refreshing and honest. In the Eighties, mentioning prog and Duran Duran in the same breath would have been next to anathema, but on their website Exhibit A proudly display quotes referencing the former ‘pin-up’ band. Indeed, their sound is firmly rooted in the Eighties, blending AOR, quality synth-driven pop and progressive suggestions in a classy mixture, admirably complemented by the clear, versatile tenor of lead vocalist Dave Foss.
Not surprisingly, Make Mine a Lobster is based on relatively short songs that display a rather traditional verse-chorus-verse structure. However, what sets the album above many comparable efforts is the tightness of both the songwriting and the performances, which does not allow for the presence of weak links. The two longest numbers, “Darker Sun” and “Scenario”, clocking in at almost 7 minutes, offer plenty of unobtrusive but noticeable progressive touches in the instrumental parts, such as excellent guitar-keyboards interplay bolstered by precise drumming, and slower, atmospheric sections. Album opener “Touch the Stars” and “Rush of Blood”, on the other hand, are definitely accessible tracks with some serious airplay potential, offering plenty of sweeping keyboards, soaring vocals and melodic guitar licks. All of the above-mentioned songs, as well as “Carousel”, bear the imprint of Rush circa Hold Your Fire. The slower, more subdued numbers like “First to Last”, with its moody guitar coda, and the piano-infused ballad “Missing Years” (featuring a lovely, almost Gilmourian guitar solo) may bring to mind Asia at their best, or even purveyors of quality Eighties pop like Tears for Fears or Talk Talk. “Wake Up to Reality”, with its subtle tempo changes and remarkable synth-guitar interplay, is somewhat more complex than the rest; while “A Far Cry”, despite the Rush reference in the title, brings again Asia to mind, spiced up by some sharper guitar riffing and enhanced by Dave Foss’s outstanding vocals.
Though I would not call it a masterpiece (and masterpieces are rather thin on the ground these days…), Make Mine a Lobster is quite a worthwhile effort, at least for those progressive rock fans who are not averse to the more accessible side of their favourite musical genre. True, the keyboards (especially the synths) may occasionally sound a bit dated, and, if you object to high tenor vocals or 4/4 time signatures, then you should probably give this one a pass.In any case, this is as accomplished an album as those released by bands in the same vein with far higher aspirations, and one that will appeal not just to fans of AOR and the catchier end of the prog spectrum, but also to anyone keeping an open mind as regards musical matters.