1. Skating on Europa 9:35
2. Know Again 6:26
3. A Poet’s Talespin I: Half-Slept Moments 1:56
4. A Poet’s Talespin II: Soft Collisions 8:28
5. A Poet’s Talespin III: The Bridge 7:55
6. A Poet’s Talespin IV: I Write 5:01
7. A Poet’s Talespin V: In the Shadows 6:17
8. Get the Hell off my Lawn 4:20
9. Counted the Stars 1:18
Dave Kulju – electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitar, keyboards, guitar synthesizer, sound effects and programming
Frank Basile – drums
Annie Oya – vocals (3)
Ian Cameron – electric and acoustic violins (2)
Notes in the Margin is the second album released by US multi-instrumentalist Dave Kulju, based in Rochester (New Hampshire). After his recording debut with Electrum, Frames of Mind (1998), followed in 2002 by Standard Deviation, when the band went on hiatus he started devoting his free time to his solo career, releasing Abstract Expression in 2007, which brought him to the attention of the community of progressive rock followers. Like Abstract Expressions – even if Kulju is in charge of the majority of the instrumentation – Notes in the Margin is not your typical, ubiquitous ‘solo-pilot’ projects made possible by modern recording technology, but features a real drummer, Frank Basile, as well as a couple of other guests. Unlike its predecessor, though, the album is not completely instrumental, and its centrepiece, the five-part epic “A Poet’s Talespin” (adapted from two poems by Australian poet Amanda Joy) features the amazing contribution of UK-based session vocalist Annie Oya.
Three years in the making, the process lovingly detailed on Dave’s own website, Notes in the Margin is an unusually elegant, deeply literate effort that eschews any of the pretentiousness often associated with prog, and manages to emphasize emotional content without being mawkish or contrived. The striking cover, a photo taken by Kulju himself (who is a gifted photographer as well as a talented musician), immediately projects a stylish contemporary image that sharply deviates from the old prog cliché of fantasy/sci-fi themed artwork, with its still life centred around a vintage typewriter. According to the artist, the album title is a reflection on the process of making the record itself – a process involving a lot of rewriting and refinement, just like a work of literature.
For a project completely conceived in the studio, Notes in the Margin sounds remarkably organic, multilayered though never overdone, each instrument standing out in clear detail. It comes very much across as a guitar-based album, showcasing Kulju’s fluid, clean style, inspired by the likes of David Gilmour and Andy Latimer without being derivative. Keyboards, on the other hand, are used more as a foundation than the main event, though the epic can boast of some positively gorgeous piano passages. Surprisingly, however, the real protagonist of Notes in the Margin is the bass, merging seamlessly with Frank Basile’s excellent drum work to set the pace, and stamping its own distinctive touch on the fabric of the compositions. The music flows smoothly, with enough complexity to satisfy the cravings of most prog fans, except those who are looking for innovation at all costs. Indeed, while Notes in the Margin does not offer anything startlingly new, neither does the vast majority of current releases, and the musical content here is undeniably above average.
With a practically perfect running time of about 51 minutes, no filler is needed on Notes in the Margin, and none of the tracks feels padded or stretched beyond reason. Album opener “Skating on Europa”, loosely based on the work of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, is a forceful yet melodic number which, in spite of its almost 10-minute duration, never outstays its welcome. Driven by thunderous yet not overwhelming drums and a sleek, dynamic bass line, it pushes Kulju’s fluid, fiery lead guitar to the forefront with exhilarating effect. In “Know Again” (the English translation of the Greek word anagnorisis, the moment of recognition for the protagonist of a Greek tragedy) the keyboards take more of a lead role, and Ian Cameron’s contribution on acoustic and electric violin add further layers of dimension to a piece that, while not exactly jazzy, shifts subtly from a subdued tone to a sort of crescendo, slowing down again towards the end.
The album’s epic, “A Poet’s Talespin”, which (like Shadow Circus’ “Project Blue” or The Rebel Wheel’s “The Discovery of Witchcraft”, to name but two recent examples) is conceived as five separate pieces strung together by a musical and lyrical fil rouge, rather than as a massive 30-minute behemoth. As previously hinted, it is also the only composition featuring Annie Oya’s lovely vocals, soothing and melodious yet devoid of that cloying sweetness all too frequent in female prog singers. Introduced by a gorgeous classical piano piece, the romantic, mid-paced (and very aptly titled) “Soft Collisions” develops into a number of subtle complexity where the vocals are complemented by Kulju’s superb guitar and bass work and the recurring presence of the piano. “The Bridge” treads spacey territory, with a subdued, more acoustic bent; while the symphonic, keyboard-driven “I Write” is brimming with gentle sadness, and “In the Shadows” closes the epic with an instrumental reprise of the main theme, rendered in spacious, atmospheric tones reminiscent of Pink Floyd. The album is wrapped up by two instrumentals – the highly dynamic, riff-based “Get the Hell Off My Lawn”, bringing to mind Rush compositions such as “Leave That Thing Alone”, with bass and guitar working together to create intense textures; and the short, somber keyboard piece “Counted the Stars”, named after a phrase in an Anne Sexton poem that was the earliest inspiration for the epic.
With superb production values and sterling sound quality, Notes in the Margin is indeed an excellent release, worthy of the attention of even the more demanding prog listeners. It is a pity that – like most studio-only projects – it will probably flow under the radar of many fans in favour of more extensively publicized albums. A labour of love in every sense of the term, classy and literate yet full of endearing warmth, this is a must for everyone who loves melodic, guitar-oriented progressive rock. It would be a boon if, one day, Dave managed to put a band together and perform his music on stage, in spite of all the well-documented difficulties that plague those artists looking for live outlets for their work.