1. Snowtorch – Part One (19:39)
a) Star of Light
c) Fox on the Rocks
2. Helix (5:54)
3. Snowtorch – Part Two (16:11)
a) Blowtorch Snowjob
b) Fox Rock 2
c) Coronal Mass Ejection
4. ” … ” (2:34)
Phideaux Xavier – acoustic guitar, piano, vocals
Ariel Farber – vocals, violin
Valerie Gracious – vocals
‘Bloody’ Rich Hutchins – drums
Mathew Kennedy – bass guitar
Gabriel Moffat – electric guitar
Linda Ruttan Moldawsky – vocals, metal percussion
Molly Ruttan – vocals
Mark Sherkus – keyboards, piano
Johnny Unicorn – keyboards, saxophone, vocals
Stephanie Fife – cello
Chris Bleth – flute, soprano saxophone
With 7 albums released since 2003 (not counting Ghost Story, originally released in 1997 and reissued in 2004, and mostly consisting of material dating from a previous project called Satyricon) Phideaux need no introduction to prog fans. Based on a group of childhood friends who grew up together in the New York area, but are now scattered all over the US territory, they are a proudly independent outfit, a group of gifted musicians coming from diverse backgrounds led by the remarkable talent of Phideaux Xavier, whose highly individual approach to the production of progressive rock has turned them into firm favourites of a wide-ranging, yet rather volatile scene.
Throughout the years the band have perfected a format that, while not exactly uncommon in the prog world, has been given a new twist by Phideaux Xavier’s fertile mind and keen awareness of social matters. All of the band’s albums since 2006’s The Great Leap have been based on elaborate concepts that, eschewing the often formulaic fantasy topics that are still quite popular with prog bands and their fans, present reflections on the state of the modern world – albeit coached in metaphorical terms. In some ways, Phideaux has become a 21st-century equivalent of Roger Waters, down to the configuration of the band – which, with its ten members, plus various collaborators, is a veritable mini-orchestra. Everything, so to speak, is done in the family, with guitarist Gabriel Moffat in the role of the producer, and backing vocalists (and twin sisters) Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan Moldavsky responsible for the elegantly minimalistic artwork.
Released in the spring of 2011, a couple of months before Phideaux’s appearance at the 2011 edition of ROSfest, Snowtorch is a compact, 45-minute offering that manages to pack more content in its streamlined running time than most of the sprawling behemoths favoured by some artists. Featuring the same line-up as its predecessor, 2009’s Number Seven, it is, in Phideaux’s own words, “a musing on life, language and solar flares”, conceived as single suite in various movements, though split in two separate halves connected by a stand-alone song also based on the composition’s main theme.This strategy of building the album’s musical content around a recurring theme is what makes Snowtorch a symphonic offering in the truest sense of the word. With a perfect balance between vocal and instrumental parts, and the added bonus of thought-provoking lyrics, the album stakes its claim as the rightful heir of the great classics of the Seventies – though bringing a definitely modern twist to those old prog warhorses, the epic and the concept album.
In fact, listening to Snowtorch may evoke strong comparisons with classical music, on account of both the structure and the nature of the compositions, which combine the powerful surge of exhilarating crescendos with intimate, low-key moments. However, Phideaux’s sound is quite far removed from the somewhat cheesy grandiosity of bands such as The Enid. With two keyboardists (plus Phideaux himself on piano) providing a lush, yet tightly-woven background tapestry, bolstered by Ariel Farber’s violin and guest artist Stephanie Fife’s cello, Chris Bleth’s flute adding a pastoral touch to some of the quieter sections, the music possesses a dramatic fullness that complements the harmonious beauty of the vocal parts.
The first half of the “Snowtorch” suite opens with the subdued melody of “Star of Light”, introduced by piano, organ and Phideaux’s husky, expressive voice; then it soon gains intensity, the intricate, orchestral keyboards and relentless drumming driving the vocals along towards a climax. The main theme is introduced, and brought to fruition in a splendid, organ-driven section peppered by guitar excursions, the two instruments sparring in a peaks-and-valleys pattern. “Retrograde” revolves around a lovely, emotional duet between Phideaux and the band’s other lead vocalist, Valerie Gracious, whose soaring soprano shows more than a hint of steel without any trace of saccharine – an enthralling song almost out of a classic Broadway musical. The entertaining ditty “Fox on the Rocks” (with lyrics penned by keyboardist Johnny Unicorn), sung by Phideaux in a near-falsetto register, prepares the listener for instrumental “Celestine”, a veritable keyboard tour-de-force, pastoral and stormy in turns, where solemn mellotron washes underpin the sparring of piano, synth and organ, with violin, metal percussion and sax joining the fray.
As previously hinted, “Helix” bridges the gap between the two parts of the titular suite – a majestic, powerful piece sustained by Valerie Gracious’ commanding performance, with all the instruments working together to produce a solid wall of sound - which reminded me of the dramatic sweep of some episodes of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. “Snowtorch Part Two” – shorter and somewhat edgier than Part One – opens in almost upbeat fashion with the funnily (and punnily)-titled instrumental “Blowtorch Snowjob”, then culminates in the explosive, ELP-influenced keyboard-and-drum orgy of “Fox Rock 2” (with an unbridled organ solo that would sit quite comfortably on Tarkus). Things finally mellow out with the sedate, Pinkfloydian atmosphere of “Coronal Mass Ejection”, an ominous, somber piece which reprises the album’s main theme, briefly climaxes with guitar slashes and intense vocals, then ends with sparse piano. The short “ghost track” included at the end as a sort of instrumental summary wraps things up with a cheery feel that seems to release the tension built up throughout the album.
Effortlessly marrying superb musicianship and genuine passion, Snowtorch brims with gorgeous melodies, the kind that stick in your mind for quite a while. While often pervaded by a sense of impending doom, it can also be oddly jaunty; for all its lush, multilayered arrangements, it is never gratuitously pretentious. With all-round flawless performances, excellent songwriting and beautiful singing, it has quickly established itself as one of the strongest releases of the year so far. Though influenced by the great tradition of the golden age of prog, unlike the myriad of “retro” acts Phideaux manage to sound like no one else on the current scene. An album such as Snowtorch is living proof of how they are almost single-handedly dragging symphonic prog right into the 21st century.