1. Repeat It (4:33)
2. In A Sense (5:24)
3. A (Post-Apocalyptic) Bedtime Story (5:07)
Part 1: In Between The Lines (2:53)
Part 2: The Pundits (3:00)
Part 3: The Muse Returns (1:41)
Part 4: Free to Fall (3:15)
5. The Projectionist (4:40)
6. Tear Gas (4:46)
7. Higher Than Mountains (4:19)
8. Gravity (10:12)
9. Gravity (instrumental – bonus track) (10:02)
Eric Sands – fretted and fretless bass, electric guitars
Jeff Hodges – vocals, piano, organ, synth, samples, percussion
Elise Testone – vocals
Quentin Ravenel – drums
Cameron Harder Handel – trumpet
Jenny Hugh – violin
Steve Carroll – lyrics, imagery
Keith Bruce – electric guitar (1, 5)
Oliver Caminos – guitar (2, 3)
Alexandra Hodges – backing vocals (5)
Tim Hodson – acoustic guitar (2, 8 )
Vitaly Popeloff – guitar (1, 4/1, 4/2)
Dan Wright – guitar (4/4, 6)
Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, where they were founded by multi-instrumentalists Eric Sands and Jeff Hodges, Man On Fire first appeared on the music scene in 1998 with the release of their eponymous debut album. It was followed by The Undefined Design (2003), which featured Kansas’ David Ragsdale on violin, and Habitat (2006), with Adrian Belew guesting on guitar (as well as Ragsdale’s return). Chrysalis, their long-awaited fourth album, sees the band expanded to a six-piece, with lyrics provided once again by 10T Records president Steve Carroll.
Though I was familiar with the band’s name, my only contact with Man On Fire prior to Chrysalis occurred when I had the opportunity to listen to Undercover, a compilation of cover versions of famous progressive rock songs released by 10T Records in 2009. Man On Fire’s contribution to the album, Japan’s “Visions of China”, obviously attracted my attention, as the song is a great favourite of mine; however, in the intervening months I was so overwhelmed with music to review that I all but forgot about it. The comments I had heard about the band were all largely positive, but most of them pointed out that Man On Fire were not “really” prog – meaning they did not sound like Yes or Genesis, and had at least some “mainstream” potential, which made them somewhat suspect in the eyes of purists.
When, a couple of weeks ago, I received a promo copy of Chrysalis in the mail, I did expect a measure of accessibility from the band. What took me completely by surprise, however, was the sheer brilliance of the music that came out of my speakers once I put the CD into my player. Fresh and exhilarating, brimming with memorable melodies and stunning vocal performances, it took me back to that time – the early to mid-1980s – when I spent most of my days glued to the radio, soaking in all the newest releases. In spite of that period’s grim reputation of being a wasteland for progressive rock, the ‘80s were rife with incredible talent, both as regards quality pop and more experimental fare (not to mention the wealth of classic heavy metal albums). The essence of that musical bounty – so undeservedly reviled by the snobs of this world – came back in full force when I first heard Chrysalis. The album was that rare beast – a perfect marriage between the cream of the ‘80s’ musical crop and a genuinely progressive attitude, made of technical brilliance and unabashed eclecticism.
Indeed, to borrow a metaphor from the world of cooking, Chrysalis is definitely not “your mom’s prog” Though the very mention of the ‘80s and prog in the same breath may conjure memories of extremely divisive albums such as Yes’ 90125 or the whole of Genesis’ output in that decade, Chrysalis possesses a warm, organic sound that avoids some of the excesses of that decade (such as the over-reliance on electronic drums), all the while keeping that inimitable blend of accessibility and subtle complexity. Unlike so many “real” prog releases, which seem to adopt a “more is more” approach often resulting in bloated, pretentious affairs, this is an album that makes listening a pleasure rather than a chore. Chrysalis is a lean, mean machine offering 58 minutes of perfectly balanced music – with the majority of the tracks between 4 and 5 minutes, a 4-part epic that, in spite of its very restrained running time (10 minutes), manages to hold the attention much better than its twice-as-long counterparts, and a stunner of a closing track that sums up the album and lays the groundwork for the future developments of the band’s career.
Right from the opening strains of “Repeat It” it becomes obvious that Chrysalis is not your average symphonic prog album with a Seventies fetish. Its funky swagger, with Eric Sands’s meaty bass lines enhanced by synth bursts, provides a perfect foil for Jeff Hodges’ occasionally gruff, immensely expressive vocals. Organ flurries and airy keyboards, accented by guitar (courtesy of From.uz mainman Vitaly Popeloff), add layers of texture to the catchy yet intriguing fabric of the song. The haunting folksy beauty of Jenny Hugh’s violin refrain joins the mix of pneumatic bass and weird electronics – so reminiscent of Japan’s best moments – to make “In a Sense” one of the highlights of the album, driven to an exhilarating pace by the soulful vocal interplay between Hodges and Elise Testone, and tempered by more atmospheric moments. The Japan influence is unmistakable on most of the album, though Hodges’ voice is definitely not as languid as David Sylvian’s, often coming across as more Motown than standard prog. The skewed ballad of “A (Post-Apocalyptic) Bedtime Story”, bolstered by the flawless work of the rhythm section and peppered with trumpet bursts underscoring the intensity of the vocals, reminded me of another exquisitely boundary-crossing outfit – New Jersey’s own 3RDegree, who share Man On Fire’s appreciation of eclectic acts such as Rush. The Canadian trio’s influence crops up in the most accessible track on the album, the upbeat “Higher Than Mountains”, whose mainstream appeal is subtly spiked by a slightly chaotic ending.
The title-track offers a nice twist on the old warhorse of the multi-part epic, with short sections strung together by a main theme, and made especially memorable by the wistful voice of Cameron Harder Handel’s trumpet. Eric Sands is again joined by Vitaly Popeloff on guitar, providing both clean, melodic lines with an almost Gilmourian touch and harsh riffs, while the mood runs the gamut from hauntingly melancholy (as in Pt 3, “The Muse Returns”) to dynamic and muscular (as in Pt 4, “Free to Fall”), with distinct echoes of bands such as Tears for Fears or Talk Talk as well as Rush or Pink Floyd. With “The Projectionist” the band dive headlong into pure ‘80s territory with an irresistibly funky, slightly angular number propelled by Quentin Ravenel’s drums, spiced up by bits of dissonance and softened by lovely vocal harmonies and entrancing keyboard washes, hinting at some of Duran Duran’s best output. “Tear Gas” goes even further, regaling the listener with a prime example of “progressive dance” that evokes both Madonna and the “red/blue/yellow” period of King Crimson’s career – throwing in weird electronic effects, razor-sharp riffing, slinky bass lines, soulful trumpet and haunting female backing vocals. Then, when you thought things could not get more interesting, “Gravity (also included in an instrumental-only version) kicks in, wrapping up the album with 10 minutes of absolute bliss, and the splendid voice of Elise Testone (bringing back memories of Alison Moyet or Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Holly Johnson) as the icing on the cake. The song is so funky and exhilarating that it makes you want to dance, the synergy between the instruments nothing short of astonishing, while the trumpet solo at the end, followed by sparse, wistful piano and recorded voices, is alone worth the price of admission.
As many of the references I have used in the previous paragraphs make abundantly clear, those who believe that the 1980s were a dismal time for interesting music would do very well to steer clear of Chrysalis. While, from a compositional point of view, the album has enough complexity to sustain any comparisons with more “traditional” prog releases, the music featured on Chrysalis is quite unlikely to appeal to purists or staunch ‘70s worshippers. On the other hand, anyone into art rock/crossover (labels that are often used condescendingly to define something that cannot fully aspire to the hallowed “prog” tag), and, obviously, devotees of ‘80s music will not fail to appreciate the brilliance of Man On Fire’s latest effort. With striking artwork and photography and Steve Carroll’s literate, thought-provoking lyrics rounding off a thoroughly modern package, Chrysalis is another strong contender for my personal Top 10 of 2011. Hopefully the band will not keep us waiting for another six years before their next release.