CD 1 – Studio:
The Pocket Orchestra Tape 1983:
1. Imam Bialdi (6:24)
2. R. V. (7:04)
3. Regiments (14:59)
4. Letters (13:53)
The Knēbnagäujie Tape 1978-1979:
5. Blueing (7:10)
6. White Organ Meats (7:03)
7. Grandma Coming Down The Hall With A Hatchet (5:32)
8. Bagon (16:52)
CD 2 – Live:
1. Annex (5:56)
2. Bagon/Wandering Aimlessly (14:48)
3. Blirt (4:05)
4. Blueing (12:01)
5. Letters (19:12)
6. Parade (5:23)
7. Regiments (Parts 1, 2 and 3) (11:32)
8. Corn Fed (5:37)
9. Sound Check Bonus (0:43)
Craig Bork – keyboards
Joe Halaijan (aka Joe Who)- clarinets, saxes, incidental vocals
Bill Johnston – cello
Tim Lyons – bass
Tim Parr – guitars
Bob Stearman – drums
Craig Fry – flute (CD 1, 7)
Warren Ashford – tablas (CD 1, 7)
Jack Chandler – saxes (CD 2, 5-6)
If a contest was held for the unluckiest band on the progressive rock scene, Pocket Orchestra would have quite a few chances of winning first prize. In fact, only three members are left of the original six-piece lineup that recorded two demos between 1979 and 1984. What looked like a promising career for one the trailblazers of the RIO/Avant movement in the United States was cut short first by saxophonist Joe Halajian’s family problems (which led to the band going into hiatus), then by guitarist and main composer Tim Parr’s untimely demise in 1988. Thanks to the unstinting effort of Scott Brazieal, leader of Cartoon and a personal friend of the band, the material they had recorded in those short but intense five years finally saw the light in 2005, with the release of the CD Knēbnagäujie (the original name of the band). In the meantime, bassist Tim Lyons had passed away in 1998, while drummer Bob Stearman (who had had a stroke in 2004) followed suit in 2010.
In spite of those unfortunate circumstances, Pocket Orchestra’s reputation remained very high in RIO/Avant circles, lending them a near-legendary aura in a context that often thrives on cult status. In 2011, Marcello Marinone and Francesco Zago of Italian label AltrOck Productions , assisted by such luminaries as Cuneiform Records’ Steve Feigenbaum and renowned sound engineer Udi Koomran, brought to light some of Pocket Orchestra’s unreleased recordings – including almost 80 minutes of live material – which eventually became the double CD set Phoenix, released in the second half of the year.
The album’s title, reinforced by Paolo “Ske” Botta’s striking cover artwork, refers to the band’s hometown in Arizona, as well as to the almost miraculous reemergence of recordings that had seemed fated to remain buried in oblivion. Since Knēbnagäujie was sold out, the release of Phoenix was greeted enthusiastically by dedicated RIO/Avant followers, especially those interested in the US scene. While such archival operations rarely claim to present material in truly organic and cohesive form, Koomran’s state-of-the-art mastering has given new life to those 30-year-old live tapes, as well as to the contents of the original Knēbnagäujie CD. Brazieal’s detailed liner notes, complemented by vintage photos of the band on stage and other memorabilia, complete this lovingly assembled tribute to the “Phoenix reborn”.
As can be expected from their checkered history, while undeniably gifted and dedicated to their craft, Pocket Orchestra had not yet fully developed their potential when circumstances forced them to call it a day. Their compositions suffer from occasional bouts of patchiness, added to some of those features that generally make the whole RIO/Avant subgenre so daunting (often unnecessarily so) to newcomers. Indeed, both the eight tracks on the studio CD and the nine on the live CD are nothing but ambitious and unpredictable, packed with twists and turns of every description.
While the founding fathers of the RIO movement such as Henry Cow and Univers Zero are inevitably referenced, the main influence that can be detected on Phoenix is that of Samla Mannas Manna, another band belonging to the original RIO contingent – something that earned Pocket Orchestra the tag of “Samla of the desert”. However, Pocket Orchestra’s music is completely instrumental, and also decidedly less melodic, though imbued by a similar brand of playful light-heartedness, embodied by the use of circus music in “Grandma Coming Down the Hall With a Hatchet” . Sudden blasts of saxophone and clarinet and wailing, piercing guitar excursions seem to be the rule, with Bob Stearman engaging in a mind-boggling range of intricate rhythmic patterns to propel the sound forward.
The word “anarchic” is probably the best description of Pocket Orchestra’s approach. The average composition can suddenly shift from a laid-back, almost meditative pace to unrelieved chaos – as exemplified by “R.V”, whose first half is deceptively mellow, then erupts into an intense, free-form maelstrom of sound. The sedate, piano-driven passages in the 14-minute, Canterbury-influenced “Letters” are bound to bring to mind the easy elegance of Hatfield and the North or National Health, offset by Parr’s aggressive guitar solo at the end. On the other hand, album closer “Bagon” marries the lovely, melodic Canterbury feel with more typical RIO features such as blaring sax and strident guitar. As a whole, the first four tracks –dating back from 1983, immediately before Pocket Orchestra went on hiatus – come across as more accomplished, showing a band well on its way to reining in the in-your-face dissonance and chaos that instead emerge in the studio CD’s second half.
The second CD offers an invaluable testimony of the band’s brisk live activity in the years 1980-1984, and includes a number of previously unreleased tracks, as well as noteworthy versions of “Letters” and “Regiments”. Udi Koomran’s experience in the studio managed to bring out the best in recordings whose original quality was less than ideal, presenting a band that was definitely at home on stage. While some of the longer tracks may still reveal a bit of self-indulgence, the shorter ones, such as “Parade” or “Corn Fed”, show how Pocket Orchestra were gradually but clearly finding their own unique voice and direction, and at the same time tightening up on the compositional aspect.
Though somewhat clichéd, the definition of “rollercoaster ride” seems to be a perfect fit for an album like Phoenix, which probably should come with a warning sticker. While its blend of dignified chamber rock, wild, wacky all-out experimentation and the occasional foray into sophisticated, Canterbury-style jazz-rock will not fail to appeal to fans of everything RIO/Avant, even a cursory listen to opener “Imam Bialdi” will send the average “mainstream” prog fan running for the exits. While bands like Miriodor or Yugen might have a broader crossover appeal and win over staunch devotees of symphonic prog, Pocket Orchestra, as captured on this double set, were definitely raw and uncompromising. All in all, though not exactly a comfortable listen, Phoenix is a moving tribute to a band that might have grown into a force to be reckoned with, had not fate got in the way.