1. New Frontier (10:12)
2. Take a Moment (8:56)
3. Mr. Wishbone (3:31)
4. Elegy (6:07)
5. Love and Inspiration (14:05)
Jerry Beller – drums, vocals
Matt Brown – keyboards. vocals
Kerry Chicoine – bass, vocals
Scott Jones – lead vocals
Mike Matier – guitars
A couple of years ago, the sudden demise of LA-based quartet Mars Hollow deprived the US progressive rock scene of one of its most promising bands. However, volcanic bassist Kerry “Kompost” Chicoine was not one to keep away from the limelight for too long, and – together with drummer Jerry Beller – he soon teamed up with former Ten Jinn guitarist Mike Matier, gifted keyboardist Matt Brown (also a member of Genesis tribute band Gabble Ratchet) and vocalist Scott Jones to form a new band that was given the high-sounding name of Heliopolis. Indeed, “City of the Sun” (the English translation of the Ancient Greek name, which also refers to one of the capitals of ancient Egypt) is a very appropriate name for an outfit hailing from sun-drenched southern California.
The cover of City of the Sun, released in the late summer of 2014 on 10T Records, is graced by the photo of an elaborate structure that looks like a modern version of the obelisks for which their eponymous city was known. The music inside embodies the band’s own description of “progressive rock, LA style”: based on strong melodies and catchy hooks as much as on instrumental skill, though with less of an AOR bent than Mars Hollow, it also reflects the band members’ optimistic outlook.
Clocking in at around 42 minutes, City of the Sun is carefully balanced, with the two longest tracks bookending the album, and the only instrumental track – also the disc’s shortest number – strategically placed in the middle. Writing credits are equally shared by all the band members, which contributes to the overall solidity of the album. While the individual performances are very strong, the emphasis is clearly placed on ensemble playing, and the result is remarkably cohesive, though with enough variety to keep the listener’s attention. Indeed, for such a compact running time, a lot seems to be going on in each of the five tracks.
The music on City of the Sun fits the description of modern symphonic prog, clearly influenced by Yes, but successfully avoiding the overt plagiarism that mars the production of other similar outfits. The ultra-heavy intro to “New Frontier”, with its nod to Black Sabbath (or also Yes’ “Machine Messiah”), slowly morphs into a more melodic scenario, introducing Scott Jones’ Jon-Anderson-meets-Geddy-Lee vocals, as well as Kerry Chicoine’s pneumatic Rickenbacker, aided and abetted by a Jerry Beller in top form. Seamless vocal harmonies and an infectious chorus soften the complexity of the musical fabric, while Mike Matier’s guitar adds bite and a touch of dissonance to the concoction. Matt Brown’s array of keyboards steps up to the plate in “Take a Moment”, which introduces some spacey, atmospheric elements as well as jazzy hints in a rather more somber context than the opening track.
The interlude provided by the unexpectedly angular, almost Crimsonian instrumental “Mr Wishbone” (complete with a guest appearance from a dog, Ricky Chihuahua) contrasts sharply with the melodic “Elegy”, an oddly upbeat song considering its subject matter (it is dedicated to the memory of drummer and composer Shaun Guerin, who passed away in 2003), and definitely the most mainstream number on the album. Things are brought to a close by the mini-epic “Love and Inspiration”, an ambitious piece that lacks the edge and complexity of “New Frontier”, spotlighting instead the band’s flair for grandiosity and the elegance of their vocal harmonies. Matier and Chicoine are in fine fettle on this track, again adding some jazzy overtones to the proceedings.
With some festival appearances (NorCalProg and the second edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend) under their belt, and a prestigious slot as openers of the ROSfest 2015 weekend before Spock’s Beard, Heliopolis are one of those bands who are most at ease when playing live, which makes their music truly come alive. Though they will never try to sell themselves as the most innovative of bands, their engaging manner and obvious enjoyment of their craft has already won them a lot of fans; additionally, City of the Sun puts a lot of potentially interesting ideas on display. Even if, in the past few years, my personal tastes have veered away from conventional prog towards more challenging fare, I have found a lot to enjoy in Heliopolis’ debut, and can warmly recommend it to those who are looking for a contemporary take on the traditional symphonic approach.