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Archive for October, 2015

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TRACKLISTING:
1. The Last Song (8:20)
2. Heavy Lifting (6:20)
3. Discourse on Method (5:38)
4. Drum Roe (1:06)
5. Halfway to Salem (7:36)
6. Still Life (7:01)
7. Talking Points (3:52)
8. Like Me (6:18)
9. Into the Night (2:20)
10. Shards (3:16)
11. Alis Volat Propiis (4:48)
12. This and That (4:23)
13. Busy Signal (11:31)

LINEUP:
Skip Durbin – woodwinds, exotics
John Rousseau – drums
Rex Bozarth – Chapman Stick, bass, cello, background vocals
Martin McCall – drums, percussion
Shannon Day – vintage and contemporary keyboards
Mark Cook – Warr guitar, bass, guitar, keyboards, drums, percussion, devices
Steve Powell – bass, additional keyboards, background vocals, noises
Ernie Myers – vocals, guitars

When discussing the somewhat obscure US prog scene of the Seventies, Hands will likely not be among the first names that spring to mind. However, the Texas band – founded by guitarist Ernie Myers and keyboardist Michael Clay (both members of jazz-rock outfit Prism) – has been around since 1977, more or less as long as higher-profile bands such as The Muffins and Happy the Man. Their first two albums, Hands and Palm Mystery, though released in the late Nineties, feature material dating back from the band’s early years, before their 2002 reunion with the aptly titled Twenty-Five Winters – followed in 2008 by the excellent Strangelet.

Seven years later, Hands are back with the elegantly-packaged, cryptically-titled Caviar Bobsled, and a revamped lineup that comprises no less than eight members. Founder Michael Clay and drummer John Fiveash have left, replaced by Skip Durbin, Rex Bozarth, Shannon Day and John Rousseau, all involved in the band’s previous incarnations. With Myers and bassist Steve Powell at the helm, the 2015 version of Hands amounts more to a small orchestra than a mere rock band, as the array of instruments employed on the album (duly detailed in the extensive liner notes) is nothing short of astonishing.

While all too often such ambitious undertakings turn out to be triumphs of style over substance, Caviar Bobsled is nothing of the sort, delivering instead a lesson on how modern progressive rock should sound like, and handling the inevitable references to prog’s “golden oldies” in such a way as to provide fleeting reminders rather than blatantly obvious homages. In fact, there is very little on Caviar Bobsled that can be termed derivative.

Clocking in at almost 73 minutes, Caviar Bobsled is a long, densely packed album. While I usually consider running times in excess of 60 minutes a drawback rather than an asset, Hands’ latest effort holds together admirably well, with a minimal amount of filler. Though Myers (whose polite, well-modulated vocals fit the music to a T) is responsible for writing most of the 13 songs, other band members get their chance in the spotlight. Individual times are also well-balanced, with the two longest tracks bookending the album, and the shorter, catchier numbers located closer to the middle.

Musically speaking, Caviar Bobsled is a veritable rollercoaster ride, running the gamut of styles and deftly blending various sources of inspiration to achieve a strikingly original result. Eclecticism is the name of the game: I can think of very few albums in which echoes of Queen and The Beatles rub elbows with angular patterns in pure King Crimson style – often in the space of the same song, as borne out by the brilliant “Heavy Lifting”, a song that packs more in barely over 6 minutes than many epics do in 20, or the deceptively accessible “Discourse on Method”.

In opener “The Last Song”, the rugged appeal of Shannon Day’s Hammond B3 organ injects shades of Deep Purple in a richly arranged texture that brings to mind Belew-era King Crimson. Warm folksy traits emerge in the playful, largely acoustic “Talking Points”, “Shards” and “This and That”, the latter also reminiscent of Gentle Giant and Caravan with its pastoral flute and jaunty percussion. On the flip side, the intricately orchestrated “Still Life” with its dramatic, surging intro, mercurially shifts from ethereal sparseness to roaring organ and guitar passages with a more classic prog feel. Closer “Busy Signal” encompasses all of the album’s characteristics, veering from nostalgic to majestic to atmospheric in the space of 11-odd minutes, and putting each band member’s skill on display in a breathtakingly multifaceted whole.

My personal highlight, however, is one of the three instrumental interludes that add a further layer of interest to the album. With its poetic title and gorgeously hypnotic sounds, “Alis Volat Propiis” (“Flies With Its Own Wings” – I will always be partial to a bit of Latin!) turns the spotlight on Mark Cook (of Herd of Instinct and Spoke of Shadows fame), whose Warr guitar recreates the spellbinding atmospheres that characterize his work with those bands. Though Cook plays only on 5 songs out of 13, his contribution to the fabric of those composition is essential – as in the elegiac “Halfway to Salem” (where he plays 12-string electric guitar), or in the instrumental sections of “Still Life” and “Busy Signal”. Though shorter, the other two instrumentals hold their own – “Drum Roe” showcasing drummer Martin McCall’s skills, and Rex Bozarths’s lovely, mournful cello solo spot “Into the Night” treading in chamber music territory.

Those prog fans who are often frustrated in their search for new music that is fresh and interesting – though not as openly challenging or potentially offputting as anything with metal elements or avant-garde leanings – are warmly encouraged to check out Caviar Bobsled. The care and dedication that have gone into its writing and recording are evident, and the album offers something to almost everyone. Although Hands are still one of the best-kept secrets of the thriving US prog scene, this highly rewarding effort deserves to be known to a larger audience, and will definitely find a place in my personal Best of 2015 list.

Links:
http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/hands3
http://www.shroomangel.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Bells Spring (3:44)
2. The Pan Chaser (4:56)
3. Vision at Vasquez Rocks (3:59)
4. Red Hill Trail (3:52)
5. The Lost Night (4:21)
6. Crossing the Divide (3:49)
7. Owens Hideaway (3:51)
8. Young Mountain Memory (3:18)
9. After the Big Sky Falls (2:42)
10. Escape From Sycamore Canyon (4.46)
11. Winter Way (3:12)

LINEUP:
Gayle Ellett – Greek bouzouki, dilruba, charango, tanpura, surmandal, Rhodes, harmonium, ruan, dobro, upright bass, guitar, piano, tenor ukulele, bells/chimes, moog, mellotron, organ, electric guitar, field recordings
Todd Montgomery – Irish bouzouki, sitar, guitar, banjo, baritone guitar, mandolin, violin, slide bouzouki, bowed guitar, EBow, electric mandolin, baritone electric guitar

A lot of the music released today under the “progressive” umbrella has very little in common with the banks-of-keyboards variety that flourished in the early Seventies. On the other hand, the rather stale adherence to modes of expression that were forward-thinking in their time is still seen by many as a requirement for artists who want to aspire to the “prog” tag, and anything deviating from that template is often hastily dismissed.

Southern California duo Fernwood belong to that vast grey area, which often houses veritable gems always at risk of being overlooked by the “prog audience” at large. However, one half of the duo has serious prog credentials – being none other than Gayle Ellett of Djam Karet fame. The epitome of eclecticism, Ellett (one of the few professional musicians in the modern prog scene) is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and composer, involved in projects that go from movie scores to the hypnotic, Crimson-infused sound of Texas outfit Herd of Instinct. Though not as familiar to prog audiences, the duo’s other half, Todd Montgomery, has a 40-year-odd career as a musician under his belt, especially in the field of traditional music from the Old and the New World.

My first contact with Fernwood came a few years ago, when I was writing for another website, and often had to deal with music that did nothing for me (and that’s an understatement). When I received the duo’s second album, Sangita, right from the first listen it felt like a diamond lost in a sea of coarse glass. While the music – performed with an array of exotic, mostly wooden instruments with arcane names – was disqualified from being “rock” by a lack of drums, it possessed a beauty and elegance (not to mention a level of subtle, understated complexity) that are often missing in a lot (of conventional progressive rock. Now, better late than never (as the album was released in February, when I was dealing with some personal issues), Arcadia, Fernwood’s third recording effort has finally come under my scrutiny.

Packaged in pristinely beautiful nature photography, Arcadia is a concept album of sorts – its 11 tracks (all on the short side, the longest clocking in at under 5 minutes) representing stages of a journey in search of the titular Utopian paradise. Unlike in most of my reviews, there is very little point in a track-by-track analysis in the case of Arcadia, as the compositions form an organic whole, and the differences between them are a matter of subtle nuances. In fact, they can be seen as impressionistic sketches, in which the instruments are used like colours to create a warm, multi-hued palette celebrating the beauty of nature. Influences from a wide range of musical traditions (Celtic in “Vision at Vasquez Rocks”, Far Eastern in the rarefied “Winter Way”, to name but two) are brought to bear, each piece exploring a range of shifting moods in tune with the changing seasons. Here and there, touches of modern technology, such as brief but recognizable Mellotron washes, enhance the delightfully laid-back atmospheres.

Needless to say, Arcadia is not recommended to anyone looking for a true-blue prog album in the key of Ellett’s main gig, though it will appeal quite a lot to those who are on the lookout for interesting music on the fringes of the variegated prog sphere. Soothing and refreshing, and romantic in the original sense of the word, Arcadia is the perfect antidote to the frantic pace of modern life, and to the plasticky, disposable quality of most of what passes for music these days.

Links:
http://www.fernwoodmusicgroup.com/
https://fernwood.bandcamp.com/album/arcadia

 

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