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TRACKLISTING:
1. Overture (8:09)
2. Daddy’s Gone (5:56)
3. Whosit, Whatsit and Which (6:33)
4. Make Way for the Big Show (8:42)
5. Tesseract (5:20)
6. Uriel (5:50)
7. Camazotz (6:22)
8. Ixchel (4:39)
9. The Battle for Charles Wallace (7:00)

LINEUP:
David Bobick – lead vocals
Jason Brower – drums, percussion, backing vocals
John Fontana – guitar, orchestral and incidental keyboards, keyboards (8)
Matt Masek – bass, cellos, backing vocals, 12-string guitar (2), nylon string guitar (8)
David Silver – keyboards

With:
Roo Brower – vocals (7, 8, 9)

Formed in 2006 in the New York/New Jersey area by guitarist/keyboardist John Fontana and vocalist David Bobick, Shadow Circus might have ended up as one of the many progressive rock projects limited to the four walls of a recording studio. Instead, right from day one, Fontana and Bobick’s vision involved a full-fledged band that would perform on stage as often as possible, emphasizing the theatrical component introduced in prog by Peter Gabriel-era Genesis (as well as some lesser-known outfits). Though not without hiccups (i.e. frequent lineup changes), the band have managed to hold to their initial aim, perfecting their stage craft whenever given the opportunity to play live.

Although often tagged as “retro-prog”, Shadow Circus are quite unlike the many outfits that sound like a tired retread of Seventies – albeit with a modern veneer. While their debut album, Welcome to the Freakroom, took an eclectic yet accessible approach, Whispers and Screams upped the ante in terms of “prog quotient”, half of it dedicated to the seven-part suite “Project Blue”, which, in its 34 minutes, summed up the band’s musical vision. On a Dark and Stormy Night (released on Georgia-based label 10T Records) takes up where “Project Blue” left off, expanding and developing the format in a compact 58 minutes, each track flowing organically into the other without any noticeable breaks, in classic “rock opera” style. Indeed, this is the first time  that the band have taken the “concept album” route, basing their third recording effort on Madeleine L’Engle’s young adult fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time – a fitting tribute on the book’s 50th anniversary. Literary inspiration is a fil rouge that runs through Shadow Circus’ six-year history– starting with  the band’s own name, which references Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes; additionally, “Project Blue” and “Journey of Everyman” (the 12-minute epic included on their debut album) are based on Stephen King’s The Stand and The Talisman.

Though concept albums as a whole, in spite of their enduring popularity with prog fans, can easily result in an overblown mess, Shadow Circus have navigated the potential pitfalls with admirable skill. The finished product is solid and cohesive, striking a fine balance between engaging melodies, fiery instrumental cavalcades and atmospheric, meditative moments. While a good proportion of the album is instrumental, the contrast with the generally catchier vocal parts is handled with a light touch, without creating the dreaded “patchwork” effect that mars many overly ambitious efforts.

Though Shadow Circus’ previous releases have often elicited comparisons to the obligatory Yes, Genesis and ELP (as well as more radio-friendly bands such as Kansas or Styx), On a Dark and Stormy Night develops the strong hard rock vein openly displayed on Whispers and Screams by tracks such as “Captain Trips” and “The Seduction of Harold Lauder”. In fact, the album’s core lies in remarkable synergy between John Fontana’s guitar – capable of sharpness, yet consistently melodic – and David Silver’s commanding keyboards, reminiscent of the epic duels between Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord immortalized by Deep Purple’s In Rock and Machine Head.

On a Dark and Stormy Night is bookended by two longish tracks with a deeply cinematic sweep, both of them referencing some of the main themes of the album. Introduced by ominous sounds of rain and thunder, “Overture” builds up slowly with orchestral grandeur and soaring guitar until it erupts in a wild guitar-organ ride in Deep Purple/Uriah Heep style. The following trio of songs showcase David Bobick’s confident delivery, rooted in AOR and classic rock rather than traditional prog. “Daddy’s Gone” juxtaposes a catchy, almost radio-friendly vein with a wistful note, enhanced by elegant piano and an emotional guitar solo at the end; while the jaunty pace and infectious chorus of “Whatsit, Whosit and Which” lead the way to a powerful Hammond solo. The longest track at over 8 minutes, “Make Way for the Big  Show”- based on a theme composed by drummer Jason Brower – is a stately, melodic piece that combines an almost classical feel with suggestions of vintage Kansas and Supertramp, dominated by Silver’s splendidly flowing piano and Bobick’s soaring vocals.

The 5-minute rollercoaster ride of “Tesseract” is strategically placed in the middle of the album, signaling a shift  into decidedly more adventurous territory. Eerie electronic effects complement echoing, chiming guitar lines that recall Porcupine Tree’s iconic style, then the Deep Purple vibe resurfaces for a fiery guitar-organ duel, adding a hint of Iron Maiden along the way. “Uriel” provides a momentary respite with the lyrical cello and piano at the beginning, then swiftly turns into an upbeat, dance-like tune enlivened by a great vocal performance by Bobick; while the martial, menacing pace of the über-eclectic “Camazotz” morphs first  into a soulful, bluesy chorus, then into a space-rock workout that pushes Matt Masek’s powerful, dynamic bass into the spotlight together with the guitar and keyboards. The lovely “Ixchel” – a soothing moment with a haunting Celtic tinge – wordlessly conveys the healing atmosphere of the titular planet through gentle acoustic guitar, sparse piano and Roo Brower’s ethereal vocalizing. In sharp contrast, closing track “The Battle for Charles Wallace” surges along like a triumphant sci-fi soundtrack, spotlighting the intense keyboard-guitar interplay, while Brower’s imperious drums set the pace; then vocals return, reprising the “Big Show” theme, and an expressive guitar solo wraps up the album.

By an interesting coincidence, On a Dark and Stormy Night’s official release is scheduled just a few days before another adaptation of a well-known young adult novel – J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Though Shadow Circus’ third album will probably not meet with same worldwide success as Peter Jackson’s film, it will probably feature in quite a few “best of 2012” retrospectives. Impressively well-structured and cohesive from both a musical and lyrical point of view, the album shows a band that have finally attained full maturity. Although On a Dark and Stormy Night is quite unlikely to please everyone in the increasingly fragmented prog community – and those of an elitist bent would be well advised to handle with care – those who approve of paying homage to the golden age of prog without sounding like a carbon copy of those modes will find a lot to appreciate. This is also a good “gateway” album for fans of classic and hard rock, and obviously recommended to those who like musical adaptations of literary material.

Links:
http://www.shadowcircusmusic.com/

http://10trecords.com/

http://www.madeleinelengle.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
Now I Know:
1. Fateful Days (7:37)
2. Grounded (5:29)
3. Kites (3:19)
4.  Flight (6:36)

5. Current Events (5:24)
Winds of Change
Heirs
Winds of Change II
Errs

Book of Airs:
6. History (instrumental) (1:22)
7. Heritage (4:39)
8. Experiments (3:12)
9. Floating (instrumental) (1:34)

The Flyer:
10. Annabelle (5:02)
11. The Center (4:39)
12. Fateful Days II (1:16)
13. Hannah (4:00)

Airs:
14. The Great Salt Pond (5:53)
15. Grounded II (5.11)
16. Kites II (2:14)
17. Flight II (5:00)
18. Owen (1:33)

LINEUP:
The Singing Cast:
Paul Adrian Villareal – Owen (1, 18)
Gordon Tittsworth – Owen (2, 5, 7, 8, 11, 15), Derrick (2), The Narrator (7)
Cornelius Kappabani – Owen (4, 13, 17) Craig (4, 5), The Islanders (5)
Tilman Eckelt – Owen (3)
Jan Oving – Owen (10)
Antila Thomsen – Hannah (12, 13, 17)
Floor Kraaijvanger –Annabelle (11, 17), The Narrator (14)

The Spoken Cast:
George Andrade – Owen
Seann Jackson – Craig
Leigh Andrade  – Rachel
Nicolette Collard-Andrade – Annabelle
Tony Kost  – Coleman Burke

The Band:
Steve Brockmann – guitars, bass, keyboards
Jochen Ohl – drums
Dave Meros – bass (10, 17)
Alan Morse – guitar (17)
Christoph “Luppi” Brockmann – bass (14)
Phil Robertson – drums (15)

In spite of a venerable tradition stretching back to the glory days of the late Sixties and early Seventies that gave us iconic works like The Who’s Tommy or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, rock operas seem to have lost quite a bit of their luster in recent times, and acquired instead a rather embarrassing aura of cheesiness. On the other hand, while rock operas may be pretentious by definition, this is not necessarily a bad thing – as long as it is not overdone.

For New England writer George Andrade (who is also the author of the lyrics of The Anabasis’ debut album Back from Being Gone), AIRS – A Rock Opera was the proverbial labour of love, developed over the years, with a storyline (based on the subplot of one of his novels) that dealt with a forgotten episode in the history of his native Rhode Island. The historical fact, however, became a deeply personal story of guilt, loss and ultimate redemption, focused upon the character of Owen Deane and his complex relationship with his family and his troubled past. It was only when, in 2008, George met German multi-instrumentalist and composer Steve Brockmann on a music discussion board, that his dream of turning the story into a full-fledged rock opera became reality.  In the intervening years, Brockmann and Andrade drafted in a number of distinguished musicians and vocalists (as well as family members) to give voice to the various characters. The completed album finally saw the light in the early months of 2012.

The project’s structure, in five movements conceived like the chapters in a novel or the acts in a play, reveals Andrade’s literary background. The story moves from Owen’s return to his island home after six years in prison to his final liberation – symbolized by being lifted high up into the air by the biggest of his father’s kites, made of sails. The Doane family had gathered their knowledge  of wind currents in a book, called the Book of Airs (hence the title), handed down through the generations, and found by Owen in an attic after years of neglect. Andrade’s approach remains endearingly humble, focusing on the characters’ often flawed humanity rather than adopting the grandiose approach of much-touted efforts like Ayreon’s The Human Equation, and avoiding those often badly handled fantasy/supernatural overtones that invariably spell cheesiness.

In order to convey all the different facets of Owen’s personality and his emotional journey, Brockmann and Andrade decided to recruit a range of singers with different vocal characteristics  instead of just one – a choice that, though it might come across at somewhat odd, works surprisingly well. The music is mostly performed by Brockmann himself with the help of drummer Jochen Ohl, though a couple of songs feature contributions from Dave Meros and Alan Morse of Spock’s Beard – not surprisingly, since their shared love for the influential Los Angeles band was the catalyst for Brockmann and Andrade’s meeting.

Like the best rock operas of the past, AIRS encompasses a wide range of musical influences, though it is more of a song-based, AOR/classic rock effort with prog overtones than a full-fledged prog album. The occasional spoken parts inject a dramatic dimension, complemented by the thorough booklet illustrating the story. From the point of view of the average prog listener, the first half of the album is definitely the most interesting, while the second half emphasizes the catchier, airplay-worthy side of the project. Prog-metal fans will surely appreciate the epic sweep and intensity of the Iron Maiden-tinged “Grounded” and “Grounded II”, as well as the heady tempo changes of “Heritage” – all masterfully interpreted by Gordon Tittsworth , vocalist with US band Images of Eden (who also appeared on The Anabasis’ debut). The lovely power ballad “Fateful Days” (later reprised as short instrumental, and as “Owen” at the very close of the album) showcases Paul Adrian Villareal’s confident, melodic tenor, already appreciated in Sun Caged’s The Lotus Effect, further enhanced by Brockmann’s splendid guitar and keyboard work.

Singing is of crucial importance for any rock opera, and on AIRS instrumental tracks only appear in the form of short interludes between the narrative parts. Though the overall quality of the singing is quite high, two vocal performances stand out from the rest. Cornelius Kappabani’s poignant turn as Owen in “Flight” spotlights his rugged baritone, oddly reminiscent of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (and the musical accompaniment also suggests some of the songs on the Seattle band’s debut Ten); while his sinister, menacing Craig in “Current Events” hints at a typical extreme metal growl, and pinpoints the character’s rather unpleasant nature. On the other hand, Floor Kraaijvanger’s stunning, soulful contralto renders Annabelle’s mix of strength and vulnerability in impressive fashion. How refreshing to hear a vocalist that sounds more like Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner than the umpteenth Annie Haslam clone! Finally, young Antila Thomsen’s pure, sweet voice is a perfect fit for Hannah’s wounded innocence.

Clocking in at around 74 minutes, AIRS is definitely not a short album – though, being essentially narrative in nature,  its length can be readily justified. As hinted in the previous paragraphs, it is not an album for those who are looking for cutting-edge material, nor does it pretend to offer anything other than well-executed music with plenty of melody and catchy hooks and choruses, performed by a group of outstanding artists. Indeed, even though the mainstream component is more in evidence than the progressive one, AIRS is a very pleasing listen – especially for those times when more complicated, demanding fare sounds like a slightly exhausting prospect. The genuinely moving storyline is also masterfully conveyed by Andrade’s keen sensibility and skill with words. While AIRS is probably not the right choice for prog elitists and anyone who resents mainstream influences, I can think of much worse ways to spend 74 minutes.

Links:
http://www.airs-arockopera.com/

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Even though it comes slightly late in comparison to other blogs and websites, this retrospective of the past year has been in the pipeline for a while. It is a first time for me, though obviously I have participated in quite a few surveys of this kind in my time as a collaborator of various music sites. However, the year 2011 has been uncommonly rich in excellent releases covering the whole of the progressive rock spectrum – similar in this to 2009 rather than the somewhat lackluster 2010.

My activity as a reviewer has also reached an unprecedented level in the past 12 months, and this (as well as other factors) have allowed me to listen to a wider range and number of new albums than in previous years – though not all of the albums I will be mentioning in the following paragraphs have been the object of a review. I have also been actively involved on the prog scene, attending festivals and gigs and keeping up a steady network of contacts with artists, label owners and fellow reviewers and fans. As the end-of-year statistics point out, the total number of views received by this blog in 2011 exceeded any of the expectations I had at the start of this venture, one and a half years ago.

Obviously, I cannot claim to have heard each and every prog (and related) album released in 2011, and quite of few of the big-name releases of the past year will be conspicuously absent from this overview. I will also refrain from using the usual list format, let alone a “Top 10/20/100” one, in spite of its undeniable popularity with music fans. While I am sure that everyone will be very curious to learn about my # 1 album of 2011,  this curiosity will have to remain unsatisfied, because I hardly ever think in terms of “absolute favourites”, and would be hard put to name my favourite band or artist (or literary author, for that matter). Although most “year in review” pieces do contain a measure of narcissism, the main aim of this post is to stimulate people’s curiosity, as well as debate, rather than turning it into a pointless competition of the “my list is better than yours” sort. We are all adult enough to be aware of the mostly subjective nature of lists, overviews, retrospectives and the like, and hopefully no one here is out to change other people’s minds.

In 2011, the prog “revival” reached unparalleled proportions, bolstered by the many opportunities offered by the Internet. In spite of the loud cries of woe about a supposed “death of the CD”, the number of acts that keep releasing their material in physical format is still quite high, and many of them still choose to put extra care in the artwork and liner notes, with often remarkable results. While the oversaturation of what remains very much a niche market cannot be denied, it is also true that high-quality productions are far from scarce, and the advent of legal streaming sites like the excellent Progstreaming has made it possible for everyone to sample an album before taking the plunge. Unfortunately, the wealth of music available either in digital or physical form does not correspond to higher availability of performing opportunities for those acts who still believe in the power of live performances. The shocking announcement of NEARfest 2011’s cancellation, at the end of March, rocked the prog fandom for months, and even the subsequent announcement of NEARfest Apocalypse for June 2012 did not allay many people’s fears concerning the dwindling range of gigging opportunities, especially here in the US (Europe, in spite of the economic crisis, seems to be doing much better in this respect). The prog community is also splintering in a way that, coupled with a worryingly nostalgic attitude and increasing reluctance to leave one’s own comfort zone, might spell disaster for the future.

2011 marked not only the return of a number of high-profile acts, but also some outstanding recording debuts. If I was forced at gunpoint to choose a favourite, this award would probably go to Texas-based trio Herd of Instinct’s self-titled debut, the first album released on Firepool Records, legendary Californian band Djam Karet’s own label. An almost entirely instrumental effort with the exception of one (gorgeous) song, the Herd’s debut shares this format with another of the year’s milestones, Accordo dei Contrari’s Kublai (whose only song features the incomparable vocals of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair). These two albums, as well as Marbin’s classy Breaking the Cycle and Dialeto’s intriguing Chromatic Freedom, illustrate how the song form can be reinvented in such a way as not to disrupt the flow of the music, incorporating the vocals into a fabric that hinges on complex instrumental interplay.

In the realm of the purely instrumental releases, top marks go to Gösta Berlings Saga’s stunning third album, Glue Works (“Island” alone is worth the price of admission), alongside a trio of AltrOck Productions releases – Ske’s elegant 1000 Autunni (the first solo project by Yugen keyboardist Paolo Botta), Calomito’s intense Cane di Schiena and Camembert’s ebullient Schnörgl Attack – and a couple of outstanding offers from the ever-reliable MoonJune Records, the world-jazz of Slivovitz’s Bani Ahead and the superb testimony of Moraine’s NEARfest 2010 set, Metamorphic Rock. Lovers of creative percussion will surely enjoy Knitting By Twilight’s enchanting Weathering (and possibly check out the Providence collective’s previous releases); while Lunatic Soul’s Impressions (the third solo album by Riverside’s Mariusz Duda) will satisfy those addicted to haunting, ethnic-tinged soundscapes. On a more traditional note, Derek Sherinian’s Oceana presents a solid example of guitar- and keyboard-based progressive fusion, which spotlights ensemble playing rather than individual displays of technical fireworks.

The 2011 releases that feature vocals as an essential part run the gamut from experimental to melody- and song-oriented. Big Block 454’s quirky Bells and Proclamations, and another couple of AltrOck releases – The Nerve Institute’s multifaceted Architect of Flesh-Density, and Dave Willey and Friends’ moving homage to Willey’s father, the beautiful Immeasurable Currents (review forthcoming) – are outstanding instances of the first category. More in a jazz than a rock vein, Boris Savoldelli’s Biocosmopolitan showcases the Italian artist’s superlative vocal technique, all the while offering music that is eminently listenable and upbeat. The ultra-eclectic Zappa homage that is Electric Sorcery’s Believe in Your Own Best Friend throws a lot of diverse influences into its heady mix of outrageous storyline and constantly challenging music. On the other hand, Man On Fire’s Chrysalis is a blueprint for modern “crossover prog”, seamlessly blending the accessibility of Eighties-style quality pop with some seriously intricate instrumental work; while fellow 10T Records band Mars Hollow make a true quantum leap with their second album, World in Front of Me, which follows in the footsteps of early Yes in terms of successfully marrying gorgeous pop melodies with instrumental flights of fancy. However, the crown for 2011 in the realm of “mainstream” progressive rock goes to Phideaux’s magnificent Snowtorch, an incredibly dense concentrate of haunting vocals, memorable tunes and thought-provoking lyrical content.

Some landmark albums released during the past year are at least tangentially related to progressive rock. In all probability, my personal award of most played album of the year should go to Black Country Communion’s 2, a more mature, well-rounded effort than its barnstorming predecessor. Thanks to the Glenn Hughes-led quartet, classic hard rock is undergoing a renaissance, with a recognizable yet subtly updated sound. BCC guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s latest opus, Dust Bowl, while not revolutionary in any sense, features scintillating guitar and soulful vocals in its modern treatment of time-honoured blues modes. In a completely different vein, Kate Bush’s ninth studio album (not counting the rather controversial Director’s Cut, released a few months earlier), 50 Words for Snow, shows an artist that still possesses the ability and the power to surprise her followers. English contemporary classical ensemble North Sea Radio Orchestra’s I A Moon (one of the year’s biggest discoveries for me, thanks to a friend’s recommendation) offer a mesmerizing blend of Old-World folk, avant-garde and academic chamber music that is, in many ways, much more progressive than the slew of cookie-cutter acts so revered in prog circles.

Some other albums, while not quite making the cut, have attracted enough of my interest, and are very much worth checking out: AltrOck releases Sanhedrin’s Ever After, Abrete Gandul’s Enjambre Sismico, Humble Grumble’s Flanders Fields, Factor Burzaco’s II and October EquusSaturnal, Ozric TentaclesPaper Monkeys, CopernicusCipher and Decipher, and From.uz’s Quartus Artifactus; for the more conservatively-minded listeners, The AnabasisBack From Being Gone, La Coscienza di Zeno’s self-titled debut, and TCP’s Fantastic Dreamer also deserve a mention. There have also been a number of albums that, even though heard superficially, and mainly in the final weeks of the year, have left enough of an impression to make me want to write about them at some point – chief among those, Discipline’s To Shatter All Accord.

As I anticipated at the opening of this essay, my readers will be sure to notice some glaring omissions from this overview. The most noticeable ones  are probably Jakszyk Fripp CollinsA Scarcity of Miracles and Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning – undoubtedly two of the most highly rated releases of the year. Unfortunately, in spite of repeated listens, neither album has yet clicked with me, even if I clearly perceive their very high standard of quality. Though I hesitate to use the term “disappointment”, The DecemberistsThe King Is Dead did not resonate with me in the same way as its predecessors; its songs, however, acquired a new dimension when performed live.

Some other high-profile 2011 releases have failed to register on my personal meter. Such is the case of Opeth’s Heritage, Karmakanic’s In a Perfect World, and White Willow’s Terminal Twilight – all excellent albums, but lacking in that undefinable “something” that would kindle my enthusiasm. Others (such as Wobbler’s acclaimed Rites at Dawn or Glass Hammer’s Cor Cordium), though in no way displeasing to the ear, are too staunchly, unabashedly retro to truly impress,. As to YesFly from Here (possibly the year’s most eagerly awaited release), I am not ashamed to admit that I have refused to listen to it – even though I own most of the band’s back catalogue, and their earlier albums get regular spins in my player. With up-and-coming acts struggling to get their music across, I believe that spending too much time on the interpersonal dynamics of a band that do not particularly need to be supported is quite detrimental to the scene as a whole.

Some other albums that have been very positively received (at least by part of the fandom) have escaped my attention completely, in some cases for lack of interest (Dream Theater’s A Dramatic Turn of Events), or simply for lack of listening opportunities (Agents of Mercy’s The Black Forest, Mastodon’s The Hunter, Van Der Graaf Generator’s A Grounding in Numbers, The Tangent’s COMM, among others). Hopefully I will manage to hear at least some of those discs in the near future, and possibly write reviews of them. With the overwhelming quantity of music released in the past year, the very concrete danger of getting burned out (and therefore becoming unable to appreciate anything at all) is always lurking around the corner.

2011 has also been an outstanding year for concerts, as witnessed by the live reviews I have published in these pages. Besides seeing my beloved Blue Oyster Cult not once but twice (after a 25-year wait), I was treated to an outstanding edition of ProgDay, a stunning “goodbye” performance by Phideaux at the Orion Studios, the electrifying Two of a Perfect Trio tour, and the highly successful one-off CuneiFest (to name but a few). While the NEARfest cancellation cast a pall on the prog scene for some time, bands and artists are still doing their best to bring their music on stage for the benefits of those fans who still love to attend live shows.

Unlike other sites, I will refrain from mentioning “prog personalities”, or awarding any other such dubious prizes. As I previously stated, the whole point of this piece is to encourage people to delve into the abundant musical output of the past year, especially in regard to those lesser-known acts that deserve more exposure. With a few highly-awaited releases already in the pipeline for the coming months, it remains to be seen if 2012 will be able to keep up with its predecessor. On behalf of the survival of non-mainstream music, we all hope this will be the case.

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SETLIST:
The Red and the Black
The Golden Age of Leather
ME 262
Burnin’ for You
Cities on Flame
Harvest Moon
Black Blade
The Vigil
Buck’s Boogie
Last Days of May
Godzilla
Don’t Fear the Reaper

Encore:
Hot Rails to Hell

The saying “feast or famine” comes to mind when referring to Blue Öyster Cult live appearances, at least in my particular case. After having missed the band countless times in the past few years, finally in 2011 I had the opportunity to see them not once, but twice – a rare occurrence indeed.  The 25-year wait had wetted my appetite, and, not surprisingly, my review of their February 12 gig at Baltimore’s Bourbon Street was coached in glowing terms. In spite of  the loss of their status as one of the biggest draws in the world of “stadium rock”, accompanied by constant line-up changes,  the legendary outfit could still deliver the goods – and then some.

This time around, the concert was scheduled to take place in a real, old-fashioned theatre, one of the most popular institutions in the Washington DC metro area – a handsome Art Deco building that has been providing musical entertainment to capital dwellers for over 70 years. While the State Theatre has frequently hosted BÖC performances in the past, their last appearance there dated back from early 2008 – meaning that those who had not wanted to travel to Maryland to catch them in the past three years were definitely chomping at the bit. The theatre – a roomy, white-walled, high-ceilinged space with about 200 comfortable seats in the balcony, a small standing area in front of the stage, and a number of dining tables at the main level for those who want to combine the pleasures of music with those of food. Indeed, the smell of chili wafting upwards from the dining area and the happy noise of the diners made for a rather distinctive experience. With well-stocked bars and spacious common areas, the theatre allows for social interaction – unlike the average music club, where the dim lighting and loud volume of the background music often get in the way of conversation.

Even if for BÖC the days of  massive, state-of-the-art light shows and special effects are gone, to paraphrase one of their songs they certainly do not go through the motions whenever they are on stage. The attendance reflected their reputation as one of their best live acts around – even if  the lack of a record deal has prevented them from releasing any new material following 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror. For a long-time BÖC fan like me, it was heartwarming to see people of all ages flock to the State Theatre. A guy sitting in the balcony, not far from us, had brought his young son (a boy of around 7-8 years of age), and there were also a lot of women – many more that at the average progressive rock concert. Anticipation ran high among the crowd, and the short opening set by six-piece Midnight Hike – an enthusiastic though not particularly impressive local outfit, very much in the alt-rock vein – was greeted with polite indifference. I could not help being a bit jealous of the lucky denizens of the New York area that, the night before, had been able to witness a double bill that also involved Uriah Heep, another legendary band that can still deliver in spades.

After the opening set, the stage was rearranged in short order, and at around 9 p.m. a volley of rather scary electronics (referencing some of the band’s best-known material) signaled the entrance of the long-awaited heroes of the evening. This time, charismatic frontman Eric Bloom was very much on board – relieving the burden that had been placed on Buck Dharma on the Baltimore date – and in fine shape, his witty banter (which included a couple of fleeting but rather barbed political references) adding spice to the musical offer. Bassist Rudy Sarzo, on the other hand, was engaged with Dio Disciples (who were playing the last date of their US tour), and was replaced by an old acquaintance of BÖC fans, Emmy winner Jon Rogers, who cut a dashing figure with his bobbed silver hair, dark shades and bright red bass guitar.

The almost 90-minute set included the inevitable “Godzilla”, “Hot Rails to Hell” and “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, which are always great to hear in a live setting. However, as much as I love BÖC’s out-and-out rockers, I found the central part of the concert, dedicated to some of their longer, more complex songs, especially satisfying. Besides the UFO-themed “The Vigil”, with its enthralling blend of the melodic and the sinister, and the deceptively catchy “Harvest Moon”, with its suggestion of disturbing Stephen King-like happenings in a quiet country town (perfectly rendered by the intense guitar bridge), we were treated to rousing versions of the towering biker epic “The Golden Age of Leather” and the BÖC-meets-Hawkwind space saga “Black Blade” – inspired by the Elric of Melniboné tales by British fantasy/sci-fi author Michael Moorcock.

Though, the set was not as Buck-centric as in Baltimore, when the guitarist had had to perform Eric Bloom’s role as well as his own, the pocket-sized six-stringer delighted the audience with his stunning, yet remarkably understated skills. The magnificent coda to “Cities on Flame” erupted after the audience had been teased with a series false starts; while the heart-stopping second half of the solo of “Last Days of May” – played at almost impossible speed – contrasted Buck Dharma’s cool, collected approach with Richie Castellano’s textbook-shredder performance (announced by Bloom with his customary deadpan humour). After Castellano had thrown the expected guitar-hero shapes and extracted all sorts of wailing sounds from his guitar, Buck unleashed his full firepower with effortless grace. Bloom and Castellano alternated behind the keyboard rig, with a particularly impressive organ run bolstering Buck’s guitar exertions in the splendid instrumental tour de force of “Buck’s Boogie”. While Buck’s politely melodic voice is still perfectly in command, Bloom’s gruff bellow has lost a bit of his edge: however, his delivery on the dramatic “Black Blade” was as effective as ever.

Though BÖC delivered a top-notch performance, the quality of the sound was somewhat disappointing, and took some of the punch out of the guitar-based songs, such as opener “The Red and The Black”, while the drums were occasionally too loud in the mix. Though I was elated by the inclusion of some of my personal favourites, I agreed with my husband when he stated that he had found the Baltimore gig more involving. I would also be happy if the band considered delving deeper into their peerless back catalogue, including some of their more complex, multilayered songs in their sets and retiring the likes of “Godzilla” or “Burnin’ for You” at least for a while. On the whole, however, in spite of this minor quibbling, it was an evening of great music from one of the greatest bands in the history of rock. It is to be hoped that their recording deal woes will end as soon as possible, allowing them to release some long-overdue new material.

Links:
http://www.blueoystercult.com

 


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SETLIST:
Black Country
One Last Soul
Crossfire
Save Me
The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall
Beggarman
Faithless
Song of Yesterday
The Outsider
Cold
The Ballad of John Henry
I Can See Your Spirit
Sista Jane

————–

Man In the Middle
Burn

Even though this blog is mostly focused on progressive rock in all its forms, I am, and always have been, a fan of good, old-fashioned hard rock. As much as I love the sophistication and intellectual appeal of prog, there is something about the powerful wail of a cranked-up electric guitar, or the equally powerful roar of an iron-lunged vocalist that appeals to both the physical and the emotional side of my nature. It is no wonder, then, to find an album like Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell in my personal Top 10 – and no wonder either that a band like Black Country Communion, in the ten months since the release of their debut album, has immediately become such a firm favourite that both their CDs get almost daily spins in our player.

When the band’s formation was first announced, the presence of Glenn Hughes alone would have been enough to attract my interest, as he has been my favourite vocalist for the past ten years or so, even over such luminaries as Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillan. The first time I saw him perform live, at London’s Mean Fiddler club in October 2003, as soon as he started to sing my jaw dropped on the floor and stayed there for the whole duration of the concert. I have also been following his career closely, and acquired quite a few of the numerous albums he has released over the years – including the near-legendary Hughes-Thrall album (originally released in 1982), and his collaborations with another rock legend, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi.

However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer magnificence that is Black Country Communion.  Even though supergroups can often be rather hit-and-miss affairs that hardly ever last beyond one album, scuppered by ego clashes or by just failing to deliver the musical goods, BCC are all set to become the glaring exception to the rule. While snobs might superciliously label them as a retro or nostalgia act, accusing them of rehashing old modes of musical expression, or cashing in on some members’ erstwhile fame, in my humble view they possess the same classic, timeless quality of those dishes or items of clothing that never go out of fashion. There is something deeply comforting in the knowledge that, on a music scene all too often dominated by fads, where most of the offer seems to be little more than a triumph of style over substance, there are still artists that choose to play the music they want, and use the same strategies as the trailblazers of the late Sixties – writing brilliant material, releasing albums every few months or so (instead of keeping fans waiting for years), and – most importantly – performing their music on stage, where it really belongs.

Indeed, while  probably a good half of current prog releases are studio-only projects (sometimes carried out through the Internet), Black Country Communion’s music begs to be played in front of an audience. While each of the four members could live comfortably for the rest of their lives without having ever to tread the boards of a stage again, seeing them perform on the evening of June 19  confirmed that this is an outfit tailor-made for raising hell in a live setting. The 9.30 Club – a no-frills venue situated in a slightly seedy (though full of character) neighbourhood of Washington DC, with no seating except for a handful of bar stools, a balcony and a stage raised high enough to make it visible even to small people like me – provided the perfect locale for a profoundly satisfying evening of loud, passionate, flawlessly performed, bluesy hard rock – the kind of entertainment that leaves you physically drained because you have been standing up for over three hours in close proximity to other equally excited fans, dancing, yelling, singing along and pumping your fists in the air, while being hit by the full force of the sound blasting out of a stack of Marshall amps. Indeed, quite a change from being comfortably seated in a theatre, listening intently to the elaborate musical concoctions of your average prog band…

The sizable crowd was a mix of the older and the younger generations; some audience members had brought their children with them, as living proof of BCC’s timeless appeal – unlike, I am sorry to say, far too many stuck-in-a-time-warp progressive rock acts. I had noticed the same thing at the Blue Oyster Cult show in Baltimore, back in February – there is a reason why such bands are often  called ‘classic rock’. When we got in, securing a nice position a few feet from the stage, the anticipation was palpable. At 8 p.m., the lights dimmed, and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” started blaring from the PA, eliciting a round of excited yells from the audience. A bit clichéd maybe, but a fitting introduction to one of the very best concerts I have been fortunate to attend.

The concert was the last date of the band’s first US tour – expected, as Glenn Hughes repeated on several occasions, to ‘build a foundation’ for a band that aims to fill a void in the current music market – judging from the comments gathered around the Web, an unqualified success in spite of its short duration. With no opening act, the audience was allowed to concentrate completely on BCC’s show, introduced by the formidable one-two punch of “Black Country” and “One Last Soul” (from the band’s debut album). As expected, Glenn Hughes totally owned the stage, wielding a nicely battered, vintage red and white bass, and displaying a level of energy that many people half his age (he will turn 60 at the end of August)  would kill for. As soon as he opened his mouth to belt out the first lines of the pulsating anthem “Black Country”, there was no doubt that he amply deserved his nickname of ‘The Voice of Rock”.  Most of those who have been lucky to see him live will wonder how those golden pipes of his can withstand the strain of singing with that kind of intensity night after night. Though some people cannot warm to his voice, and are annoyed by what they perceive as over-the-top vocal acrobatics, I am happy to report that he has toned things down considerably, his voice adapting to the music rather than the other way around.

Indeed, BCC is not a Glenn Hughes vehicle, but very much of a tight unit in which everyone works towards the final result. No one with a large ego would share vocal duties with someone as gifted as Joe Bonamassa (whose voice sounds at times like a higher-pitched version of Paul Rodgers). Glenn is also a fine lyricist, capable of penning standard rock anthems as well as deeply emotional pieces, such as the ones dealing with those dark years when he came very close to self-destruction. For somebody who has stared in the face of death, and lost many a good friend in recent years (including his childhood friend and fellow Trapeze member, Mel Galley), he is in superb shape, and his positive attitude  to life is to be commended in an age when people seem to enjoy wallowing in negativity. He is also one of those rare singers whose voice has actually improved with age, in spite of his struggle with various addictions. While in his Trapeze and Deep Purple days Glenn’s voice had occasionally sounded a tad shrill, now it has acquired a depth and versatility that, coupled with his awesome range, allow him to sing just about anything with stunning results.

Though they have been jokingly called “Purple Led” or “Deep Zeppelin”, BCC actually do not sound anything like Hughes’ former band. On the other hand, the Led Zeppelin comparisons are certainly more appropriate: Joe Bonamassa is the 21st century’s answer to Jimmy Page, and has also stepped into the void left by Gary Moore’s unexpected passing in February 2011. In a scene riddled with shredders, Bonamassa’s brilliantly emotional playing and considerable songwriting skills (as shown by “The Battle of Hadrian’s Wall” and “Song of Yesterday”, the latter possibly the highlight of the whole set) are a breath of fresh air, proving once again that great music does not necessarily have to break new ground each and every time. On stage he employed a nice array of guitars, including a double-necked one for the wistful, folk-tinged “The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall” (stirring memories of the immortal “The Battle of Evermore”), and a Flying V for the two encores – as well as a spot of Theremin towards the end of the set.

Keyboard maestro Derek Sherinian plays an even larger role on stage than he does on record, putting to rest any allegations of BCC being a power trio with just a token helping of keyboards. His maple-encased Hammond B-3 provided that indispensable background rumble (though at times it tended to overwhelm the vocals); he also performed the only solo spot of the evening. Jason Bonham pounded away at his rather understated kit (especially if you are used to the likes of Mike Portnoy) with enthusiasm and precision – clearly a very capable drummer in the no-nonsense mould of his father or Cozy Powell, and perfectly suited to the band’s sound, which does not need fancy flourishes, but rather solid, powerful time-keeping. Until halfway through the set, both him and Sherinian looked dead serious, almost grim – but then both of their faces lit up when Hughes heaped lavish (and clearly heartfelt) praise on his fellow band members. The deep personal bond between the four players is clearly the secret to BCC’s success, and bodes very well for the band’s future endeavours.

Besides 8 out of 11 tracks from the band’s second album (released only a few days before the gig),  the stunning two-hour set featured a selection of songs from their debut, the gorgeous, slow-burning Bonamassa composition “The Ballad of John Henry” (from his 2009 album of the same title), and a blistering rendition of Deep Purple’s “Burn” as a final encore, with its iconic Hammond riff and Hughes screaming his heart out as he did almost 40 years ago at the legendary California Jam. Though I was a bit disappointed about the absence of personal favourites such as “Medusa” or “Down Again”, BCC’s performance was so exhilarating that it left no room for minor quibbles. In spite of the feeling of physical exhaustion and the ringing in our ears, we were left wanting more, and the promise of another US tour next year filled us with joy and anticipation. Clichéd as it may sound, Black Country Communion have really put the “super” back in “supergroup”. Long may they reign!

 

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SETLIST:
July, July!
Down by the Water
Calamity Song
Rise to Me
The Bagman’s Gambit
Annan Water
Won’t Want for Love (Margaret In The Taiga)
The Crane Wife 3
Don’t Carry It All
All Arise!
The Rake’s Song
Rox in the Box
O Valencia!
The Perfect Crime #2
This Is Why We Fight

January Hymn
When U Love Somebody
The Chimbley Sweep

June Hymn

The arrival of warmer weather heralds the start of the big concert season in the northeast US, taking full advantage of the many capacious outdoor venues of the region, as well as the usual indoor venues of every size that are available throughout the year. Obviously, concerts are also held during the colder months, but especially in the summer the offer of live music is so plentiful that even the most dedicated fans must pick and choose what gigs to attend – unless they have an endless supply of time and money.

According to our original plan, at the end of this week my husband and I would have headed out to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for our third NEARfest. As most of my readers know all too well, the event was not meant to be, but we found ways to fill the gap in the month of June, picking and choosing among the vast range of live gigs scheduled in our area. Our choice fell on two bands that, in their own very different ways, have become mainstays of our listening routine: The Decemberists and Black Country Communion – one an established outfit with six studio albums under their belt, the other  the latest supergroup to take the rock scene by storm. Neither of those bands, strictly speaking, are ‘prog’, though they have quite a few points of contact with the genre, and both have often been covered by magazines and websites geared towards prog fans.

We had been so lucky as to see The Decemberists for the first time on their celebrated 2009 tour in support of their fifth studio album, The Hazards of Love, a monumental achievement that won them many fans among the often rather conservative ranks of prog lovers. On that occasion, they were joined by Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the two amazing female vocalists that had guested on the album – which was performed in its entirety, much to the audience’s ecstatic reaction. On the other hand, their latest recording effort, The King Is Dead – a slice of song-oriented Americana, offering very little of the intriguing eclecticism of its predecessors, released at the very beginning of 2011 – had left me somewhat cold. We were nonetheless delighted to learn that they would be playing the same venue as two years ago – the quaintly bucolic Merriweather Post Pavilion, a largish outdoor theatre deep in the Maryland woods, almost a stone’s throw from Baltimore.

Such rustic surroundings seem to be the perfect complement for the warmly engaging music of the Portland-based quintet, a seamless blend of articulate, often challenging lyrics and eclectic music rich with diverse influences. In sharp contrast with the suffocatingly humid heat of the previous week, the cool, dry weather of the evening of June 13 made being outdoors a real pleasure – to the extent that some of the people sitting on the lawn rather than under the pavilion were longing for warmer clothing. Our excellent seats allowed us a great view of the stage, and the two big screens placed on either side were a boon to those who were sitting at the back. If compared to the prog gigs and festivals that we usually attend, the nearly sellout crowd was much younger on average, with a definitely higher proportion of women to men. Even if, in my personal view, The King Is Dead is probably be the weakest of the band’s releases, it has undoubtedly been a relatively major commercial breakthrough for them, exposing them to a much larger audience. It also shows a band refusing to get stuck in a rut or taken for granted, and more than willing to surprise their audience with bold changes of direction.

After  a short opening set by supporting band Best Coast, a rather nondescript, female-fronted indie/garage rock outfit who nonetheless seemed to have their own loyal following, The Decemberists came on stage at 9 p.m., greeted deliriously by the crowd. Stripped down to their basic line-up of Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, Nate Query and John Moen, with bluegrass artist Sara Watkins standing in for Jenny Conlee (who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer), they delivered a strong, invigorating set, mainly revolving around The King Is Dead (performed almost in its entirety, with the exception of one track), but also including a number of songs from their back catalogue. According to Meloy, the songs on the setlist had been chosen for their affinity with the summer season – the show opening with the infectious “July! July!” (from their 2006 album The Crane Wife), and  closing with “June Hymn” (from The King Is Dead), performed as a second and final encore.

Though, from a prog standpoint, The Decemberists’ music is not as mind-blowingly complex as the genre’s most beloved bands’ – relying as it does on conventional song structures and the occasional catchy hook – there is no denying that the band’s members know their business, and then some. Watching bassist Nate Query swing a double bass around with the nonchalant ease of a consummate old-school jazz player, drummer John Moen add subtle, intriguing percussive touches, or guitarist Chris Funk wring poignantly wailing sounds from his lap steel guitar, was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Sara Watkins (a recording artist in her own right, and already part of the tour prior to the announcement of Conlee’s illness) is also an outstanding multi-instrumentalist, though favouring the fiddle rather than the keyboards. She is also a fine singer, as proved by solo performance of “Won’t Want for Love” – though her voice has more of a gutsy rock feel than Becky Stark’s ethereal soprano, featured  in the song’s original version. Indeed, while the distinctive rumble of Conlee’s Hammond organ may have been missing, Watkins’ talented contribution complemented the alt.country slant of the newer material quite perfectly.

In spite of his nerdy, bookish appearance (this time around tempered by a full beard, which made him look somewhat older and more rugged), Colin Meloy is an outstanding frontman, not afraid to dive into the audience together with his acoustic guitar to be hauled back on stage by the crowd during the rousing encore of “The Chimbley Sweep”, and not averse to peppering his between-song banter with bits of pointed political commentary. While his voice may be an acquired taste, it fits the band’s music to a T, and his witty raconteur personality is undeniably pivotal to their appeal. Furthermore, he is an extremely versatile interpreter, conveying a sense of genuine menace in the stunning rendition of “The Rake’s Song” (one of the highlights of the show, drenched in dramatic red light, and enhanced by Sara Watkins and Chris Funk’s energetic drum-banging), while pleading heartbreakingly in “Annan Water”, and orchestrating the crowd’s enthusiastic response in the eminently catchy “O Valencia!” and “The Perfect Crime # 2”.

As I previously pointed out, I was not as impressed by The King Is Dead as I had been by The Decemberists’ other albums, which all get regular spins in our player. However, the same songs that had sounded a tad flat and uninvolving on CD came alive on stage, and acquired an appealing edge that the polished production did not always adequately get across. For all the polite, somewhat highbrow mien of their music, once on stage they rock with an endearingly old-fashioned intensity, getting the crowd to sing along, clap, dance and wave their arms in tried and true rock’n’roll fashion. Even in the absence of elaborate trappings and gimmicks, and relying only on a good light show and their own stage skills, The Decemberists are one of the most entertaining live acts on the current scene, capable of imbuing their musical output with a rare sense of warmth and genuine emotion. The more listener-friendly approach displayed on The King Is Dead  may have attracted a younger, hipper audience, but this has not turned them into one of those countless “here today, gone tomorrow” bands. With a solid catalogue, a cohesive, highly accomplished line-up and a great songwriter and frontman in Colin Meloy, The Decemberists are a force to be reckoned with, and –  regardless of those pesky tags and labels – a band firmly rooted in that great rock tradition that prog sometimes seems to have  forgotten.

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Walk On Alone (12:31)
2. Voices (6:24)
3. Weapon (6:52)
4. What I Have Done (5:56)
5. Mind Over Matter (2:38)
6. Prelude (1:48)
7. World in Front of Me (11:19)

LINEUP:
John Baker – lead and backing vocals, guitars, guitar synthesizer, mandolin
Kerry Chicoine – bass, backing vocals
Steve Mauk – keyboards, backing vocals
Jerry Beller – drums, percussion, backing vocals

A quartet of experienced musicians based in Los Angeles, Mars Hollow were brought to the attention of progressive rock fans by the release of their self-titled debut album, almost one year ago. The highly awaited disc did not disappoint, and the band were immediately invited to perform at the 2010 edition of ProgDay, where I had the pleasure to meet them and see them on stage. In spite of the dreaded word ‘hype’ rearing its ugly head, or of those who may point out that Mars Hollow’s music does not really bring anything new to the prog table, and that it is also too poppy for its own good, the band’s dedication to music-making is undeniable, as is their professional attitude.

These days it is certainly not usual for artists to release an album a year, and long waits are often in order for fans of any musical genre. This seems to be even truer in the world of prog, when it is not uncommon for acts to let at least three years pass between releases – mainly due to those practical issues that I have often mentioned in my writing. Mars Hollow, however, chose to buck the trend by going into the studio a mere two months after their successful ProgDay appearance – with a well-respected musician and producer like Billy Sherwood (of Yes, Conspiracy and Circa fame) at the helm, and a strong commitment to delivering the goods in an even more impressive manner than their debut. Needless to say, the band’s sophomore effort – heralded by another prestigious live appearance, this time at the 2011 edition of ROSfest – was even more highly awaited than their debut, though the anticipation was tinged with the kind of anxiety engendered by far too many examples of anything but lucky second times.

While Mars Hollow, with refreshing honesty, have never claimed to be purveyors of daringly cutting-edge music (as is the case with some acts that, in my opinion, are nowhere as consistently good), World in Front of Me rises way above any considerations of innovation, progression, or whatever you choose to call it. Even though their self-titled debut was a hugely enjoyable slice of catchy, melodic prog with modern production values and all-round excellent performances, World in Front of Me is, simply put, pure gold – an album possessed of an almost timeless quality, a flawlessly executed homage to the best that progressive rock has to offer that, in many ways, transcends the very definition of prog. Odd as it may sound, I would compare it with another recent release that has left a lasting impression on me – Black Country Communion’s debut. Now, while the latter are definitely more of a classic hard rock act than a progressive one, their first album is also one of those very rare efforts that manage to reach a very high standard of quality without reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

Clocking in at a perfect 47 minutes, World in Front of Me is bookended by two 10-minute-plus tracks which – like “Dawn of Creation” on their debut album – eschew the tired, worn-out template of the ultra-convoluted (and ultimately patchy) ‘epic’ in favour of an orgy of enchanting melodies, splendid vocal parts, and scintillating instrumental interplay. With consummate sense of balance, the five tracks sandwiched between those two display a variety of moods, from the melancholy, mainly acoustic “Mind Over Matter” to the jagged, somewhat tense “Voices” – shorter, yet no less dense and involved. To use a cliché, Mars Hollow are like a well-oiled machine, their individual skills honed by years of experience and a genuine love of their craft, creating layer upon layer of lovely sounds that, while sustaining that uplifting quality so evident in their debut, are tinged with a hint of gentle sadness suggesting the wisdom that comes with maturity. And mature is probably one of the most effective descriptions for World in Front of Me: though lacking anything as infectious as “Midnight”, it is hard not to find yourself singing along the title-track or “Walk on Alone”, as well as listening raptly to the seamless ebb and flow of the instrumental passages.

As was the case with the band’s debut, World in Front of Me is strongly keyboard-based, with John Baker’s guitar used in a supporting (though indispensable) role rather than as the star of the show. However, Sherwood’s crystal-clear production has given the rhythm section a much more prominent role. Jerry Beller’s dynamic yet sophisticated drumming is not merely propulsive, but adds a lot of dimension to the music, sometimes following the melody laid out by the keyboards and guitar, sometimes playing in a sort of counterpoint; while Kerry Chicoine’s rumbling, pneumatic Rickenbacker bursts out of the densely woven fabric of the sound in a way rarely heard since Chris Squire introduced his ‘lead bass’ approach to the instrument. Indeed, Yes might be mentioned as probably the biggest influence on this album – though, rather than the toweringly unapproachable Yes of Close to the Edge fame, Mars Hollow bring to mind the band that, with their first three albums, gave the music world a textbook-perfect example of contamination between classic pop-rock and the fledgling progressive trend.

Steve Mauk handles his array of keyboards with impressive aplomb, supported by the relentless work of the rhythm section. While the gorgeously wistful, rippling piano piece that is “Prelude” puts him directly in the spotlight, his lush yet sedate contribution to the overall sound perfectly complements John Baker’s understated guitar work and commanding vocal performance. As I stated in my review of Mars Hollow’s debut, Baker’s voice – a soaring, admirably controlled tenor reminiscent of a smoother Geddy Lee, with touches of early Steve Walsh – may not be to everyone’s taste, but his handling of the somewhat downbeat, meditative lyrics (mostly focusing on the end of a relationship) is nothing short of masterful, and the harmony sections suggest the effortless grace of vintage Yes and, occasionally, even Gentle Giant.

As regards the individual tracks, opener “Walk On Alone” and the title-track are classic prog heaven, blending memorable melodies – catchy, though in a very subtle fashion, and dispensing with a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure – with instrumental passages of stunning elegance and understated complexity. While the former number is more airy and relaxed, the latter seems to slowly build up to a climax, with a sense of tension occasionally surfacing. “Voices” and “Weapon”, though shorter, are conceived along similar lines, successfully merging haunting vocal sections with intense instrumental passages; while “What I Have Done”, with its more streamlined approach and catchy harmony vocals, comes closest to the spirit of Mars Hollow’s debut, though without the bold airplay potential of songs like “Midnight” or “Eureka”.

Down to its stylish cover photo, depicting the stark beauty of the Death Valley desert, World in Front of Me is a supremely elegant album that succeeds in the task of combining accessibility with dazzling technical proficiency and a genuine feeling of warmth. Let us forget for a moment about ‘retro-prog’ or any such ultimately pointless labels. Mars Hollow’s intention was never to revolutionize the music world, but rather to produce an album that people will enjoy, cherish, and possibly relate to in terms of their own experience. A pleasure from start to finish, this is definitely a very serious contender for album of the year.

Links:
http://www.marshollow.com/

http://www.10trecords.com/

 

 

 

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