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New Jersey band 3RDegree have been around for close to two decades, but only in recent years have they come to the attention of the progressive rock community. The 2008 release of their third studio album, Narrow-Caster, followed by their appearance at ProgDay 2009, paved the way for the extremely positive feedback garnered by their fourth recording effort, The Long Division, definitely one of the strongest releases of 2012. With their distinctive sound, effortlessly blending catchy hooks and gorgeous vocal harmonies with elaborate arrangements and plenty of technical fireworks in a song-based context, 3RDegree offer a refreshingly modern take on the old prog warhorse that may appeal even to those who find the genre too pretentious for its own good. The band members – Robert James Pashman, George Dobbs, Patrick Kliesch, Eric Pseja and Aaron Nobel – have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the past, the present and the future of the band.

Your biography is exhaustively detailed on your website, so I will limit myself to a couple of questions on the subject. What led you to disbanding after Human Interest Story, and why did you decide to give it another go (which, by the way, seems to have become increasingly common among prog bands)? 

George:  We saw our differences more than we saw our similarities.  As for the re-formation, Rob had a vision, which expanded as time went on. I didn’t have anything going on to speak of at the time, and I liked the new songs Rob and Pat were writing, so that’s how I ended up back in the fold.

Robert: We got frustrated with “the scene” and we were in the New York City area! It feels funny complaining about the lack of our ability to create a fan base when there’s such a population center surrounding us, but getting the sort of music we were doing in front of the people who like it was killing us.  The Internet hadn’t taken hold yet as a music marketplace, and the festival scene was not known to us, so we were playing aimlessly all over NJ and NY.  The only thing we did that was a bit inventive was that we befriended a few other prog bands, and I would present a group of us to bookers and club owners.  All those bands are now gone, although one of them was You Were Spiraling, fronted by Tom Brislin, who went on to play with Yes, Renaissance and Camel, and is now a solo artist.

Now something about your individual background as musicians. How did you start playing music, and what other experiences did you have prior to joining 3RDegree?

Eric:  I’ve been singing since I was about eight, first in my church choir, then in my high school madrigal choir.  I also landed singing leads in my high school musicals for all four years, which helped me to get comfortable with performance.  Also in high school, I taught myself to play guitar.  In college, I learned bass guitar and pursued a music minor.

George: When I was 14, I had these cool friends who had all been playing music for years. It was sort of contagious, and eye-opening. As for everything else leading up to and inclusive of my first round with 3RDegree, I have wished it to the corn-field (reference: Twilight Zone).

Patrick: I started in fourth grade playing clarinet for the school band and then I took up guitar in seventh grade. I had a couple of high school bands where we did mostly Rush and Yes covers. 3RDegree was the first “real” band that I had joined.

Robert: I took piano lessons when I was 12 and continued to 17. I then got a portable recording studio and got lessons on that instead of piano from my piano teacher Angelo Panetta, whom I then started working as Assistant Engineer for, followed by Pat when I left college.  Angelo now mixes all our albums.  In junior year of high school I taught myself bass and started a power trio where I sang, played keys and bass doing Rush, Genesis and other things like that.  3RDegree was started out of the ashes of that band in 1990 with my meeting with Rob Durham, our drummer until 2008.

Aaron: I started playing drums when I was nine and did the usual routine of playing in the school orchestra. I had an aunt that had great taste in music and made me tapes I used to play along to-along with the rock radio du jour: Dixie Dregs, Permanent Waves/Signals-era Rush, Abacab-era Genesis, Van Halen, Men At Work, The Police. In high school I played in basement bands with classmates and was a bit more advanced than the guys I was playing with… We’d end up playing crude Metallica and Slayer covers. After graduating I started taking private lessons mostly focusing on technique, jazz, funk, reading. Around that time I tried out for a locally successful metal band, Know Idea, and ended up landing the gig. I was the very green 18-year old among semi-seasoned mid-20’s guys, we had full lights, pyro, professional sound system, box truck, roadies. We were very briefly signed to a subsidiary of Warner. The week after the band broke up I got a call from my step brother, who was a professional musician, to join his keyboard based funk project. Best thing about that was he was the engineer at Star Castle studios so we had a wicked rehearsal space there and free recording. I also played in a progressive rock trio a la Rush called Showcase with two local prodigies – my recordings with them happen to be among my favorite. I was restless and decided to take a stab at music school, auditioned for Miami U and New School – decided it wasn’t worth the money. I ended up doing studio work for a local rock band and playing in a desert rock band a la Kyuss called Amnesty Underground . Things were great music wise, but, still restless, I moved to Orlando, did some convention band work, some original music, tried out for some Disney stuff (serious competition down there). When I came back a few years later the two guys I was in Showcase with had another project going and enlisted me. Called Selfmadesoul, the music contained a lot of electronic elements and orchestrations so I played a hybrid acoustic/electronic kit with an octapad, foot pedals, and electronic pads. Everything was automated, so I played to a click which was great training. Incidentally it was while I was in Selfmadesoul that I became friends with the guys in Spiraling, which is my link to 3RDegree.

Aaron Nobel behind the kit

Are any of you professional musicians, or with a day job related to the music industry? If not, how do you juggle your day jobs with your musical activity?

George: None of us presently make “a living” playing music. Balancing a day job with music, easy – balancing personal life with music is the tricky thing. My solution so far: personal life centered around music.

Patrick: I work as a writer/director/editor, so some times I write music for the things I produce. My brother is a professional musician. He is the composer for the new Disney series Sophia The First.

Robert: It’s tough.  I work odd hours and have kids like 2 other band members as well, but with my trusty laptop I eke out band work whenever I can.  My difficulty comes in with the many hats I wear in the band and when I should take off one and put on another.  It’s very unartistic promoting a new album and tending the social networks. When to stop doing that and start writing is like restarting a computer rather than just minimizing one window and opening another – to use a computer metaphor.

Aaron: I’m in a 9-5 as a senior tech support for one of the largest manufacturers of HVAC actuators in the world. It doesn’t get in the way too much- it’s the other bands, quality time with my girlfriend, and fitness endeavors that get in the way!

Are any of you involved in any other projects besides 3RDegree?

Eric:  In college, I joined my fraternity house band CRUST, where I took on bass guitar and vocal duties.  Our music is very tongue-in-cheek, in the vein of Spinal Tap.  After we graduated and moved apart (to New Jersey, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan), we’ve still made it a point to get together every year to write and record.  We’ve been doing this for over twenty years.  It’s a great outlet for the “less technical” side of my musical personality.  As a matter of fact, we’re on the verge of releasing a new album this winter!

George: I’ve been recording a few tracks with some friends, at Rave Tesar’s Studio X (where the last Renaissance album was recorded).  I keep my chops up with bar band gigs every few weeks.

Aaron: I’m in a progressive rock instrumental trio in my hometown. I do a bit of jazz gigs around the New Haven, CT area. I play with the Lyric Hall Silent Movie Orchestra providing the live sound track to silent movies. I sub for a couple local cover bands and a Celtic rock band called The Ruffians. I always complain about how busy I am, but I rarely say no to an offer.

George Dobbs – the voice of 3RDegree

3RDegree do not sound like “traditional” prog, and, rather than going for lengthy, elaborate compositions like many of the iconic Seventies bands, are undeniably a song-oriented band. What is your relationship to the genre, and your opinion on its future developments?

Eric:  We’re all very well-versed in rock history, and progressive rock’s important contributions to the development of modern music, but I believe the true essence of being progressive is allowing your band’s natural chemistry to dictate the direction of the music regardless of current commercial trends.  We don’t have a “formula” for our music.  As technical and meticulous as it sounds at times, our music is developed very organically, which is why people find it hard to define.  Every song we write has a varying degree of each band member’s personality within, and our personalities are quite diverse.

George: We come out of a “crossover prog.” tradition. Even Yes, with their Awaken/Delirium/CTTE/Tales epics, had shorter songs, often with very well defined refrains – (and I’m talking pre-90125… hell, even pre- Tormato). I think those other efforts are to be cherished and emulated -not to be merely tolerated.  The future of prog, ehh, what do I know?  I think it involves nanobots.

Patrick: I’ve always approached songwriting as melody first and arrangement second. The melody is the foundation, and, with a good foundation, you can play around and have fun with arrangements. Rob and I never were into the esoteric prog stuff that ventured into long solos and experimentation. Then when George came along, his writing meshed with ours and defined our song-based prog rock even more so. I can’t speak for the future of prog as a whole – I can only say that we as 3RDegree are going to keep pushing new limits. I never want our listeners to think they know what the next album is going to sound like. I always want to surprise and challenge our fan base.

Robert: For 3RDegree to pursue a song idea, I think there has to be an element of one or more of the hallmarks of what is generally considered prog mixed with just good songwriting a la XTC, Todd Rundgren and other songsmiths that aren’t particularly considered prog artists. We don’t run into any huge arguments over which of our songs are to be included in our repertoire, but we sometimes have a slight crisis over it.  I’d say on any given album of ours, there is a song or two that may be far from the prog tradition but, when tucked into the running order of an album, fits just fine.

What music do you usually listen to, and what are your biggest influences – prog and otherwise?

Eric: My musical tastes are all over the map, so there really is nothing usual about what I listen to.  For instance, the other day I listened to The Doors’  Strange Days, followed by Opeth’s Blackwater Park, then AOMusic and Miriam Stockley (I absolutely love her voice)!  Prog-wise, I’m a fan of the usual suspects:  Yes, Genesis, ELP, etc.  More recently however, I’ve grown to be a huge fan of Porcupine Tree and Devin Townsend as well.

Eric Pseja and his home-brewed ale

Aaron: It depends on my mood. I actually listen to a lot of jazz – Coltrane, Miles, Monk, Wayne Shorter, Louie Armstrong. My formative years I listened to A LOT of Rush, Living Colour, ings X, The Police, Dixie Dregs. I dig anything that Ty Tabor has a part in. I love old school hip-hop, funk, French house. I had a Dream Theater phase, but lately in prog-world I’m really digging Gavin Harrison & 05RIC. Gavin’s linear playing boggles the mind. I’ve spent entire commutes to work over going over one section of song trying to figure out his licks.

George: No regular listening habits.  4 albums I bought in the past few months: Broken Bells, Ambrosia’s 1st album, Walter Becker (Circus Money), and IZZ (Crush of Night).  Artists that have probably left their greatest mark on me are are Genesis, Floyd, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder and XTC.  More current artists that I admire and keep my eye on are Mutemath, Beardfish, Self (Matt Mahaffey) and Bird and The Bee.

Patrick: Let’s refer to my starred files in Spotify: And So I Watch You From Afar, Cut Copy, Grizzly Bear, Holy Fuck, M83, Amanda Palmer. They’ve all released my favorite albums of the past year or so. Biggest influences in prog – Yes, Rush, Genesis. Non-prog biggest influences – Beatles, Zeppelin, Radiohead.

Robert: Prog favs are Rush, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Marillion, Ambrosia, David Sylvian, Kevin Gilbert, etc. Songwriting favs are XTC, Jellyfish, Todd Rundgren, Joni Mitchell….Pop favs include Level 42, Thomas Dolby, Tears For Fears.  Love Cocteau Twins, Björk, Radiohead.  Newer prog favs are Echolyn and Izz.

One of your founding members resides on the West Coast, thousands of miles from the rest of you. How do you negotiate the physical distance during the songwriting and the recording stage?

George: It’s really not that difficult, if and when we are motivated.  FTP and the universal “WAV” file make it somewhat negotiable.

Patrick: Yeah, it’s really not too tough. A month ago we all FaceBook chatted for several hours and spoke about the direction of the next album. Additionally, I can FaceTime as the rest of the band rehearses. Soon there will be a way where I can play along real time with them. JamHub is close to that right now – I think there is a 200-mile distance for real time playing.

Guitarist and founding member Patrick Kliesch

Robert: JamHub is enabling us to play at decent volumes and to hear each other better.  Whether we will be able to integrate Pat into that in real time 3000 miles away – and cheaply – remains to be seen.

Your songs are clearly the work of people who put a lot of attention in every detail.  How do you handle the songwriting process? Would you call yourselves perfectionists?

Eric: Our recording process is a balancing act; making sure the music is well-produced without sounding too sterile.  While we take great care to make sure the complexities of our music are clearly defined, we also believe there’s something to an album that’s got some live-band feel as well.

George:  Robert always keeps us to a pretty strict time line, so there’s only so much room for perfectionism. He’s like Roger Corman in that regard …He’s also a bit like Harvey Corman, only shorter.

Patrick: It’s hard to define the songwriting process, because every song takes on a life of its own and each one dictates the way that the song will be sculpted. But generally, the principal songwriter will present his song idea to the band with his initial arrangements and flourishes, and then the rest of us will add keys, guitars and other touches on top of that.

Robert: Or that song that’s presented isn’t finished (just a chorus or verse), and another band member is encouraged to run with it.  We’re good like that.  We never have an argument over who is writing too much or too little.  Members get busy in their lives in different times and slack is picked up when needed. We also have a pretty harsh song filter -a built-in quality control within the band that ensures that we all feel good about everything that gets to the recording phase.  We’re not going to spend time on a song getting it ready for the drum recording sessions that start off the process and not see it through.  That would be too much wasted time.  I – as band “leader” – do my utmost to not waste anyone’s time, be it at a rehearsal or whatever else.  The reason for this is because we’re not in our 20’s with a short list of commitments.  Quite the opposite.

What is your relationship to the other prog bands in the NJ/NYC area? Do you have any ongoing form of collaboration with other musicians, especially as regards finding opportunities for playing live?

Robert: There’s a camaraderie between the band leaders of a bunch of bands out there – mostly aided by Facebook.  I’m in the same “boat” as a lot of these guys and, while we’re sort of “in competition” for the prog fans’ hard-earned dollar, so to speak, we seem to have empathy for each other’s rough road.  Shadow Circus, Edensong, IZZ, Pinnacle – just a few names of bands near us who are fighting the good fight.

Talking of what, what have been your experiences as a live band? Do you think that releasing albums is more important than treading the boards of a stage, or the other way round?

Eric: It’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to simply jam a weekend away.  Both Rob and I have two little kids at home, and all of us have full-time jobs that require most of our time.  While we strive to get out on stage if at all possible, we’re beginning to accept that it’s becoming more difficult to do so, especially on short notice.  For me personally, I am simply grateful that I’m able to be creative even when I can’t “tour” to support the music I’ve helped create.  Playing live is a wonderful thing, but to me, I don’t find it as important or gratifying as the creative process.

3RDegree having a good time

George: Live music means never having to say you had a sound check. Writing is absolutely more important to me, in terms of 3RDegree; and what are we going to play if we aren’t building and perfecting the oeuvre?

Robert: It’s such a double edged sword.  We have had a difficult relationship with “the stage” since it always had seemed we have to drop everything to ready ourselves for a particular gig.  Problem is, there’s only so many places you can play and you can only play them so many times SO, what happens is you find an album done, maybe a few shows and then the rust sets in again.  When The Long Division was done back in June, I had spent so much time getting it ready to get out there (mastering, final mixes, pre-funding, pre-orders, album cover-concept, finding the artist, going back and forth with him until final draft, music video shooting and editing, advertising, mailing to press and radio and more) that we couldn’t get a live show together in time for the proper “tour”, and found out in the process that we really need two guitarists live since Pat cannot join us in the flesh.  Good thing about playing live is the ability to move some merch.  It’s very, very hard to sell shirts and non-musical gear from a website, no matter how much you take pictures or video of it.  Same thing with our new beer glasses.  After someone sees a band live, they often feel like a “souvenir” and that’s where it starts to make sense to get on stage again from a monetary point of view.  Even the positive energy from playing a live gig can be squashed by a host of issues.  I will say that, since our regrouping, the quality of the audience at our shows is better tenfold.  We do not set up shows willy-nilly like the old days.

Since its release, The Long Division has garnered a lot of critical praise. Has this positive feedback translated into sales?

George: Not as much as some airplay would. But it’s nice to know that someone gets us. And the fanbase does grow in no small part due to this acknowledgement.

Robert: It seems to be selling better than Narrow-Caster so far, given its short time frame and word of mouth seems to be better and reviews and buzz have been exponentially more positive.  We were surprised by how well things went with Narrow-Caster, so to say press is noticeably better is a pretty good place to be in.  The only downside is the expectation going forward, but we just do what we do and hopefully everyone comes along for the ride.  Although there are a handful of people who like our last album better.

You are one of the very few bands on the modern prog scene whose lyrics are based on current affairs rather than on more abstract topics. Why is it so, and has it always been that way?

George:  It’s always been that way.  Right back to the 1st album, current affairs seems to be Robert’s passion, when he was writing about Wall Street, the Cold War, AIDS.  Well, you certainly run less of a chance of turning someone off if you stay away from “social commentary.” But this is true of all music, not just the prog scene – hardcore punk excepting. My M.O. is that all subjects are fair game for lyrics, just as long as you are making art and not propagandart.

Robert: We released our last album as the world was falling apart – the fall of 2008.  While I was busy getting the 3RDegree name out there in various ways, Pat and George started on two of the pieces that would define The Long Division almost four years later – “You’re Fooling Yourselves”, started by Pat, and “The Socio-Economic Petri Dish”, started and almost entirely written by George.


Robert James Pashman and one of his concerns

How has the album been received outside the US, seen as its lyrical content is firmly rooted in the US socio-political situation? Do you think that its plea towards mutual understanding and cooperation may find an echo in other parts of the world?

George: If anything, the salient political topics may have helped us to finally reach a wider audience in the USA. Prior to The Long Division, we seem to have historically gone over best in “Germanic” countries.

Robert: I think we’ve been lucky that it’s been doing quite well in Europe as I was concerned not that people outside the US wouldn’t know about the subject matter, but that they wouldn’t particularly be interested in it.  Many of the reviews point out that we spend quite a bit of time on the general subject of divisions in the American political system, and that it’s done well.  We certainly labored a bit making sure the songs weren’t taking a hard political stance, but rather coming at it all from an apolitical angle.  We all have our leanings, but I think none of the band are in love with the personalities or politicians we tend to agree with.

Now that the new album is finally out, what are your plans for the future? Do you have any new material ready, or is another long wait on the horizon for your fans?

George: Less of a wait this time, but we’re still looking at 2014, at best.

Patrick: Yeah, I’d concur that 2014 would be the release for the next album. It’s already half recorded. We’re shooting for another half dozen songs to be recorded in the next studio session. And, speaking of the future, that’s exactly what this next album is going to concentrate on – futurist themes.

Robert: I’d say we may play a few shows in the spring if our rehearsals go that way and we find a lead guitarist.  If not, we will focus squarely on writing a few more songs and fleshing out the ones we’ve recorded already.  Four songs are recorded on drums from The Long Division sessions.  I’d say roughly six more need to be done in a final drum session hopefully this coming summer.  Four songs are written-at least in part-but not recorded.  One of the upcoming songs is the longest we have ever recorded.  The Long Division has 4 of the longest songs we have ever recorded up to that time, so you can see the trend towards song length, but we still keep to our solemn pledge: “Gnome-Free Since ‘93”!

Thank you for your answers, and all the best for a great 2013!

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SETLIST:

MoeTar
Butchers of Baghdad
Dichotomy
Infinitesimal Sky
Regression to the Mean
Random Tandem
Entropy of the Century
New World Chaos
Never Home
Ist or an Ism
Friction

miRthkon
Zhagunk
Automaton
Daddylonglegz
Kharms Way
Coven of Coyotes
Nocturne
Bag
Banana
Cascades
Honey Key Jamboree
QX1
Hapax Legomena
Encore (?)

In the slightly unlikely timeframe of mid-August, two of Oakland’s finest bands, miRthkon and MoeTar, finally landed on the East Coast for their first-ever tour in this part of the country. Although the heat and humidity must have come as a shock to residents of a region blessed (at least in the eyes of this hot-weather hater) with a permanently mild, cool climate, the bands’ members – in spite of the inevitable tiredness and the less-than-ideal temperature inside the notoriously AC-less Orion Studios – acquitted themselves splendidly, and inaugurated their long-awaited tour with a bang.

Not surprisingly, seen the high level of praise garnered by both bands’ debut albums – miRthkon’s Vehicle (2009) and MoeTar’s From These Small Seeds (2010, reissued in 2012 with a new cover) – the venue was almost packed to capacity, with its usual “house party” atmosphere in full swing – folding chairs, coolers and small buffet of refreshments included. The lower-than-average temperature, helped by an almost strategically-timed summer storm that allowed some pleasantly cool air to waft into the crowded stage area from the open bay, made things more bearable – at least for the audience, because the bands had to cope not only with the intense humidity, but also with the heat generated by the stage lights. However, none of these adverse circumstances had any impact on the quality of either performance, which exceeded the attendees’ already high expectations.

Five-piece MoeTar had already elicited very positive reactions by West Coast prog fans, opening for the likes of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Allan Holdsworth in the past few months. Fronted by vocalist extraordinaire Moorea Dickason (aka Moe) – simply put, one of the best female voices I have had the privilege to hear in a long time – they share one member with miRthkon, multi-instrumentalist Matt Lebofsky. With his highly focused, somewhat serious mien, Lebovsky (who plays keyboards in MoeTar, and bass in miRthkon) was a perfect foil to Moorea’s boundless energy and thoroughly engaging stage presence. Sporting streaks of bright blue face paint that gave her an endearingly childlike look, she commanded the audience’s attention right from the first notes of opener “Butchers of Baghdad” with her jaw-dropping vocal acrobatics. While many female singers adopt a stereotypical melodic approach, often with rather tiresome operatic touches (and equally often sounding alarmingly alike), Moorea bends the music to her will, tackling vertiginous scales with seemingly no effort at all. MoeTar’s songs, built around her interpretation of Tarik (aka Tar) Ragab’s quirky, literate lyrics, offer a heavily eclectic mix of accessibility and complexity, with influences as far-ranging as traditional jazz, iconic acts such as XTC and Kate Bush, and a healthy pinch of RIO/Avant spice. Together with other modern North American bands such as 3Rdegree or Half Past Four, MoeTar are at the vanguard of what I call the “new frontier” of progressive rock, embracing the song form and giving it a much-needed overhaul, all the while shunning the blatant AOR leanings of other bigger-name bands or artists.

During their hour-long set, MoeTar treated the audience to a selection of tracks from their debut – including the haunting torch song for the 21st century “Never Home” and the superbly intense, hard-edged “Ist or an Ism” – plus a couple of tantalizing previews of their new album, which revealed a more experimental bent while remaining true to the band’s song-based approach. Individual performances were top-notch – from Matthew Heulitt’s assertive but consistently melodic guitar to Tarik Ragab and David M. Flores’ dynamic rhythm section and Lebofsky’s seamless handling of organ, synth and piano – but MoeTar are very much an ensemble operation, even if Moorea’s vocals may be the most obvious draw. Most importantly, the band members looked completely at ease on stage, conveying a genuine sense of enjoyment that reinforced the intelligent, yet down-to earth appeal of their music.

After a leisurely break dedicated to social interaction and purchase of CDs and assorted merchandise, miRthkon – that self-professed “amplified chamber ensemble masquerading as a rock band” – took to the stage, and proceeded to blow the roof off the venue with their highly energized, highly technical blend of almost everything under the sun (including classical music, with an unrecognizable version of Samuel Barber’s “Nocturne”). Possibly the most qualified pretenders to the Frank Zappa throne, with an idiosyncratic lineup that dispenses with keyboards but boasts a dual-guitar, dual-reed attack, they reinterpret the sometimes overly serious Avant-Prog aesthetic with a lightness of touch and oodles of absurdist humour that belie the mind-boggling complexity of their music. Indeed, miRthkon are not by any means minimalistic, and a glorious sense of bombast occasionally runs through their brilliantly-titled and –executed compositions.

Though dealing with the effects of a kidney stone discovered during the 3000-mile coast-to-coast drive, guitarist and founder Wally Scharold fulfilled his frontman duties with aplomb, his endearingly whimsical between-song banter adding to the entertainment value of the evening. Since the release of Vehicle, the band have replaced guitarist and co-founder Rob Pumpelly with Travis Andrews, who looked a bit shy at first, but then got nicely into the swing of things, proving an excellent sparring partner for Scharold. While drummer Matt Guggemos was hidden behind his bandmates, due to the distinctive configuration of the Orion stage, his often thunderous, but always creative drumming, in perfect synergy with Matt Lebofsky’s powerful yet sleek bass lines, lent both texture and dynamics to the band’s dazzlingly unpredictable sound. However, the duo of alto saxophonist Jamison Smeltz, with his impressive sideburns and amusing facial expressions, and “Goddess of the Cane” Carolyn Walter, in a bright blue dress and a funny head ornament that looked like a pair of small goat horns, were the true focus of attention. Both seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, and their visual appeal went hand-in-hand with their boisterous musical contribution. For a band that calls itself by the slightly daunting tagline of “Oaklandish chambercore”, miRthkon were a lot of fun and, in their own peculiar way, much more approachable than many outfits bearing the RIO/Avant label. In fact, the music was never noisy or gratuitously chaotic, and the band’s inimitable sense of humour enhanced its appeal, avoiding the dour, needlessly convoluted stance that often gives Avant-Prog a bad rap.

As usual, the sound quality – masterfully engineered by Mike Potter, who looked as pleased as punch throughout the evening – was excellent, and brought out each of the bands’ distinctive qualities without beating the attendees’ eardrums into submission. A special mention goes to the selection of music played before and between sets – I never thought I would hear James Brown played alongside Blue Öyster Cult and more traditional fare at a progressive rock concert! I was also glad to see quite a few women and younger people among the audience. Indeed, the evening was also a celebration of female talent, with Moorea Dickason’s incredible vocal performance and Carolyn Walter’s masterful handling of her “forest of horns” – both talented, attractive women with a friendly, engaging attitude who manage to shine without capitalizing on their looks.

All in all, it was definitely one of the best shows of the past few years, and a very uplifting moment after the setbacks suffered by the US prog scene in recent times. These two bands are a brilliant example of proactive behaviour and genuine creative spirit, and deserve to have their efforts crowned with success. If they are playing anywhere near you, do yourselves a favour and make sure you do not miss them: their performance will dispel any doubts you might harbor about the future of progressive rock.

Links:
http://www.moetar.com

http://www.mirthkon.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. You’re Fooling Yourselves (6:53)
2. Exit Strategy (5:46)
3. The Socio-Economic Petri Dish (6:51)
4. Incoherent Ramblings (7:46)
5. The Ones To Follow (3:15)
6. A Work Of Art (2:53)
7. Televised (6:54)
8. The Millions Of Last Moments (2:07)
9. Memetic Pandemic (7:29)
10. A Nihilist’s Love Song (3:39)

LINEUP:
George Dobbs – lead vocals, keyboards
Robert James Pashman – bass, keyboards, backing vocals
Patrick Kliesch – guitar, backing vocals
Eric Pseja – guitar, backing vocals
Aaron Nobel – drums, percussion

With:
Rob Durham – flute (6)
Bill Fox – alto and tenor saxes (6)
Cara Brewer – backing vocals (10)
Veronica Puleo – backing vocals (10)
Jed Levin – spoken word intro (4)

In the years following the release of Narrow-Caster, their “comeback” album after a 12-year hiatus, New Jersey band 3RDegree have been hard at work on its follow-up, which was finally completed in the early summer of 2012. The band’s lineup has also undergone some changes: drummer Rob Durham (who guests on one track) was replaced by Aaron Nobel (who joined the band just in time for their appearance at ProgDay 2009), while second guitarist Eric Pseja had collaborated with them as a guest musician for the 2007 reunion concerts.

As I pointed out in my review of Narrow-Caster, 3RDegree are one of those bands that are bound to divide opinions within the prog community. While critics have generally greeted their albums with words of praise, the public’s response has not always been equally enthusiastic. Though the band members proudly state their allegiance to the progressive rock camp, their sound – in true art-rock tradition – contains enough “mainstream” elements to make purists frown, eliciting doubts as to its actual prog quotient. George Dobbs’ extraordinary vocals (clearly more influenced by Stevie Wonder than Jon Anderson or Peter Gabriel) are also a sore point with those fans who find it hard to break away from the Seventies mould. The band’s frequent reliance on the conventional song form is another source of controversy for those who forget that, in fact, even in its heyday prog never completely rejected traditional song modes, though often rendering them almost unrecognizable.

Compared to Narrow-Caster, The Long Division ups the ante in terms of complexity, while retaining its accessible, deceptively upbeat flavour.  For starters, the songs’ running times have gradually increased from the average 4 minutes of Narrow-Caster to over 6 minutes for half of the tracks on The Long Division.  While there are no epics in the conventional prog sense, the album is intended as a sort of loose concept that, while firmly rooted in the peculiar atmosphere of a US presidential election year, can also resonate with citizens of most Western countries, especially in the current global situation. The clean, geometric lines of the striking cover artwork contrast sharply with the stereotypically fanciful prog aesthetics, its bright blue and red hues identifying  the two main US political parties, separated by an apparently unbridgeable gap.

From a musical point of view, the main ingredients that made Narrow-Caster such as successful example of modern “crossover” prog  – such as its memorable melodies – do not disguise the intricacy of the instrumental fabric and the frequent changes in tempo and mood. George Dobbs’ voice, authoritative as usual, is assisted by gorgeous, layered vocal harmonies reminiscent of early Yes or even The Beatles that complement the lush instrumental interplay. The double-guitar configuration, with Eric Pseja flanking founding member Patrick Kliesch, has undeniably beefed up the sound, though as a whole The Long Division comes across as a smoother-sounding effort, less reliant on high-powered riffs and more focused on Dobbs’ keyboards.

The 10 songs on The Long Division are arranged in a pattern that alternates uptempo numbers with more laid-back ones. “You’re Fooling Yourselves” – a fitting introduction to the musical and lyrical themes of the album, mixed by Echolyn’s Brett Kull – showcases the band’s trademark blend of catchy hooks and subtle complexity, with intriguing vocal textures and sleek guitar solos ranging from meditative to energetic. The mellotron-infused “Exit Strategy”, with its airy, orchestral feel, is dominated by vocals, though Robert James Pashman’s strong bass lines emerge prominently. The bass is also the undisputed protagonist of the funky, exhilarating “The Socio-Economic Petri Dish” – sounding like Yes probably would if they had been founded in the 21st century, and displaying the band’s collective talent in both the instrumental and vocal department. “Incoherent Ramblings” (the longest track on the album at almost 8 minutes) is an extremely well-constructed piece, bringing together the mellow, atmospheric component of 3RDegree’s inspiration and the sense of urgency often lurking even in the more relaxed numbers; while the brisk “The Ones to Follow” offers another vocal showcase for Dobbs and an almost infectious chorus.

The second half of the album opens with the hauntingly romantic, piano-led “A Work of Art”, the only song dating back from the early incarnation of the band, enhanced by sax, flute and mellotron and featuring an unusually subdued vocal performance by Dobbs. Things pick up with the slashing riffs and hard rock vibe of the Rush-influenced “Televised”, driven by Pashman’s fat, groovy bass line and Nobel’s muscular yet intricate drumming, the heaviness softened by the Beatlesian flavour of the harmony vocals.  The short, gentle instrumental “The Millions of Last Moments” prepares the listener to the album’s grand finale – the melodic-with-a-bite, sinuous “Memetic Pandemic”, which allows Dobbs to shine on piano and organ as well as in the singing department, and the catchy “A Nihilist’s Love Song”, based on a chiming acoustic guitar line reinforced by piano and layers of vocal harmonies.

With The Long Division, 3RDegree prove that they have reached their full maturity as a band, delivering an intelligent, well-rounded example of modern progressive rock. Much like Man On Fire’s splendid 2011 album Chrysalis,  the album epitomizes the “new frontier” of the genre without denying the legacy of the past, or pandering to blatantly commercial trends. Avoiding the bloated excesses of many retro-oriented bands, The Long Division is a complete package of classy music, top-notch vocals and thought-provoking lyrics – recommended to anyone but incurable elitists.

Links:
http://www.3rdegreeonline.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Dichotomy (3:57)
2. Infinitesimal Sky  (3:02)
3. Butchers of Baghdad  (4:19)
4. Random Tandem  (4:12)
5. Ist or an Ism (4:58)
6. Morning Person (2:54)
7. New World Chaos (5:40)
8. Screed (Pt. 2) (4:40)
9. Never Home (4:50)
10. From These Small Seeds (5:20)
11. Friction (3:08)

LINEUP:
Moorea Dickason – vocals
Tarik Ragab – bass
Matt Lebofsky – keyboards
Matthew Heulitt – guitar
David M Flores – drums

Bay Area-based quintet MoeTar was founded in 2008 by the two artists it is named after –  vocalist Moorea Dickason (Moe) and bassist Tarik Ragab (Tar) –  after the demise of their previous band, politically-charged pop-funk outfit No Origin.  After the entrance of miRthkon keyboardist Matt Lebofsky, in the spring of 2009 MoeTar started  an intense concert activity. Their debut album, From These Small Seeds, engineered by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s Dan Rathburn and originally released in 2010, was reissued by Magna Carta Records in 2012 with new artwork.  At the time of writing, MoeTar are about to embark on their first Eastern US tour, which will kick on August 11, 2012, at the Orion Studios in Baltimore, where they will open for miRthkon.

Even if a sizable chunk of its audience still clings to progressive rock’s conventional modes of expression, “crossover” acts are increasingly making headway on the scene, redefining and sometimes even reinventing the rules of a genre that – for all of its touted renaissance in recent years – was very much in need of an overhaul. Trimming down song lengths without sacrificing prog’s trademark complexity, and introducing melodies that can be infectious and daringly innovative at the same time, those bands draw from a number of other genres whose input provides a veritable shot in the arm for a genre often at risk of turning into a parody of itself (see the glut of tribute/nostalgia bands).

Even in a niche teeming with interesting acts, MoeTar’s fearless blend of sunny, uplifting pop tunes, angular Avant stylings, spacey guitar jams and a bit of heaviness, propelled by Moorea Dickason’s stunningly versatile voice, comes across as quite unique. As a fellow reviewer pointed out, MoeTar overturn the clichés attached to female-fronted prog bands, pushing decidedly away from the tired stereotype of the angelic-voiced siren and offering instead a heady mix of melody, power and endearing quirkiness. Moe’s voice, fitting Tarik’s thought-provoking, stream-of-consciousness lyrics like a glove, often becomes another instrument , bending the music to her will or following its intricate patterns with a striking adroitness that brings Kate Bush to mind – as well as avant-prog icons Elaine DiFalco and Deborah Perry, or Melody Ferris of fellow Oakland outfit Inner Ear Brigade. The general bent of the album may also elicit comparisons with District 97, another female-fronted act that has attracted a lot of attention in the past couple of years. However, unlike the Chicago band, MoeTar steer clear of overambitious productions, and are also minimally influenced by the prog metal trend.

For an album clocking in at a very reasonable 50 minutes, there is quite a lot going on in From These Small Seeds. The short running time of the songs (all under the 6-minute mark) belies their density, the sudden shifts in mood and tempo that can turn a catchy pop ditty into something more riveting and intense. Opener “Dichotomy” illustrates MoeTar’s modus operandi quite aptly –  Moorea’s voice underpinned by Matt Lebofsky’s buoyant piano flurries, while Matthew Heulitt delivers a rather offbeat guitar solo in the slower, atmospheric bridge; the song also introduces what is probably the most noticeable influence on MoeTar’s sound – Andy Partridge’s XTC.

After that, the album deploys a veritable feast of unabashed eclecticism – from the dramatic, almost theatrical flair of “Butchers of Baghdad” (which reminded me of Canadians Half Past Four, another interesting female-fronted crossover prog band with their charismatic singer Kyree Vibrant) to the torch-song-meets-psychedelic-jam of “Never Home”. “Ist or an Ism” meshes the hard-rock suggestions of driving organ, massive riffs and piercing guitar with a vocal line at the end that would not be out of place on a Thinking Plague album. In the title-track – definitely one of the more left-field offerings on the album – voice and piano emote in parallel, creating a sense of palpable tension that culminates in a searing guitar solo. David M Flores’ imperious drumming in “Screed” lays the groundwork for Moorea’s oddly distant-sounding voice and Lebofsky’s almost percussive piano; while “New World Chaos” (the album’s longest track) is pushed into Avant territory by its asymmetrical guitar line, tempered by soothing vocals.

A prime example of art rock in the original sense of the definition, From These Small Seeds manages to be accessible and adventurous at the same time. Those who want to see progressive rock remain true to its name – rather than turn into a caricature of the Seventies – will not fail to appreciate the album, in spite of the lack of epics or any of the conventional distinguishing features of the genre. A highly rewarding, entertaining listen, recommended to everyone but the most conservative prog fans.

Links:
http://www.moetar.com/

http://magnacarta.net

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Repeat It (4:33)
2. In A Sense (5:24)
3. A (Post-Apocalyptic) Bedtime Story (5:07)
4. Chrysalis:
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)

LINEUP:
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

With:
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.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/manonfireband

http://10trecords.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Here I Stand (4:11)
2. In My Place (3:33)
3. The Keeper (5:33)
4. Cannibal Tango (3:27)
5. Fever (the Battle Rages On) (4:48)
6. Hate Incarnate (2:58)
7. Get Out of My Way (4:38)
8. Russian Girls (3:32)
9. Demon Disco (4:05)
10. Be My Pride (4:30)
11. Fathers & Sons (5:01)
12. Inner Feelings (Silence) (18:54)

LINEUP:
Christophe Godin – guitar, lead and background vocals
Julien “Peter Puke” Rousset – vocals, drums, percussion, background vocals
Gaby Vegh – vocals, bass guitar, background vocals; tablas (3)

With:
Lilit Karapetyan – Russian girl’s voice (8)

French power trio Gnô are one of the projects of guitarist Christophe Godin, known in progressive rock circles as the founder and mastermind of Mörglbl, as well as one of France’s hottest guitar players. Cannibal Tango, Gnô’s second album, was released in the early summer of 2011 on the US-based label The Laser’s Edge – 10 years after their debut, Trash Deluxe, released in 2001 after Mörglbl’s temporary demise.

Mörglbl are widely considered as one of the most exciting bands on the current prog scene, and anticipation is running very high for their forthcoming US tour – whose culmination will be the  headlining slot on Saturday, September 3, at the legendary ProgDay festival in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Though adopting a somewhat more straightforward format than Mörglbl’s output, Cannibal Tango is bound to win over most fans of Godin’s main gig, especially those who have a broader view of progressive rock than the average fan pining for the good old days of the Seventies. With their irrepressible, genre-bending attitude and obvious enthusiasm for making music, Gnô deliver a real rollercoaster ride of an album, bubbling with a wild and wacky sense of humour, crushingly heavy but also full of infectious grooves and catchy hooks.

Cannibal Tango’s press release describes the band as “Pantera meets The Beatles” – a rather weird, but oddly effective definition.  Driven by Godin’s high-powered, razor-sharp riffs and searing lead breaks, propelled by Julien “Peter Puke” Rousset’s thunderous drums and Gaby Vegh’s solid yet nimble bass lines, Gnô;s music is always brimming with energy, but capable of unexpected twists and turns. While the influence of heavy metal – both in its classic incarnation (as in Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden) and the more eclectic strains represented by the likes of the above-mentioned Pantera, Faith No More or System of a Down – is clearly recognizable, one of the closest terms of comparison would be King’s X, whose imprint is hard to miss in the impossibly catchy vocal harmonies. Like the American trio, Gnô rely on conventional song structures spiced up by intriguing hints of a higher complexity.

With 12 tracks averaging between 3 and 5 minutes, the album’s 63-minute running time is quite deceptive, as it includes the unexpected “Easter egg” (a funny a cappella version of “Fever”) tacked at the end of closing number “Inner Feelings (Silence)” after a lengthy pause.  Although the canonical “prog” features of mind-boggling time signature changes and extended instrumental sections are conspicuously absent on Cannibal Tango, there is still plenty of variety to hold the listener’s interest. Starting with opener “Here I Stand”, the songs as a whole are bold and relentlessly dynamic, without too much subtlety, yet introducing different elements into the sheer heaviness of their foundation. The funky  pace and catchy chorus coexisting with an aggressive guitar solo reminded me of another of the seminal crossover bands of the Eighties, New Yorkers Living Colour; while with “In My Place” some lazy reggae licks are thrown into the mix, together with a chorus that owes a lot to The Beatles, though with a much harder edge. Echoes of King’s X emerges in numbers such as the slower, doom-infused “The Keeper” with its faint Middle Eastern vibe, the groovy “Get Out of My Way” and the intense, slow-burning “Inner Feelings”. The more nuanced instrumental bridge of  the brisk “Demon Disco”, on the other hand, points to another hugely influential power trio – the mighty Rush; while the unabated intensity of “Russian Girls”, probably the heaviest number on the album, borders on hardcore punk.

As pointed out in the previous paragraphs, Cannibal Tango requires a high level of tolerance for heaviness and fast and furious riffing in order to be fully enjoyed – as well as a taste for artists such as Frank Zappa or Primus, whose music prominently features a blend of chops and off-the-wall humour. Packaged in a colourful, zany cover proudly emblazoned with the band’s striking logo,  and photos hinting at the “cannibal” motif gracing the CD’s inner sleeve, this is a genuinely entertaining album from a very talented outfit, which fans of the more crossover-

Links:
http://www.gno-music.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Sirens Dance (3:52)
2. Aging Backwards (5:20)
3. Flanders Fields (5:05)
4. Sleepless Night (5:59)
5. Horny (2:57)
6. Little Bird (4:09)
7. Duck on a Walk (3:25)
8. The Greatest Kick of the Day (3:23)
9. Never Lose your Mind (2:43)
10. Love Song (5:27)
11. Purple Frog (5:05)

LINEUP:
Jonathan Callens – drums, backing vocals (9)
Jouni Isoherranen – bass, backing vocals  (5, 9)
Gabor Humble Vörös – guitar, vocals
Pol Mareen – saxophone
Pedro Guridi – clarinets, backing vocals (5)
Pieter Claus – marimba, vibraphone, percussions

With:
Lisa Jordens – backing vocals (3, 5, 6, 7, 8)
Hanneke Osterlijnck – backing vocals (3, 6)
Joriska Vanhaelewyn – backing vocals  (2)
Juan Carlos Torres Iturra – Spanish vocals (6)
Leika Mochan – backing vocals (9)
Attila Czigany – harmonica (6)
Joris Buysse – flute  (6)
Fre Vandaele – whistle (3, 4)
Wouter Vandenabeele – violin (4)
Megan Quill – vocals (10, 11)
Franciska Roose – vocals (10, 11)

Many will almost automatically associate Belgium with the more left-field fringes of progressive rock, as the country has contributed essentially to the development of the subgenre with outfits such as Univers Zéro, Present, and Aranis. Though those bands seem to enjoy a rather daunting reputation in the more traditionalist prog circles, even a superficial listen to Humble Grumble’s debut album, Flanders Fields, will come as a positive surprise to those who tend to dismiss anything even remotely ‘avant-garde’ as noisy or depressing.

Humble Grumble was first formed in 1996 in the Belgian region of Ghent by Hungarian guitarist/vocalist Gabor Humble Vörös and other former members of a folk/jazz ensemble called Dearest Companion. Though that first incarnation disbanded after some time, the band was reformed in more recent times as a multicultural outfit, with members hailing from Finland and Chile as well as Belgium. The result was  Flanders Fields, released in the first half of 2011 by Italian label AltrOck Productions.

While placing Humble Grumble under the capacious RIO/Avant umbrella may be the easiest solution when it comes to the very popular activity of classifying a band or artist, it also paints a rather limited picture of this decidedly intriguing outfit. A sextet conspicuously lacking in keyboards, but employing instead saxophone, clarinet, vibraphone and marimba, Humble Grumble also avail themselves of the collaboration of a host of guest artists, which lends their music a well-rounded, almost orchestral quality.

On the other hand, Flanders Fields is very much a song-based effort, with 10 out of 11 tracks featuring vocals, none of them running above 6 minutes. The whole album clocks in at a very restrained 43 minutes, which allows the listener to fully appreciate the music without getting overwhelmed by it (as is far too often the case with modern releases). The short running time, however, may somewhat deceptive, since each of the tracks is densely packed with tempo changes, intriguing vocal interplay and rhythmic solutions of frequently astounding complexity – all flavoured with unashamed eclecticism. This makes for a surprisingly listener-friendly mixture, though obviously not in a commercial sense.

The most surprising thing about the album, though, is its strongly upbeat nature, and that in spite of the distincly subdued nature of the title-track, whose lyrics juxtapose somber remembrances of WWI with equally pessimistic musings on the state of modern-day Belgium. With this one notable exception, Flanders Fields brims with nonsensical, somewhat anarchic humour that inevitably brings to mind the likes of Frank Zappa and Gong. The latter band is probably the most evident term of comparison for Humble Grumble – down to its multi-national configuration. Mainman Gabor Humble’s engaging vocal approach is quite reminiscent of Daevid Allen’s (as well as Robert Wyatt and Caravan’s Pye Hastings), with the frequent intervention of female backing vocalists bringing to mind more than a fleeting echo of those notorious “space whispers” (especially in the self-explanatory “Horny”, a short, lively Gong-meets-Zappa number). Drums and percussion play a large, not merely propulsive role, while Humble’s guitar is nicely complemented by the warm, expressive tones of the reeds, so that keyboards are never really missed. In spite of the ‘avant’ tag, there is a lot of melody and very little dissonance in Humble Grumble’s sound, as well as plenty of diverse ‘world music’ influences.

Rather uncharacteristically Flanders Fields opens with its only instrumental track, “Sirens Dance”, in which Eastern touches and slow, almost sultry jazzy tones spice up a dynamic, cheerful fabric. “Aging Backwards” introduces Gabor Humble’s melodic yet keenly ironical vocals, as well as displaying his remarkably versatile guitar playing; while the title-track, as previously hinted, brings a note of sober melancholy, the beautiful female harmony vocals and the clear, tinkling sound of the marimba adding a lyrical, romantic tinge. “Sleepless Night”, with its Gentle Giant-inspired vocal harmonies, keeps up the understated mood of the title-track, enhanced by the wistful voice of the violin – a mood that recurs in the mellow, almost delicate “Never Lose Your Mind”, where the lush vocal harmonies evoke Queen as well as Gentle Giant. On the other hand, the more upbeat numbers such as  the folk-meets-Avant “Little Bird”, with vocals both in English and Spanish,  and the funny, lively “Duck on a Walk” conjure echoes of Canterbury; while the Gong and Zappa references emerge most clearly in the last couple of songs, “Love Song” and “Purple Frog”, though tempered by gentler passages led by reeds or female vocals.

Warmly recommended to devotees of Gong and the Canterbury scene in general – as well as any act that uses humour as an essential ingredient of its music –  Flanders Fields can nonetheless appeal to all but the most staunchly conservative prog fans. In particular, those who are not crazy about lengthy epics will be impressed by the way in which Humble Grumble manage to introduce a high level of complexity within the restrictions of the song format. A very enjoyable release from another excellent addition to the already outstanding AltrOck Production roster.

Links:
http://www.humblegrumble.be/

http://www.myspace.com/humblegrumble

http://production.altrock.it/

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