Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘10T Records’

3RDegree

TRACKLISTING:
1. Hello, World! (0:15)
2. The Gravity (7:50)
3. This Is the Future (4:28)
4. Life (2:38)
5. The Best & Brightest (of the Dimmest Bulbs) (4:05)
6. Circuit Court (5:10)
7. Life at Any Cost (7:58)
8. What It Means to Be Human (5:30)
9. We Regret to Inform You (5:22)
10. More Life (5:33)

LINEUP:
George Dobbs – lead vocals, keyboards, percussion
Robert James Pashman – bass, keyboards, backing vocals
Patrick Kliesch – electric guitars, acoustic 6-string guitars, backing vocals, synth
Eric Pseja – electric guitars, 12-string acoustic guitars, backing vocals, voice of Valhalla Customer Service Agent (1, 3, 9)
Aaron Nobel – drums, percussion
Bryan Zeigler – electric guitars, backing vocals

With:
Jason Davis – announcer (4)
Kevin Cummings – college lecturer (5)
Tim Donnelly – newscaster (7)
Kyree Vibrant – backing vocals (8, 10)
Daniel Tracey – joint lead vocals (9)

Although New Jersey combo 3RDegree’s very first incarnation dates back from the early 1990s, it was their 2012 album The Long Division that finally put them on the map for the majority of prog fans – even more so than their excellent 2008 comeback, Narrow-Caster. Three years after The Long Division – an album that garnered its fair share of critical praise in a year noted for a slew of high-profile releases – comes 3RDegree’s fifth studio album, an ambitious opus by the title of Ones & Zeros Volume 1.

Recorded as a six-piece, with the involvement of second guitarist Bryan Ziegler (recruited in 2012 to replace Patrick Kliesch, who is currently based in California, in their live shows), Ones & Zeros Vol. 1 was written by the band’s core members – Kliesch, bassist Robert James Pashman, and vocalist/keyboardist George Dobbs, plus guitarist Eric Pseja (who joined 3RDegree for The Long Division). The album’s release will be followed by the band’s first international tour, with dates in The Netherlands, Germany and the UK (the latter including am appearance at Summers End Festival).

Although The Long Division had an overarching theme – the increasingly polarized world of US politics – it could not be called a true concept album. On the other hand, Ones & Zeros Vol. 1 draws on the rich Anglo-American tradition of dystopian fiction in its rather chilling depiction of a future dominated by a Big Brother-like mega-corporation named Valhalla Biotech (a name with intentionally “otherworldly” implications), which – under the guise of improving life for humans – ends up controlling every aspect of our existence. The pervasive presence of this all-encompassing entity is conveyed through jingles, lectures and announcements (provided by a cast of guest actors) that interact with the music, at first unobtrusively, then taking an increasingly larger role.

Tackling such an ambitious project, 3RDegree prove they are not afraid of taking risks, and deliver an album that – while superficially paying homage to one of prog’s old chestnuts – is quite far removed from the traditional prog modes followed by many modern artists. The song format is still at the core of the band’s compositional approach, though a couple of songs reach the 8-minute mark, and display a distinctly more complex structure. The inner coherence of the story is reinforced by the use of recurring musical and lyrical themes. With George Dobbs channeling his inner Stevie Wonder, and multilayered vocal harmonies that recall Queen, Steely Dan and The Beatles as much as Yes, the band depict a rather disturbing scenario thinly disguised by their trademark bright melodies and catchy hooks.

Not surprisingly for an album dealing with such weighty issues, Ones & Zeros Vol. 1 may need repeated listens in order to be fully appreciated. In a daring move, 3RDegree have placed the second-longest track – the almost 8-minute “The Gravity”, a mini-epic packing many twists and turns, and not as readily accessible as “Apophenia” or “You’re Fooling Yourselves” – right at the opening at the album. Ones & Zeros Vol. 1 ’s tightly constructed 50 minutes shift between overtly poppy, ear-friendly items such as the sunny “This Is the Future” or the eminently hummable “Life”, which is reprised in the lushly orchestrated ending, “More Life”, and subtly intricate centerpieces such as the Steely Dan-influenced “Circuit Court” and the mercurial, multilayered “Life at Any Cost”, driven by Pashman’s stellar performance on bass. Pashman also shines in the funky yet ominous “We Regret to Inform You”, in which the energetic, almost anthemic harmony vocals alternate with robotic announcements eventually stating that “your father has been deleted”. “What It Means to Be Human” initially promises to be the album’s most mainstream-oriented track, but its second half veers into much heavier territory, and the deceptively upbeat tone of “The Best & Brightest (of the Dimmest Bulbs)” is like a velvet glove hiding Valhalla Biotech’s iron fist.

With thought-provoking lyrics (all included in the CD package, wrapped in brightly-coloured, semi-abstract artwork by Russian artist Sasha Kouznetsov) complementing the sophisticated, 21st-century art rock of the music, Ones & Zeros Vol. 1 will certainly be featured in many a “Best of 2015” list – though some dyed-in-the-wool “proggers” will still object to the poppy overtones that are such an integral part of the band’s sound. It is also 3RDegree’s most mature album to date: the band amply deserve kudos for having resisted the all-too-common (especially in prog circles) temptation of releasing a 100-minute behemoth. 3RDegree fans will be glad to know that the release of Ones & Zeros Volume 2 is planned for 2016.

Links:
http://www.3rdegreeonline.com/3RDegree/Home.html

http://10trecords.com/artists/genres/progressive-experimental/3rdegree/discography-3

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

cover_4937134102014_r

TRACKLISTING:
1. New Frontier (10:12)
2. Take a Moment (8:56)
3. Mr. Wishbone (3:31)
4. Elegy (6:07)
5. Love and Inspiration (14:05)

LINEUP:
Jerry Beller – drums, vocals
Matt Brown – keyboards. vocals
Kerry Chicoine – bass, vocals
Scott Jones – lead vocals
Mike Matier – guitars

A couple of years ago, the sudden demise of LA-based quartet Mars Hollow deprived the US progressive rock scene of one of its most promising bands. However, volcanic bassist Kerry “Kompost” Chicoine was not one to keep away from the limelight for too long, and – together with drummer Jerry Beller – he soon teamed up with former Ten Jinn guitarist Mike Matier, gifted keyboardist Matt Brown (also a member of Genesis tribute band Gabble Ratchet) and vocalist Scott Jones to form a new band that was given the high-sounding name of Heliopolis. Indeed, “City of the Sun” (the English translation of the Ancient Greek name, which also refers to one of the capitals of ancient Egypt) is a very appropriate name for an outfit hailing from sun-drenched southern California.

The cover of City of the Sun, released in the late summer of 2014 on 10T Records, is graced by the photo of an elaborate structure that looks like a modern version of the obelisks for which their eponymous city was known. The music inside embodies the band’s own description of “progressive rock, LA style”: based on strong melodies and catchy hooks as much as on instrumental skill, though with less of an AOR bent than Mars Hollow, it also reflects the band members’ optimistic outlook.

Clocking in at around 42 minutes, City of the Sun is carefully balanced, with the two longest tracks bookending the album, and the only instrumental track – also the disc’s shortest number – strategically placed in the middle. Writing credits are equally shared by all the band members, which contributes to the overall solidity of the album. While the individual performances are very strong, the emphasis is clearly placed on ensemble playing, and the result is remarkably cohesive, though with enough variety to keep the listener’s attention. Indeed, for such a compact running time, a lot seems to be going on in each of the five tracks.

The music on City of the Sun fits the description of modern symphonic prog, clearly influenced by Yes, but successfully avoiding the overt plagiarism that mars the production of other similar outfits. The ultra-heavy intro to “New Frontier”, with its nod to Black Sabbath (or also Yes’ “Machine Messiah”), slowly morphs into a more melodic scenario, introducing Scott Jones’ Jon-Anderson-meets-Geddy-Lee vocals, as well as Kerry Chicoine’s pneumatic Rickenbacker, aided and abetted by a Jerry Beller in top form. Seamless vocal harmonies and an infectious chorus soften the complexity of the musical fabric, while Mike Matier’s guitar adds bite and a touch of dissonance to the concoction. Matt Brown’s array of keyboards steps up to the plate in “Take a Moment”, which introduces some spacey, atmospheric elements as well as jazzy hints in a rather more somber context than the opening track.

The interlude provided by the unexpectedly angular, almost Crimsonian instrumental “Mr Wishbone” (complete with a guest appearance from a dog, Ricky Chihuahua) contrasts sharply with the melodic “Elegy”, an oddly upbeat song considering its subject matter (it is dedicated to the memory of drummer and composer Shaun Guerin, who passed away in 2003), and definitely the most mainstream number on the album. Things are brought to a close by the mini-epic “Love and Inspiration”, an ambitious piece that lacks the edge and complexity of “New Frontier”, spotlighting instead the band’s flair for grandiosity and the elegance of their vocal harmonies. Matier and Chicoine are in fine fettle on this track, again adding some jazzy overtones to the proceedings.

With some festival appearances (NorCalProg and the second edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend) under their belt, and a prestigious slot as openers of the ROSfest 2015 weekend before Spock’s Beard, Heliopolis are one of those bands who are most at ease when playing live, which makes their music truly come alive. Though they will never try to sell themselves as the most innovative of bands, their engaging manner and obvious enjoyment of their craft has already won them a lot of fans; additionally, City of the Sun puts a lot of potentially interesting ideas on display. Even if, in the past few years, my personal tastes have veered away from conventional prog towards more challenging fare, I have found a lot to enjoy in Heliopolis’ debut, and can warmly recommend it to those who are looking for a contemporary take on the traditional symphonic approach.

Links:
http://www.heliopolisband.com/
http://www.10trecords.com

Read Full Post »

cover_1936132222011_r

TRACKLISTING:
1. Terra Sancta (12:25)
2. Move Over I’m Driving (7:58)
3. Pasta Fazeuhl (14:02)
4-6. Under Wuhu Son:
In the Bright Light (8:22)
Left for Dead (5:36)
Brace Against the Fall (6:15)
7. From the Fence (12:05)
8. Belgian Boogie Board (10:31)

LINEUP:
Bill Ayasse – violin, viola, mandolin, hand percussion, vocals
Frank Camiola – electric guitar, banjo, string bass
James Guarnieri – drums, glockenspiel, orchestral percussion
John Lieto – trombone and bass trombone
Nick Lieto – lead vocals, piano, keyboards, trumpet, flugelhorn
Andrew Sussman – electric bass, cello, acoustic guitar

With:
Sharon Ayasse – flute (3, 4, 5, 6, 8)
Dennis Lippe – electric guitar (1, 7)
Dee Harris – Indian slide guitar, tambora (1)
Nitim Mohan-  tabla (1)
Vessela Stoyanova – marimba (1, 4, 5, 6)
Michael Kollmer – marimba, xylophone (3, 8)
Jon Preddice – cello (3, 8)
Steven Sussman – clarinet, bass clarinet (4, 5, 6, 8)
Steve Katsikas – keyboards (4)
Mike Kauffman – alto and tenor saxophones (8)

Though my reviewing efforts usually focus on recent releases, every now and then it feels good do break my own rules. This review should have been published three years ago on a different website, but, unfortunately, circumstances dictated otherwise. Almost unexpectedly, the opportunity for writing this long-overdue piece came barely over a month ago, when I had the privilege of seeing Frogg Café perform at the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend – a triumphant return to the stage after years of absence, and hopefully not a one-off.

Born towards the end of the 20th century in the New York metropolitan area as a Frank Zappa tribute band named Lumpy Gravy, Frogg Café have been through their share of lineup changes. However, their fifth studio album, Bateless Edge  – released in the early summer of 2010 – saw the return of their original lineup (including guitarist Frank Camiola),  augmented by trombonist John Lieto, who had appeared on their double live CD The Safenzee Diaries (2007). Although highly anticipated albums may often disappoint expectations, this is definitely not the case of Bateless Edge – an effort as monumental in scope as the odd-looking contraptions gracing its stylishly grungy cover in  muted shades of grey.

With the band’s six-piece configuration expanded by a host of guest musicians (including Steve Katsikas of 10T Records label mates Little Atlas) contributing a wide range of additional instruments, it is no wonder that Bateless Edge sounds big – symphonic in the true sense of the word. Indeed, in spite of the generic jazz-rock tag often attached to them, Frogg Café might be effectively described as the link between brass rock in the style of early Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears and Colosseum and progressive rock proper, with frequent forays into more experimental territory and a healthy balance between loose-textured jams and tighter, more disciplined compositions.

With a running time between 6 and over 20 minutes, the six tracks on Bateless Edge well represent their authors’ different personalities. Frank Camiola’s two ambitious contributions reflect his fascination with the more left-field fringes of the progressive spectrum (well displayed in his side project Cardboard Amanda’s eponymous 2006 album). The amusingly-titled “Pasta Fazeuhl” (inspired by Magma’s appearance at NEARfest 2003)  is a veritable rollercoaster ride in which angular Frippian guitar forms collide with brooding, cello-driven passages reminiscent of Univers Zéro and hauntingly military marches in true Magma style, with brief yet intriguing classical touches, freely blaring horns and wild bursts of guitar. Album closer “Belgian Boogie Board” was originally written in minimalistic form for the Cardboard Amanda album, but was then expanded and rearranged as a 28-page score involving almost as many instruments – a true tour-de-force that might easily be described as RIO meets brass rock, a joyful instance of controlled chaos.

Nick Lieto’s contributions, in stark contrast with Camiola’s, are definitely the most accessible on the album, emphasizing melody and a bright, upbeat mood. In the instrumental “Move Over I’m Driving”, Bill Ayasse’s sprightly violin and mandolin introduce folksy elements in its choppy, dance-like pace, to which the horns add a quasi-orchestral quality, and all the instruments take turns in a call-and-response pattern. On the other hand, “From the Fence”, for all its 12-minute running time, is the closest the album gets to a conventional song with a lovely, easy flow enhanced by Lieto’s expressive vocals and memorable, almost Beatlesian chorus; Ayasse’s stunning violin turn lends an appealing Old-World feel to the piece.

Andrew Sussman’s own two pieces bring those two strains together, with plenty of variety and a hint of an edge to temper the melodic quotient. “Terra Sancta”, dedicated to the children who lost parents in the 9/11 bombings, opens the album in authoritative yet catchy fashion (at odds with the stark, poignant lyrics), driven by buoyant horns and spiced by Eastern instruments such as the tabla and Indian slide guitar. A more somber, slightly dissonant section in the middle breaks this deceptively upbeat feel, with the guitar launching into a very expressive solo before the reprise of the main theme. The second of Sussman’s compositions, “Under Wuhu Son”,  is a three-part suite with another deeply emotional story behind it (this time a very personal one, as it refers to the musician and his family’s struggle to adopt a little Chinese girl), and acts as the album’s centerpiece also in a literal sense. The wistful, elegiac tone of “In the Bright Light”, intensified by lyrical violin, flute and marimba, segues into the surprisingly intense, metal-tinged riffing and forceful horns of the instrumental “Left for Dead”; then the intensity eases with the jaunty, melodic “Brace Against the Fall”, featuring a lovely guitar solo that shows Camiola’s more sensitive side.

Although my regular readers know that I am generally very critical of albums that I perceive to be excessively long, I will make an exception for Bateless Edge – the only album I have heard in the past few years whose almost 80-minute running time hardly has any negative impact on its quality. While there might be a bit of self-indulgence here and there, the overall level of the music is so high that those occasional lapses can easily be overlooked. With its tight musicianship and eclectic compositional approach, Bateless Edge celebrates the pleasure of music-making by offering the sonic equivalent of a lavish banquet. Though most dedicated prog fans will already have heard the album by now, those who have missed it would do well to give it a listen – or possibly more than one, as this is easily one of the best releases of the past few years.

Links:
http://www.froggcafe.com/

http://10trecords.com/

Read Full Post »

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/

Read Full Post »

The DC Society of Art Rock (DC-SOAR)  has been active for the past nine years in the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area of the US, organizing concerts and other events for those who share a love for progressive music in all its forms. DC-SOAR, which is a non-profit educational organization, currently counts nearly 200 members, and its activities are entirely funded through donations and ticket sales rather than through conventional membership fees.

In order to give exposure to the Society’s activity and support its future projects, in the month of November DC-SOAR will be holding two fundraising concerts at Baltimore’s famed Orion Studios that will showcase some of the best progressive/art rock bands currently active in the north-eastern part of the US.

The first concert, scheduled for  November 3 at 7 p.m. (admission: $20), will feature Northern Virginia’s own Ephemeral Sun (recently appeared at ProgDay 2012), alongside two New Jersey-based bands, 3RDegree and Shadow Circus, also ProgDay alumni (in 2009 and 2010 respectively). 3RDegree have recently released their fourth studio album, The Long Division, which has been received in very positive terms, while Shadow Circus’ third studio album, A Dark and Stormy Night, will be released in a few weeks on Georgia-based label 10T Records. All-instrumental quartet Ephemeral Sun are presently working on the follow-up of their critically acclaimed 2010 album, Harvest Aorta. The different styles and approaches of the three bands will offer the audience a cross-section of some of the most interesting trends in modern progressive rock.

The second concert, scheduled for November 17 at 7.p.m. (admission: $ 15), will present new Baltimore-based outfit Prophet Code (featuring Iluvatar’s keyboardist Jim Rezek), Washington art/music collective Zero Mercury, and genre-bending quartet Kabob-O-Taj, hailing from Gaithersburg (MD). Though these three bands may not be as well-known as the ones previously mentioned, anyone interested in discovering new music should check them out.

Both shows are open to people of all ages. As usual, members of the audience are encouraged to bring small folding chairs and coolers.

Address:
Orion Studios,
2903 Whittington Ave., Suite C,
Baltimore, MD 21230

Admission:
$ 20 (Nov 3)
$ 15 (Nov 17)

Links:
http://www.dc-soar.org

http://www.ephemeralsun.com

http://www.3rdegreeonline.com

http://www.shadowcircusmusic.com/

http://www.facebook.com/ProphetCode

http://www.facebook.com/ZeroMercuryMusic

http://kabobotaj.com/

Read Full Post »

TRACKLISTING:
1. Rome (14:11):
I. Prologue
II. Back To The Future (Part 1)
III. The Sands of Time (Part 1)
IV. The Final Word
V. Playing With Fire
2.  Fly (6:47)
3. Carpe Diem (5:47)
4. Vikings (17:28)
I.  Lindisfarne Abbey 793 AD.
II.Mercia 877 AD
III.Along The Fjords
IV.A Price To Pray
5. Epiphany (5:54)
6. Egypt (23:52):
I.  The Sands of Time
II. The End and The Beginning
III. Along The Nile
IV. Back To The Future
V.  The Sands of Time (Reprise)

LINEUP:
Barry Thompson- guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, lyrics (5)
George Andrade – lyrics, arrangements
Ryo Okumoto – keyboards, arrangements
Per Fredrik “Pellek” Åsly – lead vocals

With
:
Gerald “Mully” Mulligan – drums
Gordon Tittsworth –  lead vocals (5), backing vocals
Plini – lead guitar (1, 4, 5)
Brian Hong – violin (1, 5)
Lee Abraham – bass guitar (2, 3)
Jeroen Hendrix – keyboards (2, 3)
Brick Williams – lead guitar (3)
Christopher James Harrison – lead guitar  (4)
Stefan Artwin  – lead guitar (6)
Josh Sager – lead guitar (6)
Mark Higgins, Nicolette Collard-Andrade, Hannah Andrade, Taylor Andrade, George Andrade – spoken words

In spite of my long-standing relationship with progressive rock, I have never been a huge proponent of concept albums or rock operas. With few exceptions, these ventures are often underwhelming, resulting in overambitious pastiches that do no favours to the career or reputation of any act. For this and other reasons, I could not help approaching The Anabasis’ debut album, Back From Being Gone, with a feeling of trepidation.

Born in 2009 from the collaboration (and personal friendship) between two New England residents – multi-instrumentalist and composer Barry Thompson and professional writer George Andrade – The Anabasis is a project that was conducted and developed almost completely over the Internet. Though neither Thompson nor Andrade may be household names for the majority of prog fans, their extensive network of contacts on the international scene has helped them to gather a sterling team for the realization of their debut album. While the presence of keyboardist extraordinaire Ryo Okumoto (of Spock’s Beard and K2 fame) – as well as the support of 10T Records, one of the leading independent labels on the current scene –  is the most likely to attract the average prog fan, the other musicians on board are all equally talented, though perhaps not as well-known.

The Anabasis’ very name rings familiar to those who, like me and many of my contemporaries, have got years of classical studies under their belt. Meaning “advance”, it is mostly known as the title of Greek historian Xenophon’s most renowned work, concerning the feats of Persian prince Cyrus the Younger  and his army of ten thousand Greek mercenaries. Though Back From Being Gone bears no direct relation to Xenophon’s work, the connection with ancient history is very much in evidence on the album –right from the lush imagery contained in the stylish, very thorough booklet. The artwork superimposes Roman architecture and sculpture, Egyptian pyramids and Viking swords with computers and other trappings of modernity, and the striking cover suggests that our own very advanced civilization may soon go the same way as its predecessors.

The whole album, indeed, is a reflection on modern society and the legacy of the past, with its seemingly endless cycles of ascent, decline and fall – closely intertwined with an intensely personal story of fall and redemption. The six songs are split between three historically-themed epics and three shorter numbers based on the main character’s individual journey. Although such a concept might have turned out into a terminally cheesy, contrived mess, it radiates instead a palpable sense of  genuine emotion that characterizes a true labour of love, but all too often eludes undertakings of a similar nature

For an album entirely recorded over the Internet, Back From Being Gone is a surprisingly cohesive, organic-sounding effort. While the three epics follow very much the traditional, multi-part template, employing a recurring leitmotiv (both musical and lyrical) to emphasize the fil rouge running through them, the three free-standing songs, though obviously connected by topic, are quite distinct from each other in musical terms. “Fly”, with its sprightly, dance-like pace and bright guitar/synth alternation, is followed by the melodic yet riff-heavy texture of “Carpe Diem”; while the dramatic “Epiphany” veers sharply into metal territory, propelled by Gerald Mulligan’s acrobatic drumming and slashed by sharp guitar and whistling synth, Gordon Tittsworth’s ominous growl providing a perfect foil to Pellek Åsly’s melodic, well-modulated high tenor.

At 14 minutes, “Rome” is the shortest of the epic pieces, and also the most cohesive, with a haunting, Middle Eastern-influenced theme developed slowly but steadily by violin, guitar and Okumoto’s tapestry of keyboards – including the unmistakable rumble of the Hammond organ. A series of quotes from ancient and modern historical characters (from Julius Caesar to George W. Bush) anchor the lyrical content to present times, providing ample food for thought; the grandiosity of the piece, appropriate to its topic, never descends into mere pretentiousness, and the instrumental interplay always keeps melody at the forefront. “Vikings”, introduced by Gregorian chant and a narrating voice, takes on a darker, more aggressive tone – culminating with a dramatized account of the attack on a village in Mercia underscored by tense, cinematic riffs and crashing drums. Guest guitarists Plini and Christopher James Harrison contribute blistering fretwork, complementing Pellek’s passionate vocal performance. “Egypt”., at almost 24 minutes, is the longest and most ambitious number on the album, and, in my view, also the one that would have benefited from some editing (especially as regards the last part, catchy and upbeat but also a bit run-of-the-mill). Not surprisingly, it reprises the Eastern influences of “Rome”, though in a heavier key, with plenty of riffing and dramatic tempo changes; guest guitarists Josh Sager and Stefan Artwin (of German outfit Relocator) provide solos that range from shreddy, almost discordant to slow and melodic, with echoes of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.

Clocking in at about 74 minutes, Back From Being Gone is a long album, even for today’s standards. As clearly illustrated in the previous paragraphs, it also possesses a solidly traditional vibe that might put off those looking for more left-field listening material. It is, however, a lovingly-crafted effort, full of genuine warmth and enthusiasm, as well as outstanding musicianship – and a cut above the rest in terms of lyrical content, which is genuinely thought-provoking and accurately researched without being overly pretentious. Even if I am generally oriented towards more challenging stuff, I found Back From Being Gone a very enjoyable listen, and I cannot but applaud the effort and vision behind it. It is a pity that we will probably never be able to see this work performed on stage… Then again, who knows?

Links:
http://www.theanabasisproject.com/Home.aspx

http://10trecords.com/

 

Read Full Post »

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/

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »