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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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