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First of all, a little background information. Although I am a native speaker of Italian, the English language has been a constant presence in my life since I was 7 years old. Languages are not only a passion for me, but also my main professional expertise (I am a language teacher with experience as a translator), and probably my biggest talent, though I have not been able to learn as many as I would have liked. Having learned English at such an early age (something I will never thank my parents enough for), as well as a few other languages along the way, has not only allowed me to meet and communicate with people from every corner of the world, but also shaped the kind of person I am today, and my whole worldview. Therefore, whenever I happen upon people singing the praises of monolingualism, or stating that they do not need to learn any foreign languages because “everyone speaks English”, my hackles rise, and I tend to lose at least some respect for those who utter such nonsense.

While the original progressive rock movement originated in England, and extremely influential bands such as Yes and Genesis are as English as afternoon tea, that same movement put deep-seated roots in other countries whose first language is not English – first and foremost my native Italy, but also places as far removed from Europe as Japan, Brazil and Argentina. Nowadays the practice of English lyrics may have become widespread, especially out of commercial considerations, but in the early Seventies most bands and artists from non-English-speaking countries (with some notable exceptions such as many German bands) chose to use their native languages. Though lack of proficiency was undoubtedly  one of the main reasons (since foreign language teaching was not as widespread or methodologically advanced at the time as it is today), this choice was also closely connected to a desire to adapt the new musical trend to the musical and cultural roots of the artists. As any treatise on Italian prog (or RPI, as it is now commonly called in prog circles) worth its salt will clearly illustrate, the whole scene cannot be divorced by its use of Italian – a language that has been often labelled as “the most beautiful in the world”, and which has proved its worth time and again in the history of music, regardless of genre.

Obviously, there is also a school of thought maintaining that English is the only language suited to rock music –  which seems to hold more or less true for heavy metal, though not necessarily for other rock genres. In particular, the distinctive features of prog make it an ideal vehicle for just about any language, and not just because it contains extended instrumental breaks that make vocals almost an afterthought. No one who has ever listened to Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Los Jaivas or Ange (to mention three bands from different countries and cultural environments) will regret their choice to use Italian, Spanish or French instead of English, on account of the perfect fit between those languages and the band’s musical direction. Not surprisingly, real devotees of Italian prog are not particularly keen on “translated” albums such as PFM’s Photos of Ghosts or Banco’s As in a Last Supper, and even albums that were originally recorded in English, such as Cherry Five’s self-titled debut or New Trolls’ Searching for a Land, tend not to evoke as much enthusiasm as their Italian-language counterparts.

Indeed, the use of Italian is as much a part of RPI as the passionate, quasi-operatic vocal style or the incorporation of folk and classical elements – and the same holds true for Spanish or French prog. Even an impenetrable (at least for us Westerners) language like Japanese complements the music of Japanese prog bands much better than the often poor attempts at English lyrics – equally often marred by a less than stellar pronunciation (a common problem for speakers of languages with vastly different phonetic systems than English). Conversely, the choice to use English may come at the price of error-riddled lyrics and liner notes, with often laughable results that inevitably end up hurting the band’s credibility on the international scene. The misguided idea that English is a much easier language to master than, say, Italian or Spanish – coupled with the utterly deplorable trend of resorting to those terrifying language manglers, online translators – is the main culprit behind song titles containing visible blunders, or positively ridiculous lyrics which do a band or artist no favours.

In spite of all the arguments in favour of using one’s native tongue, there is still quite a lot of prejudice about progressive rock with lyrics in languages other than English – mostly on the part of people from English-speaking countries, though not always necessarily so. Many native English speakers are not used to hearing other languages spoken on TV or at the movies, due to the prevalence of English in the entertainment industry; some people may even feel threatened by what they cannot understand, while others are hampered by a kind of mental laziness, so to speak. This is especially true in a country like the USA, where English has always been instrumental to the assimilation of newcomers into American society – to the extent that most second-generation Americans do not speak their parents’ language. In general terms, Europeans are more used to hearing different languages, in some cases within their own country, and learning one or more foreign languages  (even as a hobby)  is definitely more common in Europe than in the US.

A couple of months ago, a shockingly mean-spirited attack on prog with non-English vocals was delivered in a review published on the only mainstream magazine currently dedicated to prog.  In his account of Il Tempio delle Clessidre’s excellent debut album, the reviewer stated that “ […] no matter how hard they might try to build it up, the majority of Italian prog bands have made little impact on the world stage”, and then proceeded to make matters worse by adding that “the blunt, politically incorrect truth is that, in spite of occasional flashes of musical magic,with all the lyrics being delivered in Italian, it’s still an album most would never listen to more than once.” Though it was not the first time that the magazine had taken a swipe at non-English prog, the virulence of the attack was unprecedented.

Obviously, the author of the review was unaware, or maybe intentionally oblivious, of the sizable number of people worldwide whose appreciation of Italian prog drives them to invest large amounts of money in the purchase of both vintage and modern releases. The same might be said for French or Spanish prog, or even for Eastern European acts, all of whom have a dedicated following in English-speaking countries. In fact, the news that Greg Walker, one of the foremost online prog sellers,  is organizing a festival for 2012 which will feature bands from Italy and other European countries (most of them singing in their respective languages) has already created a lot of anticipation in the prog community, proving that particular writer’s statement dead wrong, as well as unnecessarily chauvinistic. While people have every right to dislike music sung in foreign languages (and, in my years of frequentation of prog discussion boards, I have come across quite a few that fit this description), the line should be drawn at blatantly untrue statements, especially when informed by a sense of condescension and barely concealed xenophobia.

Personally, I find it rather sad that, in the second decade of the 21st century, there are still people who feel out of their depth when confronted with something even slightly unfamiliar. The aversion to foreign-language vocals might be compared to many people’s unwillingness to taste any “exotic” foods, even relatively tame ones, and it is definitely rooted in a reluctance to step out of one’s comfort zone. However, one would expect a bit more open-mindedness from fans of a genre that proudly bears the “progressive” tag, and the suspicion that there may be some ulterior motives behind statements such as the ones featured in that review leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Thankfully, in the far-flung community of progressive rock lovers there are enough people who recognize that understanding lyrical content is nowhere as important as being captivated by the music, and that vocals can often be considered as an additional instrument – regardless of what a singer is singing about.  Petty, spiteful comments such as “no one would listen more than once to an album not sung in English” paint their author as a narrow-minded person who is stuck in a sort of late-colonial frame of mind, basically viewing anyone who does not adopt their language as inferior and unworthy of attention. Progressive rock deserves better than so-called journalists supporting such bigoted views.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Pyjamageddon  4:16
2. Blind Jack of Knaresborough  4:21
3. Yockenthwaite  3:59
4. Metal Trees  4:52
5. The Cloud Of Unknowing 6:56
6. Blind Jack’s Unicycle 0:59
7. The Modern Architrave  5:43
8. Kirton In The Rain  3:55
9. Long Shore Drift  3:33
10. Rubber Road  3:16
11. Crossing the Bay 0:37
12. The Sun Unconquered  3:34

LINEUP:
Mark Joell – keyboards, tumbi, shouting through cymbals, funny vocals, funny handshake
Colin Robinson – 6-string fretless bass, corrupted vocals, shehnai, xaphoon, tablas, junk
Alex Stone –  guitar, accordion, kantele, portable harmonium, serious vocals

With:
Sean Corlett – voice (1)
Tim Bradshaw – trombone  (7)
Nastassja Joell – vocals (8,12)

In spite of England’s exalted status as the cradle of the original progressive rock movement, I do not get to review modern English bands very often. This week, however, I have chosen to devote both of  my new reviews to bands hailing from the British Isles, even if I can hardly imagine two acts as different from each other as purveyors of classy pop-prog Exhibit A and arch-experimental outfit Big Block 454.

Hailing from the north-western English city of Manchester – better known for its pre-Britpop scene of the early Nineties than for progressive music – Big Block 454 (named after a car engine developed in the Seventies) were founded in 1988 by Colin Robinson and Pete Scullion, and have been active since then, though in different configurations. Bells and Proclamations, their seventh album, sees them stripped down to a trio of multi-instrumentalists (including Robinson, the one constant member of the band) with guest musicians featured on some tracks.

Even a cursory look at Big Block 454’s back catalogue will clearly reveal their self-proclaimed nature as “a semi-amorphous post-modern / situationist neo-dada cross-platform compositional construct” rather than a band in the traditional sense. While quirky, absurdist titles such as Their Coats Flapped Like God’s Chops (their fifth album, released in 2004) might bring to mind post-rock bands, Big Block 454 are quite a different beast – a veritable melting pot of diverse influences and sources of inspiration, rendered in an outwardly conventional song form, with short, even snappy morsels which are instead densely packed with ideas and variations. This is art-rock in its purest and most literal form – indeed, in its earliest manifestation, the band provided the soundtrack for a Dadaist art installation. Though the easiest way to categorize Big Block 454 would be to place them squarely in the somewhat overcrowded RIO/Avant camp, if you expect something along the lines of the darkly mesmerizing chamber-rock of Univers Zéro or the Canterbury-meets-avant-garde compositions of Henry Cow, you will be disappointed. In fact, the band lean more towards the humorous side of the RIO/Avant spectrum, as embodied by the likes Samla Mammas Manna or Stormy Six, though with an uniquely British twist.

Armed with an impressive instrumentation, including both conventional rock staples and more exotic items, the band offer 12 tracks none of which runs longer than 7 minutes, and which might be very effectively described as deconstructed pop songs. While there faint mainstream suggestions to be found in Bells and Proclamations, they are treated as parts of a fascinating mosaic. Indeed, though the very first impression may be a bit too off-kilter for comfort, threads of melody will emerge from repeated listens, and the album as a whole may prove much less impenetrable than a lot of music bearing the RIO/Avant tag. Eclecticism is the name of the game here, and – though it will probably not have symphonic prog fans jumping for joy – the album will intrigue and reward motivated listeners.

All of the 12 numbers feature vocals, and the vocal style adopted by the members of the band complements the music perfectly – deep-toned, not exactly melodic, yet oddly catchy, occasionally even infectious. Opener “Pyjamageddon” immediately sets the tone, both with its quirky title (used as a chorus of sorts throughout the song) and its extensive use of electronic effects, enhancing an almost danceable tune that might bring to mind some instances of techno/house music. The next two songs develop in a similar vein: “Blind Jack of Knaresborough” blends snippets of melody with electronic noises, theatrical vocals and blaring sax over a strong percussive background; while “Yockenthwaite”, with its mix of the pastoral, the quirky and the experimental, made me think of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Things turn mellower with the haunting, folksy “Metal Trees” and its accordion-infused coda, and especially the beautiful “The Cloud of Unknowing”, the album’s longest item at almost 7 minutes – a hypnotic, psychedelic mini-epic driven by organ and melancholy guitar chords and vocals, again strongly reminiscent of early Pink Floyd – like a 21st-century version of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” minus the scream.

After the short, chaotic interlude of “Blind Jack’s Unicycle”, “The Modern Architrave” offers a skewed take on an Eighties synth-pop song, suggestive of archetypal ‘pronk’ acts such as The Stranglers, followed by an entertaining (though quite unrelated), circus-like section; while the brisk “Kirton in the Rain” evokes memories of Devo, with its funny vocal harmonies weaving in and out of the song. The hauntingly minimalistic “Long Shore Drift” is another highlight, with its slow, almost liquid movement and mournful vocals, which seems to flow into the muted, lullaby-like “Rubber Road”, peppered by faintly sinister creaking sounds. The album is then wrapped up by the snappy “Crossing the Bay”, almost like a Fifties’ pop song filtered through modern electronics, and the New Wave-meets-raga of  “The Sun Unconquered”, with its quirky, slightly out-of-tune vocals and atmospheric keyboard coda.

From the above description, it should be quite clear that Bells and Proclamations is the kind of album that is likely to send fans of traditional prog running for the exits. Indeed, I would call it a textbook example of the ‘great divide’ between ‘progressive’ and ‘Prog’. Needless to say, an open mind is indispensable in approaching this album, as well as the whole of Big Block 454’s output. This is an album that, as I previously hinted, may need repeated listens in order to sink in fully, and is also very unlikely to appeal to people who prize melody and great hooks. On the other hand, fans of Krautrock, Eighties new wave, electronic music and genre-bending acts such as Zappa, Gong and King Crimson (and eclectic-minded listeners in general) will find a lot to appreciate in Bells and Proclamations – a genuinely progressive effort with a welcome dose of offbeat, very British humour. The album can be downloaded (for free or by naming your own price) from Big Block 454’s Bandcamp page.

Links:
http://bigblock454.bandcamp.com/

http://bigblock454.tumblr.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Touch the Stars (4:21)
2. Carousel (4:16)
3. First to Last (5:24)
4. A Far Cry (5:37)
5. Rush of Blood (6:00)
6. Darker Sun (6:54)
7. Wake Up to Reality (5:08)
8. Missing Years (4:45)
9. Scenario (6:32)

LINEUP:
Dave Foss – vocals
Nick Hampson – guitars, voices (spooky)
Neil Foss – guitar, backing vocals
Steve Watts – keyboards, backing vocals
Paul Caswell – drums

As my long-time readers probably know, I have never been a keen follower of either neo-prog or AOR. In the Eighties – that supposed wasteland for good music – I mostly listened to heavy metal or new wave, and I never went much further than Fish-era Marillion in my exploration of the neo-prog scene. In recent years, thanks to my activity as a reviewer for several progressive rock websites and, I have got acquainted with a lot of diverse, challenging music, which has shaped my tastes in a direction that is often quite the opposite of radio-friendliness. Anyway, whatever my personal tastes, it is essential for a reviewer to keep an open mind and be able to step out of his or her comfort zone – which can lead to pleasant surprises, such as Exhibit A’s third album, the quaintly-titled Make Mine a Lobster.

Based in the county of Essex in southern England, Exhibit A were formed in 1986 after the demise of another band called Mithra. They released two albums in the early Nineties, then went into a lengthy hiatus that lasted until 2007, when the five members of the band got back together to discuss recording some new material. In the second half of 2010, Make Mine a Lobster was finally released – sixteen years after the band’s second album – attracting the attention of fans of the more melodic, listener-friendly variety of progressive rock.

Unlike so many modern outfits that do so while blithely ripping off other bands or artists, the members of Exhibit A do not claim to be purveyors of wildly innovative fare. Their album – skilfully composed, arranged and performed – is a tribute to the sheer joy of making music that has nothing to do with a desire to rake in the big bucks. They clearly play the music they like, without caring about whether it is trendy or rather a bit on the dated side. Although some reviewers have compared them to Asia, there is a world of difference between that custom-built supergroup, put together with the clear purpose of scaling the charts, and Exhibit A’s  genuine enthusiasm.

After reading reviews of Make Mine a Lobster, I was somewhat doubtful about what I was going to find – and was, instead, confronted with a genuinely pleasing listen, something that I might slip into my CD player for pleasure and not just for reviewing purposes. Thankfully, my attitude towards ‘pop music’ (a definition that is, in my opinion, way too broad to be used with any real accuracy) is anything but snobbish and narrow-minded. It takes quite a lot of skill to write a good pop song, and I would take good pop over bad prog any day. Bands like Exhibit A, who are not afraid of labelling themselves ‘prog-pop-rock’, are perfect for those times when I need music to please my ear without challenging it too much – and I do not mean this statement to be in the least patronizing. Weary as I am of the endless posturing and waving around of the word ‘proggy’ as if it was the greatest accolade, I found Exhibit A’s approach to music-making extremely refreshing and honest. In the Eighties, mentioning prog and Duran Duran in the same breath would have been next to anathema, but on their website Exhibit A proudly display quotes referencing the former ‘pin-up’ band. Indeed, their sound is firmly rooted in the Eighties, blending AOR, quality synth-driven pop and progressive suggestions in a classy mixture, admirably complemented by the clear, versatile tenor of lead vocalist Dave Foss.

Not surprisingly, Make Mine a Lobster is based on relatively short songs that display a rather traditional verse-chorus-verse structure. However, what sets the album above many comparable efforts is the tightness of both the songwriting and the performances, which does not allow for the presence of weak links. The two longest numbers, “Darker Sun” and “Scenario”, clocking in at almost 7 minutes, offer plenty of unobtrusive but noticeable progressive touches in the instrumental parts, such as excellent guitar-keyboards interplay bolstered by precise drumming, and slower, atmospheric sections. Album opener “Touch the Stars” and “Rush of Blood”, on the other hand, are definitely accessible tracks with some serious airplay potential, offering plenty of sweeping keyboards, soaring vocals and melodic guitar licks. All of the above-mentioned songs, as well as “Carousel”, bear the imprint of Rush circa Hold Your Fire. The slower, more subdued numbers like “First to Last”, with its moody guitar coda, and the piano-infused ballad “Missing Years” (featuring a lovely, almost Gilmourian guitar solo) may bring to mind Asia at their best, or even purveyors of quality Eighties pop like Tears for Fears or Talk Talk. “Wake Up to Reality”, with its subtle tempo changes and remarkable synth-guitar interplay, is somewhat more complex than the rest; while “A Far Cry”, despite the Rush reference in the title, brings again Asia to mind, spiced up by some sharper guitar riffing and enhanced by Dave Foss’s outstanding vocals.

Though I would not call it a masterpiece (and masterpieces are rather thin on the ground these days…), Make Mine a Lobster is quite a worthwhile effort, at least for those progressive rock fans who are not averse to the more accessible side of their favourite musical genre. True, the keyboards (especially the synths) may occasionally sound a bit dated, and, if you object to high tenor vocals or 4/4 time signatures, then you should probably give this one a pass.In any case, this is as accomplished an album as those released by bands in the same vein with far higher aspirations, and one that will appeal not just to fans of AOR and the catchier end of the prog spectrum, but also to anyone keeping an open mind as regards musical matters.

Links:
http://www.exhibita.org.uk/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. BunChakeze (1:57)
2. Whose Dream? (4:05)
3. Walk in Paradise (6:57)
4. Handful of Rice (5:10)
5. Flight of the Phoenix (6:20)
6. Midnight Skies (6:25)
7. Long Distance Runner (6:09)
8. The Deal (7:50)
9. Whose Dream? (reprise) (2:24)

LINEUP:
Colin Tench – guitars, synthesizers, backing vocals
Gary Derrick – bass, bass pedals
Cliff Deighton – drums
Joey Lugassy – vocals

With:
Alex Foulcer – piano

The rather weirdly-named BunChakeze (a ‘creative’ spelling of the more mundane ‘bunch of keys’) were one of the many bands born in the mid-Eighties who – in spite of  the much-touted Neo-Prog breakthrough of those years – found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Formed in 1984 by guitarist Colin Tench, drummer Cliff Deighton and bassist Gary Derrick after the demise of the six-piece Odin of London, like the former they were among the many casualties of the lack of interest in music that did not comply with the stereotypes of that era. All too aware of the indifference of record labels and promoters, BunChakeze voluntarily dropped off the radar and went their separate ways after having recorded an album’s worth of material.  Fast forward about 25 years, to 2010,  when  – thanks to progressive rock’s surprising Renaissance – BunChakeze emerged from oblivion. Taking full advantage of the possibilities of the Internet, they finally released their album, and set about to actively promoting it all over the community of progressive rock fans.

To be perfectly honest, when I got my copy of Whose Dream?, after having read a slew of enthusiastic reviews, I was curious to see if it really was the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread, or rather one of the many rather undistinguished releases that seem to be a dime a dozen on the current prog scene. Indeed, not everyone would view BunChakeze’s obvious enthusiasm about their release in a completely positive light, and some would even think, “do we really need yet another album by a long-dead band?”. On the other hand, though occasionally showing its age, Whose Dream? is a pleasant listen, easy to approach in just one listening session (unlike so many modern releases), and featuring some noteworthy guitar work courtesy of Colin Tench. True, it is not the most progressive album on the market, and its catchy nature may prove a turn-off for the more elitist fringe. Moreover, the sound quality is anything but flattering to the material: neither the tinny drum sound nor the dated, whistling synthesizers do the album any favours, and Joey Lugassy’s voice sounds positively strained at times. However, it is definitely no worse than many current releases frequently hailed as near-masterpieces beyond their true merits.

A strongly song-oriented album, with no tracks longer than 7 minutes, Whose Dream? shows a distinct lack of sprawling epics –a refreshing change of pace from the often overambitious efforts that seem to be the rule these days. Some of the compositions, in spite of their relative shortness, do have an epic scope of sorts: “Flight of the Phoenix” and “Midnight Skies” (dedicated to the plight of Native Americans) both offer enough tempo changes (though never in an overly complex fashion) and instrumental interest to qualify as mini-epics, The general mood of the album tends to be somewhat melancholy, both musically and lyrically – perhaps reflecting the frustration the band members were experiencing at the time the music was composed.

As the band members themselves are ready to admit, the biggest influence on BunChakeze’s sound are Pink Floyd, in their more subdued, hauntingly melodic incarnation rather than the experimental one.  The intro to “The Deal” is a dead ringer for “Welcome to the Machine”, and Colin Tench’s clear, smoothly flowing lead guitar pays more than cursory homage to David Gilmour’s hugely influential style. Hints of Kansas (without the grandiosity) surface in “Long Distance Runner”, while “Walk in Paradise” shows touches of Deep Purple-style hard rock (even in Lugassy’s vocal approach) in its first half, suddenly changing into a more melodic pace reminiscent of Genesis and Camel.  Two sprightly instrumentals  bookend the album,  putting Tench’s Spanish-flavoured guitar on display; while the above-mentioned “The Deal” is by far the darkest offering on the album, with its haunting bass line, echoing guitar chords, and almost lush keyboard sounds.

At the time of writing, though the various band members have long since been engaged in other things (not necessarily music-related), it seems that BunChakeze are definitely getting back together, possibly with a view to playing some live shows. Though Whose Dream? is certainly no masterpiece, BunChakeze are a group of talented musicians who deserve respect for their resilience and dedication to their craft.  A special mention should go to the very nice CD booklet, with thorough yet funny liner notes, lyrics (which are quite interesting, though occasionally a bit on the naïve side), and vintage photos of the band. Fans of neo-prog and melodic prog in general could do much worse than get hold of Whose Dream?, and help the newly reformed  band to fulfil their dream of finally performing on a stage.

Links:
http://www.bunchakeze.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Death Walks Behind You (7:24)
2. VUG  (5:03)
3. Tomorrow Night (4:02)
4. 7 Streets (6:47)
5. Sleeping For Years (5:30)
6. I Can’t Take No More (3:36)
7. Nobody Else (5:04)
8. Gershatzer (8:01)

LINEUP:
Vincent Crane – piano, keyboards, Hammond organ, vocals
John DuCann – guitar, vocals
Paul Hammond – drums, percussion

In the progressive rock community there is some controversy regarding the status of Atomic Rooster as a full-fledged prog band.  Like many Seventies acts often placed under the ‘heavy prog’ umbrella (Captain Beyond and High Tide to name but two), in the eyes of purists they are little more than glorified hard rock combos with some hints of something more complex, yet more akin to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath than Genesis or Yes. In recent times I have happened to see Atomic Rooster labeled as a ‘dark’ band – a definition that made me think of the likes of The Cure or Siouxsie and the Banshees rather than any of the classic bands of the Seventies.

On the other hand, as both the brilliant title and the iconic cover (depicting William Blake’s “Nebuchadnezzar” on a simple black background) suggest, Death Walks Behind You is a very dark album – a haunting, Hammond-drenched effort which sounds like a encounter between Black Sabbath and Deep Purple with ELP writing the soundtrack. In many ways, it can be seen as the blueprint for the heavier side of prog, a lavish feast for any self-respecting fan of the mighty Hammond organ, and a welcome respite from the pastoral soundscapes of  Camel or Genesis, or the mind-boggling intricacy of Yes. Definitely hard-edged, occasionally oppressive, undeniably raw and unpolished, it possesses the kind of power that many more recent albums strive in vain to achieve.

This is one of the rare albums that captured my attention right from the first listen. True, Death Walks Behind You is not perfect, but then very few albums are, even those normally hailed as masterpieces. Vincent Crane’s highly effective, aggressive playing style, perfectly complemented by the expressive voice and blistering guitar lines of John DuCann (formerly with proto-prog outfit Andromeda), is a real treat for the ears of every Hammond lover. The third band member, drummer Paul Hammond (who replaced co-founder Carl Palmer when the latter joined ELP), lays down a powerful backbeat, assisted by Crane’s skillful use of both keyboard and foot pedals to replace the missing bass lines. This idiosyncratic take on the classic power trio unleashes a massive volume of music that, while not as technically impeccable as what ELP or Deep Purple were producing at the time, is brimming with sheer intensity.

A couple of tracks relieve the tension and overall dark mood of the album – namely the catchy, almost upbeat “Tomorrow Night” (originally released as a single), and the heavy rock-goes-commercial “I Can’t Take No More”. Neither are personal favourites: in my view, especially the latter could be scrapped from the album without doing a whole lot of damage. On the other hand, the slow, melancholy number “Nobody Else”, dominated by Crane’s piano, sees a remarkably emotional vocal performance by DuCann, providing a perfect foil for Crane’s despondent, foreboding lyrics (he suffered from mental problems and ended up committing suicide, as did Hammond).

The real highlights of the album, however, are to be found elsewhere. The title-track is introduced by dissonant, menacing piano, then explodes into a memorably hypnotic organ riff punctuated by the obsessive repetition of the title, “Death Walks Behind You”.  “7 Streets” is a more structured composition, based on the interplay between organ and guitar, while “Sleeping for Years” is in a similar vein, though with a slightly darker tone – both excellent examples of vintage heavy prog, somewhat influenced by Black Sabbath, but with better vocals and lashings of keyboards replacing Tony Iommi’s monstrous riffing. The two instrumentals, “VUG” and “Gershatzer”, are probably the most progressive offerings on the album, showcasing Crane’s skills as a Hammond player; the latter, which is almost 8 minutes long, has the slightly loose feel of a jam session, intensified by the presence of a short drum solo.

Though not exactly flawless, Death Walks Behind You is an impressive offering  that is  almost a must-listen for Hammond fans and anyone who likes their prog with a harder edge (though not necessarily metal). A fascinating, almost addictive album by an underrated band, whose long but chequered career ended tragically with Vincent Crane’s death in 1989.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. A Visit to Newport Hospital (8:25)
2. Contrasong (4:21)
3. Boilk (9:23)
4. Long Piece No. 3 –  Part One (5:06)
5. Long Piece No. 3 –  Part Two (7:39)
6. Long Piece No. 3 –  Part Three (8:01)
7. Long Piece No. 3 –  Part Four (2:51)

LINEUP:
Mont Campbell – bass, vocals, organ, piano, French horn
Dave Stewart – organ, piano, tone generator
Clive Brooks – drums

With:
Henry Lowther – trumpet (2)
Mike Davis – trumpet (2)
Bob Downes – tenor sax (2)
Tony Roberts – tenor sax (2)

Released in 1971, Egg’s sophomore effort is one of those albums that, in a way, can be said to be representative of a whole movement, though they rarely get the appreciation they deserve. Though “Canterbury scene” may sound rather vague as a definition, being more about a place than an actual musical style, it is nonetheless undeniable that most of the bands and artists associated with this most peculiar subgenre do share a number of features that go beyond their somewhat ‘incestuous’ sharing of personnel. Many see the output of the  “Canterbury scene” as a subsection of jazz-rock with poppy leanings and occasional excursions into more avant-garde territory; however, to these ears at least, the best Canterbury outfits offer a complete progressive package of humour, sophistication, diverse influences, and remarkable musical chops. Quintessentially English,  with a timeless feel that often eludes the more stereotyped instances of symphonic prog, the Canterbury sound commands fierce devotion, though its quirky nature can also leave listeners somewhat cold.

To all intents and purposes, Egg was a continuation of Uriel, the psychedelic progressive quartet that also included guitarist Steve Hillage (later with Khan and Gong), whose only album was released in 1969 under the name of Arzachel.  After Hillage left, the three remaining members took a different, more experimental route, pushing the keyboards at the forefront, and dabbling in those genre-defining contaminations between rock and classical music – as witnessed by “Fugue in D Minor” and “Symphony No.2”, both featured on their 1970 self-titled debut album.

In spite of its cult status among true-blue Canterbury fans, The Polite Force is generally not rated as highly as the likes of Third or In the Land of Grey and Pink. Some reviewers have even hinted at comparisons with the much-reviled ELP – owing to the similar configuration of both bands – which, unfortunately, does not do the album any favours. Now, though I consider ELP one of the most influential bands in the history of progressive rock, and rate their first five studio albums quite highly, I do not find the connection between their sound and Egg’s as evident as some maintain. While The Polite Force is very much a showcase for Dave Stewart’s distinctive style, and therefore a real delight for keyboard fans, it would also be unfair to state that the band is dominated by him. In fact,  bassist/vocalist Monty Campbell and drummer Clive Brooks (who joined blues-rock trio The Groundhogs after Egg’s demise) do not just function as supporting cast for Stewart’s keyboard antics, but drive the band’s sound along with their impressive, though understated, skills. Campbell is also a vocalist very much in the classic Canterbury mould, with a polite (pun unintended), pleasant voice that is the perfect complement to the band’s quirky, complex sound.

Though seven tracks are listed on the back cover, the album actually comprises four compositions, one of which, “Long Piece No.3” is divided into four parts. “A Visit to Newport Hospital” is one of the most impressive openers to be found on a Canterbury album – introduced by an almost Sabbath-like riff, heavy and plodding, which suddenly loosens up into a cheery, sprightly organ section. The gently ironical lyrics, relating some of the band’s experiences in their Uriel days, are an unobtrusive yet essential accompaniment to Stewart’s elegantly assertive organ; Brooks’ drumming underpins everything with a discreet touch.  The song then comes full circle, ending with the same gritty organ riff as it began.  In the following “Contrasong” a full-blown horns quartet punctuates Stewart’s dynamic piano forays and Campbell’s urgent vocals, with a basic 5/8 9/8 pattern reminiscent of Gentle Giant’s counterpoint arrangements; Stewart switches to organ later during the song, propelling it forward in parallel with Brook’s drumming, and the horns coming in bursts.  Next comes the somewhat controversial “Boilk”, a full-fledged avant-garde piece almost 10 minutes long, very much in the vein of King Crimson’s “Moonchild”. The composition, which had already appeared on Egg’s debut (though in shorter form), opens with the sound of running water, and includes improvisations on a Bach theme, tolling bells and a host of other effects.

The album closes with the ‘epic’ instrumental “Long Piece No.3”, about 20 minutes long if taken as a whole – though its four parts are listed separately. As the liner notes point out, the ‘outer’ parts (One and Four) are rhythmically based, while the ‘inner’ ones are harmonically based. Interestingly, the whole composition comes across as somewhat fragmented, with frequent pauses breaking up the flow of the music. Part One opens with Stewart’s briskly repetitive organ, assisted by Campbell on piano and organ, and driven along by Brooks’ skilful drumming. Part Two immediately introduces Stewart’s fluid organ, with the drums going back to a supporting role (though essential), and a palpably more melodic texture – though its central section contains a sort of improvisational organ piece that might bring “Boilk” to mind. Campbell’s bass introduces the textbook-Canterbury Part Three, with its almost military drum pattern, unbridled organ flights (sometimes reminiscent of Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge), and tone generator adding wailing, guitar-like effects. Part Four wraps up the album in a short but intense climax, driven along by frantic drumming and harsh, fuzzed organ.

As Edward Macan intimates in his book Rocking the Classics, The Polite Force can be seen as bridging the gap between keyboard-based symphonic prog and the jazzier, quirkier sound typical of the Canterbury scene. Definitely one of the finest moments of  Stewart’s career, its eclectic nature – featuring as it does avant-garde experimentation, more or less ‘conventional’ songs, classical touches and plenty of instrumental brilliance –is likely to appeal to a wide range of fans of progressive music. While not a full-blown masterpiece like Third or The Rotters’ Club, it is doubtlessly one of the most interesting productions coming from the variegated Canterbury universe – and as such highly recommended.

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TRACKLISTING (2005  edition):
Disc 1:
1. Dark Side Of The Moog (6:17)
2. Down To You (9:05)
3. Gemini And Leo (4:48)
4. Secret Places (3:59)
5. On Second Thoughts (7:30)
6. Winds (10:23)
7. Castles Version 1. (previously unreleased demo – 1975)(11:09)
8. Gary’s Lament (previously unreleased demo – 1975) (7:00)
9. Walking The Park (previously unreleased demo – 1975) (7:05)

Disc 2:
1. Night Creeper (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (3:46)
2. The Awakening (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (11:43)
3. Siren Song (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (6:55)
4. Castles Version 2. (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (5:00)
5. The Scorch (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (4:39)
6. Rivers (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (4:27)
7. Interplanetary Slut (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (5:32)
8. Dark Side Of The Moog (BBC session, In Concert – June 1976) (9:00)
9. Siren Song (BBC session, In Concert- June 1976) (12:13)
10. The Awakening (BBC session, In Concert – June 1976) (15:46)

LINEUP:
Don Airey – keyboards, synthesizers
Jon Hiseman – drums, tympani, gongs
Gary Moore – guitars, vocals
Neil Murray – bass
Mike Starrs – lead vocals

Although I had been thinking for a while of posting a review of this album for my ‘vault’ series, the sad events of today have made it almost mandatory for me to do so.  And what better way to celebrate the life and work of Irish guitar legend Gary Moore – who passed away last night at the still young age of 58 – than posting a review of an album that sees some of his finest contributions to the history of rock music?

In spite of the name, the only connection between Colosseum II and the original Colosseum is the presence of monster skinsman Jon Hiseman (so conveniently forgotten in those boring “best drummer” polls, where everybody seems to think that Portnoy and his ilk are God’s gift to drumming).  The new band also showcased the considerable talents of keyboard maestro Don Airey (who went on to replace Jon Lord in Deep Purple) and bassist Neil Murray, nowadays better known for his stints in Whitesnake and Black Sabbath. Murray tends to be given less credit than other four-stringers – in spite of having previously played with such Canterbury legends as Gilgamesh and  National Health, where he took the place left vacant by Richard Sinclair after Hatfield and the North’s demise. The musical proficiency of somebody who can keep up with both Jon Hiseman and Pip Pyle cannot be so easily disregarded, and Murray’s playing on Strange New Flesh is immaculate.

However, Colosseum II’s ace in the hole was the fiery fretboard prowess of then 24-year-old Gary Moore, formerly with Dublin-based band Skid Row. Moore’s stunning guitar work gave  Colosseum II a definitely harder edge  than the band’s former incarnation – straddling the line between Colosseum’s blues-based, sax-laden jazz-rock and Deep Purple-style hard rock. Unlike other jazz-rock bands, Colosseum II did not start out as a purely instrumental outfit. For Strange New Flesh, their debut album, Hiseman and Moore enlisted the talents of  vocalist Mike Starrs  (later with German-based band Lucifer’s Friend). For some, the sometimes overpowering presence of Starrs’s otherwise excellent vocals – a powerful tenor that, at times, oddly reminds me of a richer, more restrained version of James LaBrie – detracts from the overall brilliance of the album. Personally, though I quite like Starrs’s singing (Moore’s backing vocals being quite abrasive most of the time, though he developed quite a respectable voice in later years), I must also admit to having a slight preference for the instrumental tracks.  As Starrs (together with Murray) was subsequently fired by the band’s record label, Colosseum II’s next two albums were almost completely instrumental.

Most of the songs on the album were penned by Moore, with the exception of the Joni Mitchell cover “Down to You” – apparently an odd choice, yet rather successful, mainly thanks to Starrs’ passionate vocal performance and Moore’s beautifully melodic guitar. The album, however, opens in a completely different vein, with the blistering keyboard and guitar tour de force of the aptly-titled “Dark Side of the Moog”. “Gemini and Leo” is a funkier, jazzier track, with Starrs sounding a bit like Glenn Hughes in his Trapeze years. The following songs, “Secret Place” and On Second Thoughts” continue in much the same vein, all featuring superb interplay between the four virtuoso musicians, as well as soaring, powerful vocals. Hiseman and Murray’s propulsive rhythm section is masterful throughout, but Moore and Airey are the ones who really steal the show, Airey’s majestic keyboard sweeps duelling with Moore’s fluid yet searing lead. Original album closer “Winds” , a 10-minute-plus epic, summarizes all that is great about this record, at the same time jazzy and edgy, with plenty of tempo changes and that magnificent guitar sound.

The 2005 edition contains some real treats for fans of the band, including a number of live tracks (such as a killer version of “Dark Side of the Moog”) and quite a few unreleased demos of songs, part of which would end up on the band’s following albums, Electric Savage and War Dance – notably the original versions of blistering, intricate “Intergalactic Strut” (here bearing the amusing title of “Interplanetary Slut”),  the self-explanatory “The Scorch”  and romantic ballad “Castles”.

The highlight of those bonus tracks, though, is  the utterly beautiful Moore showcase “Gary’s Lament”, a wistful slow burner that  sounds particularly poignant in the light of today’s news. Gary was the anti-shredder, a down-to-earth guy who could really make his instrument speak and sing with an almost human voice. This review is dedicated to him, one of the many great musicians who left us way too soon. On any account, Strange New Flesh is a superb album, highly recommended to all lovers of great musicianship combined with heart and soul.

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