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Though I have often commented on the sorry state of the progressive rock concert scene in the US (with particular reference to NEARfest’s untimely demise), 2013 has been a much more positive year than the previous two, and has brought unexpectedly good news. With the possible exception of ROSfest, which draws hundreds of attendees every year  (even if it has never enjoyed NEARfest’s instant sell-outs), festivals held in 1000-seater theaters seem to have become a thing of the past, as proved by the failure of a couple of attempts to organize events on a similar scale. However, some people who are well aware of the importance of live performances to keep non-mainstream music alive have not been deterred by those failures, and have taken the plunge. Adopting the model that has allowed ProgDay to survive without interruption for 18 years by being able to count on a core of loyal supporters, they have scaled things down, choosing smaller, less pretentious venues, and giving preference to mostly homegrown acts instead of relying on “big names” to attract a larger number of attendees.

Seaprog, which took place in Seattle on the last weekend of June 2013, proved that a smaller-scale event can be reasonably successful, even in a location not generally known as a “prog hub”. Less than one month ago, the year’s second “mini-festival” was announced by the group of volunteers and dedicated prog fans (affectionately nicknamed “staph”) behind the NJ Proghouse, a venture started by James Robinson in central New Jersey, back in 1999. In its various incarnations, the organization has been hosting high-quality progressive rock shows in different venues for the past 15 years, building a dedicated following in that densely-populated region of the US East Coast, and offering concert opportunities to both established and up-and-coming bands.

The two-day festival – named NJ Proghouse’s Homecoming Weekend – intends to celebrate the organization’s 15th anniversary with a top-notch selection of Proghouse alumni. It will be hosted by Roxy and Duke’s Roadhouse in Dunellen (NJ), which has been the group’s venue of choice for the past year or so, on the weekend of October 12 and 13, 2013. Eight bands will take turns on the stage, four per day, starting at 12.30 p.m. Single-day tickets and weekend passes (as well as other relevant information) are available from the organization’s website in the link below.

With the sole exception of Sunday headliners, Swedish outfit Beardfish (a firm favourite of the US prog audience), the bands invited to perform at the event are all based in the US, most of them hailing from the New York/New Jersey area. Vocalist/composer Tammy Scheffer (originally from Belgium, but currently residing in NYC) and her band Morning Bound have been drafted in to replace Oblivion Sun, who had to pull out because of scheduling conflicts. Together with young but already established bands such as The Tea Club, Thank You Scientist (who are also on the ProgDay lineup) and Chicago hotshots District 97, and Saturday headliners IZZ, the festival will also offer the return to the stage of two local glories: renowned jazz-rock band Frogg Café after a six-year hiatus, and Advent, who are putting the finishing touches to their long-awaited third album.

While neither Seaprog nor the Homecoming Weekend may fill the gap left by NEARfest for those who expect a festival to be a showcase of “bucket list” bands and artists, it is heartening to see that some US prog fans are willing to follow the example set by the UK and continental Europe by going the “small is beautiful” route. Even if the music world has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades, no amount of albums recorded with the most sophisticated techniques will ever replace the experience of a live concert – neither for the fans nor for the artists.

Links:
http://www.njproghouse.com/2013/06/13/nj-proghouse-homecoming-weekend-october-12th-and-13th-2013/

http://www.roxyanddukes.com/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Nobel behind the kit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Dobbs – the voice of 3RDegree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Pseja and his home-brewed ale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guitarist and founding member Patrick Kliesch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3RDegree having a good time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Robert James Pashman and one of his concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Based in New Jersey, Advent are one of the most distinctive bands on the current US progressive rock scene—though not one of the most prolific, having released only two albums since their inception in 1989. Now, nearly six years after the release of their second album, the highly acclaimed Cantus Firmus, Advent are busy writing material for their forthcoming third album. With a return gig that took place on December 11 (together with another talented New Jersey outfit, The Tea Club), and some recent lineup changes, the band are set to begin 2012 with a bang. Some time ago, I contacted core members Alan Benjamin and Henry and Mark Ptak, who have been so kind as to provide exhaustive answers to  my questions.

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Let’s start with the usual, very boring question on Advent’s beginnings, for those of my readers that are not yet familiar with you.

Alan: I moved to New Jersey in 1987 and very quickly formed my first prog band, Tangent, with an old friend from high school. Within a year and a half, though, the project imploded and I went into a phase of trying to find an established group that had an opening—but that only led to a series of auditions for bands that I knew I would never be happy joining (usually something I could tell within the first 30 seconds). Once the realization hit that there probably wouldn’t be a satisfactory group to join, I decided to place an ad in a local (New Jersey) musician’s magazine called The E.C. Rocker to see if I could at least find any compatible collaborators—and, thankfully, Henry answered.

With the previous series of “nightmare auditions” looming in recent memory (at that time), I thought it best to schedule a preliminary meeting where we would do nothing more than listen to recorded samples of each other’s music and discuss our mutual interests. It only took a few measures of hearing Henry’s first tune on tape—a solo version of “Rear View Mirror”—for me to realize that this was exactly the type of person I wanted to work with. Fortunately, he seemed to like the tapes of my music as well, and Advent was born. Mark (Henry’s talented brother) graduated from Berklee the following year and immediately joined to complete the three-member core that has existed for over 20 years now.

What are your respective musical backgrounds and main influences?

Henry: My earliest influences were probably popular recordings of Polish songs my folks used to listen to—and they also had some classical stuff around (mostly Chopin, and things like Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto), some of which I’d wind up hearing in popular-rendition form on Liberace’s TV show at that time. Like most people, my exposure to rock ‘n’ roll was from the local radio stations—Duane Eddy was an early favorite, followed by Elvis Presley, Hank Ballard, and Roy Orbison. By the time the Beatles arrived, I was already taking guitar lessons at the local music store. J.S. Bach, Procol Harum, and Keith Emerson got me into keyboards a few years later, and Genesis and Gentle Giant cemented the relationship. I got back into the classics mostly because of them—and Blood, Sweat & Tears (D. Clayton-Thomas era) also got me into jazz. Once the classical and jazz fields were opened up for me, I just devoured whatever my teachers (and anyone else whose opinions I valued) recommended. I listened to everything—a lot of the record stores back then had very knowledgeable staff in each department, and when they were unavailable, you could always look through the Schwann catalogs for a listing of those works most commonly performed by the best-known pianists and orchestras. In addition to Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Ravel were big favorites.

Alan: Having grown up with an intensely musical mother (who was quite an accomplished pianist and songwriter), music was everywhere in my early life. My mom likes to brag about how I “begged her for piano lessons” when I was two, but she forced me to wait until I turned three to start. Although dabbling with chord patterns from simple song books on my dad’s old F-hole Vega acoustic guitar, I eventually decided to take up the violin (around age eight) and became a bit of a child prodigy on the instrument, playing classical music with what had to be the best elementary school orchestra in New York City and also taking on extracurricular ensemble work.

My entire world became disrupted at age 12, however, by being sent (against my will) to boarding school in Pennsylvania—and, for some strange reason that I’m sure I’ll never uncover at this point, I was not permitted to bring my violin with me. On the bright side, though, my second roommate there obsessively played three albums that, almost immediately, shifted my primary interest toward rock music (in order of importance): Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack, Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard, and Kimono My House by Sparks. My mom bought me a Conn acoustic guitar that Christmas (which I was actually allowed to keep at school) and that ended up representing my ultimate change of primary instrument.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just list some of the artists I discovered between that time and the end of the 1980s, in chronological, that each had a lasting impact on my musical psyche (in addition to Queen, the one that had really stuck from my roommate’s initial exposure): Rush, Kansas, Genesis, Dixie Dregs, Gentle Giant, Saga, and Pekka Pohjola. The most significant long-term inspiration came from Gentle Giant in the early days followed a bit later on by Pekka Pohjola. I should also add that purchasing Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells when it was brand new (over a year before going to boarding school) also seems to have had a lasting impact in the way I approach composition and arrangement, although this is something that generally seems to manifest itself in a more structural/logistical manner.

Mark: I’m going to work backwards here. Lately, it’s been a good deal of sacred music. Singing in a number of church choirs over the years (some with Henry) has opened up the door to some wonderfully beautiful music that I would never have known was out there otherwise. Before that, there was my training from Berklee in Boston. Over there I honed my music theory, arranging, and jazz harmony skills, while also learning how to get around technical aspects of the studio. And Henry stands behind all that, actually—because it was from him that I received exposure, at a very early age, to Gentle Giant, Procol Harum, Genesis, ELP, Weather Report, and various baroque, romantic, and classical composers. He was also my first music-theory and piano teacher—and a tough one at that. Of course, it didn’t hurt to look at all that cool ’70s keyboard gear he had amassed by the time I was about five or so. That’s probably what started the ball rolling, really.

What is the story behind your name, short and sweet like many of the names of historic prog bands?

Mark:  I believe Alan’s wife, Amy, suggested the name. And naturally, Henry and I being practicing Roman Catholics, identified with its liturgical significance in the Church as one of expectation, or “coming,” as it were, of Christ’s Nativity. So that felt positive, we thought. Plus, it had a nice, short, and “final” kind of ring to it when pronounced. So yeah, I think it works well.

Alan: Yes, the name originated from Amy (my beautiful and musical wife), who used to be a rather serious keyboard player in her younger days. She came up with the idea of naming a band Advent back in college, but never had the opportunity to put it to use. When we were starting to think about band names, she shared the idea and we immediately thought it was perfect.

Though Advent have been in existence for almost three decades, there have been long breaks between your CD releases. What is the reason for that?

Alan: There are actually several factors that have conspired to keep things moving so slowly in this regard. The fact that we’ve always been a band of married guys with families and day jobs is probably the most significant factor—often resulting in having very little time available to actually work on music. Beyond that, a combination of several lineup changes and, for an extended period, trying to focus on too many activities simultaneously, set us back quite a bit. In fact, I don’t think we would have ever finished Cantus Firmus had we not made a conscious decision to stop looking for new band members and dedicate virtually all our time to making the album. Additionally, our material is often very complex and intricate, and it just takes a significant amount of time and effort to get the tunes written, arranged, rehearsed, recorded, and mixed to our mutual satisfaction.

Henry: The short, brutal truth of it is that we have to continue to support ourselves while attempting to keep Advent moving forward. As wonderfully supportive, generous, and dedicated as the people in the prog scene have shown themselves to be in their commitment to keeping the music alive, there simply aren’t enough ways to sustain a full-time living from writing/performing exclusively, so we all have to do other things to keep the electricity turned on in what has proven to be an increasingly precarious economic environment. I teach piano full-time, and perform with an all-Beatles show called Mystical Majesty Band in addition to writing and playing in Advent, and it’s still a daily struggle to maintain the kind of sustained attention and focus that work as detailed as ours tends to require. When something is finally finished, we’re all happy with the results, but getting there (especially today) often demands the kinds of interruptions such as are required for simple survival.

What about your recent lineup changes? Have they influenced the writing of your new material?

Alan: We’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderful players in the band over the years. Drew Siciliano (drums) and Benjamin Rose (bass), representing our previous rhythm section, were both amazing players that came from more of a jazz background. Our new drummer Joe D’Andrea, an old friend (that found out about the opening via my venting on Facebook), has a very diverse set of influences but approaches the music from a solid progressive-rock perspective—and is also a very gifted vocalist who plays violin quite well. We also had a new bass player for about a year and a half, but I’m afraid that things didn’t quite work out in the end and we just parted ways in early 2012. (We’re actively looking for a suitable candidate to fill this new opening, but I’m already making preparations to start recording bass parts for the new CD if we can’t find someone quickly.)

Although I can’t really say these changes have dramatically influenced the way we’re writing or arranging new material for the album, we are starting to think about optimizing some of the arrangements for a single guitarist due to the fact that Greg (Katona, our second guitarist) is not planning on participating in future live performances with the band at this point. I’m very happy to say that Greg is still very actively involved in both our creative and recording processes, though, and has already laid down some beautiful guitar work for the third Advent album.

Mark:  Maybe it’s influenced us a little bit. I don’t know, I think we still approach writing mostly the same way we always have, only now we’ve been able to try things live during rehearsals with the full band and see what worked and what didn’t. That’s a nice thing to have happen because it makes the transition to live performance a lot easier. Much of the re-arranging gets cut down, which speeds things up for us—somewhat. (Ha ha.)

You have been called the most European-sounding of American bands, and especially Cantus Firmus shows your fascination with the Old World and its centuries-old musical tradition. Can you expand a bit on this particular subject?

Henry: I think the way we approach form has a lot to do with that. Most popular music (including many jazz standards) follows either a 12-bar form, or a standard “verse/chorus/middle eight/what-have-you” formula, which is very well-suited to shorter works. With longer pieces you have to consider how to sustain musical interest as you stretch out. I have nothing against the solution of extended soloing to fill the time, especially in the hands of great players like Pat Metheny, Joe Zawinul, or Herbie Hancock. However, I’m not drawn to that particular solution in the same way that I am to models which are more in line with the European classics, and if you go down that road, it’s inevitable that you’ll “discover” sonata form, counterpoint, thematic development, and all the rest of it—and pretty soon you find yourself referencing musical antecedents that lead all the way back to Gregorian chant. I’ve always been of the opinion that the audience which grew up on a diet of the simple pop tunes of early rock ‘n’ roll eventually wanted something a little deeper by the mid-sixties, which would account for all of the classical/jazz/folk/rock hybrids comprising much of the early prog catalog that became popular soon afterwards. I personally think it represented a hunger to reconnect with musical roots that ran deeper than the weekly chart-breaker—and, for me at least, that meant European music, which I believe is the best we have.

Do you see yourselves as “retro-prog”, and what is your opinion of such a label? Do you see it as unfair, or do you wear it as a badge of pride?

Alan: I don’t think the “retro-prog” label can accurately be applied to Advent—at least not based on any music the band has released up to this point. That being said, I believe our musical ethos to be more in line with many of the classic prog bands than most of the acts who fall quite squarely into that “retro” category. To further qualify, I think virtually all these (retro-prog) bands feature arrangements—especially from the standpoint of timbre—that sound as though their recordings could have been made in the 1970s. Our music, however, does not favor that approach at all and contains at least as many textures that would never have been heard back in prog’s heyday. Or, to put it another way, I like to think that we expand rather significantly on the retro sound, while still leveraging at least some of the elements that made classic prog music so appealing—but I don’t think anyone would ever mistake any Advent tune for having been recorded over 35 years ago.

Henry: If, as I suspect, “retro” is to be understood as describing a musical approach with influences directly traceable to the best work of earlier practitioners of a particular genre, I suppose I’m OK with that. Even to call what we do an “homage”, or “in the manner of” is in my opinion misleading, because (as Alan has already expressed), there’s other things of a more eclectic nature in what we do. The influences are there, sure, but the problem with the word “retro” is that it leaves one wide open to the philological mischief it affords to self-styled iconoclasts (like the chain-smoking Marxist motormouths of my college days),who want to bury the past altogether. I would oppose the use of the term to the extent that it is used with a subtly dismissive spin, the intent of which seems (to me at least), to suggest a want of imagination, or to put it another way, an absence of “progress”, if “progress” is to be measured along the same tired old deconstructionist/Socialist/Satanist agitprop measuring stick some of these people would confine it to.

Mark: You know, I really don’t care what you call us, as long as you listen to the darn music. What’s being said musically is what’s most important, in my mind. There’s a certain eternal connection your soul has with music, and that’s what Henry and I (at least) try to tap into. We try to knock on that door and make an impression on you that lasts – hopefully for a lifetime. Some music has done that to me, and it doesn’t matter one bit what its label is, or how people identify it. I just know that when I listen to it, it does something beautiful inside that words can never describe. My badge of pride would be to have that happen to at least one person with even a few bars of a tune that I wrote or helped to arrange.

And now, the obligatory question about your songwriting process. How do you go about it? Does writing new material come easy to you?

Mark: Very seldom does any one idea blossom into an entire tune for me. We’ve all got bits and pieces left over from other things, or short snippets of ideas that we constantly try to mix and match with each other’s fragments to see what fits. The cool thing that Henry and I like to do sometimes is to take an existing idea, throw it into a sequencer and flip it backwards or upside down, or even in retrograde inversion. That produces a lot of caca sometimes, and a good belly laugh other times—but every once in a while you get something really interesting that sticks. The middle section of “Awaiting the Call…” is actually an idea I had that was played in reverse, or upside down … I forget now. After a little revising, that became the dual acoustic guitar/mandolin part. Funny thing is, the original idea was just as good as far as I’m concerned. Who knows? You might hear that show up somewhere at some point.

Henry:  It varies. For most of Advent’s existence, we’ve tended to treat rehearsals as something of a songwriting workshop, where we’d each come in with sections of material prepared—sometimes collectively, though mostly individually—and try to move things forward section by section. Since we’ve got two locations equipped with recording facilities, that occasionally involves recording some of what we have in varying stages of completion to try to get more of a sense of how the final song is going to sound, and then make the inevitable adjustments where required. Starting from nothing, of course, tends to slow things down a bit—and since so much of the compositional process depends on finding the right arrangement for whatever raw material we’ve started with, it’s important to know early on whether the song idea in front of you has possibilities or not.

Alan:  We all approach the creative aspects of this task quite differently in my opinion—although I would also say that Henry, Mark, and I are all fairly consistent about wanting to develop our basic compositional structures and arrangements independently (before bringing the pieces into the group for additional input). I tend to spontaneously write small ideas on a regular basis, but it takes a concerted effort to turn one or more of these snippets into a complete piece of music—and this process typically involves a significant amount of time, effort, and discipline. In this regard, it really helps to have some kind of goal in mind which drives a commitment to get the piece done on some sort of schedule.

On the next Advent CD, I also composed two short pieces with (our other guitar player) Greg. This was a very collaborative process that started with my beginning each composition, transcribing what I had into Sibelius (the music-notation program), and sending both scores and Sibelius-generated audio to Greg. He would listen to the results and compose his parts to match what I started—and then, upon reaching a certain point, Greg would take the lead and develop the following section of the tune, for which I’d have to go back and write my parts to match. Once in a while we’d come to some form of disagreement, but that would eventually get worked out. In the end, though, I’ve been tremendously pleased with the final results and really hope that Greg and I can continue to work in this fashion well into the future.

As I wrote in my review, my first contact with the music of Advent was your contribution to Musea Records’s Dante’s Inferno 4-CD set. How did that collaboration come about, and what was your experience? Are you familiar with the literary work at all?

Alan: If memory serves, Marco Bernard (Colossus) reached out to us directly and solicited our involvement in the project. Although Henry and Mark were a lot more familiar with the text than I, we all thought it sounded like something which could be right up our alley. The assignment also provided our first opportunity to collaborate with Greg on an original composition—something that went very well in my opinion. I also think Henry’s daughter (Thérèse) did a wonderful job on the vocals.

Henry:  I was already acquainted with The Inferno, having read it in college and once or twice since then—so when Alan informed us about the Colossus-based project to do a prog collection encompassing the first canticum of Dante’s Divine Comedy, I thought it would make for an interesting subject around which to build a composition. Happily, we were all in agreement about doing it, even though we knew it involved another redirection of focus away from the new CD. First of all, it was the initial (and only) Advent studio recording featuring the six-piece ensemble that had been gigging since the release of Cantus Firmus—and the tune also provided an opportunity to showcase Greg Katona’s formidable skills on classical guitar, for which he wrote his own part. The style of writing was quite a bit darker than is typical for us, which one might expect given the subject matter. Coming up with a “visual” program to describe the events in “Canto XXVI” took a few tries, but when it was completed, I was amazed at how compellingly Greg’s contribution captured Dante’s “lament” over Florence at the outset of the work. I would have enjoyed being a part of the Purgatorio and Paradiso collections as well, but there just wasn’t time for additional detours from writing our new CD. Congratulations to Marco, Colossus, Musea, and all involved, though—great idea!

Mark: It was a very welcome experience as Alan and Henry have already pointed out. It was a little out of the way in terms of what we do, but the subject matter was an interesting one for all of us and enabled the band to stretch out a bit, compositionally. I’ve been aware of Dante’s Divine Comedy for years, but never read any of it until we signed on for the Musea/Colossus project. I read Inferno in preparation for what we were going to create, and I think that helped me a lot in the mixing stage. I started to read Purgatorio shortly after that and got through a decent part of it, but never finished. I’m confident I’ll get to the rest of it, and Paradiso, at some point. I’m a bit too busy right now, though.

You seem to have a keen interest in literature as an inspiration for your lyrics. Can you tell me something more about it?

Henry: I think we sometimes find it easier to form a compositional image when we have some sort of preexisting template to work from. Some people have difficulty visualizing a musical analog for a vibe communicated by a painting or a literary work, but we seem to manage it somehow. Perhaps growing up hearing everything from movies, to TV shows, to Warner Bros. cartoons, so skillfully set to music has left its mark. (I’m not sure.) Whatever the reason, the operation of transitioning from words-to-mental-picture-to-music seems a pretty natural one. I think it also helps that we all, by disposition, seem to have a preference for a type of lyric that most resembles poetry, where the images and references tend to be both varied and colorful. It seems to afford more room for the imagination to latch onto something useful in regard to projecting an atmosphere. Lyricists who write in that manner have a gift for finding ironic peculiarities in everyday things that most of us would miss—especially if things were not framed in quite the same way. I always felt that Arthur Hoffman (Advent’s lyricist on our earlier works) definitely had that “poet’s eye” and it made his imagery very easy to visualize musically.

Alan, Henry and Mark play a number of instruments, and also sing. Which instrument do you privilege, and what is your approach to playing live and in the studio?

Alan: While I play a fair number of instruments, I’m definitely most comfortable with guitar and bass, followed by Stick, violin, and mandolin. Beyond that, I tinker with things like recorder and flute—and still like sitting at a keyboard as often as time permits. I also love playing drums, but doubt that I’ll ever fulfill my fantasy of becoming the next Marco Minnemann. J Also, now that Advent has three impressively strong vocalists, I’m definitely the weakest link in this regard—but, like other things that extend beyond my natural abilities, I tend to compensate by practicing a lot.

We generally record most parts individually—and, in these instances, I tend to favor recording multiple looped takes of sections that are generally of a short-to-medium length. Since I have to double as recording engineer in virtually all cases, this approach allows me some time after starting the recording (and sometimes having to jump into position following that) to “get into the zone” and deliver a truly musical performance. When I have to record something live with one or more band mates, though, my tendency is to just practice like crazy to internalize the parts as much as possible in advance—which is really the same strategy I use to prepare for performing on stage.

Henry: I’m primarily a keyboardist who occasionally dabbles on the mandolin and guitar. Since a lot of what we do, both live and in the studio, involves fairly elaborate arrangements, we tend to use our instruments with an orchestral scope in mind. At present, we basically just try to reproduce, in a live setting, quite a bit of what we liked most about the recorded arrangements, with the occasional surprise worked in just to keep things interesting. Since this approach usually means rather involved performance demands on all of us, it tends to make for very busy hands (and sweaty palms) at gig time. That said, we all seem to prefer that to losing any part which one or more of us has come to enjoy hearing in the original, and the execution of the tricky bits seems to get better with each successive gig.

Mark:  Henry and Alan (and Joe, our drummer) are the real multi-instrumentalists in this group. I pretty much stick to keyboards and singing. If you put some percussion stuff in front of me, I can bang on it well enough to give you something pretty cool. And I can program a pretty mean drum part, but that’s about it. Actually, come to think of it, I do play the radio pretty well (and pretty loud). As far as live-vs.-studio approach is concerned, it’s the same thing in both situations for me, with the exception of missing the audience in the one case (and sometimes in both, LOL). Honestly, I try to keep things the same for both instances to make the transition easy and smooth—same gear, same setup, etc. The less surprises, the better, as far as I’m concerned. The keyboards are hard enough as it is without adding to the complexity of the performance itself. Even as a group, the performance mirrors the rehearsal, really. We haven’t consciously tried to deviate from that up to this point. There hasn’t been a need to in our minds, I think.

What have been your experiences as a live band?

Alan: That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, actually. On one hand, I think we’ve enjoyed many special moments and have been very fortunate, at least on occasion, to connect rather significantly with our audience. Given the complexity of the music and the corresponding amount of preparation necessary for each show, though, it’s really a shame that we haven’t been able to perform more than three times a year thus far—and I’d really like to be able to play a series of gigs in a row (or, ideally, book a short tour) where we could leverage all this hard work and make the kind of performance-related refinements that only seem to come from playing in front of a live audience on a fairly consistent basis. On the bright side, I’m very happy that we played out again, for the first time in over two years now (and with the debut of our great new drummer, Joe D’Andrea), at the NJ Proghouse on December 11th  – and having our talented young friends in The Tea Club on the bill as well was also a particularly special treat.

Mark: We’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderfully talented people in this band over the years. But as with any ongoing project with which you may be involved, especially if you’re at its foundational level, there tends to be a few revolving-door positions as people come and go, which is fine. It makes it a little harder and things tend to take a bit longer as a result, but we still manage to put together an interesting show. All members, past and present, have really put in a lot of hard work for full-band rehearsals and countless hours of home preparation for material that is not very easy to get around. Believe me, for that we.re very thankful. When everyone is in the pocket and the energy is high, it really is a mind-blower. And that just goes to show that the material is good, in my mind. When you can get excited all over again with different people playing the same arrangements, I think that says a lot about the tunes and their arrangements.

Henry:  In general, quite good. Audiences have been wonderfully supportive, especially through all those critical first few performances when we were all sort of still finding our feet as a live band. Our second gig ever was at ProgDay, and the people there were most forgiving and kind—especially considering the jitters and mental lapses we were so vulnerable to in performing things like “Ramblin’ Sailor” in its entirety for the first time. We’ve also had nothing but good experiences with those people entrusted with getting us a good live sound, in what can only be described as a very difficult mix to get just right. Special thanks to Jim Zipf and also Kevin Feeley for their fantastic work and patience on this count.

What is your relationship with the thriving New Jersey prog scene?

Alan: Well, I’d say it’s all very much centered around the NJ Proghouse, all the organization’s incredible “staph” and leadership, and the network of amazing fans, musicians, and venues that support it all. Amy and I started as concertgoers, actually, first attending the (pre-Proghouse) Flower Kings/After the Fall show that took place in New Brunswick over a decade ago. After attending quite a few gigs and getting to know Jim and the gang, we were so appreciative to have the opportunity to hold Advent’s live debut at the Proghouse—and, since that time, Amy and I have both become very active “staph” members ourselves, helping to put on some of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen. On top of that, our great friendship with Jim, Ray, and all the other “staph” members is probably the best part of it all.

On a related note, how do you see the future of the US prog scene, especially after the announced demise of NEARfest after its 2012 edition?

Alan: That’s another tough question. I think it’s getting increasingly harder for anyone to monetize their music in general, much less that which clearly falls outside of any commercially viable genre—and, while we’re based out of New Jersey, I get the sense that this is a global phenomenon (at least in general). NEARfest coming to an end is merely indicative of the larger problem, in my opinion. Inspired composers and musicians will always strive to make great music and I think that intelligent, imaginative, open-minded listeners will always seek something new to hear—and, hopefully, own. It’s a complicated subject, though, and there are a lot of factors that come into play, including things like declining disposable income, increasing availability of free music (whether legitimately streamed or illegally downloaded), and the fact the market for nostalgia-based fandom is starting to dry up (due to most of the prominent old-school acts already having performed big festivals like NEARfest or simply not playing anymore).

When do you expect to release your new album? Have you already thought of a title?

Mark: As has been already mentioned, we’ll be shooting for a 2012 release, and hopefully earlier in the year than later. We’ll see. It’s never an easy task with Advent compositions and arrangements, but we’re working hard to get it done as quickly as we can. There are a few titles floating around in our heads, but nothing that’s been discussed openly yet, I think. That will probably come as we get closer to the end of the mixing stage. I should also add that we will be using Michael Phipps again for cover art. He did an absolutely gorgeous job on Cantus Firmus and I can’t wait to start working with him again on the concept for the new release.

Alan: I agree that we’re pretty well committed to having the album done in 2012, although I must confess to being a little less optimistic than Mark about the specifics and have a feeling that the second half of the year may be more likely. (I hope he proves me wrong, though.) Most of the tunes are fairly complete in terms of composition and arrangement at this point and quite a bit of recording has already taken place. As such, I think we have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to sound, but I wasn’t aware of any serious thoughts about the album title yet. I’ll have to see what the other guys are thinking.

Do you have other plans for 2012?

Henry: As of now, only two—release the best album we possibly can, and play in front of more people!

Mark: Something tells me it’s going to be practice, practice, and more practice.

Alan: From an Advent perspective, I’d say finishing up and releasing the new CD is definitely the top priority. After that, though, I really hope we can get back on stage and play a bunch of gigs. On a personal note, I hope to get a few collaborations into high gear and, perhaps, start working on recording some solo material.

All: Thanks so much for the interview, Raffaella! We really hope that you and your readers enjoy it. All the best!

Thank you for your time, and best wishes for the completion of your new album!

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Based in the New York/New Jersey area, Shadow Circus first came to the attention of progressive rock audiences in 2007, with the release of their debut album, Welcome to the Freakroom.  However, it was their sophomore effort, 2009’s Whispers and Screams – followed by their appearance at the 2010 edition of ProgDay – that put them on the map for the majority of prog fans. With their theatrical image and lyrics inspired by the cream of science fiction and fantasy literature, as well as a powerful yet melodic sound that, while harking back to the golden years of the genre, does not shun contemporary trends, the band have attracted a lot of interest in recent years. They are now working on their third album, which should be released in early 2012, and have just released a maxi-single with two new songs, “Rise” and “Daddy’s Gone”.  The members of Shadow Circus (guitarist John Fontana, vocalist David Bobick, bassist Matt Masek, keyboardist David Silver and drummer Jason Brower) have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

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 Though your history is briefly but effectively outlined on your website, would you mind expanding a bit on the why and how Shadow Circus came to be?

John: I’ll try to address some aspects of that which might not have been mentioned before. I had been playing in some bands, such as Persona Grata, Violet Love, and Omnilingus, which were all born out of the early 90’s alternative rock scene. The music I had been doing was much more based on a heavy, funky, psychedelic thing, more akin to Jane’s Addiction, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. But, I always saw progressive rock as how I wanted to express myself musically, and so all of those bands had some of that element, albeit well-hidden much of the time. I took a break from it for a few years, and promised that when I returned to music again, it would have to focus on what I genuinely loved. As I auditioned for progressive rock projects, I had a problem that none of the recordings of my previous bands showcased what I could do in that context, so I made some demos to show what I could do with Prog. Dave heard what I was doing, and insisted that I form a band to perform the music I was recording, rather than just treat it as an audition demo. Those demos ended up becoming what is now called “Journey of Everyman”.

Dave B: Yeah, in the simplest terms, it became a vehicle for John to produce the “whirlwind extravaganza” that is going on in his head. Thus far that “extravaganza” shows no signs of stopping…LOL!!

Your lineup has changed since I saw you play live last year. How did you acquire your new members?

John: Well, our newest member is actually one of the original members. Our bassist, Matt, had to leave the band after the first album due to logistical issues. When we searched for a bass player this time, we contacted him on a long shot, just in case he could do it again, and we were very fortunate that the timing worked out perfectly. As for keyboards, we were originally getting ready to audition David Silver’s brother Harry, who realized while preparing for the audition that it would be more of a time commitment than he could handle, and so referred us to David, which also worked out incredibly well.  Jason answered our online ad, and blew us away with his first audition. Then he blew us away even more with his second audition. He’s apparently made a habit of blowing us away every time he gets behind the kit…and piano, as well!

Jason: Thanks, John. Remind me to give you that 20 bucks next time I see you. I had seen the name Shadow Circus all over the place on Internet prog sites and knew they had a presence of some sort in the newer prog circles, so, when the opportunity arose to possibly be a part of that group, I contacted John, sent him some video of my playing and set up an audition. I’m glad I did. This is a great bunch of guys and a great band, musically and personally.

Dave B: Basically it was a necessary evil. No one loves auditioning. It can be a bit grueling but once Jason came in that first time the process just got easier. I’m not the most easy-going person on the planet but in a lot of ways Jason is. This really helped. PLUS…he’s a Kiss fan and as you also know Raffaella, that’s a big deal in my world…LOL!!! You are, too, so I know you understand :-). Finding a Keyboard player was a bit daunting at first. It always seems to be the hardest position to fill but MAN…David is just THE perfect fit for this band. He’s just nuts!!! He’s got this crazy sense of humor that works with everyone and most importantly he’s genius on the keyboards. So, we really try hard to accommodate his schedule and make it work. As for Matt…well…we were definitely getting a tad nervous without a bass player and I have always wanted Matt back in the band since the day he left   but always figured, much like John did, that he would not be able to work things out. Alas, that was not the case. He actually jumped at the chance and to be honest, with Matt in the band it kinda feels like “home.” It’s the way it should have been from the beginning 🙂

David: As John said, my brother told me he knew of a band that was looking for a keyboard player.  This was at a time when I had no interest in joining a band.  But I listened to the music anyway and it reminded me of my musical roots while still sounding fresh.  On reflection, I came to realize that the Circus had a lot going for it and I was lucky to have the opportunity to step into this situation.  So, how did I come to join?  I stepped in it.

Did all of you grow up with classic progressive rock as your main influence, or are there others that you would count as equally or even more important for your development, both as individual musicians and as a band?

MattA high school friend turned me on to Genesis in 1977 and I was hooked on prog rock from that time on.  I had always loved the classic rock standards like the Beatles, the Doors, the Who and anyone from Motown but Genesis absolutely sparked my love of prog.  I am classically trained so the sweeping melodic grand themes of prog remind me of the masters of classic symphonic gems.  I would have to say that training laid the groundwork for my love of prog!

John: I had a friend in 6th grade who got me into classical music. He was a wicked violinist. Actually, I’ve recently been in touch with him, and he is now the touring bassist for Peter Murphy. But, I digress. He got me into Stravinsky, Beethoven, Brahms. Then I started hearing hints of classical elements in the music my older siblings were listening to. Hearing Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song” was a pivotal moment for me – what I loved about classical blended so beautifully with rock, and I was hooked. Also, I was very much drawn to the sound of the Moog synthesizer, and sought anything that used it, so I listened to everything from the Steve Miller Band to Isao Tomita. I’ve also always been a big Joe Walsh fan, so all of these influences find their way into what I write somehow.

Jason: I grew up with records always being played in the house. My parents had great taste in music and still do. I remember Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here being played a lot! I would even request them at the age of five. It was one of the first times I remember being affected by music. Queen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elton John, Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones, Boston…all the classic rock stuff was in the house. There was also some country, doo-wop, standards, etc. The funny thing is, my three favorite genres of music (aside from all the classic rock stuff),  prog, fusion and classical, were strangely non-existent (aside from Floyd, Queen and Zappa). That was MY music. Stuff that I discovered on my own and grew to love beyond description. My parents started me off right and I took it from there. As a performer, musician and composer, I can be inspired by almost anything, even non-musical things.

David: During my formative years it was pretty much all about The Beatles.  Influenced by an older sibling, I was quickly making my way through the obligatory Led Zeppelin/Deep Purple/Black Sabbath phases when one day I heard ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  This rocking interpretation of classical music featuring Hammond organ and Moog synthesizer opened about 15 doors at once that I ran through and never looked back.  In short order there were Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant and Frank Zappa albums cluttering every surface (vinyl LPs were large, you know) and I began trying to learn various keyboard parts by ear.  Like John and Jason, I realized that there was a logical connection between a variety of so-called musical genres and followed each path wherever it took me.  A Frank Zappa concert one day and Victor Borge the next was what it was like in those days.

Dave B: Raffaella, you’ve gotten to know me a little over the last couple of years and I’m sure that when you think of my influences you will probably come up with one word…KISS! Beyond that, I listened to a lot of different things, but metal and heavy rock has always been my main influence. Queen became a huge influence in my life. I consider myself one of the lucky ones having actually gotten to see them live in 1982. Freddie Mercury was just mind-blowing. As you also know, musical theater also played a huge part in my life, opening me up to a whole different world that I did not know existed such as the song stylings of Miss Barbra Streisand, whom I consider to be the best singer on the planet. The list could go on forever at this point in my life.

Are any of you professional musicians? What are your respective experiences in the music field?

Matt: I work for a living music in the insurance field but I had attended a small music conservatory in Philadelphia for a couple of years, studying cello performance, hoping to play cello in a professional orchestra, but those plans fell through. I started on the classical guitar at age 9 and moved to cello by the age of 11.  I remember days spent in the local music store as a kid lusting after the shiny new bass guitars and in my senior year first performed in a band at a talent show.  I was hooked!

John: I have always depended on things other than music for sustenance, so, for me, it’s always been just for art.

Jason: I have been at every level that a musician can be except professional (laughs). Sure, we’ve all made money at it and sometimes really good money, but, never to the point that we could do nothing but. Hopefully, that will all change soon!

David: No.  None.  (Unless you count playing “Hoedown” on stage with Keith Emerson?  Nah.)

Dave B: Thus far I have not gotten to the pro level but one should never say never.

What about the compositional process? Are you all involved in the songwriting, or it is rather something that involves only some of the band members?

John: I typically come up with the musical foundation, and I’ve gotten more involved with writing vocal melodies and lyrics, such as the choruses for “Daddy’s Gone” and “Rise”. Otherwise, the vocal melodies and lyrics have been Dave’s. Now, with Jason and David in the band, they have lots of great musical ideas, so I see that evolving now to be a more collaborative process.

Jason: I have enough material for, oh, I don’t know, eighteen albums or so and haven’t stopped writing. I like the challenge of not only writing for myself, but writing for a group that already has a sound, bringing my sound and ideas into the mix. I’m looking forward to hear how our separate styles come together and what we will create.

David: Once John and Jason are done, I may have a couple of suggestions for album # 26.

Dave B: What John said…LOL!!! Just kidding 🙂  Yeah, I write lyrics for most things but there are times where I am at a loss and John will jump in. A perfect example of this would be “Horsemen Ride” off Whispers & Screams. I just wasn’t feeling it or I just could not connect and he jumped in and came up with a great set of lyrics. There’s no ego here. If John can do better, then all the power. That includes Jason as well. He’s got some awesome ideas that we  are fleshing out for the next CD which I think are going to just rock. I’ve already got lyrical ideas for it as we speak. Now if we could just get him to record it and get it to John we’d be golden. We’re working on it…LOL!!!

The lyrical aspect seems to be as important in your output as the purely musical one. How do you go about the process of writing lyrics, and what gets your creative juices flowing?

John: Dave will have more to say about this, but for my small part, I think of the vocal melodies in an abstract, phonetic sort of way. I think of the sound of certain vowels and the rhythm of the syllables. From there, I think about the story that the song needs to tell.

David: I’m still trying to picture what the vocals must sound like in John’s head.  I imagine sort of like if Marlee Matlin were the lead singer.

Dave B: I’ll give you an up to date example. As you know there is a new Van Halen CD coming out this February and everyone on the Internet…well not everyone…just the trolls (You know who you are…)…are starting to put it down not because it’s bad but because Van Halen are using a lot of ideas that were written many years ago and revamping them. That is the case with me. A lot…not all but a lot of the lyrics that are on the first and second CD’s were culled from lyrics that I wrote years ago when I lived out in San Diego. A lot were written for the band I had out there and some were just written kind of like poetry. When we started putting things together for Shadow Circus many of those lyrics fit like puzzle pieces into the stuff  John was writing. They were definitely tweaked and modified. One perfect example of this is the song “Angel” on Whispers & Screams. I actually wrote the lyrics AND the music for that song for my band Hang ’em High. It was originally called “Angel With the Dirty Wings”. John did some modifications to the music and I did as well with the lyrics and it…well…It “grew up” to be the song it is today. I find nothing wrong with taking from the past and letting things grow up. There is a song called “Russian Roulette’ off the latest Kiss CD, Sonic Boom, which was a song Gene Simmons wrote years ago. He modified it and it’s now one of the most rocking songs off that CD. Personally I don’t get what people are complaining about…well, I guess they just want to complain…LOL!!!

Beyond that, I love Stephen King and his stories have been fodder for many songs we’ve done. I think taking from literature is a great way to come up with lyrics. Iron Maiden has done it for years with “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, “To Tame a Land”, “Alexander the Great”…and the list goes on. Stephen King has been a huge influence on me for that reason. I’m a lot less interested in writing about life experiences and more about turning crazy stories into crazy lyrics.

As a keen reader of fantasy literature, I am curious about your own interest in it, which is reflected not just in the songs, but in the band’s very name. Which novel or short story would you like to reinterpret for a future album, besides those that have already received the Shadow Circus treatment?

John: I’ve always wanted to do something with Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour. In fact, when I began writing “Project Blue”, that’s what I had in mind. The eerie intro to “Captain Trips” was originally intended to be the scene where Lasher first appears, with the circles of wind stirring up around the witch.

Jason: Keeping with the Stephen King themes, I’d love to do Salem’s Lot or Needful Things. We’ve talked about doing IT which I think would be incredible. I would also love to tackle Alice In Wonderland and The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow one of these days. Maybe the sixth or seventh albums (laughs).

David: I think a rock opera based on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre would be bloody wild.

Dave B: I’m definitely with Jason on this. I would love to tackle Salem’s Lot. IT is also on my list. In fact John has a song idea that was conceived with that story in mind. What we are tackling for the third CD is A Wrinkle in Time. John was very passionate about that story and it has really, really grown on me. We’ve got some epic things cooking as we speak. I’ll give nothing more away at this juncture.

One of the most impressive features of your albums, particularly Whispers and Screams, has been the artwork. Is the combination of music and art as important for you as for the original prog bands of the Seventies?

John: Absolutely. And, quite frankly, I wish that vinyl was still the standard medium. I liked when you could look at this big piece of artwork while listening to an album, unfold it and have easily legible lyrics and information about the band. CD packaging might as well be a candy wrapper. But that’s a whole other tangent.

Jason: Without hesitation, YES! It’s the first thing that invites you in and grabs you. Plus, being an artist myself, as well as a musician, it naturally attracts me and is very critical to the overall album experience. Like John said, it’s great to immerse yourself in the cover, art, lyrics, etc. while listening. They go hand in hand.

David: John told me H.R. Giger did all the covers.  John?

What about the New York/New Jersey music scene, which is by many perceived to be  more favorable to prog and classic rock than other parts of the country? What are the difficulties you encounter when it comes to finding gigs?

John: The biggest difficulty, I think, is that there is no place to play gigs on a regular basis. The Beatles didn’t become a great band by playing two gigs a year. They played five every day for years as a working band before setting out to record. Also, the list of bands that want to play these venues and festivals is so long, that you need to wait a minimum of three years before playing the same venue or festival again. The second biggest problem is that most American venues and festivals favor bands from Europe, and the venues and festivals in Europe will rarely, if ever, invite an American band to come and play.

Jason: The hardest thing that I’ve found about playing original music in NYC is gaining momentum and a following. Bouncing around from small dive bar or hole in the wall once or twice a month isn’t going to get you anywhere. You need to at least play higher profile venues with heavy tourist appeal and built-in audiences on a regular basis or open for a national act at the larger venues or even get into the college circuit. Promotion is key, as well.

David: To follow up on what John said, The Beatles not only benefited from working “in the trenches” in Hamburg, but then got to return to England as a hot band from Hamburg.  Some things never change.

You recently played some dates opening for Italian band The Watch, for the second year in a row. What can you tell me about your experiences in a live setting – including your participation in last year’s edition of ProgDay, the longest-running progressive rock festival in the world?

Matt: I can be assured we all feel this way but when you can translate a studio result into a live result and people are happy, then you have done your job as a live performer.  There is not much to rival that feeling!

John: We are so fortunate to have such good friends with The Watch. What a rare, and amazing opportunity to be able to play such great venues in front of such large audiences. We learned so much about preparing to travel to gigs, setting up and cleaning up quickly, keeping the set list tight. It’s been an incredible education. ProgDay was also a great learning experience, as well as the first real gig this band has ever played.

Jason: Opening for The Watch was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had to date. Great band, great bunch of guys. I’m looking forward to a long friendship with them and, hopefully, many more dates with them here and abroad.

David: Agreed on all counts.  Opening for The Watch was a great pleasure personally and a great opportunity for Shadow Circus.

Dave B: I just love working with The Watch. They are genuinely the nicest bunch of guys you could know. Very hospitable and would pay us a million dollars a show if they could. It’s just a great relationship that will eventually allow us to play Europe opening for them as well. Really, I mean every night we played with them it was just such a pleasure to hang out and watch their show. They are definitely pro and we all learn a lot from playing with them. Come ON…Simone is just SO awesome on stage it’s great!!! ProgDay…well what can I say Raffaella…that where we met you for the first time. It’s all good!!!  \m/. It is a really great festival to play though. A great stage but a bit daunting as well. All the shows we have done including ProgDay have been learning experiences…like John said. Especially for me as the front man. Boy, do I have things to learn and I do with every show.

You have recently released two new songs, “Rise” and “Daddy’s Gone”, as a maxi-single. What has the response been so far?

John: We are getting a very positive response to the music. But, prog fans are a little old-fashioned in that they want an album, not a single, and they are even less interested in digital downloads as opposed to a CD.

Now something about your forthcoming third album. Do you see it as a logical follow-up to Whispers and Screams and Welcome to the Freakroom, or is it going to be significantly different?

John: I think that it is a logical follow-up. With each CD, we seem to get into bigger formats and themes. We had the short epic on Welcome to the Freakroom, then went further with an album-side-length epic on Whispers, and now we’re going for a full concept album. I also think that with each iteration, the music has more depth, more complexity in some respects, but we are also always pursuing the art of writing the perfect melody, however simple it is.

Jason: The single was great and a nice, easy way to introduce the new line-up and sound. Since this will be my first full album with Shadow Circus I can’t comment on the other albums, but, the excitement for the new album is really building within us as we get the material together and I think it’s going to be a great one!

David: I’ve noticed that the new hip thing is to release new material on vinyl, but so far my idea to put On a Dark and Stormy Night out only on wax cylinders hasn’t gained traction with the band.

Dave B: Among the many things that will be great about this next CD, I have to admit that the biggest deal for me is having Matt Masek back in the band and on this next CD. It’s literally full circle…ya know??? He’s so good at what he does and was awesome to work with on Freakroom…well, this is just gonna rock even more!!! I haven’t forgotten about you either Jason!!! You are a force to be reckoned with and you will make this CD everything the last two should have been!!! I think this line up more than anything will make this not just a logical follow-up but a GREAT follow-up. I’m just so excited to see what David Silver comes up with on the keys…it’s really very exciting!!!

Is your new album going to be an independent release like Whispers and Screams, or is a label going to be involved, as in the case of your debut?

John: I do think that a label will be involved in this release, one that is open to all of our approached to marketing and connecting with fans, but it is too early to announce anything formally.

David: Well, we were gonna put it out on a Black Label, but we couldn’t get enough proof. So I’m gonna let John handle this.

What are your plans for 2012, after the album’s release? I remember hearing something about a European tour…

John: We are invited by The Watch to come over to Europe and play some shows with them, so that will be our biggest priority.

Jason: Yes, a return to playing with The Watch here and then over in Europe, like I mentioned earlier, and hopefully a bunch of festivals. Basically, promote the album in any way we can and expand our fan base.

David: I think these days a new music act has to break on one of the reality shows, so I’ve got feelers out with American Idol, America’s Got Talent, Dancing With the Stars and America’s Next Top Model (couldn’t hurt).  So far we’ve only had interest from America’s Funniest Home Videos (and Project Runway likes my jacket).

Dave B: For me, I agree. I want to go over to Europe because I think that is where our biggest market is BUT…I also think it’s important for us to get to Canada with The Watch this fall as well. They get really big audiences up there and I think if we do it right we’ll make a positive impact in those cities.

Thank you very much for your answers, and looking forward to hearing On a Dark and Stormy Night!

Jason: Thank you for taking the time to give us this interview.

Dave B: Same here!!! Thanks so much for taking the time to support Shadow Circus. It really means a lot to everyone in the band. keep rocking!!!  \m/

David: I apologize. Truly. I apologize.

Links:
http://www.shadowcircusmusic.com

 

 

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Apophenia (4:45)
2. It Works (5:05)
3. Narrow-Caster (3:09)
4. Live With This Forever (5:09)
5. Cautionary Tale (5:05)
6. The Proverbial Banana Peel (3:09)
7. Young Once (5:14)
8. Scenery (5:49)
9. Free For All (4:35)
10. The Last Gasp (4:57)

LINEUP:
George Dobbs – lead vocals, keyboards
Robert James Pashman – bass, keyboards, vocals
Pat Kliesch – guitars, vocals
Rob Durham – drums, percussion

With:
Dan D’Elia – drums (3, 10)
Veronica Puleo – backing vocals (10)

“3RDegree – Defiling perfectly good songs with prog since 1990”

The definition of ‘narrow-caster’ (as opposed to a broadcaster) –  “one who transmits a TV programme […] or otherwise disseminate information, to a comparatively small audience defined by special interest or geographical location” – seems to be a perfect fit for anyone engaged in the production of progressive rock. In spite of the genre’s relative popularity these days, both the musicians and those who (like myself and many others) support it through our writings are perfectly aware that prog is not likely to become the next mainstream sensation, and its appeal will remain limited to a niche audience.

Based in New Jersey (though guitarist Pat Kliesch resides in Los Angeles), 3RDegree formed over 20 years ago, but disbanded after a few years after the release of two albums, discouraged by the lack of response from their intended audience. In 2005, Kliesch and the other two original members, bassist Robert James Pashman and drummer Rob Durham (vocalist/keyboardist George Dobbs would join them later), met again with a view to reforming the band, taking advantage of those opportunities offered by the Internet that were not yet fully available in the mid-Nineties. The result was Narrow-Caster, released in the first half of 2008, mostly comprising material that had been conceived prior to the band’s demise in 1997, but completely rearranged for the occasion.

The reactions of the ‘prog community’ to the album have been somewhat mixed, as illustrated by the many reviews published since its release. Although 3RDegree have always proclaimed their love of progressive rock (as stated by the quote I used as a heading, which is proudly emblazoned on the band’s official T-shirt), the influences they list on their Facebook page point to a very eclectic bunch of musicians – with the likes of Rush, Level 42, Genesis and Stevie Wonder mentioned in the same breath. In fact, labelling 3RDegree as a ‘conventional’ prog band would do them a serious disservice: they should rather be counted among the rightful heirs of legendary genre-bending outfits such as 10cc, Supertramp, Roxy Music and Queen. These bands and others, pioneers of the much-debated genre called Art Rock, are seen by some as little more than marginally related to prog, by others as no less progressive than icons such as Yes or Genesis.

For today’s standards, Narrow-Caster is a short album, with no track longer than 5-odd minutes. Chock-full of hooks and melodies that would be the envy of many bigger-name bands, it is one of those independent releases that manage to sound like a million dollars. While the label-happy brigade (the ones that always wonder if a band, artist or album is prog or not before they say anything else) might frown and turn up their noses, at the beginning of the 21st century, with progressive rock in all its manifestations enjoying an almost unexpected Renaissance, an increasing number of outfits have rediscovered the importance of a well-crafted song as opposed to sprawling, patchy  and often terminally boring epics. 3RDegree are part of a solid, though not too large, contingent of bands who do not believe that ‘pop’ is always a bad word, and who deliver consistently intelligent, classy music without the need to release a whopping 80 minutes of it.

While all the members of 3RDegree are gifted musicians, creating rich sonic textures without anyone seeking to outdo the other, the band’s real ace in the hole is George Dobbs’ absolutely stunning voice (which, I am happy to say, sounds every bit as good live as it does on CD). Though I have seen it compared to the likes of Michael Jackson, in my view the closest comparison are Glenn Hughes (of Trapeze, Deep Purple and, more recently, Black Country Communion fame), and of course Stevie Wonder. George’s versatile, soul-infused tenor can shift from soothing to aggressive in the space of a single song, stamping his unique imprint on the band’s music without overwhelming it. 3RDegree’s love of classic prog acts such as Yes and Gentle Giant – as well as The Beatles and the hard-to-pinpoint King’s X – shines through the superb vocal harmonies that grace most of the songs.

The album kicks off in high gear with “Apophenia”, an intriguing mid-tempo with echoes of Rush in the guitar parts that immediately introduces the listener to 3RDegree’s heady blend of aggressive, catchy and atmospheric elements. Dobbs delivers the thought-provoking lyrics, belying the apparently carefree tone of the music (something perfected by the likes of Steely Dan and Supertramp, to name but two) in impassioned yet perfectly controlled fashion. The Steely Dan comparisons rear their head in the splendid “It Works”, my favourite number on the album, with excellent guitar and keyboard work bolstered by Pashman’s nimble bass lines, and one of Dobbs’ finest moments together with the energetic “Free for All” – where a deceptively blissful chorus is offset by the spiky, riff-heavy electricity of the verse.

While the title-track and the smooth, jazz- and soul-tinged “Scenery” showcase 3RDegree’s more accessible side, with plenty of catchy vocal harmonies and laid-back melodies, the short but punchy “The Proverbial Banana Peel” sees the band experiment with both electronics and metal-like power chords The nicely-paced “Cautionary Tale” delivers a biting indictment of religious fanaticism through almost seductive vocals and an atmospheric guitar solo, and “Live With This Forever” marries a great hook, supported by Dobbs’ stellar performance both on vocals and keyboards, with some harder-edged guitar work. “Young Once” and “The Last Gasp”, on the other hand, are probably the two songs where the constantly lurking progressive component of 3RDegree’s sound emerges most clearly: the former, a wistful number in the Steely Dan vein, unexpectedly features a lovely, ambient-like bridge; while the latter closes the album in style with a brilliant combination of dreamy vocals, Rush-like guitar riffs and a majestic, orchestra-backed, bass- and keyboards-led coda that brings Yes to mind.

If you are looking for music that successfully combines accessibility, great musicianship and stunning vocals, look no further than Narrow-Caster, definitely one of the best releases of the first decade of the 21st century – regardless of labels.  In a perfect world, these guys would be stars, since it takes a whole lot of skill and dedication to write music that is at the same time approachable and sophisticated. At the time of writing, 3RDegree are working on their fourth album, which will hopefully be released by the end of the year. In the meantime, check out the band’s two DVD releases, The Reunion Concerts (released in the same year as Narrow-Caster) and Live at ProgDay 2009, capturing their performance on the small but legendary stage in the beautiful surroundings of  Storybook Farm.

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

http://www.myspace.com/3RDegreeNJ


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TRACKLISTING:

1. GK Contramundum (2:00)
2. Awaiting the Call. (5:10)
3. Parenting Parents (6:45)
4. Utter Once Her Name (5:30)
5. Remembering When (4:00)
6. Ramblin’ Sailor (18:14)
7. Your Healing Hand (8:18)
8. Firmus Finale (4:40)

Bonus tracks (previously unreleased 24-track recordings):
9. Rear View Mirror (3:34)
10. Alison Waits (A Ghost Story) (10:40)

LINEUP:
Alan Benjamin – guitars, basses, stick, mandolin, recorder
Henry Ptak – keyboards, lead vocals, backing vocals, percussion
Mark Ptak – keyboards, backing vocals, percussion
Drew Siciliano – drums

With:
Shunji Saegusa –  bass (6)
Ken Serio – drums (10)

My first contact with Advent’s music dates back from a couple of years ago, when I reviewed Dante’s Inferno, the first instalment of the monumental The Divine Comedy project released by Musea Records. The band’s contribution, a song called “Canto XXVI – The Evil Counselors”, impressed me as one of the most interesting tracks on that 4-CD set; therefore, I eagerly grasped at the opportunity to review their second album, Cantus Firmus – which, even if released exactly five years ago, is still recent enough not to qualify as a ‘vault’ review.

While quite a few North American bands have taken the classic English progressive rock sound of the Seventies as their blueprint, no one, when listening to this album for the first time,  would ever associate Advent with the bustling, overcrowded and down-to-earth East Coast of the US. Though hailing from New Jersey (home of a number of fine prog outfits, such as Shadow Circus, The Tea Club and 3rd Degree), here is a band that sounds more English than most contemporary English bands. Their love for the Old Country is evident right from cover artwork and logo (by artist and illustrator Michael Phipps), inspired by the stunning illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

Formed in 1989 by two highly accomplished multi-instrumentalists with a wide range of musical interests, Alan Benjamin and Henry Ptak (whose brother Mark joined the band some time later), Advent released their self-titled debut album in 1997, and then dropped off the radar for nine years. After the inevitable line-up changes (notably the addition of drummer Drew Siciliano), in 2006 Cantus Firmus finally appeared, to a very warm reception. The album’s title, meaning ‘fixed song’ in Latin, refers to a pre-existing melody that forms the base of a polyphonic composition – another nod to medieval and Renaissance musical tradition.

Like most acts, modern or otherwise, Advent have their own strong set of references, and are refreshingly honest about it. Though modern bands that openly pay homage to one or more of the prog greats of the Seventies are neither new nor surprising, Advent distinguish themselves from the myriad of Genesis or Yes-inspired outfits by having a rather unlikely pair of bands like Gentle Giant and Procol Harum as their main source of inspiration. Indeed, the band’s name brings to mind one of Gentle Giant’s most iconic songs, “The Advent of Panurge”. With such influences, it is not surprising that the music on Cantus Firmus is sophisticated, understated and devoid of hard edges – as well as admirably tight in compositional terms. Indeed, while not a concept, the album projects a sense of cohesiveness, with the first eight tracks acting much like the movements of a symphony. On the other hand, the two bonus tracks (both originally featured on the band’s debut album), though bringing the album’s running time close to a rather hefty 70 minutes, are not unwelcome additions, as they bear witness to Advent’s gradual but steady development of their own artistic personality.

Advent’s love for everything Gentle Giant immediately surfaces in the opening track, the short but sweet “GK Contramundum”, dedicated to English 20th-century author Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and sung entirely a cappella. The song flows directly into “Awaiting the Call”, a lovely instrumental number with hints of Genesis and Camel in Alan Benjamin’s stately, melodic guitar solo and the lush, elegant sweep of the Ptak brothers’ keyboards. “Parenting Parents” and its companion piece “Your Healing Hand”, both dealing with the topic of the relationship between parents and their children, share the same keenly sentimental quality (which thankfully never descends into mawkishness): while the latter is very sparse, almost hymn-like in tone with its whispered vocal harmonies, the former couples lilting, madrigal-like passages of touching sensitivity with instrumental surges led by Benjamin’s fluid, crystal-clear guitar.

“Utter Once Her Name”, a sparse, meditative number with a strong Gentle Giant vibe, and the hauntingly beautiful instrumental “Remembering When”, featuring some really inspired acoustic and electric guitar work, introduce the album’s centrepiece, the 18-minute “Ramblin’ Sailor”. Featuring the participation of Japanese band Kenso’s bassist, Shunji Saegusa, it is based on a traditional English folk song called “The Rambling Sailor”; the stunning complexity of its instrumental parts is relieved by the sprightly, cheerful nature of  the contrapuntal vocal parts, including a chorus of ‘carousing sailors’. The magnificent central section is occasionally reminiscent of the stately yet riveting pace of Genesis’ instrumental compositions, while the titular sailor’s farewell to the sea is conveyed by a slower, more sedate passage enhanced by the distinctive sound of the recorder. The core of the album is then brought to a close by the upbeat, fanfare-like “Firmus Finale”, in which hints of Gryphon’s quirky take on medieval music join the Genesis and Gentle Giant influences.

Though some might complain that Cantus Firmus is not a truly original proposition, and wave the dreaded ‘retro’ word around, the album – far from being a mere tribute-like effort – simply oozes class and dedication. In spite of the individual band members’ impressive chops, in this case technical skill is put at the service of the music, and not the other way round. Moreover, the emotional content is conveyed with grace and delicacy rather with the self-indulgent angst typical of may higher-profile bands. Gentler and more meditative than the output of bands in a similar vein such as Änglagård or Wobbler, Cantus Firmus will definitely appeal to fans of vintage prog of an eclectic bent – though some listeners might be turned off by its unabashed sentimentality and occasional church-like gravity. At the time of writing, Advent are working on their third album, which will hopefully be released within the year.

Links:
http://www.adventmusic.net

http://www.michaelphipps.net/

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