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TRACKLISTING:
1. Snowtorch – Part One (19:39)
a) Star of Light
b) Retrograde
c) Fox on the Rocks
d) Celestine
2. Helix (5:54)
3. Snowtorch – Part Two (16:11)
a) Blowtorch Snowjob
b) Fox Rock 2
c) Coronal Mass Ejection
4. ” … ” (2:34)

LINEUP:
Phideaux Xavier – acoustic guitar, piano, vocals
Ariel Farber – vocals, violin
Valerie Gracious – vocals
‘Bloody’ Rich Hutchins – drums
Mathew Kennedy – bass guitar
Gabriel Moffat – electric guitar
Linda Ruttan Moldawsky – vocals, metal percussion
Molly Ruttan – vocals
Mark Sherkus – keyboards, piano
Johnny Unicorn – keyboards, saxophone, vocals

With:
Stephanie Fife – cello
Chris Bleth – flute, soprano saxophone

With 7 albums released since 2003 (not counting Ghost Story, originally released in 1997 and reissued in 2004, and mostly consisting of material dating from a previous project called Satyricon) Phideaux need  no introduction to prog fans. Based on a group of childhood friends who grew up together in the New York area, but are now scattered all over the US territory, they are a proudly independent outfit, a group of gifted musicians coming from diverse backgrounds led by the remarkable talent of Phideaux Xavier, whose highly individual approach to the production of progressive rock has turned them into firm favourites of a wide-ranging, yet rather volatile scene.

Throughout the years the band have perfected a format that, while not exactly uncommon in the prog world, has been given a new twist by Phideaux Xavier’s fertile mind and keen awareness of social matters. All of the band’s albums since 2006’s The Great Leap have been based on elaborate concepts that, eschewing the  often formulaic fantasy topics that are still quite popular with prog bands and their fans, present reflections on the state of  the modern world – albeit coached in metaphorical terms. In some ways, Phideaux has become a 21st-century equivalent of Roger Waters, down to the configuration of the band – which, with its ten members, plus various collaborators, is a veritable mini-orchestra. Everything, so to speak, is done in the family, with guitarist Gabriel Moffat in the role of the producer, and backing vocalists (and twin sisters) Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan Moldavsky responsible for the elegantly minimalistic artwork.

Released in the spring of 2011, a couple of months before Phideaux’s appearance at the 2011 edition of ROSfest, Snowtorch is a compact, 45-minute offering that  manages to pack more content in its streamlined running time than most of the sprawling behemoths favoured by some artists. Featuring the same line-up as its predecessor, 2009’s  Number Seven, it is, in Phideaux’s own words, “a musing on life, language and solar flares”, conceived as single suite in various movements, though split in two separate halves connected by a stand-alone song also based on the composition’s main theme.This strategy of building the album’s musical content around a recurring theme is what makes Snowtorch a symphonic offering in the truest sense of the word. With a perfect balance between vocal and instrumental parts, and the added bonus of thought-provoking lyrics, the album stakes its claim as the rightful heir of the great classics of the Seventies – though bringing a definitely modern twist to those old prog warhorses, the epic and the concept album.

In fact, listening to Snowtorch may evoke strong comparisons with classical music, on account of both the structure and the nature of the compositions, which combine the powerful surge of exhilarating crescendos with intimate, low-key moments. However, Phideaux’s sound is quite far removed from the somewhat cheesy grandiosity of bands such as The Enid. With two keyboardists (plus Phideaux himself on piano) providing a lush, yet tightly-woven background tapestry, bolstered by Ariel Farber’s violin and guest artist Stephanie Fife’s cello, Chris Bleth’s flute adding a pastoral touch to some of the quieter sections, the music possesses a dramatic fullness that complements the harmonious beauty of the vocal parts.

The first half of the “Snowtorch” suite opens with the subdued melody of “Star of Light”, introduced by piano, organ and Phideaux’s husky, expressive voice; then it soon gains intensity, the intricate, orchestral keyboards and relentless drumming driving the vocals along towards a climax. The main theme is introduced, and brought to fruition in a splendid, organ-driven section peppered by guitar excursions, the two instruments sparring in a peaks-and-valleys pattern. “Retrograde” revolves around a lovely, emotional duet between Phideaux and the band’s other lead vocalist, Valerie Gracious, whose soaring soprano shows more than a hint of steel without any trace of saccharine – an enthralling song almost out of a classic Broadway musical. The entertaining ditty “Fox on the Rocks” (with lyrics penned by keyboardist Johnny Unicorn), sung by Phideaux in a near-falsetto register, prepares the listener for  instrumental “Celestine”, a veritable keyboard tour-de-force,  pastoral and stormy in turns, where solemn mellotron washes underpin the sparring of piano, synth and organ, with violin, metal percussion and sax joining the fray.

As previously hinted, “Helix” bridges the gap between the two parts of the titular suite – a majestic, powerful piece sustained by Valerie Gracious’ commanding performance, with all the instruments working together to produce a solid wall of sound  – which reminded me of the dramatic sweep of some episodes of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. “Snowtorch Part Two” – shorter and somewhat edgier than Part One – opens in almost upbeat fashion with the funnily (and punnily)-titled instrumental “Blowtorch Snowjob”, then culminates in the explosive, ELP-influenced keyboard-and-drum orgy of “Fox Rock 2” (with an unbridled organ solo that would sit quite comfortably on Tarkus). Things finally mellow out with the sedate, Pinkfloydian atmosphere of “Coronal Mass Ejection”, an ominous, somber piece which reprises the album’s main theme, briefly climaxes with guitar slashes and intense vocals, then ends with sparse piano. The short “ghost track” included at the end as a sort of instrumental summary wraps things up with a cheery feel that seems to release the tension built up throughout the album.

Effortlessly marrying superb musicianship and genuine passion, Snowtorch brims with gorgeous melodies, the kind that stick in your mind for quite a while. While often pervaded by a sense of impending doom, it can also be oddly jaunty; for all its lush, multilayered arrangements, it is never gratuitously pretentious. With all-round flawless performances, excellent songwriting and beautiful singing, it has quickly established itself as one of the strongest releases of the year so far. Though influenced by the great tradition of the golden age of prog, unlike the myriad of “retro” acts Phideaux manage to sound like no one else on the current scene. An album such as Snowtorch is living proof of how they are almost single-handedly dragging symphonic prog right into the 21st century.

Links:
http://www.bloodfish.com/

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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