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Rock in the Name of Progress (Part VII-"The Return of the Giant Progweed")

By Brian L. Knight

progressive \Pro*gress"ive\, a. [Cf. F. progressif.] 1. Moving forward; proceeding onward; advancing; evincing progress; increasing; as, progressive motion or course; -- opposed to retrograde. (Websters Dictionary)

In the last four issues, the Vermont Review has investigated the legacy bands of progressive rock (Yes, Henry Cow, Soft Machine, Heldon, Hawkwind and much more) and the many different styles they represent (space-rock, chamber-rock, electronica, symphonic-rock). In addition, we have covered America’s representation in progressive rock in the 1970s – the grandiose rock of Styx, the brilliant underground albums of Happy the Man and the new wave progressive of Pere Ubu. Through these issues, it seems that the genre fights an existing stereotype that there isn’t any progressive rock representation in the 1990s. With disco, punk, new wave, MTV rock and grunge all being the popular genres from the late 1970s to the present, it has been difficult for progressive music to find a mainstream audience. We will discover in this issue that there are countless progressive bands that proliferate both the United States, Europe and Asia in the 1990s.

As the long running and never stopping bands like Yes and King Crimson will attest, progressive music is not a thing of the past. The name itself suggests that it will continue to move onward in the future. Even with Yes and King Crimson, there have been countless bands that have arisen in the 1980s and 1990s who have kept the tradition alive and well. Today, many progressive bands keep on churning on both sides of the Atlantic. These bands are England’s Ozric Tentacles and Pendragon, Japan’s Bondage Fruit, California’s Spock’s Beard, Colorado’s Thinking Plague, Latham, New York’s Acoustic Trauma, Pennsylvania’s Alaska (Not a typo) and the bands that comprise both the Kinesis and Moonchild label. All of these bands touch on elements of progressive bands of yore but also push forward with their own style.

 

Pendragon

The 1980s saw a resurgence of the Genesis-type progressive rock in which there was an abundance of high pitched synthesizers, symphonic overtures and lyrically based tunes. Two bands that have spearheaded this symphonic revival were the English bands Marillion and Pendragon. In addition to having lead singers that are remarkably similar to Phil Collins, both Marillion and Pendragon have created extant fan bases of fresh, young progressive rock fans. The appeal of Pendragon and Marillion was their "unfashionable music" which is also known as evolutive rock -progressive rock for today’s generation. Pendragon first came together in 1977 in London, developed a reputation for highly intelligent rock and roll and has since recorded 13 albums. In 1999, the band released Overture (Pangea Music), a greatest hits collection covering seven albums from 1984-1996. The music is definitely more accessible than most progressive bands for the music is logical, melodic and possesses a strong emotional element in both the music and lyrics. The music of Pendragon basically contains the same musical characteristics of Kansas, Boston, Styx, Yes and Supertramp –symphonic progressive pop and like these bands, Pendragon also employs a distinctive logo and album cover artistry.

 

Ozric Tentacles

The band that has been making a lot of noise these days (no pun intended) is Ozric Tentacles. With a recent release Waterfall Cities (Phoenix Media) plus their entire back catalog re-released by Snapper Music (Erpland, Jurassic Shift, Strangitude, Pungent Effulgence. http://snappermusic.comErpland, Jurassic Shift, Strangitude, Pungent Effulgence. http://snappermusic.com), and their first tour of the United States in five years, the Tentacles have recently turned a whole new wave of music fans onto their blend of techno-jam-metal-prog rock. Ozric Tentacles, who are named after a mythical brand of breakfast cereal, first came together in 1983 and has since dominated the UK club circuit where the incited their fans to psychedelic, techno dance craze. While the Jefferson Airplane and The 13th Floor Elevators may be considered archetypal psychedelic bands, Ozric Tentacles most decidedly deserve to be named the ultimate psychedelic band as their music absolutely launches you to a new plane. In comparison to 1990s American "psychedelic bands" such as Phish or Widespread Panic, the Tentacles penetration into the mind make these US bands sound like they should be playing at the hootenanny. Through a loud almost "heavy metal-ish" guitar, multi-layered keyboards/synthesizer grooves, the dance hall reggae/dub rhythms and an accompanying light show, an hour of Ozric Tentacles on the earphones or in concert will leave a listener begging for some of the grounded lyricism/acoustic instruments of Bob Dylan or Joan Baez. The Tentacles consist of the searing Ibanez guitar playing of Ed Wynne, the multiple keyboards/synths of the uber-dreadlocked Seaweed, the flute/vocals/dancing like a madman of John Egan, the steady drums of Rad and the thumping bass of Zia. After 17 years of spaced out rock and roll, and 16 albums, Ozric Tentacles have definitely achieved a state of mastering the mind-inducing groove. As their liner notes state, the Ozric Tentacles’ sound consists of "a blending of natural and not so natural sounds to create places in which to dwell momentarily in a state of blissful otherness. To tread these astral strands often feels a little precarious………but we like it!"

 

Thinking Plague

Colorado’s Thinking Plague takes a more traditional progressive rock stance in comparison to the overtly psychedelic sounds of Ozric Tentacles and Melting Euphoria. In Extremis(Cuneiform Records PO Box 8427, Silver Spring, MD 20907 http://www.cuneiformrecords.com) is Thinking Plague’s first release in nine years and they are a logical extension of the Henry Cow meets King Crimson. The band symbolizes one of the few Rock in Opposition (RIO) sounds available in the 1990s as Thinking Plague defies normal musical mainstream technique through their compositions and instruments employed (vocals, guitars, multiple reeds, accordion, keyboards, bass, and drums). Their album title In Extremis means ‘at the very point of death’ which is an accurate name as the album’s tunes possess dark undertones and moods. While holding the beachhead for avant-garde rock, Thinking Plague also holds onto the vanguard for hard driving prog rock in the style of King Crimson. It is this combination between hard and soft that makes Thinking Plague stand out as one of Progressive Rock’s finest representatives in the 1990s. Unlike Ozric Tentacles and Melting Euphoria, the sound of Thinking Plague is a challenge to the ear but easily appreciable. From the cacophonous to the intellectual, Thing Plague is one of the most engaging sounds that one can hear today. What also makes Thinking Plague stand out amongst their peers is vocalist Deborah Perry.

 

Acoustic Trauma

On a local level, there is Latham, New York’s Acoustic Trauma. This all acoustic trio of guitarist/violinist/mandolins/vocals Paul Macelli, bassist Shawn Turner and drummer Luke McLane provide a new insight on the world of acoustic music. Don’t expect bluegrass, new age or folk type music, but rather very talented compositions that range from quick little instrumentals to surprisingly rocking pieces. Acoustic Trauma has just releases Spirits (Armadillo Records) which consists of eight studio songs and six songs from one of their shows from Valentine’s in Albany. The rhythm section of Turner and McLane is incessant and steady which provides plenty of room for Macelli’s aggressive strumming and soloing. One song "Choking on the Styrofoam" allows for each of the band member’s talents especially Turner’s mastery of the bass and Macelli’s powerful vocals. By the time "Menemsha" arrives, the band transforms into some sort of heavy metal hoe-down. With the live recording, it more than apparent that the band is capable of rocking out as their sets begins with the upbeat vocal numbers "Senile" and "White Lies" but the band’s real talent shines through on the 14 minute ambitious and epic "Cool Right Now". Acoustic Trauma captures the same spirit of Vermont’s Strangefolk but with much more of harder edge. King Crimson unplugged?

 

Alaska

If you took the sounds and personnel of Yes, and condense into a two-man band, you might arrive with the sounds of Pennsylvania’s Alaska. This band consist of the duo of Al Lewis (vocals, drums, percussion, guitar) and John O’Hara (keyboards) and they play some of the finest symphonic progressive rock available in the 1990s. The emphasis on Alaska is the Lewis falsetto vocals laid out on top of the multilayered keyboards of O’Hara. The music tends to be highly arranged and melodic and there is little room for improvisation. The thought provoking lyrics are similar to Jon Anderson of Yes, the vocals sound like Steve Perry of Journey and the keyboards are like Geddy Lee at his most synthesized of moments. This debut album features eleven cuts that range from the 2-minute instrumental "Mesa Extrana" (with a string and brass section sitting in for accompaniment) to the 11+ minute epic pieces "Tiananmen Square" and "Wells Bridge". Alaska is taking a slow rise to popularity but they have received favorable reviews and even an "It's alright" from famed keyboard wizard Keith Emerson. With accolades like these piling in, Alaska will soon be the master of symphonic rock in the 1990s.

 

Bondage Fruit

Bondage Fruit is a Japanese quintet with an interesting instrument array of vibraphone, contrabass, violin, guitar, percussion and two female jazz vocalists. Selected ( Pangea Music) is a sampler of the band’s music from their first three albums and shows their diversity from non-conformist music structures to all at psychedelic jams. The use of the two female jazz vocalists adds an interesting element to Bondage Fruit’s sound as their voices are treated as an additional instrument. Like their European predecessors, Henry Cow and Magma and their American counterparts, Thinking Plague; Bondage Fruit represents the Rock In Opposition movement of the 1990s by combining avant-garde jazz structures, loud blaring rock & roll solos and all out dissonance. Their music is technically overwhelming and not always easy to listen.

 

Spock’s Beard

Spock’s Beard is one of the most exciting American progressive bands to emerge in recent years. The band consisting of Alan Morse (Lead Guitars, Cello, Vocals), Neal Morse (Lead Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards), Nick D'Virgilio (Drums, Percussion, Vocals), Dave Meros (Bass, Vocals) and Ryo Okumoto (Keyboards), first came together in 1992. Since that fateful Los Angeles union, they have recorded four albums that have brought mainstream and progressive music remarkably close together. In describing their latest release, Day for Night (Metal Blade/Radiant Records; http://www.metalblade.com), Neal Morse said: "The new record is like listening to FM radio in the early days of FM Rock when there was a great variety of styles to choose from". What makes Spock’s Beard different from other progressive bands is that they have shortened the songs and made them more accessible. The technical dexterity, differing tempos and wide variety of influences are still evident, but the music actually has a chance to make it to a radio. The longest song on the album is the nine-minute "Crack in the Big Sky" while most of the tunes fall into the 3-4 minute range. The music itself segues from blaring organs to metal guitar to acoustic interludes with comprehendible and emotional lyrics sung in four part harmonies. Their influences hark to the hard bite of King Crimson, the pop appeal of the Beatles, the harmonies of Yes, and the complex instrumentation of Genesis, but still maintain a very original sound. Spock’s Beard pop appeal may just be the tool to give progressive rock the resurgence and 1990s popularity it so well deserves. The band maintains an very large and impressive fan base across the Atlantic and are perennial headliners ate the Prog Rock Festivals on the American West coast. Hopefully, we can get them to lay down some grooves in the great Northeast.

 

Steve Vail and Realm

In progressive rock history, there have been one-man shows who possess incredible amounts of creative skill. There has been France’s Richard Pinhas, England’s Mike Oldfield, but few people have heard of Kansas City’s Steve Vail. Through bands such as Vail and Realm, Steve Vail has been showing his virtuoso capabilities. The man is the master of all keyboards, Moogs, organs and pianos as well as various flutes and strings. Vail’s latest effort is Realm’s The Path http://www.sound.net/~placer/realm.html; 913-287-3495), which is a modern day concept album in the tradition of Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or Emerson or Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery. Like many of their progressive rock predecessors, Realm (also consisting of guitarist/singer Darrell Studna and drummer Lake Furney)uses their music as a vehicle to return to a simpler world. While many progressive bands use cultural references (i.e. people, history), Realm has their music rooted in nature. The Path is a seven-song concept album, in which song is an individual contribution, but they unite with their common bond of nature. With song like "Echo Lake", "Mother Earth, Father Sky" and "Waterfalls", there are constant references to the earth. Musically, Realm sounds like Yes reduced to the trio of Jon Anderson (there is an uncanny vocal similarity between Studna and Anderson), Rick Wakeman and Chris Squire. In an interview with Greg Walker of the Syn-phonic label, Vail talked of The Path ,"I hope this effort and others help to open the mind to uncommon and unconventional works." By today’s standards, the music is unconventional, and unfortunately Vail and Realm represent a minority in American music ideology. Despite this fact, he keeps on making great music that cane be found on both The Path as well as his earlier 20-piece opus album, Time Tales, which is chock full of swirling keyboards.

 

 

The Music of Kinesis, Inc

There seems to be an emphasis on progressive rock within the Mid-Atlantic States. In previous issues, we have come across the progressive jam band Boud Deun as well as the label Cuneiform. Another addition to this group is Kinesis Records, which is a label that specializes in today’ progressive bands. There are approximately 20 bands that comprise the small Kinesis label and they cover quite the spectrum of progressive rock styles. To assist the eager listener, the label released two samplers CDs that consists of sixteen different Kinesis bands. There is the hard rocking symphonic rock of Cathedral who find a niche between old Genesis and Led Zeppelin. Their tune "Existential Crisis" segues from Marillion-like vocals to beautiful acoustic guitar interludes and then back to Black Sabbath like riffs. Other enjoyable tunes are the soft acoustic piano/vocal piece "Into the Dance" by However; and the organ/keyboard dominated Yes influences of Ad Infinitum’s "Overland" (Yes artist, Roger Dean, does their album covers). There are also other great tunes by unknown names like Iluvatar, Jeremy, and Haze. The pleasant surprises of the two CDs are "Bluefoot" and "The Last Time for Minterra" by the band Fonya. This band is more or less a one-man show led by Chris Fournier who plays most of the instruments on these two songs. The music is best described as symphonic space music – it is well arranged and the tunes have a cosmic aura to them. Sort of like Gong meeting up with Genesis (no vocals) with Fournier taking amazing leads on the keyboards and providing some of the finest progressive bass lines heard since Yes’ Chris Squire or Softy Machine’s Hugh Hopper. On the more lyrical side of things, Rocket Scientists who are led by pianist Erik Norlander, represent a more grounded, pop orientated side to progressive music. If you are looking for 21 songs that you have never heard before but are bound to enjoy beyond belief, contact Kinesis.

 

The Music of Moonchild Records

Like Kinesis, Inc, California’s Moonchild Records  is a small independent label dedicated to up and coming progressive musicians. Norway’s Fig Leaf release Plays Bob W. and other Selections in 1995 and Fearless in 1999 and the music takes a harder bite in the tradition of Frank Zappa, early Styx and Deep Purple. The title track to the 1999 release is an epic eight part suite that blends in out of hard rock, classical music and symphonic progressive through a dizzying use of acoustic guitar, Hammond organ, Rhodes piano, synthesizers, flutes and saxophones. Up to date, the Scandinavian regions has been repr4esented musically by ABBA, A-HA and Ace of Base; Fig Leaf is by far a much better flagbearer for the region. On this side of the Atlantic, there is multi-instrumentalist wizard Brian Hirsch, who has released Quest for Truth(1994) and Indeed-Inter-Dimensional Space Commander(1996). For both albums Hirsch is a one-man show who combines New Age, classical, psychedelia, hard rock and German space rock into one. Through song titles like "Surrealistic Sojourn/ Speeding Through The Universe", "Psychedelic Sorceress", "In Another Dimension" and "Visions Of Three Realms", you can immediately detect the direction that Hirsch likes to take his intrsumentals towards.. All though cosmic in approach, the music lends to the New Age side of the cosmos and less to the psychedelic hard rock side that is represented by Hawkwind and Gong. The music of Brian Hirsch is definitely mood music that is perfect for closing the eyes and letting the imagine fly. Think of George Winston and Keith Emerson and you will have Brian Hirsch. Moonchild Records also has many other artists on their roster including Deluc, Blue Shift, New Sun and Smokin Granny as well as the aforementioned bands. All of these bands can be heard on the fine sampler album Moonchild 98.

Progressive Phish?

To bring this all closer to home, we can take a look at the music of Vermont’s own Phish. Although often labeled as a "jam band" or "noodlers" or a Grateful Dead clone, Phish’s roots are tied deep into progressive music. First and foremost, the sheer eclectic nature of the band suggests progressive music. With the band drawing on so many influences – R&B, jazz, blues, psychedelia, bluegrass, accapella and avant-garde- the band could only be described as progressive. Musically, Phish can break down a song to complete avant-garde dissonance and soloing in the vein of Henry Cow, create a feeling of cosmic journey a la Hawkwind, achieve ambient bliss like Ash Ra Tempel or Ozric Tentacles, intersperse their songs with humorous dialogue like Frank Zappa and create escalating climatic jams like Pink Floyd. A less obvious connection can be made between the rare Phish tune "Spock’s Brain" which debuted at the Pro-Choice concert in Lowell, Massachusetts and the exciting progressive band Spock’s Beard. The live performances of Phish are another excellent point of reference. Over the years, a Phish concert has been complemented by an amazing light show similar to those of Genesis and Pink Floyd while at other moments dancers have graced Phish’s stage in a tradition similar to Hawkwind. As for Phish’s crazy live stunts such as giant hot dogs and or life size aquariums, you need to go no further than Floyd’s Sheep or Hawkwind’s Atomhenge. Perhaps the best comparison is found in Floyd’s gala 1971 concert at England’s Crystal Palace. Author Nicholas Schaffner described the event in his book Saucerful of Secrets: "The performance climaxed with the emergence of a fifty-foot inflatable octopus, shrouded in dry ice, from the little lake separating the audience from the stage, while fireworks exploded overhead. " Through Phish’s use of giant water spewing elephants, igniting matchsticks and Harry Hood fireworks displays, this same type of multi-sensory overload was felt at The Clifford Ball, The Great Went and the Lemonwheel. The musical relation of Floyd is much more concrete with drummer Jon Fishman’s rendition of Syd Barret tunes such as "Terrapin", "Baby Lemonade", "No Good Trying", "Love You" and "Bike" and during a 1996 concert in London, in which Fishman sang "Terrapin" as well as playing his famed vacuum twice, guitarist Trey Anastasio said to the crowd: "Only Syd Barrett could make Fish play the vacuum twice in one show. Thanks for coming down. He's up there on the second balcony". Phish’s relation to Floyd was further accentuated the band’s rendition of the album Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety in 1999. Both Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall" and Phish’s "Chalkdust Torture" may be the finest hymns about teenage angst while Strom Thurgenson, the designer of classic Floyd albums such as Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Ummagumma, also designed Phish’s Slip, Stitch and Pass. Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio’s opus "Gamehenge" speaks of Colonels, Lizard people, Princesses and Unit Monsters which is a variation of Gong’s Pot Head Pixies, Flying Teapots and Octave Doctors. The unreleased Gamehenge tale is a classic concept album similar to Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

The bands covered in this issue are just a few of the bands that represent progressive rock in the 1990s. Over the past four issues, we have covered the whole breadth of progressive rock from the 1960s to the present. We have looked to the different output from the United States, Japan, England, France and Belgium. We have seen every style of progressive rock from dark chamber-rock and to whirling psychedelia. We have seen the earliest innovators like England’s Soft Machine to the new leaders of Thinking Plague and Ozric Tentacles. We have visited the individuals like Richard Pinhas whose earliest innovations in electronica are ultimately responsible for the advent of bands such as the Chemical Brothers today. What we haven’t seen is all the other bands that fill in the gaps – the Cans, Colloseums, Nepenthes, Kansases, Finneous Gauges, Stills and Matching Moles. The breadth of progressive music is far and wide which allows for so much musical discovery. To enjoy progressive music doesn’t necessarily mean to like all bands that fall into far reaching category. Some of the music grabs you from the insides while other repulse you on initial impact. Regardless of the effects that it may have, the common denominator is that the music is insanely talented and is far superior than anything heard on the radio today. So go out and give some of these bands a try.

Go to Part VI

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