Issue 2013-074: The Samurai Of Prog - Secrets of Disguise - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
CD 1 - Three Piece Suite (12:36), Sweet Iphigenia (7:33), Descenso En El Maelstrom (5:29), Before The Dance (2:51), Dancing With The Moonlit Knight (8:30), Aspirations (6:37), Traveler (6:00), Sameassa Vedessa (5:12), One More Red Nightmare (7:29), To Take Him Away (7:09), Time And A Word (7:08)
CD 2 - Singring And The Glass Guitar (23:32), Darkness (8:11), Jacob's Ladder (7:21)
Bonus Track - The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward (Alternative Version) (14:47)
Geoff Feakes' Review
The Samurai Of Prog is fronted by bassist Marco Bernard who is probably better known as the mastermind behind Colossus (aka the Finnish Progressive Music Association) whose concept works have been regularly featured in these review pages. In addition to regular contributions to the Colossus albums, TSOP has one previous CD to their credit, 2011's Undercover. If you're familiar with that album then Secrets Of Disguise will hold few surprises following as it does very much in its predecessors footsteps. The same core trio of Bernard, Steve Unruh (vocals, guitars, violin, flute) and Kimmo Pörsti (drums, percussion) are supported by a host of guest musicians and singers. The end result is a collection of cover versions (mostly from the 1970's) that range from the well-known to the positively obscure, interspersed with the occasional original tune.
Appropriately disc 1 opens with one of the better covers, Three Piece Suite from England's 1977 prog gem Garden Shed. It's a reasonably faithful rendition helped by the appearance of original England keyboardist Robert Webb recapturing the spirit of the Yes inspired original with lush instrumental passages alternating with rich vocal sections. Sadly commercial success alluded England, debuting as they did in the wrong half of the '70s. If Garden Shed passed most people by then the 1979 release Si Todo Hiciera Crack by Spanish band Crack is even more obscure. It was the band's only album, from which TSOP have selected Descenso En El Maelstrom, a lively but melodic instrumental with violin, Hammond, guitar, synth and cello combining to great effect. Dancing With The Moonlit Knight is on far more familiar ground with a fastidious version that verges on Genesis tribute band territory. Unruh does a nice job in capturing Peter Gabriel's vocal inflections (without overtly mimicking) whilst Glass Hammer's Kamran Alan Shikoh recreates Steve Hackett's inspirational guitar parts almost to perfection. Bernard for his part squeezes in a brief bass solo although for me the normally tasteful Pörsti (from his drumming with Mist Season) gets carried away with over busy fills.
The covers continue with Gentle Giant's Aspirations (from 1974's The Power And The Glory) and PFM's Traveler (from 1977's Jet Lag). The former is a meditative exercise for electric piano and vibes whilst the latter benefits from an emotionally charged vocal performance from Mark Trueack of Unitopia fame. A different kettle of prog altogether is Matti Järvinen's uplifting Sameassa Vedessä from 1976 with a beautiful interpretation by female vocalist Mirja Lassila. The pioneering Red album saw Ian McDonald's (brief) return to the King Crimson fold with One More Red Nightmare displaying the band at their most cutting. TSOP's version sticks reasonably close to the KC template with Unruh recreating John Wetton's paranoid vocals (thanks to a little studio processing) plus some fine violin although I could have lived without Risto Salmi's improvised tenor sax warbling that dominates the final two minutes. Following To Take Him Away (originally recorded by French band Sandrose) with stately guitar over a Mellotron backdrop, disc 1 concludes with Yes' Time And A Word. Current Yes crooner Jon Davison comfortably supplants Jon Anderson's wistful delivery although I missed the euphoric string coda that made the 1970 original so endearing.
Disc 2 opens with Singring And The Glass Guitar, originally released on the 1977 Ra album by Todd Rundgren's Utopia. Rundgren has never been afraid at jumping on any passing bandwagon and here he was going through his prog-rock phase with this clichéd 'prog epic' being, to my ears, little more than an excuse for self-indulgent soloing. TSOP have managed to extend the original 18½ minute playing time by an extra 5 minutes with Unruh's rhapsodic bowing easily being the highlight. For the record, Roine Stolt, Guy LeBlanc and Phideaux Xavier amongst others are also involved. From the ridiculous to the sublime as TSOP turn their attention to Van Der Graaf Generator's 1970 melancholic lament Darkness with the chameleon voiced Unruh uncannily capturing Peter Hammill's moody angst. The final cover is the perennial Jacob's Ladder by Rush although I'm afraid like most of their material I remain impervious to its charms, particularly the heavy handed guitar and synth work.
Disc 2 and the set conclude with an original composition from the pen of Steve Unruh, The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward. The track first appeared on the Colossus Project The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft and, although this is an alternate version, my original opinion hasn't changed sounding to my ears like a case of bombast over substance. The remaining original pieces on the album are Sweet Iphigenia and Before The Dance. The former, co-written by Pörsti, Unruth and Änglagård keyboardist Linus Kåse is intended for a future Colossus Project, Decameron 2, and contrasts a baroque, almost medieval intro with superb vocal harmonies (in the style of Moon Safari) and symphonic instrumental interplay. The latter tune is a classical flavoured solo piano piece courtesy of The Musical Box keys-man David Myers similar to his contribution to the Undercover album. Although it precedes Dancing With The Moonlit Knight there is no thematic link between the two tracks even though Myers' playing does evoke Tony Banks' style.
Given Marco Bernard's involvement, there are obvious similarities between this release and the Colossus Projects including a lavish booklet, an army of musicians taking part and more music than can be readily digested in a single sitting. Whilst cover versions are not to everyone's taste, the choices here encompass a wide spectrum of styles, moods and tempos (albeit within the prog genre) and although technically challenging The Samurai Of Prog are more than equal to the task. The more obscure songs by the likes of England, Crack, Matti Järvinen and Sandrose are especially welcome and of the original material Sweet Iphigenia and Before The Dance more than hold their own.
Overall an impressive and for the most part tastefully compiled release although for me disc 2 is perhaps one disc too many.
Gert Hulshof's Review
Three guys together form the Samurai of Prog, but they are not alone as a whole bunch of musicians tag along to join them in a progstavaganza of the highest level.
Now who are the three musicians at the heart of the Samurai of Prog? We are speaking of Steve Unruh, Kimo Porsti and Marco Bernard. The latter also is the founder, or at least godfather, of Colossus and all of the Colossus Projects, many of which have been reviewed on DPRP. This is how Samurai of Prog started, a group of musicians mostly performing songs already performed by other great artists in modern rock or progressive rock.
As on their debut we have a world of variety in the music, ranging from England to the less easy going Gentle Giant stuff. A real prog fest. The new arrangements of the well-known songs are a feast for prog ears and I myself found it very refreshing. Secrets of Disguise is a double album containing no less 14 tracks and a bonus track. This bonus can also be found on the recent Colossus Project about, in my opinion, one of the greatest writers ever, H.P. Lovecraft.
But Samurai of Prog cannot exist, of course, without a few songs of their own and the two featured here are utterly brilliant. The other songs feature new and fresh arrangements but it is their own compositions that show the real talents of the trio behind this set. The title of the first of these songs, Sweet Iphigenia, scores points, let alone the music throughout the entire album where really classic playing can be heard.
The brilliance of Steve, Marco and Kimo, together with their famous guests, give us an enjoyable an album to remember. "Know your classics" they seem to say.
They go through all eras with their interpretations of Jacob's Ladder, Traveler, Aspirations, Dancing with the Moonlit Knight and of course The Case of Charles Dexter Ward or Singring and the Glass Guitar.
I could really go on and on trying to find words that suit this music and the utter joy that bursts from the album. Talking about covering music, this is more covering songs in a brand new style.
A great joy, for my ears at least, and I have enjoyed this album from the first until the last note was played.
Need I say more. I am not trying to tell anything about the craft, variety and utter brilliance of the musicians' playing. Just listen to the album and hear it for yourself.
Basil Francis' Review
This is a very tough review to write, because it's difficult to know the spirit in which to write it. My ears are in conflict with my conscience over this album; I like what I hear, but at the same time I hardly feel like I can condone the surreptitious and unnecessary covers I hear on this album. With a dreadful name like The Samurai of Prog, this mainly Finnish project seems to be aimed at the nostalgic rather than the forward thinking.
As I said however, this isn't the spirit of the album. In the album's colourful-to-the-point-of-gaudy liner notes, we learn that the band have updated their stance since 2011's Undercover. Whilst still throwing in a few covers of classics that you will know like the back of your hand, The Samurai has decided to cover a few lesser known nostalgic gems; gems that even yours truly is ashamed to say he's never heard of. With a gaze firmly on the past, The Samurai has slightly tilted its head toward the future, with a handful of original pieces as well.
1) The Classics
You know them. I know them. Everyone knows them. Covers of Yes, Genesis, Rush, King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator all appear on this double disc spectacular, and the quality of the performances certainly vary. Take Rush for example. One thing everyone knows about Rush is that, unless you plan to completely change the dynamic of the track - e.g. making a jazz version of YYZ - it's best to simply let Rush play Rush. There can be no superior covers, as the band themselves are perfectionists. Even if you do make a perfect cover, the effort seems pointless, as the original simply sounds more original anyway! On Secrets of Disguise, the band covers Jacob's Ladder from Permanent Waves, an underrated piece that relies on complex shifting time signatures but is nevertheless intense and powerful. The band do a decent job whilst covering, but all the way through I'm thinking that I'd rather be listening to the original version.
The same goes for Dancing with the Moonlit Knight, although to a lesser extent as it is worth noting that an original piano introduction Before the Dance was written to accompany the piece on this album. In the main section of the song, there are a few minor differences, notably a change in the lyrics - "cried the Queen of Maybe" becomes "said the Queen of Maybe" - but otherwise nothing to shout about. Once again, the Genesis version suffices.
Perhaps the least palatable cover on the whole album is One More Red Nightmare from King Crimson's inimitable Red album. Note the word "inimitable", note it I say! Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the original track and about the album as a whole is that three of progressive rock's biggest heroes, Fripp, Bruford and Wetton combine to give a fearsome whole. With this in mind, the only thing I can respectfully think when presented with a sub-par cover performed by five people I've never heard of is "Why should I care?".
More interesting territory is reached when we approach Yes' Time and a Word however. We are immediately greeted by the familiar and friendly vocals of Glass Hammer's Jon Davison who also presently sings for Yes. If the boys had done a straight cover of this track I would have fallen asleep, as it is one of Yes' simplest songs. Instead, a lovely new introduction begins the piece, and a rather saccharine and unsightly outro leads us to the end of CD 1, bringing the track time to seven minutes in length. Should you choose to ignore Davison's sickly sweet acapella bits - I've noticed that they can be surgically removed via audio software - you actually have a pretty decent sounding cover on your hands. At least this time they have someone half famous to play it with.
I can't be sure if Aspirations by Gentle Giant counts as a classic - personally I'm not so fond of it - but I can certainly appreciate that this is one of the better covers on the album. Already a relaxed piece for GG, The Samurai takes it one step further by giving it a laid-back jazz feel and extending the instrumental sections. Very chilled, very nice.
2) The Gems
Pleasingly, Secrets of Disguise begins with an obscure piece I heard for the first time this summer. It's a track by the band that fuses elements of Yes and Genesis; it's Three Piece Suite by England, and The Samurai have managed to get original keyboardist Robert Webb (no, not that one) to join in and give the piece a more authentic feel with retro keyboard sounds. It's certainly interesting to hear a version of this piece where the snare drum works properly. Sadly however, nothing too interesting is added.
The gems themselves have been plucked from all over Europe. We hear the symphonic instrumental Descenso en el Maelstrom by the Spanish band Crack, which receives its correct spelling on this release, no matter what the original LP might say; the rhythmic rocker Traveler from PFM's Jet Lag, replete with odd time signatures; a Finnish ballad, Sameassa vedessä by Matti Järvinen; and finally the melancholic To Take Him Away by the French group Sandrose, which betrays a hint of psychedelia. I hadn't heard any of these tracks before listening to this album, so I have The Samurai to thank for that.
Nevertheless, the following colossal diamond blows all others out the water. In fact, I had to debate whether this was a classic or not, given that it's by a somewhat famous band and yet I've never heard anyone mention it before. I mainly enjoy the work of Utopia (although not Disco Jets!), and the epic Singring and the Glass Guitar is no exception! Subtitled 'An Electrified Fairytale', the narrative and intervening composed sections are little more than a thin veil for Todd Rundgren and Co. to have lengthy solo spots on stage. Nevertheless, the formula works because prog can occasionally be fey and utterly indulgent if it is approached in the right way. Indeed, the main hard rock riff from the song is utterly catchy and leaves me wanting for more. Rundgren found an inventive way to put lengthy solos into a structured piece, which is no easy feat. The Samurai version boosts the original track time by five minutes, with a cleverly inserted new violin solo spot, as well as solos by latter-day Camel keyboardist Guy LeBlanc and Swedish prog stalwart Roine Stolt. With Phideaux Xavier on vocals, this is certainly the showcase piece of the album which incidentally features a glass guitar on the cover.
3) Original Material
To my surprise, one of the more interesting pieces on the album, Sweet Iphigenia, turned out to be an original Samurai composition, written for an upcoming Colossus compilation. Beginning with a folky soprano sax and bassoon intro, the piece soon evolves into a dark, complex and very proggy endeavour. This kind of multi-faceted piece shows hope that The Samurai could become so much more than a cover band.
More evidence for this comes from the closing piece, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, originally released as the opening track in the three disc Colossus Project entitled The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft. While perhaps not destined to become a prog classic, this track is certainly interesting enough to warrant its quarter-hour length.
While this album has been at times fun and educational, it's difficult for me to condone an album which almost solely comprises of covers. Not only are The Samurai making their money off the backs of others, but they're hindering the progress of the genre itself by rehashing the past. What's worse is that there are punters out there who will buy an album like this rather than fund bands creating new and original music. While I'm glad that I got the chance to hear some songs that I had never heard of before, I'd have rather have been given a list of the band's names so I could hear the originals themselves. Besides the original material, the only other triumph on this album is the new version of Singring... which updates and extends the Utopia version. This is an album you'd need to think about long and hard before buying. My advice for The Samurai of Prog: keep on writing new stuff, but if you are to cover obscure gems, the name Fruupp may come in handy.
|From the DPRP Archives...
Previous The Samurai of Prog CD Reviews:-
|"The best bits are undoubtedly the ones where the band, and guests, stamp their own influence on the songs rather than deliver a straight forward copy."|
(Mark Hughes, 6.5/10)