David Detmer — On Track... Renaissance - Every Album, Every Song
When the On Track series was launched in 2018, the initial books were devoted to popular prog acts like Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Genesis. In 2021, many lesser known, but equally worthy bands like Renaissance are receiving their due attention.
Renaissance are one of many bands of the 1970s that never received the recognition they deserved, particularly in their UK homeland. They were however popular in the north-eastern states of the USA - a prog stronghold in the '70s - who appreciated the band's multi-part, classical influenced songs. They produced three classic albums - Ashes Are Burning, Turn Of The Cards and Scheherazade And Other Stories - which showcased the silky smooth soprano of Annie Haslam, the virtuoso piano of John Tout and lead bass playing of Jon Camp. In 1978, they released the hit single Northern Lights which did at least bring them to the attention of the UK record buying public before their eventual decline in the 1980s and rebirth in 2000.
Author David Detmer hails from Indiana, USA and although he has several previous books to his name, this, to my knowledge, is his first in the On Track series. To his credit, he has produced, for me, one of the best books in the series and not just because of the subject. The format, as you will no doubt know by now, is to discuss every song recorded by the band. How this is done varies from book to book, dependent upon the individual style of each author. For the record, Renaissance recorded thirteen studio albums with an average of 6 to 7 tracks on each. Detmer makes full use of the 144 pages - plus a 16 page colour section - and describes the structure of each song in precise detail from beginning to the end, often devoting several pages to a single track.
In his text, Detmer makes regular references to time signatures, notes, scales, chords and rhythm patterns. In the 'Acknowledgements' at the beginning of the book, he gives thanks to his friend and music teacher John Wachala who I assume had a hand in writing these elements. Thankfully, the first two albums recorded by a completely different line-up receive the same attention to detail. Following the studio albums, there are separate chapters devoted to live recordings, compilations and solo albums which are always welcome. The excellent 1976 double album Live at Carnegie Hall in particular is singled out for praise.
Both fans and serious musicians alike will find much to appreciate in Detmer's knowledgeable writing who will, I'm sure, mostly agree with his views. He makes a good case for Renaissance and progressive rock in general and his style is erudite but not too fanciful. And the really good news is, the book is bang up to date with references to band activities in 2021 although the scheduled tour of Germany and Brazil he mentions has no doubt been cancelled.
Tyler Kamen — Potions
Tyler Kamen is a guitarist, singer, songwriter, and music producer from New York. I'm afraid I can't give much more personal info here but luckily for us this is a music review so let's focus on the music here because it's good. As mentioned Tyler Kamen is a guitarist and guitars in many styles is what we have. I don't who else is playing here so it's maybe Tyler himself behind drums, percussion and bass. Honestly it doesn't matter because the songs are very well executed and produced.
The album starts with Fortune Teller and from the very beginning the listener can find a very nice sound with great vocals harmonies. This mid-tempo pop song doesn't represent the style on the album but reminds me of the sound found on the album Love by Staring Into Nothing. It is a nice song although it may be the weakest of the album and a little too repetitive at the end.
With Witch Hazel Brew Pt.1 the album becomes more interesting since the guitars and the overall sound turn into a folky style that I wasn't expecting, and it even has some kind of tribal vocals lines. Witch Hazel Brew Pt.2 continues these lines as an almost instrumental song with superb guitar solos and repeating the tribal folky vocals at the end forming a very good combo.
Nightshade Veil finds Tyler in a smoother way. Again the guitar playing here is fantastic so I can say he knows how to play it! This progressive ballad evolves through good vocal melodies and mixed acoustic guitars. Ritual comes next and the rhythm speeds up a bit, but only a bit. More than 10 minutes here with phenomenal vocal choruses and some blues guitars. Great song.
Folk appears again in Hieronymus Bosch and, although it sounds good, it seems to be too long. Maybe a shorter version would have been better. This is not happening with Tannis Root, the longest song on Potions. Probably the best song and a perfect way to close the album since it has all the good things of Tyler's music: very good guitars, vocals and melodies and an engaging structure.
So, having said all of this I can only recommend this great album. I'm sure I will find myself listening to Potions from time to time. It has only a few low points balanced by many highlights. If you like the softer side of progressive rock and folk this is well worth a listen.
Tyler is continually releasing new music and I'm discovering he also plays different styles but the guitar rmains as the main instrument, so I guess those guitar lovers should check his Bandcamp page.
Kerrs Pink — Presence of Life
Kerrs Pink is a classic prog band whose origins date back to the mid-1970's. Their debut was released in 1980, yet Presence Of Life is only their seventh studio album. On this new release, the band does a very respectable job of melding a classic prog sound with a more modern rock edge. This is old school progressive rock done in an authentic manner. Imagine if Yes decided to record an unabashedly prototypical album and you will get a sense of what to expect here. Though there is less of a folk influence than on previous Kerrs Pink works, overall the band embraces the adventurous spirit of their own history.
Vocalist Eirikur Hauksson has a range that finds him equally adept at handling the harder rock demands as well as the emotive progressive stylings. There are times where he brings the aggressive nature of a Marillion era Fish to the material. Special mention also goes to the outstanding work of keyboardist, Glenn Fosser and guitarists, Harald Lytomt and Hans Jørgen Kvisler. In fact, the entire band lifts this material to entertaining heights.
The more accessible tracks such as Private Affairs and Luna are certainly effective, but it is the more progressive moments that shine the brightest. In fact, album closer, In Discipline And With Love is one of the better epic tracks that I've heard recently. There are sections of it that compare well to the ethereal sound of some of the great Genesis songs of the 70's.
Ultimately, Presence of Life is an impressive work from a tenured band who still have much to say. I wish more of their classic era peers were still motivated to create music that is this inspired.
ProAge — 4. Wymiar
Sometimes, I get the feeling that the prog rock universe has become quite confusing. The spectrum of what might count as prog seems to get wider and wider, numerous new bands enter the scene, established ones keep on releasing albums, and many musicians are active simultaneously in different bands and projects. Whilst this in itself may not be a bad thing, it makes it more difficult to keep track and to systematically search for and discover new interesting releases. In trying to cope with this I regularly rely on the random principle inherent in listening to internet prog rock radio. That is how a few months ago I came across one track from Polish band ProAge's sophomore release MPD, very positively reviewed here on DPRP, piquing my curiosity as to what the successor 4. Wymiar might sound like.
4. Wymiar (4. Dimension) not only is the band's third release, following A Different State Of Reality (2017) and MPD (2019), but also seems to be the name (Czwarty Wymiar) under which the band was founded by Mariusz Filosek (vocals) and Arkadiusz Grybek (drums) in 1985. The band disbanded in 1990 without leaving any traces in the form of release. They resurrected with, by and large, new members in 2008, underwent a few line-up changes thereafter before somewhat stabilising after 2016. Besides founding member Maruisz Filosek, ProAge now consists of Slawomir Jelonek (guitars), Krzysztof Walczyk (keyboards), Roman Siminski (bass), Bogdan Mikrut (drums & percussion), and Mariusz Rutka (saxophone). Malgosia Lydka (flute), and Jan Mitoraj (guitar, from Polish peers Osada Vida) act as guest musicians. The release comes in a nice digipack format with lyrics in the band's mother tongue, except for the title track. Both preceding albums each exist in a Polish and an English sung version. Most of the band's info on the web are in Polish, a language I am not at all familar with.
Poland is the origin of many excellent prog rock bands covering a wide spectrum, ranging from pure progressive metal (Votum, Division By Zero), representatives of a more melancholic, atmospheric style (Riverside, Retrospective), hard prog-oriented ones such as Osada Vida, and Pinn Drop to neo prog à la Millenium, and Moonrise. ProAge in this respect is somewhat difficult to pigeonhole, as it blends characteristics of progressive metal, hard rock and neo prog and thus is a bit of everything of that. I found a slight bias towards the hard rock/heavy prog elements, though. A track such as W Cieniu Isolacji (In The Shade Of Isolation) could have appeared on a Deep Purple or a Uriah Heep album, a song such as Wyspa Czasu (Czasu Island) on a release from Twelfth Night and Pallas. Sensorium, and in parts Czlowiek Z Wysokiego Zamku (The Man From The High Castle) on the other hand, are fairly close to the sometimes gloomy mood of Riverside's music. Additionally, bands such as Knight Area, Threshold, the heavier parts of Pendragon, Journey, and Flying Colors come to my mind regarding the release altogether.
The epic title track sort of combines all these genres and influences. We find heavy riffing, spacy and ambient sax soloing, neo-prog style synthesizer melodies, pounding bass lines, a roaring hard rock organ sound, fierce and melodic guitar and synthesizer solos. With all this, I sometimes got a bit lost in search of the read thread and the coherence of the song (but eventually found it after intensive repeat listening).
What I consider as particularly appealing throughout the entire album is the well-balanced interplay between, and the complementarity of, keyboards and guitars. The riffing of the guitar perfectly matches the melodic keyboards lines and solos, whilst keyboards, especially the organ, provide a solid base for the guitar to develop its solos as well. The musicianship is excellent, the music itself accessible, melodic, not too complex and technical, easy to familiarize with. With respect to the production, I found the sound to be crisp and clear, but would have preferred the drums and the vocals being given a bit more of presence and punch. For me, guitars and keyboards sometimes appeared to be a bit too much in the foreground compared to the rhythm section. My favourite song is the album's closing track Wyspa Czasu: a clean, honest, punchy, no-frills hard prog rock number with great organ, synthesizer and guitar soloing, a catchy melody, simply upbeat, foot-tapping feel-good music. Great! It needs (and deserves) to be listened to loud without headphones (I did it whenever my wife was not at home).
With three short and two medium-long tracks, the album really centres around the title track. Insofar, I found the preceding album MPD had a more even balance with respect to the musical contribution and importance of each song. For me, it presents a wider spectrum of ProAge's abilities and styles. It has a greater variety and is more challenging. Nonetheless, 4. Wymiar is a pleasing, very solid, more accessible, catchy and melodic successor and will appeal to fans with an affinity for hard prog with prog metal elements and a dose of neo-prog. Well done, folks from ProAge, I look forward to what comes next from you.
THEO — Figureheads
Accompanying THEO's sophomore album, following their 2015 release The Game Of Ouroboros, is a small note that reads: "Please excuse the delay in getting this music to you. It's as close to 'traditional' prog rock as we've gotten, with a lot of focus on keyboards and an obvious Genesis influence... I think you will enjoy this one even more!". A statement that normally doesn't spark particular interest for me, as I'm not a huge fan of the band referenced. However the perfect timing, provocative artwork and mentioned combination of seventies prog-allure (alongside many examples) and contemporary feel within the reviews by my fellow DPRP colleagues however most convincingly did. Believe me.
It has taken founder, keyboardist and vocalist Jim Alfredson five years to compose and complete Figureheads, and next to background vocals by Greg Nagy and Donny Brown, once again features the talents of Gary Davenport (Chapman stick, fretless bass) and Kevin DePree on drums and percussion. This time guitar duties are shared between Jake Reichbart (track 2 and 3) and Tom MacClean (Haken, track 1 and 4). Five long hard years and time tremendously well spent, gaining a winning effort that makes prog great (again)!
In the suggestive artwork and excellent Man Of Action Alfredson reflects upon his native dissatisfaction towards elected authoritarians. Originally with a working title of 'The Demagogue' its painstakingly effective lyrics couldn't be more precise, which goes equally for the joyous delicately arranged melodies and music. Initially constructing an epic Pink Floyd-ian wall, it sails through victorious USA-cheers to yield a firm Roger Waters atmosphere, surrounded by meaningful, bewildering subtleties, eloquently more powerful than most of Waters outspoken resentments.
The uplifting jazz rock funky vibe is met by tasty organ parts that brings to mind Nektar's Evolution days, which smoothly intensifies with entertaining alternating verse and chorus movements, that gradually build up in intensity guided by proficient play into a momentous Genesis inspired symphonic intermezzo. The subsequent powerful inauguration from red hot fantastical synth movements in best Styx tradition thereupon culminates into an overwhelming passage of Transatlantic deliciousness that's breathtakingly euphoric. A state which becomes divine as it swings into dreamy atmospheres and blue skies filled with beautiful melodies, intricate piano and soothing harmonies that bring refinement, liberation and sophistication. Jake Reichbart's primary solo in this exquisite extensive coda brings several spine-chilling moments, and truly soars in the second solo, touching a deep, emotive, melancholic sensitivity and richness.
The dual nature of the composition relates to the albums underlying themes of representing different facets of our personalities, in which the dividing line between good and evil is very thin. This Jeckyll & Hyde element can indeed be found in all four adventurous compositions, as they each have some sort of proverbial cliff, be it from lyrical or musical point of view. Although I often find it more a question of superior transformation from Clark Kent into Superman, or in The Garden's case a gorgeous Amazonian Princess metamorphosing into a voluptuous Wonder Woman.
Surrounded by delightful positivity and alluring bass it opens in brilliant Ambrosia jazz fashion with frivolous play between luscious piano parts and virtuous synth layers. The excellent inspired interplay of the musicians feels close to Argent and Lifesigns and just when you imagine the melodies to have reached their optimal heart-warming embrace it's the serene power accomplished in the end section that morphs this beautiful track into dazzling heights with enticing piano, framed by a heavenly painting of intricate play and enchanting synth waves.
Opener Pathology has equal Ambrosia-appeal, spiralling after a marvellous tender opening with sweet melancholic melodies and tuneful vocals into a rocking seventies orientated inspired heavy prog segment with King Crimson complexities. The swinging jazz inspired structure, filled with delicious fluttery key movements, then changes to beautiful restrained melodies with subtle sweetness of jazz and floaty synth. Here delicate bass is to the fore, graciously moving the composition along, gliding through dreamy atmospheres that tingle with freshness accomplished by divine guitar and keys conversations.
Singling out a favourite track proves virtually impossible, and upon twisting my arm in all likelihood it is the penultimate Portents & Providence. Here Alfredson's predilection towards progressive rock is unmistakable, showcasing some extraordinary keyboard wizardry in the process. The grand enticing entrance sparkles with Tony Banks inspirations and outstanding guitars from MacClean, and once the uplifting poppy feel, cheerful arrangements and smooth flowing melodies are revealed it's as if a lovely summer's day morning has broken.
The bright and shining melodies, with richness in harmonies, roll in deep progressive roots towards a lovely highwire swinging jazz movement incorporating luscious keys which turn into sublime symphonic prog heaven as clouds gather and forceful induced Argent (Nexus) rock takes control. The successive divine amalgamation of keyboard eruptions airbrushes in free formation towards an intoxicating keyboard frenzy bringing memorable visions of aforementioned Tony Banks, Rod Argent, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Dave Greenslade and Neal Morse. The dynamics of the rhythm section spur on this meticulously merged and unparalleled pinnacle moment. As thunder and lightning fades heaven opens up with sparkling Yes twinkles and MacClean majestically pulls the strings one final time with an overwhelming guitar solo that brings home a breathtaking miniature whirlwind composition.
The album excels in musical maturity, outstanding performances and adventurous symphonic compositions with diversity in melodies that keep on giving and giving. Despite their extensive length the songs seem to pass by instantly and they never fail to grab one's attention.
A wonderful achievement that continues 2020's strong flow of superb albums. Had the album arrived in time it would have been an assured top-10 year list contender for me. Highly recommended listening, especially for lovers of modern day prog who desire a beautiful symphonic seventies rock touch.