In late 1979, Dave Brock, Simon King and Harvey Bainbridge were eager to resurrect the old Hawkwind banner and hit the road. To complete the lineup, they reached out to two old friends from the very beginning of the band, nearly a decade before: ex-Gong member Tim Blake, a friend from the Ladbroke Grove scene, and guitarist Huw Lloyd-Langton, who had last played with Hawkwind on their debut album. Signing to Bronze Records (courtesy of their former manager Doug Smith), Live Seventy Nine was released out of the blue in June 1980, yet to great acclaim: It reached No. 15 on the UK charts. A re-energized mix of old classics from the new lineup, it was spearheaded by the two-guitar assault of Brock and Langton. Hawkwind headed to the studio in the late summer of 1980, but without drummer King; the precision of digital technology had ended his long-standing reign with the band. His replacement was, incredulously enough, "the" Ginger Baker from Cream; evidently, Langton's wife Marion had the connections that helped bring him into the Hawkwind fold. The ensuing album, Levitation, released in November, was yet another chapter in the Hawkwind saga, and a veritable start to their second decade. Taking a nod to the current new wave of British heavy metal revival, "Motor Way City" and "World of Tiers" reveal a powerful band with one foot firmly rooted in heavy rock. It's a direction that they'd pursue for years to come. Langton's fluid lead guitar graces the anthems "Who's Gonna Win the War" and "Dust of Time," while Blake's synths feature on "Psychosis" and "Space Chase." The album reached No. 21 on the UK charts. What followed was the now-to-be-expected ups and downs of a Hawkwind tour, again resulting in the departure of band members. Blake got the sack after spending too much time on the phone with his then-girlfriend; while Baker, who never took to the live staging of a Hawkwind show, was fired after attempting mutiny with replacement keyboardist Keith Hale. Story goes that "the world's worst bass player" (Bainbridge) was the one to fire "the world's best drummer." Undaunted, the core of Brock, Lloyd-Langton and Bainbridge would remain together, with yet another lineup of Hawkwind forthcoming.
Parallel to his venture with Vangelis, Jon Anderson also began a solo career. Producing, writing and arranging, Anderson also assembled a fantastic cast: Ronnie Leahy on keyboards, Ian Bairnson and Clem Clempson on guitar, John Giblin on bass and Morris Pert on drums. Several compositions had been poised for Yes, including "Some Are Born," "Everybody Loves You" and "Hear It," but it's obvious why they were never executed: Don't go looking for Yes' music here as Anderson's solo effort, Song Of Seven, is an altogether different beast. "Don't Forget (Nostalgia)" breaks the mold, offering a subtle Caribbean slant, while "Heart of the Matter" is straight-up R&B. "Take Your Time" misses the mark, but "Days" exemplifies everything that Anderson's musical oeuvre is about: the track is gentle, thoughtful, slightly spiritual and expertly performed by the band. Anderson saves the best for last though: The epic title track provides more than a hint at Yes' greatness and grandeur. Anderson then mounted a full-on tour in late 1980, assembling with Giblin and Leahy The New Life Band with Barry De Souza and Morris Pert on drums, Jo Partridge on guitar, Dick Morrissey on saxophone and Chris Rainbow as an additional vocalist. In addition to the album, they performed two medleys: one comprised of several of Yes' classics and the other, songs from Anderson's collaboration with Vangelis. The album however, was met with commercial indifference; it broke into the UK Top 40, yet languished in the US Top 200.
The beginning of the 1980s saw the start of a new personal and creative relationship for Andy Latimer, with partner Susan Hoover. She provided the lyrics and concept for Nude: it was based on the true story of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier who held out in the Philippines until 1974, denying that WWII had ended. Thus, with the lofty concept in place, Latimer assembled Camel's rhythm section of Andy Ward and Colin Bass, along with former 10cc keyboardist Duncan Mackay and session man Mel Collins at Abbey Road Studios to record the album. Both the opening "City Life" and "Nude" contain all the aspects that make up Camel's music: soft, gentle vocals, easy melodies and pristine production. But that big bass line of "Drafted" starts a series of tracks that provide all of the tension and intrigue of Nude's journey. The album returns to a consistency in composition that echoes Camel's previous epic works. Mackay's keyboards are first-rate throughout, while Ward and Bass certainly earn their keep as well. The second side's "Changing Places" switches to a world music vibe; and again, the well-composed instrumentals offer more than a simple continuity to the storyline. "Lies" is the penultimate conclusion and another great Camel vocal number, with Latimer's brilliant guitar tone also singing over the straightforward beat. The album rose to No. 36 in the UK charts, and saw release on Passport Records in the US. Following the band's spring tour, Ward took his leave from the band for personal reasons; but Decca Records forced Latimer back into the studio in early 1982 to complete another album. The aptly-titled The Single Factor was recorded with a host of guest musicians, including Anthony Phillips, singer Chris Rainbow and bassist David Paton, the latter two part of The Alan Parsons Project. A final studio album, Stationary Traveller, was released in 1984, with Ton Scherpenzeel from Kayak on keyboards and Paul Burgess from 10cc on drums; and after a final live album for Decca the same year, Camel broke up.
Rush ensconced themselves once again at Le Studio in Quebec with Terry Brown to record their eighth studio album, Moving Pictures. "Tom Sawyer" kicks off; and continuing the trend from the previous record, offers another radio-friendly slice of prog rock. Geddy Lee's synthesizers accent the track, which features another of Alex Lifeson's firebrand guitar solos. The tale of a Ferrari roadster, "Red Barchetta," follows, and winds its course in expert fashion. The instrumental "YYZ" takes its name from the airport code for Toronto; but musically it's all Rush, featuring their brand of tight, complex hard rock. "Limelight" was the second single from the album and features Neil Peart's classic lyric of the band's newfound fame. Along with "Tom Sawyer," it entered the UK Top 10. Clocking in at 11 minutes, the two-parter "The Camera Eye" opens the second side in epic fashion, while the ensuing "Witch Hunt" takes a while to get going. The album's cover sports a triple entendre of "moving pictures," courtesy of long-time artist Hugh Syme. Though the album reached No. 1 in their native Canada, the album would peak at No. 3 on both sides of the Atlantic and earn quadruple-platinum status in the US. Rush immediately leaped on tour to support the album, recording material for their next release along the way. Exit...Stage Left, also released in 1981, features those recordings, plus one side recorded on the previous Permanent Waves tour. On subsequent albums, Rush would further embrace synthesizer technology, and also part with long-standing producer Brown. Success, however, would never be more acute than it was here.
Written by Karl Jenkins, Soft Machine's final record was produced by Mike Thorne, who also had just produced Wire's trailblazing trilogy of art-rock albums for the Harvest label. The record's title refers to a medieval land of plenty, and plenty of diverse tracks is what the album holds. Released in 1981, Land of Cockayne arrived well past Soft Machine's sell-by date; their previous studio album was 1976's Softs, with a live album recorded and released the following year. However, joining Jenkins and drummer John Marshall were an A-list of guests: Jack Bruce, Allan Holdsworth, Alan Parker, John Taylor, Ray Warleigh and Dick Morrissey. It's also the only album from the band to feature string arrangements. But what about the music? Composed entirely by Jenkins, he moves between new agey-ness, a good measure of disco-era funk (with strings, of course), some Oldfield-like minimalism and a tiny hint of the Softs of old (there's some nice blowing toward the end of the record). Holdsworth makes his mark on "Sly Monkey," but I still can't believe how much the opener "Over ‘n' Above" sounds like Supertramp! It's a strange record; not that it's difficult to listen to or digest, but it's one that ultimately has no time or place. Soft Machine? Not really. New Age? Maybe. Rock ‘n' roll? Certainly not. 1981? Really!? Well, it opened to little fanfare; and apart from a week-long residency in 1984 at Ronnie Scott's, the album remains Soft Machine's final coda.
Curiously, Anthony Phillips's next offering was an album of electronic music released in 1981, and under the title 1984. Assisted by Richard Scott in the studio, Phillips composed and created all of the music exclusively on electronic keyboards, though Morris Pert did add some percussion to the recordings. The Roland CompuRhythm CR-78 was an early programmable drum machine, and its familiar "chirp" can be heard on Phil Collins's classic track, "In the Air Tonight." The Orwellian black-and-white cover image of a cage presents a stark contrast to previous Peter Cross creations, yet the music was divergent as well. "Prelude ‘84" b/w "Anthem 1984" was issued as a single, but the meat of record is the two-part title track "1984," which encompasses most of the album. Gone are Phillips's pastoral, acoustic compositions; instead, the music is constantly propelled by the driving force of the drum machine. It's a contemporary work, though as lyrical as any of Phillips's previous efforts. Themes reprise themselves, tension ebbs and flows and all of it culminates in a grand vocoder finale. The layers of Polymoog and ARP 2600 synthesizers blast away, forging a landscape of dark beauty; it's a brilliant work and a bold step forward for Phillips. The album was released by RCA Records in the UK, and again on Passport Records in the US. For the remainder of the 80s, Phillips concentrated on his Private Parts & Pieces series. Another curious outlier though was the 1983 album Invisible Men, again recorded with Richard Scott. Ostensibly a pop album, it saw Phillips return to both contemporary song-form and subject matter (the Falklands War) for a final time.
Peter Hammill entered the 80s as a solo artist and without a label, yet still managed by former Charisma director Gail Colson. This link led to a (somewhat controversial) production job for Random Hold's 1980 debut album, Etceteraville, and later, briefly, a label, S-Type, that released his 1980 album A Black Box. Arranged, performed and produced by Hammill himself, it's a curious record, full of technological experimentation and odd, chunky production. For his next album, Sitting Targets, Hammill again enlisted David Lord in what must have been a larger role: sonically, the album is light years ahead of its predecessor, presenting a contemporary, if still unconventional record. The opening "Breakthrough" benefits from Guy Evans's crisp drumming, as does the following "My Experience." Layers of guitars, synths, punchy bass and compressed drums push Hammill into the 80s, while his compositions offer strangely appealing songs. "Ophelia" slows the pace, offering one of Hammill's emotive ballads, while "Empress's Clothes" and "Glue" crank up the drum-machine for more serene rides. "Hesitation" is raw, with David Jackson offering his sax. The strong title track opens the second side, while the piano-based "Stranger Still" offers one of Hammill's classic lyrics. "Sign" jumps with Evans's drums, and features Hammill's thick-toned guitar; it's the highlight. All-in-all, the album is one of Hammill's most cohesive efforts, and one fitting for the times. His next move was to form the K Group—a "beat combo" featuring Evans, bassist Nic Potter and guitarist John Ellis—to tour the album, which saw release on Virgin Records (and PVC in the US). The K Group would remain together for another three albums, all of which were built around the foundation laid here. Moving forward, Hammill would foster a solo career that was-surprise, surprise-uniquely his own. However, while others would find mainstream success in the 80s, Hammill's career would be best defined by a different measure: perseverance. One of the most prolific artists to emerge from the progressive era, Hammill continues to this day to release records to his ever-fervent fan base.
Early in 1981, drummer and vocalist Phil Collins released his debut solo album, Face Value. Featuring the single "In the Air Tonight" b/w "The Roof is Leaking," it was a huge success, reaching the top of the UK and US charts, and launching Collins to superstar status during the 80s and early 90s. It was Collins then that brought engineer Hugh Padgham along when Genesis reconvened at their Farm Studio in Surrey to record their 11th studio album, Abacab. A play on the arrangement of the title track, "Abacab" opens, revealing an altogether different Genesis: sparser, and with a reliance on synthesizers, there's a simplicity to the sound here that belies the band's artistry-laden past. Harsh drums, big synth lines and an almost jam-like ending still contain an edge, but the music is light years from the band's progressive rock of the 70s. Only Tony Banks's "Me and Sarah Jane" and Mike Rutherford's "Like It or Not" ever so gently reach back towards the band's previous work. "Keep It Dark" lumbers over Collins's plodding drums, while "Dodo / Lurker" and "Who Dunnit?" similarly offer a rough edge. Collins's "Man on The Corner," built over a chirping drum pattern, is firmly of the new era. In fact, the band recorded enough material for a double-album during the sessions, but relinquished what they deemed too similar to their past to b-sides and elsewhere. Complete with horns from Earth, Wind & Fire, the R&B of "No Reply at All" b/w "Naminanu" was a huge hit, rising to No. 2 in the US. Released in September, the album too was a success on both sides of the Atlantic, reaching No. 1 in the UK and No. 7 in the US. It also serves as the dividing line between the Genesis of the 70s, and the Genesis of the new era. Following the album's release, the band embarked on a worldwide tour, culminating in the double-album Three Sides Live in 1982. In the US, the fourth side contained tracks from the 3x3 EP, while the UK version included live material from their 70s repertoire. The tour was the first to feature Vari-Lite technology, one that the band's investment helped create. For the next few years, Genesis would reign supreme in popular music, with further platinum and No. 1 albums, numerous hit singles and the runaway success of Collins's solo career—at least until the early 90s, when the reappraisal began.
After Robert Fripp's League of Gentlemen ceased to be in late 1980, he re-teamed up with drummer Bill Bruford for a new "first-division" venture. First aboard was guitarist Adrian Belew, fresh from a stint with the Talking Heads, while bassist Tony Levin joined up after Bruford's choice, Jeff Berlin, was rejected. The band, Discipline, debuted at Moles Club in Bath, Somerset, on April 30th, 1981. Why and when they became King Crimson is ultimately a matter of course; the change did, however, provide a title for the record, Discipline. "Elephant Talk" opens, offering not only a great lyric from Belew, but also a fresh and modern sound from the band. "Frame by Frame" continues, highlighting the guitar interplay between Fripp and Belew; the former's arpeggios are contrasted with the free-form sonics of the latter. "Matte Kudasai" slows the pace, with Belew's guitar up front and center, though his voice is perhaps an acquired taste. "Indiscipline" unleashes the band's fury, with Levin's Stick bass cementing his unique signature to the group's overall sound. "Thela Hun Ginjeet" (an anagram of "heat in the jungle") intersperses some hilarious field recordings from Belew recounting a street encounter; while "The Sheltering Sky" sees Bruford bringing electronic drumming into his repertoire. Band name aside, the music presents a clean break from the King Crimson of the 70s; yet one equally compelling and one in keeping with the aesthetics of a new decade. Released by EG Records, the album was a moderate success, reaching the Top 40 on both sides of the Atlantic. The band's live set would only feature "Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part Two" from the Crim back catalog; and less than a year later, a second album, Beat, would appear with a similar modus operandi. Another two years and one album later, however, the experiment would come to an end. King Crimson were no more—well, until they became even more again later in the 90s.
Now a trio of Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Johannes Schmölling, Tangerine Dream's first release of 1981 was the soundtrack to the film Thief in April. Although it reprised material from Force Majeure (as was often the case with soundtracks), the band would record another three studio albums for Virgin Records, beginning with the not-to-be-missed Exit in September. Offering six discreet tracks, it's a contemporary, if not timeless album of electronic music. "Kiew Mission" offers a slight return to vocals, albeit disguised in the spoken chant of continent names of its first section; the second half spryly skips over a trio of synths before fading off. "Pilots of Purple Twilight" offers a more conventional theme, but equally thrives from its use of space; "Choronzon" dances to a brisk, drum-like tempo. The second side contains some of the finest TD on record. The slow moving "Exit" ambles over an undulating sequence, while "Network 23" blasts open with a tight groove, approaching song-form. Yet it's the closing "Remote Viewing" that most heralds the return to their 70s glory: A powerful, monolithic wall of sound gives rise to a hypnotic and detailed sequence, one both sinister and epic, and full of the band's expert sound design as it goes for the long fade. Brilliant. Both the soundtrack and the studio album (oddly enough) rose to No. 43 in the UK, while seeing release on Elektra Records in the US. Henceforth, Tangerine Dream would further concentrate their work on soundtracks and film scores—effectively a replacement for their live shows, which had all but disappeared after a final European tour in 1982. From Hollywood blockbusters (Risky Business, Firestarter, Legend), to lower budget films (Wavelength, Heartbreakers), they would foot the bill for the band. But by 1983, their contract with Virgin Records would expire, and by mid-decade Schmölling had left the band. With Paul Haslinger on board, Tangerine Dream would relocate to Los Angeles. Their subsequent output would have little, if any, resemblance to their work from the 70s and earliest 80s.
Hawkwind headlined Glastonbury Festival in June, and in a bizarre twist of fate, none other than Ginger Baker was co-headliner! The band had recovered from the debacle with their former drummer and regrouped around Dave Brock, Huw Lloyd-Langton and Harvey Bainbridge—the latter now sharing keyboard duties with Brock. Martin Griffin, previously a member of Ark and the Hawklords, returned on drums, as did poet Michael Moorcock (absent during most of the Robert Calvert era). Recorded in the summer of 1981 at Kingsley Ward's Rockfield Studios for his RCA-distributed Active label, Sonic Attack would be Hawkwind's 11th studio record in as many years. The album opens with a rehash of "Sonic Attack" and its familiar lyric, which dates to the Space Ritual days. But the Lloyd-Langton-penned "Rocky Paths" points to the band's new sound for the early 80s: the so-called "heavy metal years." Hawkwind's music is firmly riff-driven, pulsing over a click-track steady rhythm with sequencers and synths galore. Lloyd-Langton adds his proficient lead guitar, bending more than a few notes. Moorcock takes a vocal for his "Coded Languages," and Brock's "Angels of Death" (also the album's single) and "Streets of Fire" follow suit. Both of Brock's tracks highlight the driving rhythm that Hawkwind had perfected over the past decade. The album was released to near unanimous acclaim, reaching No. 19 on the UK charts. An appearance at London's Rainbow Theatre in December even saw former colleagues Nik Turner and Robert Calvert take the stage. Two further albums appeared in 1982 on RCA/Active: The more electronic Church of Hawkwind was released in May, while Choose Your Masques came out in October. Hawkwind would then sign to Flicknife Records, releasing several albums that consisted of live recordings, demos and other detritus—including the Hawkwind, Friends and Relations series (heir apparent to Brock's mail-order only Weird Tapes). However, it wouldn't be until 1985 that the band released a proper studio album: the epic saga The Chronicle Of The Black Sword. With Brock in the captain's chair, Hawkwind would soldier on through the 80s amind numerous lineup and personnel changes and continue to experiment with new musical directions; defying fate and fortune, Hawkwind continue to this day.
From the beginning, Asia was designed as a big-name supergroup. John Wetton had previously been in a bevy of progressive groups, with the last being U.K. Joining him were Steve Howe and Geoff Downes from Yes, and a post-PM Carl Palmer from Emerson, Lake & Palmer; though earlier possibilities included Trevor Rabin, Roy Wood and Rick Wakeman. Geffen A&R man John Kalodner compelled the band to start writing in late 1980, and in a direction that was strictly AOR: that is, album-orientated rock. The accoutrements included a "big" band name and a Roger Dean album cover; and the results were phenomenal. Asia quickly rose to the top of the US charts, where the album would stay for some nine weeks. In the UK, the album crested at No. 11, but remained on the charts for 38 weeks. The record earned gold status in the UK and quadruple-platinum in the US, while further earning the band a Grammy award nomination for Best New Artist in 1982. Side one of the album was packed with the singles: "Heat of the Moment," "Only Time Will Tell" and "Sole Survivor" lead off with a one-two-three punch, the former two with videos to air on the recently-minted MTV. There's nothing wrong, per se, with Asia's music. Wetton's voice is radio-friendly, as are his lyrics; and though the arrangements are a little congested, the hooks more than make up for it. The latter track even offers a little progressive edge. But one thing is clear: Asia was a business proposition for the new decade, something purpose-built to the core for commercial success, whether it be radio-airplay or sold-out tours. As the barcode on the back jacket signifies, this record marked the end of an era for the generation of progressive musicians, one that had spent the past decade following their muse through the varied and diverse music of the timeline. Asia released a second album, Alpha, in July 1983, spawning the US No. 1 hit "Don't Cry" b/w "Daylight." While successful, the genie was already out of the bottle, and those pesky supergroup problems quickly arose. Wetton left temporarily in 1983, with none other than Greg Lake subbing for him; Lake's performance is captured in the concert video Asia in Asia, recorded at Tokyo's Budokan Hall. But when Wetton returned, Howe then promptly left, replaced by Mandy Meyer from the Swiss metal band Krokus. A final album from this lineup, Astra, was released in late 1985; but with disappointing sales, tours were canceled and the band folded.
Alternating with his collaboration with Vangelis, 1982 then saw another solo album from Jon Anderson, Animation. He again assembled a stellar cast, including Jack Bruce, Clem Clempson, Simon Phillips and Chris Rainbow. “Olympia”, a paean to electronic music and gear(!), opens the album with considerable momentum, partly due to its driving forward beat. Perhaps producer Neil Kernon deserves the credit, but there's considerable more momentum to the album than on any of Anderson's previous. The title track continues the pace, Anderson's earnest expression of the emotions of childbirth. The second side's “Unlearning” sports a big bass line from John Giblin, but after that, the album continues in a predictable fashion. An ill-fitting “Surrender” goes for the reggae beat, while the Tony Visconti produced “All Gods Children” sports an R&B chorus over an electronic beat. Really. Tracks like “Pressure Point” and “Much Better Reason” bounce over the slick and very much “of the era” production. If you're a fan of Anderson's work, it's may be all good, but somehow it all seems like rote, and without Yes music underneath, there's not a lot of commercial appeal to Anderson's voice. The album was met with similar commercial indifference, reaching the UK Top 40 and US Top 200. Anderson toured again in 1982, with some of Bruce Springsteen's E Street band, (most notably with David Sancious on keyboards) and Clem Clempson from Humble Pie on guitar, even crossing over to the US for some dates. A third album dedicated to artist Marc Chagall was recorded in late 1982, but all that was quickly put on hold; Anderson was back with his former cohorts in 1983, for the rechristening of Cinema and massive commercial success as Yes.
Progressive rock is a curious beast. Rising from the psychedelia of Britain's late 60s, its heyday was some forty years ago. Of its reputation, album side-long suites, extensive soloing and cosmic album covers remain their legacy, one that is both revered by some, and dubious to others. It wasn't a total flash however, though flashy playing was certainly central to it. The mainstays, Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, etc, still enjoy that infamy to this very day. After all, prog rock was a thing of excess, but one where more was truly more. It was big - gigantic, in fact. It had scale. Eventually however, the Goliath of a dinosaur met its David in a bunch of young punks. Nowadays, prog rock unfortunately resembles something a little more dated; the live experience resides in festivals, tribute bands and men in their forties, fifties, and sixties. So it's easy to forget that prog rock was once vital and exciting. Don't get me wrong, there is still plenty that is good about progressive rock, and like most of its adherents, I'm a total obsessive. I simply love the stuff. After all, the music was and still is an adventure for the listener. But what relevance does prog rock have now, in the year 2010? Has it really made some sort of come back? Chat boards reel with prospects of a return - perhaps the second or third coming - of an old legend, even though you can probably count on your hands the number of bands that have succeded in creating something really new. With decades, rather than years, now pass between albums, new offerings from the old guard are still feverishly anticipated, though they rarely sell more than well-packaged reissues. Tribute bands draw legions of the faithful, but really, isn't it just a guilty bite of nostalgia? More recently, some newer groups have started to wave the prog banner, discard it, then drape it back on when fitting, while others just provide a carbon copy to an original and then lay claim to influencing anything remotely close to it. Ahem. So what happens when a bunch of twenty year olds bill themselves as Chicago's premiere progressive rock band? You check them out. Hailing from suburban Oak Park, District 97 is led by drummer and primary composer Jonathan Schang, along with two childhood friends: Patrick Mulcahy on bass and Rob Clearfield on 'boards. Guitarist Jim Tashjian and vocalist Leslie Hunt are slightly later additions, friends from their days at Roosevelt University. And the cellist, Katinka Kleijn, is on loan from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, though her attendance in the live unit is unfortunately more mythical than present. But they're all consummate professionals, and despite their short years, each musician has a CV to back it up, whether it's playing with the likes of Goran Ivanovic or Fareed Haque, in a jazz combo, a Velvet Underground cover band, or as a finalist on American Idol. Hybrid Child is D97's debut album. How fitting a title it is for an album of prog rock performed by a group of their (lack of) vintage. Rock music has been around for some five or six decades now. And with the ubiquity of the internet, every bit of its history is available to either enjoy - or completely ignore. So maybe it isn't so strange that a group of young musicians would pick up on prog rock and set their course towards its horizon. The pair of tracks that open the album, "I Don't Wanna Wait Another Day" and "I Can't Take You With Me", could have another life outside the prog context; while D97's sense for pop melody and an overtly simplistic lyric yank those lured in by the Idol connection, they're much more than mere fodder for the masses - whether they need to be or not. Next pair of tracks raise the bar further as they fully embrace the progressive: "The Man That Knows Your Name" rides their signature gun-metal rhythm, but it's those carefully orchestrated passages of unison and the huge symphonic refrain that not only cement them as prog, but even lend a nod to the most revered of Italian classics. "Termites" takes it into another, more concurrent direction. Yes, there's a fair amount of heavy in the D97 hybrid, and this one goes all the way to the proverbial eleven: the crunch is more aggressive, the vocal more relentless, and with head banging feverishly I'm expecting cookie monster vocals at any moment. Give me more! Well, clocking in at 27:36, the album's centerpiece "Mindscan" is about as more as it gets. Offering an epic length track of album-side proportion is risky business. But is it really prog rock enough for a band to just rely on how well they play their chops, or wear their influences on their sleeve? Okay, someone's listened to Yes. And Rush. And probably a few other legends from the classic era. Yet "Mindscan" is highly original and ambitious prog rock: ten sections of more atmospheric synths, more keyboard solos, more studio alchemy, more huge, sweeping melodies, more metal crunch; it's an epic track that's based on composition. And here's the best part - it's a musical journey. Throughout its instrumental and vocal sections, "Mindscan" delivers the kind of music that you close your eyes to, turn your ears on to, and travel off far inside your the mind. I might go as far as to call the track a "Close to the Edge" for the 21st century, but those would be some fairly large shoes to fill. Yet after living with the album for more than a few listens, I'm starting to believe that it's no exaggeration. D97 are big, you know - gigantic, like the prog of old. And with "Mindscan" they deliver the epitome of prog rock: the album-side long piece. Who the hell has done that lately? And then there's the voice. Who'd have ever thought a woman could sing prog rock with such authority? And with such conviction? No, I don't have issues with female vocalists, it's just that I haven't really heard a voice like hers in this context, and of the precious few that I have, never one quite this, um, ballsy. Leslie Hunt's talent is undeniable. But how will the prog cognoscenti react to her? That should be interesting! And the keyboardist, Rob Clearfield. He's slugged in quite a few fantastic solos throughout the record - just check out "Mindscan Part III: Realization". Can we only wish that he would write a solo record with such fury? And what about Jonathan Schang? A mild yet auspicious young man, he's the brain-child of D97 - composer, lyricist, manager, booking agent, and about to turn 27 years of age. What will the future hold for his young talent? And do I even need to mention Jim Tashjian, Patrick Mulcahy or Katinka Kleijn's contributions? Haven't you bought the album yet? Here's a secret: I've seen D97 live a few times now. The band's not only tight and energetic, it's downright gratuitous at times - perhaps the ultimate quality of a prog band. They also sport a vocalist with more stage presence than any idol, American or otherwise. D97 is in fact the real deal and I haven't been this excited about a band in a very, very long time. Yet I'm reminded again that this is just the beginning, the first release from a group of musicians who were born well-after the golden age of prog, and not a band with decades of experience behind them. Is Hybrid Child perfect? No, but neither is any other child. Yet as every parent knows, with a little encouragement, the future is filled with endless possibilities. Enter District 97 and see why prog rock just got a new lease on life.
In the two years or so since District 97 first sprang upon the progressive rock scene, they've quickly (and rightfully) earned themselves a spot as one of the genre's bright new stars. A great debut album, some high-profile endorsements, crowd-winning festival performances, chart-topping fan support, coupled with tour dates opening for prog legends Kansas and Roine Stolt's Agents of Mercy, all confirm the great work this group of Chicago suburbanites are capable of, none of whom have broken their third decade on this big earth. Yet I'm also reminded that these “kids” are the same age as Yes when that band recorded such masterpieces as The Yes Album or Close to the Edge. So here we are again... Trouble With Machines is the second album from D97. Again recorded in Chicago with Chris Harden of I.V. Lab Studios, the album gains a mix from Rich Mouser, a veteran of Spock's Beard and Neil Morse's recordings, and mastering by Bob Katz. The group composition "Back and Forth" is the perfect lead-off track. Stewing in the band's live set for quite sometime, here it presents their refined signature: chunky and quick tempo-ed, with choruses traversing 9/8 and 5/4, the band's trademark rapid-fire staccato is prog and it's metal, but it's neither or both; effortlessly performed, it's a big sharp sonic kick in the face, and a more than worthy successor to their previous fan-favorite “Termites”. "Open Your Eyes", written by lead singer Leslie Hunt (and appearing previously on her debut solo album) showcases the band's pop sensibilities. Yes, she was an Idol, and yes, she certainly could be again. Honed from a mold (somehow, miraculously) of an Anita O'Day or June Christy, her talent is indeed worthy of the big screen; sultry, effortless, urbane, and a perfect fit for the band, she's another pure talent on record, and if you've been lucky enough, on stage. "The Actual Color", featuring music from drummer and band leader Jonathan Schang and lyrics from Ms. Hunt, is another soon-to-be D97 classic, a masterful composition (dig that great F#11th opening the bridge) with that oh-so Yes-inspired finale. Where's the video for this? "The Perfect Young Man", based on the life of murderer H. H. Holmes, features John Wetton (U.K./Asia/King Crimson) on guest vocals. A fitting pairing, he's another of the genre's legends that has caught the D97 bug. It's musically accessible and interesting, straddling the pop arena in epic construct, yet without forgoing the progressive – this is no small feat. Scratch a little deeper and you'll find not only another world-class composition from Schang, but a man that can more than write the words. Guitarist Jim Tashjian's "Who Cares?" is representative of the guitarist's writing (be sure to check out his Treehouse project), and a more than coherent and able rocker. "Read Your Mind" features a cameo from Katinka Kleijn, the cellist that graces their first album. It's another monster track, highlighting the extreme caliber of the band. Steeped in jazz composition, possessed with the ability to rock out, and actuated with technical prowess beyond a doubt, D97 tear through the track. “Sick” as they would say. Bassist Patrick Mulcahy's "The Thief" closes the album, the long track on a perfect 55 minute disc. With a nod (incredulously) to Cream's “White Room”, the track's crisp guitar crunch, the bright attack of drums, all pinned and punctuated by a solid bass with Rob Clearfield's keyboards somewhere just under the guitar-hot mix, confirm that this isn't your father's progressive rock: it's something far more visceral and aggressive, something far more fresh and up-to-date. It's a testament to a group of young musicians - generations younger than their influences – that have reinvented and reinvigorated prog rock into something exciting, perhaps even something poised for greatness. The album is a solid progression for the band, sealing the promise of their debut with a firm affirmation of their unique and electrifying element of style. Their stars are shining brightly, their markers all pointing forward - where will they take us next?
With their ffifth album, Sonus Umbra, roughly “Shadow of Sound”, has started yet another chapter in the band's long tortured history. Originally named Radio Silence and hailing from Mexico City, the trio of Andrés Aullet (vocals, guitar, and keys), Ricardo Gómez (guitar), and and Luis Nasser (bass) shone brightly in the early 90s, gaining a large cult following but broke up due to internal stress. They eventually drifted back together a few years later, later, recording four albums from 1998 to 2005 while based in Baltimore, with Jeff Laramee on the drum stool and John Grant engineering and co-producing.
In 2006, Nasser relocated to Chicago where he's a professor of physics. Since that time, Nasser has had been involved in a two main musical projects. Originally formed in College Park Maryland, the acoustic quartet of Might Could brought Nasser together with guitarists Andy Tillotson, Aaron Geller and Tim McCaskey. Surviving the move, the band recorded four albums and continues to play live regularly (enough). Nasser's other work has been in a few prog tribute bands, all based in Chicago and covering music as diverse as Jethro Tull (with Silver Pipe), Kevin Gilbert (Champions of Nothing), and Emerson Lake and Palmer (Fanfare).
It is from this stew of musicians that the rebirth of Sonus Umbra began. Working with Andy Tillotson, Nasser began composing Winter Soulstice back in 2008. Eventually a band was formed, featuring some of Chicago' best musicians, including Roey Ben-Yoseph on vocals, Rich Poston on electric guitar, the mighty keyboards of Brian Harris, Steve Royce on flute and vocals, along with the Might Could of trio of McCaskey, Tillotson (the band's drummer) and of course, Nasser on bass.
Consider it “70's inspired progressive rock”, but with the added benefit of the magical guitar machinations of Might Could and the inspired virtuosity of Messrs Poston (check out his solo in “It's Only Fear”) and Harris (particularly his piano work). Ben-Yoseph's vocals are slightly under-mixed, drawing a parallel to those of Happy The Man. Certainly, some influence from all those man-hours spent in tribute band's leaks out, and specifically more than a little Jethro Tull in “Let It Rain” or “Rebuke The Sea”, but what's most astonishing about the album is that that's secondary. Masterfully arranged and impeccably performed, the album flows effortlessly from track to track, presenting a modern take on the progressive. Whether fierce instrumental as in “Palestinian Black” or the reprising the theme of the epic “Wounded Animal”, the album is a testament to musicians and their art.
Sonus Umbra's new album is only eclipsed by the bands' return the live stage. Out from years in the shadows, their star is ready step out front and center and into the spotlight of the best of today's progressive rock.