The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Thirty): Holding Pattern

The album cover just sort of grabs you, doesn’t it?

A belated Happy New Year to my fellow Progarchists and to all of our dedicated followers! I figured it would be appropriate to continue my series in this new year by reviewing a band that apparently hails from my home state (Connecticut). Holding Pattern released this album – their first – in 1981. An instrumental clocking in at just under thirty minutes, it may strike one at first glance as being too short to qualify as prog – after all, many individual prog songs are longer. But this album packs a symphonic punch in the vein of Happy the Man and Steve Hackett that is worth a listen. So without further ado:

The opening number, “Another Point of View,” has an upbeat feel to it: a great piece to enjoy whilst relaxing on a summer’s eve. Driven by Tony Spada’s guitar (reminiscent of Hackett’s early solo work) and Mark Tannenbaum’s keys, this piece hearkens back to the classic era of symphonic prog and is sure to delight any listener.

“Honor Before Glory” opens with the classic and beautiful sound of the mellotron before Spada again unleashes on guitar. Spada’s sound – no cheap imitation of Hackett’s – is complemented on this piece by Tannenbaum’s virtuosity on the keys.

“Jigsaw Dream” opens with a flourish of synths before transitioning to a funky cadence that is sure to appeal to fusion fans. Bassist Jerry Lalancette and drummer Robert Hutchinson, who provide a superb rhythm section throughout the album, anchor this piece with a groovy beat that makes “Jigsaw Dream” the most dynamic track on the album.

The closing piece, “Out of the Tunnels,” is the edgiest and “darkest” track on the album: the band, while remaining true to their symphonic and fusion roots, explores territory that was best exemplified by King Crimson during their Larks’ and Red era.

Like so many under-appreciated prog albums, this one deserves another chance. Lovers of classic symphonic prog who don’t mind a touch of fusion will appreciate this fine work, but this is an album that can find a place in almost anyone’s collection.

Stay tuned for number thirty-one!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Nine): Et Cetera

Do you admire the technical virtuosity of Gentle Giant? (You probably do – you’re a reader of Progarchy, after all.) Do you speak French, or at least consider the language beautiful? (Of course you do.) Then consider listening to this long lost Quebecois gem. Et Cetera, a Canadian quintet (with a female vocalist!), released their sole album in the USA’s bicentennial year, but unfortunately disbanded shortly thereafter. This was certainly a shame considering their level of skill: Marie Bernard Page has the voice of an angel (you’ll appreciate her talent from the get go); Robert Marchand transitions from soft strumming on acoustic guitar to jazzy licks on electric with ease (see “Entre chien et loup” and “Apostrophe” to hear it for yourself); Denis Chartrand plays with the focus of Kerry Minnear and would certainly be his match in a duel of keyboard virtuosos; and Alain Pigeon and Pierre Dragon on bass and drums, respectively, prove that those two winged creatures can get along splendidly when they combine their talents in order to tackle a variety of intricate rhythmic patterns.

Some critics dismissed Et Cetera as a Gentle Giant clone, but they clearly failed to appreciate what each of these musicians brought to the table. The gorgeous, multi-layered vocal harmonies; rock-solid rhythm section; and symphonic synth and keys (among other instruments, including flute, sax, and cello) place this quintet near the top of the list of obscure gems. Fans of Gentle Giant should definitely give this a spin, but any serious prog aficionado will find something to appreciate here.

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Eight): Jan Dukes de Grey

Combine the following ingredients in a vintage mixing bowl: the Gothic atmosphere of Van der Graaf Generator, the versatility and dexterity of the members of Gentle Giant, the guitar of Jimi Hendrix, the flute of Peter Gabriel, and include dash of Jethro Tull for taste. The result? Perhaps the most polished of obscure gems I have reviewed thus far. Jan Dukes de Grey’s Mice and Rats in the Loft is a psychedelic, folk-inspired acid trip that will leave the listener both mildly disturbed (listen closely to the lyrics) and suitably impressed.

After Sorcerer‘s (their debut album) cool reception from both fans and critics, British duo Jan Dukes de Grey (multi-instrumentalists Derek Noy and Michael Bairstow) brought on drummer Denis Conlan to give their follow up effort some “umph.” Although Mice and Rats in the Loft received little attention upon its initial release, it has since acquired a dedicated cult following; the album is now an in-demand collector’s item. Like many prog albums of yore, Mice and Rats in the Loft includes only three songs, but they are heavy hitters:

The opening number, “Sun Symphonica,” begins like a Jethro Tull song: your ears are greeted by the lovely, pastoral sound of a lilting flute. But soon the madness begins: Conlan pounds the drums, and Bairstow and Noy sound like two madmen enjoying themselves through music. The latter two gentlemen display their talents on just about everything: keys, guitar, flute, sax, clarinet, etc. Noy’s theatrical vocals combine with some rather ominous lyrics to weave a tale that is sure to leave you rattled by the end.

“Call of the Wild” skips the pleasant opening notes of the first song and gets straight to the madness. Noy’s work on twelve-string guitar on this album is superb – comparable to Hackett or Howe, in fact – and he shreds (yes, shreds) on this song. There are several moments – one about eight minutes in, another at the end of the piece – where Noy’s distorted guitar transports the listener into a Gothic-folk setting. This song is downright Lovecraftian in atmosphere.

The title track leaves the listener feeling no less worried about his mental or emotional state: we are greeted with the sound of a wailing siren before Noy’s electric guitar (sounding like Hendrix here) is unleashed on our ears. Like the previous two songs, the lyrics are meant to unsettle (“The blood trickled down between his…fingers”). It’s not long before we begin to wonder what exactly those mice and rats are doing upstairs….

This album is a marvelous maelstrom – a chilling cacophony – a sinister symphony – of sound. The (slightly) twisted minds of Bairstow, Noy, and Conlan offer the best elements of prog: fantastical lyrics, theatrical vocals, unbelievable versatility, and an overall unsettling atmosphere that will satisfy even the most persnickety of proggers. Do yourself a favor and give this one a listen.

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Seven): October

With a cover that evokes the pastoral simplicity of a Robert Frost poem or Ray Bradbury’s October Country, After the Fall seemed a fitting album to review in this most beautiful month of the year. Although one might expect to hear lilting flute and gentle acoustic guitar on an album like this, After the Fall includes neither; rather, it relies on piano, moog, and violin to create a spacey, jazz-fusion sound.

The album itself consists of only six tracks and is just over thirty minutes in length. The “Intro” opens with the sound of the blowing wind on a cool autumn day before Mark Sterling’s moog comes in to treat our ears to a soft cosmic journey. The three subsequent tracks – “October Suite,” “Earth,” and “Through the Light of Reason” – feature the prominent use of electric piano and violin, both of which are played with skill by Mark Krench and Brad Tolinksi, respectively. Elements of Pink Floyd and Camel are sprinkled throughout, especially toward the end of “Earth.” The fourth piece, “Shining,” features Jeff Rozany doing duty on both bass and vocals, but he sings only a few lines in a gentle voice before the instruments – the stars of the show – again take over. “Charisma,” the longest and best of the six, closes the album. Although the moog, electric piano, and violin continue to shine, and Pat Carson proves himself a steady anchor on the drums, it is Rozany’s bass that relentlessly drives this song forward, giving “Charisma” an edgier sound than the other tracks.

If you are expecting something in the vein of Jethro Tull’s “Witch’s Promise” (as, admittedly, I was), you will be in for a surprise – but a pleasant one. October will not necessarily blow you away (pardon the wind pun), but it does make for a lovely, relaxing listen for a cool autumn day. Fans of symphonic or jazz fusion will appreciate this one.

Stay tuned for number twenty-eight!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Six): Julian’s Treatment

If a psychedelic concept album about interstellar travel, galactic warfare, and a kingdom of beautiful blue women sounds like the cure for your end-of-summer blues, then Julian’s Treatment may be just what the doctor ordered! Headed by budding science fiction author Julian Jay Savarin, Julian’s Treatment released only one album – A Time Before This – in 1970 before financial troubles forced them to call it a day. But their sole release truly is an obscure gem: original copies of the album have apparently sold for over $1,000.

But back to Savarin’s writing: what tale does he weave here? Here’s a helpful summary I came across on the YouTube posting of the album: A Time Before This…tells the story of the last surviving man from planet Earth, who journeys across interstellar space to the Alpha Centauri system, where a conflict is raging. On one side stands Alda, Dark Lady of the Outer Worlds, and her ally the Mule. On the other is Altarra, Princess of the Blue Women and Supreme Ruler of the planet Alkon. It is implied that the Earthman will become Altarra’s ally and lover, and will help her overthrow Alda and the Mule.

And there you have it: travel, warfare, and exotic women. Perhaps it’s not the most original story ever told, but singer Cathy Pruden’s passionate vocals make it worth at least a few listens. Her best performances come in Chapters V and VI: first as the menacing and imposing “Alda, Dark Lady of Outer Worlds,” and then as “Altarra, Princess of the Blue Women,” as graceful and mellow as Alda is fierce and powerful.

The other star on this album is Savarin himself: although not a wordsmith at the level of a Bradbury, Heinlein, or Dick, he nevertheless offers a rather engaging acid trip of a tale. Furthermore, he’s quite the talented Hammond organ player, and his instrument is the glue that holds the album together. (And I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge guitarist and flutist Del Watkins, whose skill on both instruments adds a welcome touch of both hard and folk rock – listen in particular to his work on “Phantom City.”)

Fans of psychedelia, science fiction, and Hawkwind’s Michael Moorcock-inspired albums will find especial pleasure in listening to Julian’s Treatment. Like any novel, this album must be listened straight through from beginning to end – don’t skip any of the chapters!

Stay tuned for number twenty-seven!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Five): Marsupilami

Hailing from England, jazz-rock outfit Marsupilami released two albums in the early 1970s before calling it a day. Arena, their second and final album, is an exploration of the violence and brutality of ancient Roman culture (the album cover certainly offers a hint of said violence), with an especial focus on the bloody era of the gladiators and the persecution of the early Christians. Here are my thoughts on this obscure gem:

I’ve come here today to rip the veil from your eyes, unhinge your heads, and pull out your BLOODY MINDS!” So begins the “Prelude to the Arena” – fitting considering the topic being explored. If Fred Hasson’s screaming vocals aren’t enough to wake you up, then perhaps the superb musicianship will. After the violent opening, the “Prelude” eventually settles down, featuring lovely interplay between sax, flute, and electric piano courtesy of Leary Hasson.

The black theme continues in the ironically-titled “Peace of Rome,” which opens with the chilling sound of wailing voices. Soon, however, the flute, bass, organ, and percussion pick up the tempo, but it is guitarist Dave Laverock’s searing performance on his instrument that makes this song particularly strong.

If Fred Hasson’s introductory lyrics didn’t make you pause, perhaps part of the opening lyrics to the title track will: “A Christian is a human torch exploding with a scream.” That line is then punctuated by the sound of a, well, screaming flute – again, fitting, but it certainly sends a chill down the spine. Overall, however, “Arena” is a flawed attempt at an epic: it loses much of its luster after an introduction that could have (and should have) been pared down. The lyrics, on the other hand, are never dull: we get references to both St. Peter’s upside-down crucifixion and Nero’s…relations with his mother, among other misfortunes.

“Time Shadows” places flutist Jessica Stanley-Clarke (whose work elsewhere on the album is worth noting) front and center, and she does not disappoint. Like the other tracks, “Time Shadows” remains somber in tone.

The opening thirty seconds of “Spring” – a gentle, pastoral combination of acoustic guitar, flute, and organ – contrast violently with the cacophony of electric guitar, keys, and percussion that follow for the next minute before the song begins to resemble a soft-rock tune out of Camel’s catalogue (as it turns out, original Camel member Peter Bardens produced Arena).

The dark, somber lyrics will recall to some listeners Aphrodite’s Child’s 666; the soft-rock and jazz-inspired riffs will remind others of Camel’s early work; and the screaming vocals will most likely bring to mind Peter Hammill’s distinctive screeches. Arena has its faults – the vocals are somewhat flat, and the random appearance of harmonica here and there disturbs the melodies (and not in a pleasant way) – but the lyrics are captivating, the musicianship top-notch, and the passion evident. It is one worth adding to your catalogue.

Stay tuned for number twenty-six!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Four): Paul Brett

Considering his reputation as one of the greatest living twelve-string guitar players, Paul Brett is probably not among the more obscure names I have included in this series thus far. Having performed with the likes of Arthur Brown, Roy Harper, and the Strawbs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Brett was by no means a stranger to the prog scene by the time he ventured forth on his own. He released several solo albums in the 1970s, Interlife being perhaps the most celebrated of the bunch. Although Brett’s acoustic and electric guitars are the stars of the show, the album also features the talents of ex-Strawbs drummer Rod Coombes and the ubiquitous Mel Collins on saxophone, who helps give the album a jazzier feel. Here are a few highlights from this hidden gem:

The opening number “Interlife” is both the longest and strongest track on the album. Although it begins as a soft folk tune with the rich sound of layered acoustic guitars, it transitions quickly and seamlessly to a unique blend of folk and jazz rock. Each member of Brett’s supporting cast is able to show off their chops, be it Coombes on drums, Collins on Sax, Derek Austin on synthesizer, or Delisle Harper on bass. Fans of Mike Oldfield’s instrumental prog masterpiece Tubular Bells – which also features several acoustic and electric guitars – will appreciate this track.

The remaining tracks, beginning with “Celebration,” are much shorter and equally enjoyable. Brett again opens with the gentle sound of acoustic guitar on “Celebration” before he’s joined by his mates. The electric guitar soars on this piece before the track finishes in a sort of jig.

“Segregation” also begins gently, but transitions suddenly to a jazzy guitar riff and a thumping bass line courtesy of Harper, who does a superb job on this piece. “Isolation,” another acoustically-driven work, follows “Segregation” before we arrive…

“Into Life,” the heaviest piece on the album. Unlike the other tracks, the closer opens with electric guitar, bass, and drums. Perhaps this is meant to represent the (somewhat) chaotic transition into life itself, but it does feel somewhat out of place on what is otherwise a rather subdued album.

Fans of the Strawbs, Mike Oldfield, and Roy Harper will not want to miss Interlife. For those less inclined toward the prog folk scene, I would still recommend this as an excellent album for a rainy or slow-paced day. Brett’s work on both acoustic and electric guitar (but especially the former) is simply superb and would be appreciated by any prog enthusiast.

Stay tuned for number twenty-five!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Three): Polyphony

Although the name of this band refers to a musical texture defined by two or more lines of independent melody, I want to call your attention first to the album artwork, which is among the most beautiful I have seen in any genre of music. According to a review on Prog Archives, the artist wanted to show the “four elements of the universe subsiding toward an energy force which was ‘polyphony’.” The rich detail on the cover provides the perfect complement to such a complex album. With elements of ELP, Atomic Rooster, Jimi Hendrix, and Deep Purple, Polyphony seemed poised for success, but like so many other talented bands of the day were instead lost in the shuffle, and Without Introduction remained their only release. Here are my thoughts on the four tracks:

“Juggernaut” is a fitting title for the opening piece, which hits with a burst of keys and guitar right from the start. If Jimi Hendrix had joined ELP to form HELP (rumor has it he nearly did), it would probably sound like this piece. The interplay between Glenn Howard’s slide guitar and Craig Massey’s organ is excellent – and intense. It actually reminds me a little bit of Boston’s “Foreplay,” the lengthy introduction to their superb “Long Time.” We don’t get any vocals until after the nine-minute mark, and they may remind some listeners of Nad Sylvan, Progarchy’s favorite Vampirate.

The next piece, “40 Second Thing in 39 Seconds” is a brief experiment with a Moog synthesizer. It’s a bizarre piece, but considering what Emerson did with the Moog, it would be music to many a progger’s ears.

“Ariel’s Flight” is the longest piece on the album and, despite featuring more vocals, nevertheless remains dominated by Howard’s raw guitar and Massey’s deft work on the keys. Martin Ruddy’s pounding bass and Chris Spong’s steady beat on the drums are also superb; the rhythm section on this album is not to be ignored.

The closing track, “Crimson Dagger,” also opens with a blitz of guitars and keys but transitions to a smoother, psychedelic soundscape about three minutes in. This piece also features the strongest vocals on the album, including some solid backing vocals by all members except the drummer. Unfortunately, the song ends rather abruptly, but this is one of the album’s few weak points.

It’s too bad Polyphony was little appreciated in their day, as their debut album suggests they could have contended with some of prog’s heaviest hitters. Lovers of symphonic and “classic era” prog rock will especially enjoy this hidden gem, but it will no doubt appeal to many in the prog world.

Stay tuned for number twenty-four!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-Two): Island

If the album cover looks familiar to you, that’s because it was designed by the same man responsible for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery and Ridley Scott’s Alien: H. R. Giger. Island may be the strangest thing to come out of Switzerland since that eccentric creator of biomechanical horrors. That small, idyllic mountain country may not come to mind when one thinks of avant-garde, but, like Giger, Island certainly does not fit the Swiss mold – or any mold, for that matter. Pictures is easily one of the bolder, more original releases that I have ever heard. Like Van der Graaf Generator, Island relied not on bass or guitar (in fact, they feature not a single guitar on the entire album), but rather on percussion, keys, and woodwinds. Like Gentle Giant, Island’s free jazz-style approach offered the band opportunities for some incredibly complex improvisation. And like King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, Island wasn’t afraid to add a dash of black humor to their lyrics, providing the album with a (somewhat) lighter tone than is suggested by that horrifying album cover. Now to the music itself:

The album opens with the appropriately titled “Introduction,” which sounds like Ligeti’s Requiem or something out of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This brief piece ends with some eerie words whispered over a cacophony of sound before it transitions rapidly to…

The dynamic “Zero,” which opens with a flourish of keyboards. The interplay between keyboardist Peter Scherer, drummer Guge Jurg Meier, and woodwind wunderkind Rene Fisch is impressive and will probably remind most listeners of King Crimson or Gentle Giant. But we do not hear the vocals of Benjamin Jager until…

The title track. Jager, who sounds a bit like Peter Gabriel, has some fun on this song (it takes a quirky fellow to sing about “gastric juices”), but the focus remains on the instruments, and Jager himself is no slouch on percussion. In the middle of this complex piece we are entertained to both a gentle clarinet solo and smooth sax work courtesy of Fisch. These mad scientists of music continue to experiment on…

“Herold and King / Dloreh,” a fitting title for such an odd piece. After some three minutes of beautiful but somewhat dark piano melodies, we get a good half minute of silence before Jager’s vocals fade in…singing the lyrics in reverse, of course (look again at the title of the song). Once again, we are treated to some fascinating interplay between keys, sax, and percussion, and at one point the ominous sound of a drone provides an additional layer of eeriness. To up the weirdness factor, the track includes some whispered vocals (reminiscent of Goblin or VDGG) and scat (or something like it) throughout. The strange brew continues to satisfy on…

“Here and Now,” the closing track. This piece features (briefly, alas) a gorgeous and textured organ sound, and the percussion and sax shine as they have throughout. The drone effect is again put to good use, adding a haunting layer to what is otherwise the most “upbeat” track on the album.

This is a challenging album that may not initially appeal to your tastes. In fact, it may take three or four spins before you can appreciate it, and it is certainly worth more than one listen: this is top-notch musicianship with a healthy dose of dark humor. Anyone who appreciates Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, or King Crimson will be impressed by this little-known avant-garde masterpiece. Just don’t let Giger’s monster scare you off.

Stay tuned for number twenty-three!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty-One): Gnidrolog

An enormous and menacing hand looms over a graceful yet defiant swan: here is an album cover fit for a symphony orchestra. Yet Gnidrolog’s Lady Lake, despite it’s romantic artwork and title, features neither orchestra (a la Camel’s The Snow Goose) nor keyboards imitating the sound of an orchestra (a la nearly every symphonic prog band) nor even the prominent sound of a stringed instrument (guitars notwithstanding, and they are not the driving force behind this work). Instead, Gnidrolog relies on a blend of saxes, flutes, and recorders to create a full, rich sound that provides the foundation for one of the stronger obscure prog albums of the 1970s.

Lady Lake is the second of three albums produced by Gnidrolog, an English quintet consisting of identical twin brothers Colin and Stewart Goldring (lead vocals and guitar, respectively), John Earle (flute and saxophones), Peter Cowling (bass), and Nigel Pegrum (drums, flute, and oboe). Although each member is clearly talented (all of them, like the members of Gentle Giant, play several instruments), Earle is the star on this album, and he puts his woodwinds – a refreshing substitute for keys or mellotron – to good use. Here are some of the highlights from this under-appreciated gem:

Released during the Vietnam War (1972), Lady Lake opens with the idealistic epic “I Could Never Be a Soldier.” The longest piece on the album, it opens with some superb flute courtesy of Earle and the multitalented Pegrum, giving the song a Jethro Tull-like feel. Colin’s vocals, however, sound nothing like Mr. Ian Anderson’s: think Peter Hamill without the “apocalyptic” quality and grittiness. (The vocals are not bad, but neither are they the strongest element here.) Colin’s twin Stewart enjoys some time in the limelight with a brief guitar solo about ten minutes into the song, followed by some funky bass work by Cowling, before the epic finishes just shy of twelve minutes with a flourish of sax courtesy of Earle.

The title song is perhaps the best on the album. After Cowling and Pegrum lay a solid foundation with bass and percussion, respectively, Earle’s layered saxophones add a welcome richness and texture. Toward the middle of the piece the layered saxes are blended with the smooth sounds of recorder and oboe. Cowling’s ominous pounding bass reminds us, however, that the looming hand continues to threaten our (false) sense of tranquility. The frenetic ending hits with the force of Van der Graaf Generator thanks to Earle’s talent on the sax, which would impress any admirer of David Jackson.

“Social Embarrassment” may be one of the stranger finales on any album, progressive or not. Earle sings lead vocals on this one (his voice sounding a bit like Jon Anderson’s). Cowling again demonstrates his chops on bass guitar, and Stewart Goldring unleashes a furious electric guitar solo toward the end of the song before he is overwhelmed by the screams (yes, screams) of the Colney Heath Male Choir: perhaps the hand has conquered! Now that’s a memorable way to close an album.

Despite my reservations concerning the vocals, Lady Lake is nevertheless an excellent example of early progressive rock. The songwriting is above average and the musicianship top-notch. It would be a worthy addition to any serious progger’s catalogue.

Stay tuned for number twenty-two!