The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Thirteen): Samurai

Originally known as Web, Samurai were another one of those unfortunate What if? bands that were lost in the shuffle of the early days of progressive rock.

Web released three albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the well-received but commercially unsuccessful I Spider (which is on my list of future reviews). By 1971, however, band leader and keyboardist Dave Lawson (later of Greenslade fame) changed the name to Samurai, hoping, perhaps, that the change of name might result in a change of fortune. Alas, that was not to be. Yet we do have their sole eponymous album as a result of that name change, and it’s a true hidden gem. Samurai features the talents of Lawson on vocals and keyboards, Don Fay and Tony Roberts on winds, Lennie Wright and Kenny Beveridge on percussion, Tony Edwards on guitars, and John Eaton on bass. Part of the Canterbury/jazz-fusion movement of the early ’70s, Samurai relied on drums and woodwinds to drive their unique sound, although the keys and guitars are given their chances to shine. Here are a few of the highlights from the album:

“Saving It Up For So Long,” the first track, could have made a good single. It opens with a jazzy guitar riff and drum beat, making it as close to radio-friendly as a progressive band was likely to get. The saxes, courtesy of Fay and Roberts, are also a nice touch.

Edwards is given another chance to showcase his talents on the fifth track, “Give a Little Love.” His riff is both catchy and distorted, giving the song an early King Crimson feel (think Lizard-era).

Lawson, whose nimble fingers on the keys anchor the sound of every song on the album, really shines forth on the last and longest track, “As I Dried the Tears Away.” His Hammond organ solo in the middle is especially satisfying to the ear.

If you are the type of fellow who enjoys a daily or weekly pilgrimage to the Canterbury sound, in particular to Soft Machine (Robert Wyatt era in particular), early King Crimson, or Caravan, this album will be a pleasant surprise for your wandering ears. Even those less inclined to walk that path will nevertheless appreciate the top-notch musicianship of this solid but under-appreciated album.

Stay tuned for number fourteen!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twelve): Fruupp

Well, perhaps you actually have heard of these chaps. Although they never made much of a name for themselves, Fruupp opened up for some of the biggest names in progressive rock, including Genesis, Queen, and King Crimson, in the early 1970s.

Founded in 1971 by Irish guitarist Vincent McClusker, Fruupp included classically trained Stephen Houston on keyboards and oboe; Peter Farrelly on lead vocals, bass guitar, and flute; and Martin Foye on drums. They recorded four albums in their five year tenure, but the sudden departure of Houston in 1975 (he became a clergyman) and poor record sales eventually forced the band to call it a day.

Fruupp’s third album, The Prince of Heaven’s Eyes, is considered their masterpiece. A concept album (based on a short story by Paul Charles), it tells the tale of a lad named Mud Flanagan, who, after the death of his parents, traverses the Irish countryside looking for the end of the rainbow. The influence of Genesis, especially in the songwriting, vocals, and keyboards, is evident throughout the album, but Fruupp are not mere copycats.

The album opens with a beautiful symphonic piece titled “It’s All Up Now”: Flanagan has made the decision to leave home and journey out into the wilds of the Emerald Isle. But shortly after his departure, “The Prince of Darkness” – a song that would fit nicely into the sinister world of Nursery Cryme – interrupts young Mud’s pleasant travels. Thankfully, our hero manages to avoid the road to hell and continues on his way, encountering a beautiful woman and experiencing several strange visions before reaching his journey’s end in the lengthy but uplifting “The Perfect Wish.”

Houston’s keyboards steal the show on this album, although McClusker and Foye are able to showcase their talents on guitar and drums, respectively, on the heavier “Annie Austere” and “Crystal Brook” (the latter also features some gorgeous flute courtesy of Farrelly).

It’s a shame Fruupp never enjoyed the success that other symphonic bands did, as this album certainly offers hints of bigger things that might have been. The Prince of Heaven’s Eyes may not reach the heights of Foxtrot or Selling England By the Pound, but it is certainly a worthy addition to the traditional symphonic prog canon.

Stay tuned for obscure prog band number thirteen!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Eleven): Alloy Now

I began this series when I first joined Progarchy back in 2013, and my last post concerning these obscure prog bands dates back to June 8, 2014 – almost seven years ago exactly! At the time I told myself I was going to cover only ten of these bands – it’s a tidy number, and, considering how many obscure prog bands were and are currently out there, I wanted to keep the list manageable. Furthermore, after graduating from college in 2016, my taste in prog remained almost exclusively centered on the heavy hitters of the “classic” era: Yes, Genesis, ELP, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson.

But then yesterday I changed my mind. My interest in these unheralded bands was rekindled only very recently, thanks to fellow Progarchist Reyna McCain. There are far too many under-appreciated progressive rock musicians out there – so why stop at ten? I compiled a list of some thirty bands (yes, I know that is not an exhaustive number; I will probably add more), and my goal is to cover all of them. My other goal is to keep these reviews fairly brief – after all, it’s the listening that matters most. So, without further ado, let’s begin at eleven:

Alloy Now is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist David Noel, who began his prog career with the Plastic Overlords, a Georgia-based psychedelic trio. Shortly after Plastic Overlords released their eponymous album, Noel started Alloy Now, a solo project (although he does feature some guest musicians on bass guitar and drums). Despite his Southern roots, Noel sounds like a mix of David Gilmour, Dave Brock, and Peter Hamill (at his more restrained): the acid-space-psychedelic influences are clear throughout this album.

Twin Sister of the Milky Way was released in the year 2000, but sounds like it could have been made in the early 1970s. That being said, it is not a simple homage to its influences, which range from Pink Floyd to Van der Graaf Generator to Hawkwind. Particular highlights include the opening number, “The Butterscotch Star,” which features a rich bass guitar (think Chris Squire), trippy vocals, and gorgeous keyboard-driven melodies. The instrumental “Shoulder of Orion” opens with ominous keyboards and percussion, but gradually transforms into something like a cosmic march through the stars. “Ghostly Superhero” could have been written by a Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie – think “Starman” or “Moonage Daydream.” Finally, the title track may be the strongest on the album: Noel’s spaced-out, symphonic guitar and keys play over wordless vocals, taking you on a trip through the Milky Way galaxy.

In my humble opinion, there is not a weak song on this album. If you are inclined towards symphonic prog or the acid and space rock sound of Hawkwind and Pink Floyd, then Twin Sister of the Milky Way belongs in your galaxy.

Stay tuned for obscure prog band number twelve!

Welcome, New Progarchist!

Disclaimer: The above photo shows Reyna in a past life and does not reflect her actual appearance.

Fellow Progarchists:

Please extend a hand to the newest member of our team, Reyna McCain! She is an avid fan of ’60s and ’70s music, cats, and bellbottom jeans. I have no doubt that she will be a welcome addition to Progarchy, and we look forward to her first post!

MFTJ – My Mom’s Getting a Horse

I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing via email MFTJ (Mike Keneally and Scott Schorr) this past weekend. Their new album, My Mom’s Getting a Horse, features not only the talents of these two fine gentlemen, but also a sense of humor sorely needed in these strange times. Take a moment to enjoy this funky and delicious bowl of “prog soup.”

This is the second album you two have done together. How did you meet, and what inspired you to put together an album? 

MIKE: We met while I was on tour with Joe Satriani in the mid-2010s, and Marco Minnemann was in the band. Scott was co-producing Marco’s albums and releasing them through Lazy Bones, and Marco introduced me to Scott when we traveled through his part of New Zealand where he lived at the time. We connected musically and personally – I knew of Scott’s work on the Levin Torn White album and the great reputation he’d accrued through that, and I was really impressed with the promotional video work he was doing for Marco’s EEPS album, so a few years later when Scott proposed to me that we work on some music together I was ready to jump in.

SCOTT: My inspiration to work with Mike was purely the results of the contours and finely groomed foundations of his beard. (His being a phenomenal musician and great dude didn’t even enter into the picture.)

Clearly, the two of you have quirky senses of humor. Who came up with the band name – Mankind’s Final Traffic Jam? And what inspired the titles of the tunes (“Donner Party Highlights”, “Lucy Has the Grip of a Crop Duster”, “Soft Teeth,” etc.)?

MIKE: The text/literature aspect of MFTJ is all Scott’s area; I get to give enough songs on my solo album weird-ass names so I don’t need to encroach on that aspect of MFTJ, which is more defined by Scott’s sensibilities, which are as weird as mine but arguably a bit darker. I have dark artistic impulses sometimes but often end up taking steps to brighten them up before release – Scott is happier to let things stay down there in the murk, which I love.

SCOTT: I’m perpetually stuck in the prison of sophomoric humor which I shall never be released from. Some partake in Korean Interpretive Dance as a hobby. I choose the art of naming songs and am grateful to Mike for allowing me the freedom to be stupid and weird. Although, he has shot down some of my favorite titles such as “When Your Ass Goes Lower Than Your Knees” and “I Wish Joan Rivers Was Still Alive.”

Mike, you have a reputation for working with some of the greats, including Frank Zappa and Joe Satriani. How much of your work with them influenced this album? Or were you looking to do something more “original”?

MIKE: I wasn’t thinking consciously about originality, I was just improvising along to the rhythm tracks Scott sent me, without much in the way of forethought or planning. Zappa, Satriani, and really everyone I’ve ever worked with had an impact on the process just because the experience of working with all of them had some kind of impact on my musical impulses – so, in the course of improvising over a specific texture or groove, something might come out which is redolent of someone I’ve worked with in the past, but it’s not conscious, it’s just me being me. And I think the longer I continue working in music, that process gets a little more refined and my improvisational impulses become more truly “me.” 

After I send tracks to Scott, he sends me back his initial song construct – his choices of what fragments of my improvised tracks would become key parts of a song. At that point I enter co-producer mode and give my suggestions on instrument levels, stereo placement and song structure. Again, everyone I’ve ever worked with has at least a subtle impact on choices I make during this process, but it’s just me being me. Not thinking about originality or not, but just trying to make songs sound and feel as good as they possibly can.

Scott, I know you’re a successful producer, working with the likes of Tony Levin and Jordan Rudess, but I didn’t realize you were a skilled musician in your own right! Would you mind giving a brief background on your career as a musician? Any particular musical influences? 

SCOTT: Can we use the term “skilled musician” loosely! I guess I’m proficient in drums as that’s been my primary instrument since before the wheel was invented. I can also noodle fairly well and come up with pretty melodies on the piano. In terms of bass and guitar, if it wasn’t for ProTools and the ability to loop, I’d be about as proficient as my dog. With those instruments, I’ll turn on a click track and jam for six hours until I come up with a cool four to eight bar riff to loop. I’ll also dig into sounds I’ve created from noises or grab stuff from various sample sites.

I’ve been in bands and recording projects since high school. In another life, a lot of my songs were licensed by numerous film and TV projects. My musical influences: YES (from The Yes Album through Tormato), Genesis (old to mid era), Rush, Crimson, Sabbath, Zeppelin, old school Hip-Hop, The Beatles, any great writer of pop songs and each artist I’ve produced and released on Lazy Bones as they’ve all taught me a great deal.

You describe the album as “instrumental prog soup flavored with art-rock, hip-hop, hard rock, and psychedelia.” These “flavors” seem disparate on the surface, but you guys blended them together quite artfully. What is it about progressive rock in particular that allows musicians like you to work with variety of genres and turn it into an album like “My Mom’s Getting a Horse”? 

MIKE: “Progressive” is so non-specific as a genre name, but for me, anyway, it’s one of the few genres where there really aren’t any rules to adhere to. Prog fans all have different priorities, but my feeling is that there’s an unusual quantity of listeners who just want to be surprised, to be transported, and to have a lot of different sonic content to try and decode and just wallow around in with their headphones on. There are a whole lot of sonic layers and a big bunch of musical information in the MFTJ tracks, even if they can also be received as just basic 4/4 groove tunes if you want to make use of them that way. It’s multi-functional music and I think it really repays whatever amount of attention you care to bring to it, but it really stands up to scrutiny. I enjoy MFTJ’s music more and more every time I hear it, and I have a weird, kind of surreal relationship to it, in that my musical contributions are created completely quickly and spontaneously and as soon as I’m done playing them, I don’t think about them again. So when I hear Scott’s re-arrangements of my playing, I can barely remember having played any of it, which is both mildly unsettling and really, really fun for me.

SCOTT: We all know Prog sometimes suffers at times from pomposity. Of course, it’s one of my favorite genres but I appreciate all sides of the Prog argument. It’s generally such brutal and complex music that I try to balance it out a bit by adding humor whenever possible to any of those types of albums I’m involved with. Look at the Levin Minnemann Rudess album, “From The Law Offices Of…” and Marco Minnemann’s, EEPS. (Do you see how I deftly worked in that plug?!) Artistically challenging records balanced out with fun and humor. I think one of the attractions of MFTJ is the sometimes “in-your-face” humor. From my perspective, it’s displayed in every note and in my musical relationship with Mike.

As we’re all aware, the pandemic has made it more or less impossible for musicians to play live concerts (excluding virtual shows). Did you guys face any challenges recording and producing this album?

MIKE: This was the first album I did all of my work for on a new home studio, newly created last year after the pandemic got me off the road. So I was working out a lot of tech details constantly, and it was wonderful to have this project to get my act together on. As far as the workflow and our working relationship, it was fantastic.

SCOTT: Since I’m based in Australia and the majority of artists I work with are from the States, I was used to the remote recording we did for both MFTJ albums.

Once this passes, do you have plans for a tour? Or plans for a third album?

MIKE: It’s really not “live” music and it’s kind of terrifying to imagine how to perform it – the amount of musicians required would be daunting. It is possible to imagine playing over tracks, but I’m not sure how fascinating that would be. If the budget existed, it would really be something to imagine this music in a live presentation, but definitely no plans exist. In terms of a third album, this has been discussed! No “plans” yet, but the energy is afloat.

SCOTT:  As I’ve told Mike, if I had my way, I’d do one MFTJ album a year until we reached album #10!

Where can prog lovers find your music?

SCOTT:  Go to our Bandcamp page at https://mftj.bandcamp.com or https://www.lazybones.com.

Rejoice

2020 was a hell of year, wasn’t it?

I don’t think I need to go into great detail here; we’ve all lived through it: the closing of restaurants, schools, and places of worship; the Orwellian slogans (“Together Apart,” “Alone Together,” etc.); a tumultuous presidential election here in the U. S.; racial unrest; etc. A hell of a year indeed.

During these last ten months I have often found myself confused, frustrated, and upset. I am a pessimist by nature, but I never would have expected a year like the one we just left behind. I find satisfaction in teaching my students face to face: but I had to settle for Zoom and Google Meet classes. I find solace in attending church: but for months I was prohibited from doing so. I find joy in conversing with friends face to face: but we stared at screens, instead. 

So I turned to books and music, as I usually do, to give me perspective. One of my greatest faults, I am willing to admit, is my inability (at times) to recognize the goodness in the world—I suppose that’s primarily a result of my pessimistic nature. But as a high school history teacher, I also understand that humanity has endured far worse. For the past few months I have delved deeply into Wiesel, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, and a variety of firsthand accounts from the survivors of the concentration camps and the Gulags. I understand this sounds a bit dramatic: I’m blessed to have been born in the USA, and in order to gain perspective on the current state of the world I’m reading stories of men and women who survived hell. But “suffering” is very much a relative term, isn’t it? And, for better or worse, I needed to be reminded of just how comparatively benign this pandemic has been compared to what others have endured in the past.

But it was music, and one song in particular, that provided me with the message I needed to hear above all others. This past fall I discovered U2’s second album, October. According to Bono, the effort to complete October nearly broke up the band: three of the four members are Christian, and they were concerned that the rock n’ roll lifestyle was incompatible with their faith. And yet they chose to make this album—what Bono called “the difficult second album”—about God. Talk about a risk.

There are several superb songs on this underrated album—“Gloria,” “Tomorrow,” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” are just three that come to mind—but the one that inspired my recent change of attitude was “Rejoice.” These lyrics in particular come to mind:

And what am I to do?
Just tell me what am I supposed to say?
I can’t change the world
But I can change the world in me
If I rejoice

That was what I needed to hear (repeatedly) in 2020: “I can’t change the world / But I can change the world in me / If I rejoice.” The pandemic is out of my hands. So are the lockdowns. So is any election. What matters most is changing who I am first—getting my own house in order, so to speak.  

So I choose to rejoice in 2021. I know I’ll have my moments in the dark, but at the end of the day, things could always be worse.

I wish everyone here in our Progarchy community a joyful new year. Stay healthy, stay sane, and stay hopeful.

Autumn

In acknowledgement of the most beautiful season of the year….

In the other gardens
And all up the vale,
From the autumn bonfires
See the smoke trail!

Pleasant summer over
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
The grey smoke towers.

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!

— Robert Louis Stevenson