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!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Twenty): Gracious

An album cover designed by Roger Dean. A mellotron sound inspired by In the Court of the Crimson King. An opening suite reminiscent of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. this is…Gracious!! had many of the key ingredients needed for a superior prog album, but it didn’t sell, and the band broke up not long after their sophomore effort. Perhaps Gracious tried to be too much at once: prog, psych, hard rock, blues, space rock, etc. Sometimes this eclectic blend works; sometimes it does not. this is…Gracious!! lands somewhere in the middle. Here are some of my thoughts:

Unlike most of the albums I have reviewed, this is…Gracious!! includes a true prog epic, the four-part suite “Supernova,” which takes up the entire first side of the album. Clocking in at just under twenty-five minutes, “Supernova” had the potential to be a classic prog epic, but it suffers from some shortcomings. The first two parts of the song – the Floydian instrumental “Arrival of the Traveler” and the Crimsonian “Blood Red Sky” – are fine examples of prog’s “classic” era (although Paul Davis’s vocals may be an acquired taste for some). Anchored by drums and mellotron, the latter would have fit nicely on King Crimson’s debut album. Unfortunately, “Blood Red Sky” transitions rather awkwardly into “Say Goodbye to Love,” a romantic guitar ballad with saccharine lyrics that just feels out of place on this epic piece. The fourth and final part, “Prepare to Meet Thy Maker,” thankfully returns to the Floydian/Crimsonian sound.

“C. B. S.” opens with a catchy guitar riff courtesy of Alan Cowderoy, and stays anchored by Martin Kitcat’s clavinet and piano.

“Blue Skies and Alibis” also opens with a catchy riff and is by far the strongest and most upbeat track. Kitcat and Cowderoy share centerstage on mellotron and guitar, respectively. The rhythm section also holds its own: drummer Robert Lipson anchors the song with his pacing, and Tim Wheatley’s nimble fingers produce a hopping bass line.

It’s too bad Gracious never had a chance to develop their sound, as they may have ended up among the prog elite of the early 1970s. Alas, they are now instead part of the long but colorful list of obscure prog artists. this is…Gracious!! may be a diamond in the rough, but it’s certainly worth a listen: you may find it more polished than I did.

Stay tuned for number twenty-one!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Nineteen): Touch

Featuring vocals reminiscent of Ian Gillan and keys that may call to mind (dare I say it?) Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, Touch produced one of America’s early progressive rock albums – and one of its finest. Yet despite having fans and supporters such as Kerry Livgren, Jimi Hendrix, and Mick Jagger, Touch remained relatively obscure, as bandleader and keyboardist Don Gallucci refused to tour the album. Unfortunately, that spelled the end for the band, and they never released a second album. Thankfully, we have an impressive selection of songs from their lone effort. Here are some of the highlights:

“We Feel Fine,” a rollicking opener of a song, makes for a fine introduction. Jeff Hawks immediately puts on display his impressive vocal range, but Gallucci shines on the organ, and Joey Newman gets to show off a little bit on guitar.

The Beatles come to mind upon hearing “The Spiritual Death of Howard Greer,” an acid-rock epic that tells the tale of a sad stick in the mud. It may remind listeners of “A Day in the Life” or a darker version of “The Diary of Horace Wimp.”

Odysseus and his crew may disagree, but “Down at Circe’s Place” is a wonderful tune and the most psychedelic piece on the album. An instrumental (although there are some spacey wordless vocals courtesy of Hawks), the tune opens with a catchy piano riff and features a wonderful cacophony of sound at the climax – sans guitar: Gallucci’s keys and John Bordonaro’s percussion drive the madness.

The second and final epic on the album, “Seventy-Five,” is the strongest and most progressive track. Hawks can shriek like Gillan or croon like Greg Lake depending on what is called for; it is an impressive vocal performance to say the least. Newman finally earns a spot front and center to display his talents on guitar, and he does not disappoint.

This is not an album to ignore: the musicianship is top-notch and the overall quality something you will not typically find in some of these older, more obscure releases. It’s time to give Touch a go.

Stay tuned for number twenty!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Eighteen): Principal Edwards Magic Theatre

One of the hallmarks of the classic era of progressive rock was the theatrics: Peter Gabriel’s eclectic costumes, Keith Emerson’s knives and flying piano, and Rick Wakeman’s flowing capes are just a few that come to mind. But few prog bands ever included an entire troupe on tour. Enter Principal Edwards Magic Theatre (PEMT), a fourteen member ensemble that included singers, musicians, poets, dancers, and sound and light technicians. This cast of characters, who at the time were students at the University of Essex, initially sought to express their artistic abilities through the medium of print, but it did not take them long to realize that it was more enjoyable to display their talents on stage.

Although they managed to release only two albums (in 1969 and 1971) before splitting up, they rubbed shoulders with some of the luminaries of prog and classic rock, including Pink Floyd (Nick Mason even produced their second album), Elton John, Yes, Fleetwood Mac, and King Crimson. Combining whimsical lyrics with flute, violin, acoustic guitar, a healthy dose of electric guitar, and spoken word vocals, PEMT sounds something like a blend of Fairport Convention and Pink Floyd. Here are a few standouts from their debut album, Soundtrack:

“Enigmatic Insomniac Machine,” besides earning the award for best-titled song on the album, is as bizarre as the title suggests. And if you can’t follow the story the song tells, you can at least enjoy Vivienne McAuliffe’s soothingly beautiful vocals. Fans of Judy Dyble, Sandy Denny, or Sonja Kristina will be impressed.

Root Cartwright’s electric guitar explodes onto the scene in “Sacrifice,” a song concerning, well, a human sacrifice. Cartwright’s guitar calms down for a few minutes before taking centerstage again after the murder of the poor lady about halfway through the song.

The peculiar man of La Mancha who fought windmills is dispatched in a somewhat unorthodox fashion in “The Death of Don Quixote,” a patchwork epic that jumps from one mood to the next without much warning.

The album closes with “Pinky: A Mystery Cycle,” which features some eerie violin courtesy of the multi-instrumentalist Belinda Bourquin and ominous spoken word vocals courtesy of McAuliffe. Cartwright again shines on electric guitar.

Soundtrack is an eclectic patchwork of psychedelia, folk, grunge, and prog. The album is neither particularly coherent nor consistent, but for some this will be part of its charm. For those who enjoy Curved Air, Fairport Convention, or Strawbs, this will be worth a listen. And judging by the live performance below, they must have been quite a group to see, too.

Stay tuned for number nineteen!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Seventeen): Goodthunder

Hailing from the concrete jungle of Los Angeles, Goodthunder made music that was meant to be played loud. Clearly inspired by some of the blues-based and psychedelic hard rock groups of the day – Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, especially – the band featured some solid talent (guitarist David Hanson and keyboardist Wayne Cook stand out), but remained obscure during their brief existence. Of course they were not the only group at the time writing heavy, guitar-oriented songs, but Goodthunder displays a proficiency that makes one wonder what else they could have done had they enjoyed even a modicum of success. Here are some of the highlights from this obscure gem:

The album opens with the rollicking “I Can’t Get Thru to You,” a “radio-friendly” song as far as prog goes. Hanson’s guitar drives this brief but powerful piece.

“For a Breath” again showcases Hanson’s talents on the guitar, but Cook shines on the organ and Bill Rhodes impresses with a brief but solid bass solo.

David Hanson’s guitar continues to shine on “Home Again” and “P. O. W.” Both songs also feature impressive work from Cook on the keyboards.

The final song, “Barking at the Ants,” is by far the strongest and most progressive on the album. Although it opens with a catchy guitar riff courtesy of Hanson, it is Cook’s organ – reminiscent of the sound of the late Jon Lord – that takes center stage here.

Although Goodthunder did not make it very far in the music world, their sole album showcases quite a bit of potential. If you are in the mood for some obscure prog with a heavier edge to it, give them a shot.

Stay tuned for number eighteen!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Sixteen): Elizabeth

Although this Philadelphia-based band debuted during the reign of a certain Queen with the same name, Elizabeth never enjoyed the success or the tenure of that estimable lady. Formed by Steve Weingarten (lead guitar and vocals), Bob Patterson (guitar and vocals), Jim Dahme (guitar, flute, and vocals), Steve Bruno (organ and bass), and Hank Ransome (drums), Elizabeth released one eponymous album in 1968 before calling it a day shortly thereafter.

The album itself is filled with accessible, “radio-friendly” songs. Here are a few of the standouts:

“Not That Kind of Guy,” the opening number, is a catchy song with an early Beatle-esque sound (similar to “Taxman”).

“Mary Anne” is a lovely jazz song with some elements of folk sprinkled in. Think of it as a less tragic version of “Eleanor Rigby.”

The fifth song, “You Should Be More Careful,” is the true highlight on this album. A cautionary tale about picking up strange girls at bars, this song is a force of nature that never lets up. Weingarten, employing a “fuzzy” guitar sound, breaks out into a twisted guitar solo that is worth listening to several times over.

“Alarm Rings Five” is a gentler tune that features some solid organ work courtesy of Bruno and beautiful flute courtesy of Dahme.

With elements of jazz, folk, and psychedelia, Elizabeth‘s sole album fits nicely into the proto-prog/acid rock music of the late ’60s. The music and lyrics will not necessarily captivate all listeners, but this album is worth a listen for psychedelic or jazz rock aficionados.

Stay tuned for number seventeen!