The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Thirty-Two): Rainbow Theatre

How does this strike your fancy? King Crimson (RIP, Mr. McDonald) + Australia + a string ensemble + jazz rock + opera = Fantasy of Horses. Sound interesting? If so, then you may enjoy the music of the somewhat divisive Rainbow Theatre. Based upon other reviews I have read, even proggers find this album difficult to categorize: is it an obscure masterpiece? An unjustly maligned effort? Or a cheap imitation of King Crimson? I’m not sure where I stand on this at the moment, so I’ll leave it to you to decide. Hailing from the Land Down Under, Rainbow Theatre released two albums in the mid-70s, Fantasy of Horses being the second of the two. Here’s a brief review of this polarizing album:

The album opens with the instrumental “Rebecca.” In what sounds like an homage to In the Court of the Crimson King, Rainbow Theatre begins with a beautiful mellotron and horn-driven sound. Bassist Ferg McKinnon is the focal point on this piece, however: his thunderous hammering drives this track along.

“Dancer” is perhaps the strongest track on the album. Like many a great progressive track, there are several notable melodic and sonic shifts throughout this piece: gentle organ and horns introduce the song before we first hear Keith Hoban’s dramatic vocals. Unlike Freddie Mercury, however, Hoban does not pull off the operatic style he is trying to capture, resulting in what may charitably be described as a “forced” sound. Despite the underwhelming vocals, this piece benefits from its dynamic character: after a flourish of horns and bass we are treated to some impressive work on the trumpet courtesy of Frank Graham and a solid guitar solo from Julian Browning (who doubles as a keyboardist). A sudden transition to piano and flute caresses our ears with pleasant harmonies before we return to horns and mellotron toward the conclusion of the piece.

Drummer Graeme Carter (who shines throughout the album) leads a frenetic opening charge in “Caption for the City Night Life,” which captures the attitude of King Crimson’s “Pictures in a City” fairly well. Carter’s drum solo is an especial standout on this track.

The title song (see below) transitions from a soft piano melody to pounding bass and horns to a spacey, Tangerine Dream-like sequence to more enjoyable interplay between horns, bass, and percussion. Like “Dancer,” this is a dynamic piece that would qualify as excellent if it were not for the operatic vocals. Overall, however, it’s a fitting conclusion to this album.

Is Fantasy of Horses worth a listen? Without a doubt. I cannot say it will appeal to all tastes, but those of you who find yourselves hooked will appreciate the interplay between the bass, percussion, and horns, all of which are played with a passion and skill comparable to some of the classic progressive artists.

Stay tuned for number thirty-three!

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

Remember Samurai? I reviewed their excellent eponymous album all the way back in June 2021. As I mentioned in that article, Samurai had previously performed under the name Web, a jazz-rock outfit that released three albums in the late 1960s/early 1970s. I Spider, Web’s last release, was also the group’s first album to feature keyboard whiz and vocalist Dave Lawson, later of Greenslade fame. Although Lawson’s talent on keys, organ, and piano, could not ultimately salvage the band, he did settle in nicely to a lead role, brief as it may have been. The combination of his keys and Tom Harris’s saxes gives the album a Canterbury/fusion feel that many prog lovers would appreciate. Here are some of the highlights:

“Concerto for Bedsprings” is a curious opening number about a chap’s struggles with insomnia. The organ dominates for a moment before sax and piano lead us into a jazz-lounge like interlude. We then transition from the dark, smoky ambience of the lounge for the sweat and funk of the dance floor when the bass guitar breaks in. A smooth sax solo follows shortly thereafter. I can’t imagine this musical odyssey cured this fellow’s sleep deprivation, but it would certainly keep him from remaining bored while awake at odd hours of the night.

The only instrumental track on the album, “Ymphasomniac” features an eclectic mix of mellotron, bongo drums (a fun interlude about two minutes in), drums, piano, and finally sax and organ to cap it off at the end. Harris again shines with his sax work here.

Distorted guitar and organ introduce the final track, “Always I Wait,” which is without question the most brooding and ominous piece on the album. Those with a slightly twisted sense of humor should listen closely to the lyrics….

Lawson’s vocals will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his work on the keys, organ, and piano more than make up for what he lacks in singing ability. Fans of The Nice, Atomic Rooster, Greenslade, or jazz fusion in general will appreciate the musicianship on this obscure gem.

Stay tuned for number thirty-two!

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!