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

One might imagine that a band that adopted a common conjunctive adverb as its name would lack creativity; however, that is not the case. Among the many bands I have covered in this series so far, However is without question one of the more rhythmically complex. In fact, comparisons to Gentle Giant and Frank Zappa would not be uncalled for. Like Gentle Giant, However’s four members display an impressive dexterity on a variety of instruments: brothers Peter and Joe Princiotto play everything from synthesizer and autoharp (Peter) to drums and trash can lids (Joe). Bobby Read’s saxophones steal the show on most songs, but he’s also no slouch on the clarinet, xylophone, and glockenspiel (among other instruments). And Bill Kotapish, although not credited with an equally long laundry list of instruments, performs superbly on bass and lead guitar. Like Frank Zappa, these boys clearly had some fun with the lyrics which, although used sparingly (on four out of ten songs), would appeal to many a progger’s quirky side (check out “Beese” below).

Despite the tracks’ complex structure and melody, they tend to be on the shorter side: the first three pieces are under four minutes each, but are nevertheless delightful to the music lover’s ear. The fourth piece, “Louise Sitting in a Chair,” is downright lovely: Peter’s piano and Bobby’s saxophones will have you convinced that Louise ought to remain forever fixed in her position. The title track features eerie soundscapes a la Robert Fripp punctuated here and there by Bobby’s saxes, which need no rest on this album. But the highlight of the ten, as mentioned earlier, opens with spoken word: “The bumblebee makes two different musical tones as it flies.” And the band seem to take this to heart, treating our ears to quirky synth sounds that imitate the frenetic buzzing of bees before re-introducing the sax and allowing Bill to shine with some deft work on his electric guitar. A touch of Zappa appears about five minutes in with some bizarre spoken word vocals that any fan of prog will appreciate.

The vocals may not blow you away, but they are not However’s centerpiece. What this band offers is a fantastical journey through a land of melodic and rhythmic complexity. Sounds to hear along the way will include the standard drums, bass, guitar, and keys, but as a bonus you will also be treated to the sounds of the duck call, marimba, kalimba, and – as the album ends – the gentle lapping of waves. Bon voyage!

Stay tuned for number thirty-four!

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-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 Ten): Hands


Alas, we have arrived at the end of this ten part series.  The final band I would like to draw your attention to hails from the great state of Texas.  They are a sextet known as Hands and they are one of the most talented bands I have ever had the pleasure of listening to.  As a matter of fact, I consider these Texan minstrels to be up there with Universe as two of the finest American prog bands (apologies to Kansas and Styx).  Their first album, released in 1977, features quite an array of instruments besides the standard guitar, bass, keys, and drums, including flute, saxophone, oboe, violin, and vitar.  This band is no doubt America’s version of Gentle Giant, although I prefer the vocals of Hands to those of their British counterparts.  Each song is a treat, and although idiosyncratic compositions are ubiquitous in the prog rock world, these guys seem to have the ability to produce a unique tune every time.  Here are just a few songs from the album that I especially enjoyed:

1. Zombieroch– the opener is a fun and rollicking instrumental straight out of the Gentle Giant catalogue.

5. Worlds Apart– the first song to feature vocals, similar to John Wetton’s soft and raspy voice; excellent performance on the keys.

6. Dreamsearch– my favorite piece; a sweeping epic with fine guitar, bass, and keyboard work; features a brief but funky clavinet riff, transitions to a wonderful bass and keys interplay, and then finally to flute and keys.

7. Left Behind– opens with Simon and Garfunkel-like acoustic guitar and piano, but eventually transitions to electric guitar before ending the same way it opened.

Hands has remained active over the years, releasing a handful of albums, their latest as recently as 2008.  I found every song on this album enjoyable to listen to, which I admit I cannot say of every prog album, even some of the most noteworthy ones. Hands deserved more attention, but unfortunately they couldn’t quite reach that level of stardom that some of their British comrades did.  I hope you will take the time to listen to their eponymous debut album. You won’t regret it.

Also, although this series has ended, I will not ignore other obscure prog rock bands, and neither should you.  The website Proggnosis is an excellent database of bands old and new, well documented and rare, good and bad.  Take some time to discover some of the hidden gems of the prog world.

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Eight): Mirthrandir


This next band is from a place not too far from my home state of Connecticut – New Jersey.  In 1976, six guys from the Garden State formed Mirthrandir and released their first and only album, For You the Old Women.  It’s a shame they never released another, because this album features top notch musicianship. No two songs sound alike, thanks in part to the diverse harmonies produced by trumpet, flute, and two guitars.  The group certainly created a distinct sound: an amalgam of Starcastle and Gentle Giant.  Mirthrandir mixed the Yes-like (and more accessible) sound of the former with the complexity and versatility of the latter, creating a fantastic album. And now to the songs:

For You the Old Women – the first song on the album bursts forth with energy, smoothly transitions to a more tranquil mood, then picks up the pace again; solid drum work by Robert Arace throughout the piece

Conversation With Personality Giver – another quirky title for a quirky album; explosive opening featuring a barrage of drums and keys; fine bass work from James Miller

Light of the Candle – shortest and most “radio friendly” song on the album, yet it is as complex as all the other pieces; great guitar work from Richard Excellente and Alexander Romanelli

Number Six – wonderful flute intro for this fun, rocking instrumental piece; great work on the trumpet from James Vislocky; keys and synthesizer sound similar to Richard Tandy’s work (of ELO fame)

For Four – last and best song; a sweeping epic featuring great keyboard, bass, and guitar work

Few bands (even in the progressive realm) feature both trumpet and flute in their repertoire, but Mirthrandir pulled it off with amazing dexterity. Despite having released only one album, the band reunited in 2005 and played at BajaProg in 2006 and ProgDay in 2008. For those who enjoy catchy and complex melodies, this is for you:

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Two): Yezda Urfa


The second obscure band I’d like to talk about has a name to match their quirkiness: Yezda Urfa. With a name like that, you know these guys have to be unique.  The name has a rather simple origin, however: flipping through a dictionary, the band came across the names of two small villages, Yazd, Iran and Urfa, Turkey.  (Yazd was changed to Yezda in order to aid in pronunciation.)

The band itself consisted of five members: Rick Rodenbaugh (vocals), Mark Tippins (guitars), Marc Miller (bass), Phil Kimbrough (keyboards and flute), and Brad Christoff (drums and percussion). The Chicago area band released two albums, one in 1975 (Boris) and one in 1989 (Sacred Baboon).

Yezda Urfa are America’s response to England’s Gentle Giant: they are not copycats, but they are equally eccentric and talented.  Like Gentle Giant, the members of Yezda Urfa played their respective instruments with the utmost skill and precision. Sudden tempo changes, diverse and complex time signatures, and a variety of instruments are featured on both Boris and Sacred Baboon.  Although Rick Rodenbaugh’s vocals are not the strongest aspect of Yezda Urfa (which also applies to Derek Shulman of Gentle Giant), the musical talent of the band cannot be understated. Give them a listen, and I think you will enjoy their quirky sound. The names of the songs alone should grab your attention: Give ’em Some Rawhide Chewies, To-Ta in the Moya, Three Tons of Fresh Thyroid Glands, etc.  Their bizarre, idiosyncratic style will not appeal to everyone, but overall Yezda Urfa is one of the more creative bands I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. Give them a shot. Who knows, you may end up wanting some rawhide chewies.

Here’s Boris

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part One)


Hello Progarchy! As a new member, I’d like to start off with a series that focuses on underappreciated prog rock groups, and Cathedral will be the first. In 1978, this quintet released one of the better American prog albums, Stained Glass Stories, which took elements of Yes, Genesis, and Gentle Giant, and combined them into one beautiful symphony.  The album consists of five songs, two of which (Introspect and The Search) are wonderful epic pieces reminiscent of some of Yes’s finest music.  Gong is a shorter instrumental piece that hearkens back to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.  The other two songs (The Crossing and Days & Changes) also have a captivating symphonic sound that will remind listeners of Relayer-era Yes or King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King.

Overall, Cathedral did a superb job creating symphonic music inspired by their more popular British contemporaries while also maintaining their own distinct sound. The musicianship is top notch (listen to the crisp sound of Fred Callan’s Rickenbacker bass and Rudy Perrone’s dexterous handling of lead guitar) and let’s not forget the great cover art.  The beautiful pastoral setting (dare I say Tolkienian?) arouses a sense of awe and suits the music perfectly. I hope you enjoy this album as much as I did.

Neal Morse, Chicago, October 12, 2012.

Last night, fellow Progarchist Mark Widhalm, our lovely and patient wives, and I had the wonderful privilege of enjoying six hours of live progressive rock.  We saw District 97, Three Friends (Gentle Giant), and Neal Morse.

Here are two photos from the event.  The first is of Three Friends.  The second is of Neal Morse.



Sorry about the poor quality of the photos; I took these with my Nokia phone.  I also got to see Chicago celebrities (well, at least they’re celebrity in the Birzer house), Mike and Sarah D’Virgilio.  I glimpsed Neal Morse’s manager and Facebook friend, Chris Thompson, from a distance, but he was a man understandably on a mission, and I didn’t want to interfere with his direction of the show.  “Hey Chris, it’s me, Brad, your Facebook friend!”  Yes, I can be obnoxious, but this might have gone a little too far, even for me.

A few quick impressions–Gary Green was one of the single finest guitarists I’d ever seen as was his bassist, Lee Pomeroy (of It Bites).  The music of Gentle Giant was rather mind-boggling and profound.  It was, I think, rock at its highest art.  Steve Hayward has been encouraging me to immerse myself.  Add Steve’s suggestion with actual performance, and I’m sold.  Now, another band to explore in its entirety

But, we went originally to see Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy.  The other music was just an excellent fringe benefit.

Neal Morse is a wonderfully talented madman.  I pretty much hung on his every word and action on stage.  His energy, his talent, and is ability to direct and lead his band is probably beyond compare.  While I’m sure I’m not the first person to place supernatural ability on a great show man, but Morse’s showmanship did seem to be animated by something well beyond (and above) this world.  I know this probably sounds absurd, but there was glow about him that I’ve only seen (once at most) on truly holy persons.

And, while I’ve always considered Mike Portnoy one of the world’s best drummers (along with Nick D’Virgilio and Neil Peart), I’ve always also thought his studio records seem more mechanical than soulful.  Watching him in action convinced me, rather strongly, that he’s a man as full of soul as he is of ability.  In judging his abilities, I realized I should never allow his precision and perfectionism to detract from his power and radiance of soul.  Having him and Neal Morse on the same stage was overwhelming, to say (write) the least.  These are two powerful personalities who served as critical poles of incarnate myth.  Because of my seating, I had a perfect view of Morse but a poor one of Portnoy.  Had I been able to choose between one or the other to focus on during the concert, I would’ve been rather torn.

The two men, despite clearly being perfectionists and powerful personalities, are obviously the best and most trusted of friends.  At one point, two obvious Mike Portnoy fans yelled something at the end of a very powerful moment in Morse’s Testimony.  Morse was a bit taken aback (as was the entire audience), and I would guess that the audience as a whole lost a story of some kind because of the interruption.  Portnoy stood up from his drumkit and yelled directly at the two: “There will be no heckling at a Neal Morse concert.”  He did it with great humor and strength.  Needless to write, no one yelled like that again.

Everyone in Morse’s band, not surprisingly, was an expert and multi-talented musician.  Randy George didn’t move around much, but he played his bass with confidence and skill.  All of the musicians, though, were equally good, and the most impressive part of the whole night were the vocal multipart harmonies which Morse directed with passion.

This was probably the best concert I’ve ever seen (Three Friends as well as Neal Morse).  Yes, I’m still basking in it.