The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Ten): Hands

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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

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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

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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)

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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.

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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.