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Schooltree - Rise CD (album) cover

RISE

Schooltree

 

Crossover Prog

3.84 | 16 ratings

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Raff
Special Collaborator
RIO/Avant/Zeuhl Team
4 stars In the early months of this year, while browsing through the albums on the excellent Progstreaming website, looking from some yet undiscovered gems, I had my first taste of Boston quartet Schooltree ? one year after the release of "Rise", their debut album. Among the glut of frankly unexciting releases that seem to have become the norm on the increasingly overcrowded prog scene, "Rise" was a true find, a refreshing example of pure art rock focused on tightly written songs, interesting musical textures, and ? last but not least ? mainwoman Lainey Schooltree's impressive pipes.

Fast forward to mid-October 2014, when I was able to experience the band in its live dimension, on the small but colourful stage of Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse in Dunellen (NJ), as part of the second edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend. Lainey and her bandmates' cheerful stage presence and obvious love for their craft won them a lot of new fans, and the announcement that their new album would be a "rock opera" came as a tantalizing bit of information.

The names of Tori Amos and Kate Bush have often been mentioned in conjunction with Schooltree's music, and even a cursory spin of "Rise" will reveal those influences. However, it would be very unfair to Lainey and the rest of the band to peg them as derivative, because their music has got more than enough individuality to please even demanding listeners such as myself.

Though female-fronted progressive rock bands are anything but exceptional these days, not all of them are equally impressive. By virtue of the above-mentioned influences ? as well as that of Queen, which comes to the fore in the instrumental arrangements ? Schooltree steer well clear of any suspicion of cutesiness, and even the operatic component of the vocals owes more to Freddie Mercury than Annie Haslam and her slew of imitators. Lainey's long experience as a vaudeville performer in the Boston underground arts scene is also brought to bear to create a scintillating, thoroughly enjoyable concoction that feels comfortingly familiar, yet also modern and original. In just over 6 minute, opener "Six Feet Up" sums up what "Rise" is about, its many tempo and mood changes making it a shining example of art rock mini-epic without any of the pretensions too often inherent to the format.

Lainey's primary instrument, the keyboards, provide a solid framework for her bandmates ? the consistently excellent Brendan Burns (guitar), Derk Van Wormer (bass) and Jordan Ross (drums) ? to deploy their dexterity. Elegant, whimsical piano flurries embellish the album's nine songs, complementing Lainey's assertive yet emotional singing, and contrasting with the bite of the guitar riffs, while a judicious use of the harmonizer adds layers of airy vocal harmonies that fit the music to a T. In fact, the title-track fully exploits the expressive potential of the instrument, with Lainey's voice emoting a cappella in haunting fashion. With a very restrained running time of about 42 minutes, Rise contains no filler, and each song is equally relevant to the overall result ? both buoyant numbers such as the infectious "Today", and more low-key ones such as "Heavenside" or the waltzy "Let's Dance". "Reprise", with Lainey's exquisite vocalizations accompanied by rippling piano and dramatic guitar slashes in the style of Brian May, wraps up the album by putting authoritatively forward the band's prog credentials

Those who do not necessarily equate progressive rock with lengthy epics and instrumental pyrotechnics will find a lot to love in "Rise", one of the best debut albums to come out of the prolific US scene in the past few years, featuring strong performances from all band members, great singing and intriguing lyrics. Highly recommended to fans of modern female-fronted bands such as MoeTar and Half Past Four, this is an album everyone can enjoy - all the while waiting for their sophomore "rock opera" to surface some time in 2015.

Raff | 4/5 |

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