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Explorers Club - Raising The Mammoth CD (album) cover

RAISING THE MAMMOTH

Explorers Club

 

Heavy Prog

3.34 | 54 ratings

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SonomaComa1999
3 stars REVIEW #15 - "Raising the Mammoth" by Explorer's Club (2002). 08/19/2018

I was surprised to see that Explorer's Club, a prog side project supergroup headed by the late Magellan keyboardist Trent Gardner, operated out of nearby Vacaville, California in Solano County. Being just about thirty miles away in Sonoma County, it is always pleasing to see some prog come out of the San Francisco Bay Area. With Gardner passing away in 2016 due to unknown causes, "Raising the Mammoth" will be this band's second and final album, being released in 2002 on Magna Carta Records with a slew of guest names.

I admit that I never heard of the band Magellan prior to this random review, but immediately a lot of the names which Gardner was able to feature on this album are extremely familiar. Numerous musicians take part in this project; among them are vocalist James LaBrie and John Myung of prog metal icons Dream Theater, vocalist Steve Walsh and guitarist Terry Livgren of Kansas, the band which brought us one of the most commercially successful prog singles in 1975's "Carry On Wayward Son", drummer Terry Bozzio who did work with the late great Frank Zappa, and even Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman, who I was surprised to see has his works featured here on the site despite being a name associated with thrash metal. All of these names immediately create intrigue as to what "Raising the Mammoth" may contain.

Being created long after the constraints of vinyl records were lifted, this album can be best described as a constant stream of highly excessive prog rock for roughly an hour. There are two parts to "Raising the Mammoth", the first being a THIRTY-SIX MINUTE LONG epic split into three movements ranging from eleven to fifteen minutes in length. Gardner does not hesitate to challenge both the listener, and the pre-existing boundaries of what is considered progressive as this album is very expansive and borderline pretentious. This is considered a concept album, although the concept is not clear; if anyone can interpret the lyrics and come to me with a definitive answer I would be greatly thankful. The first movement of "Raising the Mammoth 1" is titled "Passage to Paralysis"; we start off with an epic and grandiose three-minute introduction that eventually meanders between wordless chants a la Jon Anderson on "Close to the Edge" and a wild flurry of guitars. Walsh starts off on vocals as the music mellows down; while I inherently prefer LaBrie's dynamic and modern-sounding voice to the Kansas frontman's, I have to admit that his sound suits the overall mood of this album very well. While I may not understand the point of the lyrics, I think they were more suited to augment the sound of the music, rather than further some sort of concept. We get two solid verses before the music evolves around the six-minute mark into this fast-paced tempo with almost incomprehensible harmonized vocals which I'm not too keen on. Gardner makes it evident to the listener that this is a progressive album with several harsh tempo changes interspersed by his own keyboard solos; if you're a fan of keyboard music in the vein of some sort of modern ELP, this is the album for you. I am not too big a fan of this style, but I still gave this album a chance with an open ear. At nine minutes we get a reprise of the "In my experience..." verse style which I appreciate; still no sign of LaBrie at this point, but Walsh is definitely within his groove in the allocated time for lyrics. From the twelve- minute point the music seems to transition towards this ascending coda overlaid with vocals which radically changes and breaks down all the way to the end of the first part. For a prog album of this stature, Gardner makes very liberal use of vocals, a practice which is expanded upon in the second movement "Broad Decay" where Explorer's Club makes greater use of chant. Walsh remains on vocals; keep in mind at this point we have not heard LaBrie yet, which made me initially think that Gardner was saving perhaps his greatest weapon for some sort of grand finale. The lyrics on "Decay" seem to be somewhat socially conscious and political to an extent, even though I still have no idea what the lyrics actually mean on a literal or figurative scale. This movement starts out very mellow, but still makes room for Gardner's keys, while moving progressively more symphonic into the middle section; near the end we get this sort of gospel chant that concludes the movement which is definitely unique and memorable, but not necessarily good. So far Explorer's Club has provided a rich amount of instrumentation, but much of it has gone in no direction whatsoever. Gardner attempts to make a solid Keith Emerson impression with hordes of keyboard solos, but none of them are particularly memorable.

The third and final movement of the first part of "Raising the Mammoth" is titled "Vertebrates", and it is here that LaBrie finally makes his first appearance of the album. Let me just say that I was totally underwhelmed with how LaBrie was handled on this album; he appears for this weird duet with the backing vocals of Gardner himself, but after this not only does he never appear again, but all vocals cease to exist. Yes, the remainder of this album, at just over thirty minutes, is entirely instrumental. The rest of "Vertebrates" isn't bad; we have this really metal guitar riff with a visible bass line which serves as the foundation for a synth solo, but the entire second part of "Raising the Mammoth" known as "Gigantipithicus" is a twenty-one minute instrumental which features more of the Gardner keyboard solos in addition to some pretty epic musical movements and Friedman ripping guitar solos. One major issue with this issue, at least from what I'm hearing, is pretty mediocre production value. I can barely hear or feel Bozzio's drums; he is just in the background far overshadowed by the keyboards and vocals. Same applies for the bassist Myung; it seems that even though Dream Theater is listed as being on this album, they seldom make an impact, which is disappointing. The heavy emphasis on Gardner's musicianship does not help this album out in the slightest; with such notable names you would think that they would be appropriately used. Nevertheless, much of the epic instrumental is largely forgettable, dotted with the aforementioned solos and some fake endings which just become apprehensive over time. It's like the band is teasing me at this point with the prospect of this album finally being over. Eventually it does end, and it ends in rather unspectacular fashion much to my disdain.

I tried to find things to say about this album, but ultimately I came up largely empty. This will unfortunately be one of my shorter reviews, which is a bit sad considering I had very high hopes for this album to be something along the lines of a four-star performance given the array of names on Explorer Club's roster. Perhaps more listens could awaken a love in this album in the vein of "Tales from Topographic Oceans" but frankly "Raising the Mammoth" is not essential enough to ever really return to. I had no clue of this collaboration's existence prior to hitting a random review, and now I can see why. The music on this album is not bad or even bland, but it just rather falls victim to the textbook prog malaise of having no direction in the slightest. It would have helped to have a decent concept to allow me to ponder while listening to the grandiose modern "earthy" sounds of this LP, but even then the lyrics have even less direction than the music, and the format in which the lyrics are presented in the album booklet is just awful; it is impossible to read as a diagonal block of text. I understand that Trent Gardner, the leader of this project, was attempting to go for a modern approach that was extremely progressive, but there really is nothing to go alongside this music. I considered giving this album a two-star review, but I felt that the strong vocals of Steve Walsh combined with the advanced instrumentation and effort into making a challenging album should just barely save this album from being relegated into being a work for just collectors and fans. It is at least a breath of modern prog, but it is by no means essential and easily forgettable. If you're a huge fan of keyboard-dominated prog and can tolerate a heavy metal tinge to your music, then you may appreciate this album more than I did. I give "Raising the Mammoth" a three-star (70% - C-) rating; does not really factor much into the grand scheme of prog outside of being a supergroup collaboration between a blend of older and modern progressive musicians.

SonomaComa1999 | 3/5 |

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