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Rainbow Theatre - Fantasy Of Horses CD (album) cover

FANTASY OF HORSES

Rainbow Theatre

 

Symphonic Prog

3.71 | 59 ratings

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Finnforest
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars Sebastian who?

If the term Aussie Prog makes you think of Sebastian Hardie first then you haven't heard Rainbow Theatre. But please do not make the mistake of judging this album too soon with a low rating as I might have in my past. "Fantasy of Horses" is the definition of a grower.an album that could seem unfocused (frenetic as another writer put it) at first but whose epic beauty comes after many plays have permeated the "instant gratification layer" of your brain, that unfortunate flaw most of us have whether we admit it or not. We often want to be blown away by music right away and if the first 5 plays don't accomplish that there is disappointment. Good music doesn't always work that way. One's first 5 spins of this album could certainly seem bewildering, perplexing, or confusing-feelings that will slowly thereafter morph into a wide proggy grin. Each new play of "Fantasy of Horses" is a revelation and that staying power is what makes an album worthy of a high rating. Without a doubt this was one of the most interesting and exciting discoveries to hit my mailbox in the past year.

Overview: The Rainbow Theater were a large collective of Melbourne musicians assembled in 1973 by composer and multi-instrumentalist Julian Browning. While they are described as a "classically influenced jazz rock" by the time of this recording they list influences like Stravinsky, Wagner, King Crimson, and Mahavishnu Orchestra. The "Fantasy of Horses" album delivers what sounds like one long, calculated track with the ambition of "Atom Heart Mother," "Lizard," or "The Gates of Delirium." But Rainbow has their own sound, blending symphonic progressive with burning jazz rock, delicate melody, orchestral grandeur, and operatic singing. Their first album "Armada" was issued in 1975 and was followed by local gigs which created a small but enthusiastic following. It was hardly enough to sustain such a large group of band members and several began to leave. Undaunted, Browning would bring in a new brass section, woodwinds, strings, and engineer Gil Matthews to develop and expand the vision-the results of which were the band's most memorable achievement. Naturally after the recording of the music the label balked at the costs of pressing the album and Browning himself had to put up the cash. The album would be pirated by enthusiasts for decades before the release of the splendid remastered CD- more on that later. The new album was an amazingly successful one, yet the shifting musical interest of the times along with the huge costs associated with touring such a huge group of musicians left the project unsustainable and the band broke up in early 1977. After the split Browning studied composition and conducting and indeed did perform his works over the years.

The themes for the album really did originate from horses. Browning had been reading about the plight of "wild brumbies" running free in the high plains of South Wales. The inspiration of such natural beauty at odds with the dangers these animals faced by encroaching human interest made ample fare for the lyrics and moods of the new album, and the emotions became metaphorical for the artist's project if not for mankind itself. Browning would recall "alright, you've done something different with the first album so now it's time to come up with a unique approach, to find a new realm in which to create this piece. I was looking for a different inspiration. I still think there's nothing else that I've heard since that's quite like that album." [J. Browning] My own feeling is that an album like this is exactly the kind of thing more progressive music fans should be listening to, precisely because of Browning's adventurous spirit. With the homogenous, commercial mainstream "prog" albums that come out over the course of the year we need to sometimes step back and find these kinds of albums that seemed to transcend the commercial bubble in search of something more meaningful. This is one of those releases that prove again that commercial success is not a requisite for artistic triumph.

The music of "Fantasy" is grounded by a superb rhythm section playing with a fusion slant that is frequently diluted by a cloak of mellotron or organ. Browning handles both keyboards and the occasional excellent flourish of guitar work. The basic foundation is then blasted into the stratosphere by the orchestral loveliness of 14 musicians working together. Brass, stings, and woodwinds provide the beauty and the constant drama needed engage the listener and engage you they will! The two long tracks "Dancer" and "Fantasy of Horses" are simply mind-bending musical adventure that rarely let up as they weave through multiple sections. In the middle of both pieces will come the occasional calm interlude that allows one to catch his/her breath. In these moments may come gentle piano melody or woodwind solo. Another fascinating aspect is the male operatic vocals of Keith Hoban which are both formal and dramatic, beautifully woven into the music. While a primarily instrumental album these vocal sections add so much grandeur and another distinct avenue for the ideas being expressed. The ending section of "Dancer" (the story of a young girl's desire to be a ballerina) must be one of prog's most beautiful moments: cascading soft trumpet and flute calling back and forth as the bass and mellotron drifts downwards, hit bottom and go back up to descend again, drum bursts all around but always delicate, the sensation is one of falling, floating down. Like "Dancer," the 7-part title track finale is remarkable in its ability to convey the storytelling instrumentally even if you set aside the vocals. Each part sounds carefully honed to impart the narrative and I was both moved and fascinated by the balance of emotion and technique, it was such an important reminder to me that the best music needn't bash one over the head with volume and note-mongering to connect with the listener. I only wish I could have seen this "prog opera" in a small playhouse in Melbourne back in the day. Browning mentioned the possibility of new material from the group in an interview. I only hope he will assemble the group for a one-off performance of this album for a DVD release, keeping the rock element firmly in tact, so that fans can witness this title as it was meant to be.

Press: "The fact is that this album is one of the best achieved and better constructed Progressive Operas ever released, especially when it comes to the 2 longer tracks in the album. The acoustic piano, sometimes close to the works of classical composers such as Stravinsky and Wagner, is perfectly combined with a thoughtful wind and metal section, with a rare sense of beauty and perfect interplay. The string arrangements are thrown in the mix to form an even tighter body of work. The multi- movement "Dancer" then introduces and adds the classical and symphonic virtues to that jazzy feel, enthralling the listener in a maze of combined styles in a not only refreshing but also surprising effect. This approach is then further explored to perfection in the 16+ minute opus "Fantasy of Horses," which just lets the listener in a pavlovian state.yearning for more. Also the duality between the ethereal Oboe, eerie Piano, and church Organ and the arousing "full band" parts is exquisitely done. The purest mindblowing 70's sympho prog is entwined with Magma inventive operatic intrusions and careful detailing, occasional Wutemberg pseudo-medieval bridges, Ezra Winston symphonic sensibility, Elizabethan pinches, Jazz Rock attacks, early King Crimson melodic approaches (remember Epitaph and Talk to the Wind) and jazzier sections (reminding Larks tongue. for instance) and a very personal sense of musical perfection." [Nuno/Alex Gitlin's Music Site]

"There are few albums that we can truly point to as being wholly original, but Rainbow Theatre's second album would have to qualify. An operating 8 piece rock unit (keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, sax, trombone and flute) accompanied by a string sextet, "Fantasy of Horses" makes full use of the large palette of instrumentation available, not to mention that Keith Hoban's vocals are sung in operatic style. Overall it's a spirited affair, not an academic high-brow run through, so rockers have much to sink their teeth into. In fact, the drumming is astounding, and propels the album to great heights of intensity. The four tracks presented here, including two lengthy multi-part affairs, chock full of mellotron and high invention, are a progressive rock lovers dream. At least for those who keep an open mind." [Gnosis2000's Tom Hayes]

Conclusion: A sure thing for any adventurous progger, "Fantasy" is an album that has proudly elbowed its way onto "the special shelf" as an essential title. The 2006 Aztec Records reissue is a high quality tri-fold digipak design with a good Bio in the booklet. Also of great interest is a bonus track that actually matters! The 13-minute "Eagle Odyssey" is not some crusty old demo but a recently recorded classical piece that fits very well with the content of the original album. The mood and ambience of the track enhances and adds value to the rather short original album making for a fuller listening experience. Furthermore the CD is remastered by engineer Gil Matthews from the original master tapes, finally providing this classic with the respectable sound is deserves. "Fantasy of Horses" would certainly make my list of the best prog releases of 1976 and would have to be considered a favorite for greatest Australian prog album.

A final point of interest to me was the choices Browning was making between composing the string arrangements and being the Mellotron player in the band. How would one decide which choice was most appropriate in a given section? He touches on the differences in this quote as well as commenting on the Mellotron versus modern keyboards: "Having written for string sections in orchestras many times I know they have much more expansive, diverse and epic qualities than the Mellotron was supposed to emulate. However, I believe the Mellotron has a warm, romantic and ethereal quality which makes it quite unique and stand in its own right. The closest orchestral string writing I can think of is Maurice Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe where Ravel mutes the strings and they trill together with bowing close to the fingerboard. Sounds like a Mellotron! The Mellotron's unique quivering sound is partly produced by the slight unevenness as the tapes move. If a modern electronic keyboard can imitate this, fine, if not... Long live the Mellotron!" [Browning to Arlequins' Alberto Nucci & Jessica Attene]

I believe those last four words are fitting ones for which to end the review. Thanks to Hugues for championing this title in his review that caught my eye.

Finnforest | 5/5 |

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