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Rainbow Theatre - The Armada CD (album) cover

THE ARMADA

Rainbow Theatre

 

Symphonic Prog

3.64 | 28 ratings

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Finnforest
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Amazing little-known band's first chapter

While certainly no expert on Australian prog I can say that Rainbow Theatre is my favorite prog band from Australia. With two fantastic albums documenting their short career they are a band well worth the attention of many prog fans. Julian Browning was a self-taught rock guitarist from Melbourne who studied piano and music theory before becoming interested in arrangement. He played in a few bands before forming the Rainbow Theatre in 1973 and the line-up solidified over the next couple years. By 1975 the pieces came together and Browning began to put together the first album, an effort to use his influences of classical music and guitarists like Fripp and McLaughlin to do something completely different. The composers who most impressed him were Stavinsky, Wagner, Mahler, and Beethoven. A final influence was jazz fusion but the Rainbow largely checked this at the door for the first album, it is present but not commanding. While they often let rip in their live shows "The Armada" is much more in the classical music camp--a bit of jazz would creep into their second album more. Not all of their live fans were thrilled with this approach, expecting their album to rock in the same way as the shows with lots of solos. But Browning explains that the album was different and he wanted to challenge the listener by going in a unique direction. They were also one of the few bands in Australia using the mellotron along with Sebastian Hardie, though the two bands sound almost nothing alike. Browning's material came from his intense interest in the 16th century Spanish Armada, his father did the artwork referring to lyrics of sailors drowning and turning into crustaceans, with the jewelry of loved ones sinking with them. "It was pretty ambitious but somehow I made it work" he recalled.

"The Armada" is a dark and often dramatic mix of symphonic (with a slight fusion slant) laden with mellotron, horns, operatic and choired vocals. It is progressive rock that is intimately linked to classical music, proudly and successfully so. Think of an album like "Days of Future Passed" with a gothic twist, combined with the brass and dark choir flavors from "Atom Heart Mother" and performed by a band with some jazz rock tendency. Browning admits that descriptions of the band often sound dreadful on paper but the approach works very well. The album is book-ended by two multi-part suites with three shorter tracks in the middle. The various sections will offer up soothing mellotron backgrounds alternated with briskly paced, jazzy rock sections--underlying rhythm sections in the band portions sound a bit like early Camel. There is a nice assembly of brass and woodwind for the classical touch: lots of sax, clarinet, flute, trumpet, cornet, French horn, and trombone. The passages flow from one to the next smoothly, augmented by Browning's occasional guitar notes and a grand theatrical feel. And my favorite ingredient, which make me curious about an RPI influence, are the dramatic and stately tenor vocals of Keith Hoban. These along with the choirs are handled with great formality and operatic passion. Rich and unsettling like dark, deep water, there is little on "The Armada" that is going to please the casual listener, those looking for the obvious hooks and sweet melodies. It is another title more fitting of a recital where the listening is willing to take in these various elements with patience. I share this reviewer's notice of the academic feel although I certainly don't mind it, in fact that's what I enjoy about this group: "The horns start out raggedly, but perhaps deliberately so. My ear hears what sounds like a student band, out of tempo and out of tune, but this may be intentional since there is no hint of amateurishness in the execution of the music which follows. That music seems to me less well-focused than the music on FANTASY OF HORSES, however. It also has some of the earnestness of a student recital, and this is underlined by the decidedly non-rock nature of the vocals, both lead and choral. There is in fact very little of any "rock"-like qualities to this music. It has instead the feeling of an ambitious, but rather academic conservatory work. But the appearance of a "Bolero" section in "The Armada" reminds us of Browning's Crimsoid influences." [Dr. Progresso] While elements of the sound are formal (particularly the vocals), the overall band sound still has room for looseness and the musicians are having plenty of fun playing together.

While "The Armada" may not be quite the perfected masterpiece of its older brother "Fantasy of Horses" it is still very satisfying to the RT fan. Newbies may wish to start with the slightly more melodic and polished-production "Horses" and if enjoyed, proceed to the grittier, less polished "Armada." The Aztec reissue is another superb release with the best possible remastered sound and a great booklet/biography. Also included is a latter day bonus track (Icarus) that perfectly compliments and expands the enjoyment of this CD. Both RT reissues feature the outstanding use of bonus space, actual music that improves the experience with the original material. It must be very satisfying for Rainbow Theatre to see both of their beloved works reborn with such care for the current generation to enjoy. Both titles are wonderful examples of the free, adventurous spirit that made the 1970s progressive rock's finest hour.

Finnforest | 4/5 |

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