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EARTH OPERA

Earth Opera

Proto-Prog


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Sean Trane
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR
Prog Folk
3 stars 3.5 stars really!!!

Armed with a bizarre mock-Hindu gatefold artwork, Earth Opera's eponymous debut album is a typical US folk rock album of the time, but can't hold back the odd country flavour sprinkled here and there. Lead by guitarist and main songwriter Rowen and mandolin player David Grisman (both also play sax and sing, with the latter also playing KB), the group also has Bill Stevenson on vibraphone and keyboards, giving them a distinctive slight edge in terms of sound, even delving ever so slightly a bit in jazz realm. Rounding up the group is bassist Naggy (sometimes on the cello) and drummer Dillon who adds vocals and percussions.

Right from the leading track, Red Sox Are Winning, Earth Opera show their Boston (baseball) roots with the vibraphone providing a fun edge. But the fun is quickly over as they plunge into a 7-min+ As It Is Before, with a plaintive moaning tone taking on a dramatic twist around the end of the track; surely one of the album's highlight. The following two tracks are hesitating between different types of boosted (rocked) up folk styles, none of which are really standing out, then followed Home Of The Brave a track is grave and dramatic war track (not related to baseball or Atlanta), which finishes rather strongly and can be pointed as another highlight.

Assuming we are now on the vinyl flipside, The Child Bride is again a rather sombre track and resonates with foregone traditions. Shut The Door and Time & Again are both less interesting (wouldn't call them fillers, especially the later with its fuzzed-up guitar solos), before the weakest Full of Wonder overstays its welcome. But the album closes very strongly on the album's best moment, the superb but eerie and dreary Death By Fire, dealing with an adulteress woman, dealt away by a gay pastor.

Although a quite impressive folk rock album as such, I wouldn't dare dreaming exaggerating its importance (it didn't chart on the US billboard) and wouldn't call influential or even less essential, but it remains a good (even strong) album, borderline folk baroque and acid folk with grave Vietnam-era lyrics. Definitely worth a listen anyway.

Report this review (#136134)
Posted Tuesday, September 4, 2007 | Review Permalink
siLLy puPPy
COLLABORATOR
PSIKE, JR/F/Canterbury & Eclectic Teams
3 stars It's pretty much a given that the phenomenal success of The Beatles allowed the band to explore hitherto unthinkable avenues in the context of rock music which ushered in an era of extreme experimentation that was embraced by an equally explorative public. Suddenly it was en vogue to pursue every possible whim of creativity and even the record companies were getting in on the action signing new acts faster than the ink would dry. One of the more unique bands that emerged in the late 60s gold rush for all things avant-garde didn't come from England but rather the US and was the Boston based EARTH OPERA, whose prime architects David Grisman and Peter Rowan would first cross paths in 1966 with a similar interest in bluegrass, country and folk styles of music.

The duo had plenty of experience in a band setting. Rowan with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys and The Mother State Entertainers and Grisman withThe Even Dozen Jug Band and The New York Ramblers. While starting out as a folk duo, the pair acquired that infamous 60s psychedelic bug and began to craft a more eccentric style. They acquired Bill Nagy on bass, Bill Stevenson on keyboards, guitarist and percussionist Paul Dillon and primary percussionist Billy Mundi. The band found immediate interest from Elektra Records and in 1968 recorded and released their self-titled debut album which crafted a unique mix of psychedelic pop, rock, folk, jazz and classical alongside other disparate genres such as country, bluegrass and Indo-raga elements.

EARTH OPERA didn't only stand out of the pack for their unique instrumentation which in addition to the usual rock suspects included such instruments as cello, harpsichord, mandolin, mandocello and vibraphone but primarily for the bizarre tenor vocals of primary composer Peter Rowan whose darkened lyrics were right in step with the times and lashed out against the invasive powers that were devastating Vietnam in the ceaseless war that continued to send a stream of deceases soldiers back to the American mainland. While not quite a rock band and more like a heavily fortified chamber folk ensemble, EARTH OPERA nevertheless stood out from the psychedelic 60s pack especially in the less than California influenced New England area that was heavily resistant to the hippie scene.

While suited to a T in the late 60s paradigm with an anti-war stance, EARTH OPERA sounded like no other with its own musical vernacular that found bizarre juxtapositions of instruments in completely unorthodox ways. With a faux English accent and lyrics that poetically alluded to social dissatisfaction, EARTH OPERA would find orchestrated folk segments duking it out with heavy organ laden bursts of psychedelia, jangle guitar Byrds type folk rock with jazz inspired drumming, Grateful Dead styled country rock interrupted by snippets of Vaudville induced ragtime segments and in the middle of it all vibraphone solos and of course vague references to Beatles albums such as 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club.' In short, EARTH OPERA was highly experimental and one of the first bands to delve into the idea that rock music could be progressive although the rock elements seem to be the least developed.

On paper, EARTH OPERA sounds like the best thing to hit the tail end of the 60s with a highly eclectic palette that entertains the notion of complete visionary possibilities with every kind of fusion potential being strived for, however in practice the album seems a little awkward. Needless to say, Rowan's vocal style is one of the greatest hurdles to penetrating this sonic fortress. Somehow he comes off as a stoned out swami who's not sure if he wants to hit it big in Nashville or join the West coast psychedelic scene. Despite being touted in rock circles, this isn't really a rock album at all except in the most mellowed out examples. This is a folk album forced to perform all kinds of exotic circus tricks and dressed up in gaudy attire. The progressive aspects seem a little forced which finds the melodic hooks dragging around a bit trying to find that perfect foothold therefore the instruments seem to pick up the slack in unexpected ways.

Overall, EARTH OPERA cranked out an interesting debut in terms of historical value but it's not surprising to learn that the album sold poorly and failed to attract the attention that Elektra was hoping for. For a pop record, the hooks are just a little too loosy goosy and make it hard to latch onto the musical flow and as a proto-progressive rock album, the band seems to have forgotten most of the rock elements which only ooze out of the mix in rare climactic moments towards the ends of tracks. For the most part EARTH OPERA slowly played on simmer with a dreamy folk background punctuated by exotic and unexpected instrumentation for contrast's sake. Due to the lack of success, the band would undergo a completely new lineup however Elektra was willing to give the band one more chance so Rowan and Grisman returned to the studio to create their second and last album 'The Great American Eagle Tragedy' which would find a release the following year in 1969.

Report this review (#2087032)
Posted Friday, December 14, 2018 | Review Permalink

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