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Syzygy - Cosmos and Chaos (as Witsend) CD (album) cover



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3 stars US outfit WITSEND, who would resurface a few years later as Syzygy, released their one and only album back in 1993.

This production basically comes with two forms of compositions: Low key, instrumental acoustic guitar excursions, with strong pointers to classical music, is the least dominating of these. A handful or so of these numbers are spread across the album in brief, atmospheric pieces. Or interludes if you like.

The rest of the material at hand are efforts that fits pretty well into a symphonic progressive rock description. Richly textured affair where keyboards and guitar soloing dominates the proceedings, and with one exception these are all instrumental works.

For the latter the similarities to heralded prog giants Genesis is striking. The generally atmospheric passages constructed should be recognizable by most avid followers of the British band, even if spiced with some bombastic textures from the ELP school of progressive music at times.

The compositions does come across as somewhat unfinished though. Pleasant, intriguing and even rather challenging themes are broken up rather than evolved, and while flow disruptions may be planned and utilized to good effect these are more of a minor annoying aspect on this particular production.

Those who like the atmospheric parts of the Genesis back catalogue and also enjoy gentle acoustic guitar pieces should find this disc interesting though, but those new to this stylistic expression might want to start their exploration of the genre with an album more fully developed than this interesting, but slightly flawed effort.

Report this review (#266069)
Posted Sunday, February 14, 2010 | Review Permalink
Conor Fynes
3 stars 'Cosmos and Chaos' - Witsend (62/100)

Perhaps even moreso than their Scandinavian counterparts, it's the United States that has carried the symphonic prog mantle into recent decades. I'm not sure what it is about the richly pastoral sounds of Genesis that appeal so much to the Americans, but there has been a surge of (often Christian) bands in the US dedicating to keeping the symphonic tradition alive, long since the original progressive zeitgeist died. Echolyn and Transatlantic rank among the best-known (though, in the case of the latter, far from the best) examples, but many are left for the genre's more dedicated fans to seek and discover. Among the more promising of these Second Wave adherents is Syzygy, who first made their start as Witsend, a trio who were still attending a music conservatory when this debut was released. Although a lot of the album seems to be hinting at a point the band never makes, the early Syzygy's (mostly) instrumental blend of classical guitar and Hackett-focused Genesis worship is unpretentious and capable.

Although Witsend (or Syzygy) experiment with vocals (with mixed success) on "Circadian Rhythm", Cosmos and Chaos is an otherwise instrumental album. In a much more recent interview, Baldassarre described the album as an "honest" mixture of progressive rock and classical music, and I would tend to agree. Although they were still years away from fleshing out their sound (2003's The Allegory of Light was more substantive, 2009's Realms of Eternity doubly so) the trio is confident and eager to explore the progressive format. The strongest reference here would be Steve Hackett, particularly he did concurrently, and following his work with the legendary Genesis. Listening to a piece like the excellently composed and pastoral "Voyager", I can't help but recall Steve's Voyage of the Acolyte, one of my favourite symphonic prog albums. Emerson, Lake and Palmer is also evoked, on the considerably show-ier "Strange Loop II"; Sam Giunta's enthusiastic synth observations closely parallel Keith Emerson's. "Mount Ethereal" and "Closure" respectively lend harder-hitting approaches to Witsend's style, in turn reminding me of some of the heavier symphonic rockers. Making the leap between Steve Hackett to ELP and Kansas doesn't seem like a world of change, but it proves at least that the nascent Syzygy were more than the simple Genesis acolytes they and many of their less-promising contemporaries appear to be.

With the handful of fleshed-out instrumentals and jovial "Circadian Rhythm" obviously aside, most of the tracks on Cosmos and Chaos are short, to-the-point, and built around Carl Baldassarre's not-inconsiderable skills with the nylon-string guitar. While many of these might pass as wayside interludes on a more substantive prog album, Witsend give them at least as much importance to Cosmos and Chaos as the meatier compositions themselves. Fortunately, these 'interludes' tend to be very tasteful and enjoyable. Carl Baldassarre is clearly a guitarist of the Steve Hackett school, choosing his notes carefully, hesitating to stress technique if it's not deemed necessary. In particular, his twin classical etudes are beautifully composed and played. Think of the pleasant acoustic "Horizons" Genesis used to prelude "Supper's Ready" on Foxtrot, and you should have an idea how roughly half of Cosmos and Chaos sounds. The problem here, of course, is that there is no "Supper's Ready", or otherwise epic demonstration of what Witsend are so apparently capable of, judging from the mid-length rock instrumentals. To be fair, all four of the instrumentals sound ambitiously composed, but by the time the album is over, it feels like half of it has been spent wading through pleasant interludes, waiting for Witsend's meatier progressive rock. It's understandable that the band would want to showcase their guitarist's expertise with classical guitar, but as it stands, Cosmos and Chaos sounds a bit like an empty stomach; enthusiastic, but unsatisfying.

Cosmos and Chaos is most certainly "honest"- something which feels sorely lacking in a lot of prog- but I don't believe it's much more than that. The instrumentals are engaging, and the classical guitar is pleasant, but something is certainly missing from Syzygy's debut. Ultimately (and in spite of the fact that Baldassarre's short pieces are well-written), Cosmos and Chaos is a case of too much potatoes and not enough meat. Although the jumbled montage of the its final track, this album doesn't have quite enough adhesive to keep it together.

Report this review (#1008253)
Posted Monday, July 29, 2013 | Review Permalink
4 stars This relates to the 2014 reissue of Cosmos and Chaos.

Caveat: Regardless of how much I love a band or album (and Syzygy is one of my very favorite progressive rock bands), I am not the biggest fan of remastered albums unless the original had glaring production flaws.

So, what do I think of this new 2014 reissue of Syzygy's "Cosmos and Chaos" album?

Positives: 1) I like the re-recording of two shorter tracks using a grand piano instead of the original electronic instrument (Yamaha CP70). 2) I really enjoy those two bonus tracks of pre-Cosmos and Chaos Witsend. Not only are they reasonably well recorded for 1984 cassette recordings, but the songs are pretty interesting and well-played with another drummer and bass player in the band. 3) The packaging is fantastic, with very good liner notes to boot. The group has seemed to take great pride in how they package their recent albums. 4) The remastering is a subtle improvement - nothing drastic to these old ears. But some flatness in the original recording is removed, and I hear certain guitar and keyboard parts more clearly than originally presented. There is an overall warmer feel to this remaster. 5) The track re-sequencing presents a unique way to listen to this music, grouping all the solo instrument material up front, then the small ensemble pieces, and finishing with the full band "Witsend Trio" pieces.

The not-so-positives: 1) The two live bonus tracks of songs that were originally instrumental-only (Mount Ethereal and Strange Loop) now contain vocals, and are very enjoyable...but extraneous if you already own the Glorious Disturbance live album from a couple of years ago where I first heard those same (or very similar) performances. 2) As mentioned above, the remastering is nothing dramatic; I thought the original recording was pretty good as it was. 3) I've heard the original album so many times that I'm already conditioned to expect a certain song to follow another (e.g. Etude No. 1 is naturally followed by those snarling opening guitar tones of Strange Loop), so it's a bit uneasy to me to hear a different track order. The band members apparently felt that it was jarring or jagged to go from soft to rocking, or small ensemble to full band sound; but I actually liked that dynamic in the original recording.

I can appreciate that Syzygy probably wanted to better identify this older Witsend album as one of their own, so a repackaging and remastering reissue under the Syzygy name would make sense. They saw a great earlier album like Cosmos and Chaos that they did not want to get lost in the shuffle, and they put together a really nice package (especially with the bonus tracks, and particularly if you've never heard those two great instrumental rockers redone with vocals).

But...I have to say that I've always loved the original too! Personally, I'd rather listen to a new album of new music from these guys instead of a marginally improved reissue of an album that's already pretty durn good. I sense that the band members are pretty particular about the music they present; it no doubt factored into their decision to reissue this album. Their commitment to their music is certainly evident in the amount of time spent writing and perfecting their craft between albums, as well as the phenomenal level of sophistication and musicianship behind every single song in all of their albums. Yet while I feel that this version of Cosmos and Chaos is great, I'm not convinced that it was enough of an improvement over the original to warrant a reissue, especially with all the thousands of other bands and albums vying for my ears' attention.

Bottom line: If you never picked up the original, definitely get this reissue with the improved piano parts, the remastering, and the cool bonus tracks - it's a great album. If you do have the original, this still makes a nice "improved and enhanced" alternative to that album.

(Eagerly looking forward to their next album of new material...) - SJ

Report this review (#1349936)
Posted Wednesday, January 21, 2015 | Review Permalink

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