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SURPRISE

Symphonic Prog • United States


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Surprise biography
SURPRISE is an obscure American prog band from St. Louis, Missouri, featuring Mark Biehl (vocals/flute), Rick Bess (guitars, bass), Blair Blake (keyboards), and Dave Kelly(percussion). They formed in 1976 right after high school and began with cover songs in the basement. As they began to cover challenging prog material with ease, friends encouraged them to write some original music. Heavily influenced by progressive rock, primarily YES, GENESIS, and GENTLE GIANT, Blair and Bess retired to the beautiful woods near their neighborhood with acoustic guitars and notebooks to write an opus (the woods can be seen in the photo on this page.) Feeling the material was very good, the band set out to independently record their album while retaining complete control. This was attained by self-financing via the parents of the band members.

Recording began in late 1976 at Technisonics Studios and was produced by Bill Schulenberg and the band. They were also assisted by engineer Chuck Sabatino, who would later work and tour with MICHAEL MCDONALD. The original vinyl run of 1000 copies fetches big bucks amongst collectors, while the CD was reissued in April 1995 by Geoff Logsdon's Zarathustra Progressive Recordings. Logsdon worked with the band members and engineer Benny Quinn to rescue the master tapes which had begun to deoxidize (the process is described in the booklet, I won't go into it here.) In a nice artistic twist, Logsdon chose to reissue the CD in a run of 1000 to match the vinyl release. Their lone album is a conceptual fantasy themed work called "Assault on Merryland."

Released in the Fall of 1977 on the band's own Carousel Records, it's a beautiful work inspired by the English prog giants. While the work is derivative and frankly not quite to the level of those famous prog legends mentioned above, I would say the album compares well to the mid-late 70s work of groups like DRUID, SEBASTIAN HARDIE, ROUSSEAU, and CAMEL. Sometimes it reminds me a bit of WISHBONE ASH's "Argus." Their English symphonic prog influences are crossed with the distinctly US preference for guitars and FM album rock, so imagine a heavy shot of KANSAS/STYX added to the mix. The album contained a wide variety of emotions, moods, and energy levels. It was lush and symphonic, adorned with a wealth of instrumentation: flute, trumpet, piccolo, electric guitars, acoustic 12 string guitar, bass, hammond organ, grand piano, mini moog, moog taurus pedals, arp strin...
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3.33 | 20 ratings
Assault On Merryland
1977

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SURPRISE Reviews


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 Assault On Merryland by SURPRISE album cover Studio Album, 1977
3.33 | 20 ratings

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Assault On Merryland
Surprise Symphonic Prog

Review by Mellotron Storm
Prog Reviewer

2 stars It's been a much discussed topic as to why there weren't more Prog bands from the USA in the seventies. I've heard several that really impressed me like CATHEDRAL, YEZDA URFA, BABYLON and POLYPHONY but when you consider the pure volume of progressive music from all over the world in the seventies it really is a mystery as to why it didn't catch on there. SURPRISE released this one album in 1977 when Prog was on it's way out. The big negative for me is the concept and in particular the lyrics which are often cringe-worthy to say the least. From the very first listen I couldn't take this album seriously and while the instrumental parts are fine they do nothing to raise my rating.

"Eve Of The Assault / Merryland" opens with a circus-like vibe which is replaced by a Classical flavour before we get that uptempo soundscape. Vocals after 1 1/2 minutes. It's intense 3 1/2 minutes in before turning dreamy before 5 minutes to the end. Not a bad start. "The Acrobat Between The Stars" is uptempo with vocals coming in at 1 1/2 minutes. Good tune. "Palace Of King Ferris" opens with the sound of crickets then vocals and a light beat takes over with background synths and bass helping out. This is laid back. Flute comes in as well. It's an okay song. "Tyrangatang" is where they let their hair down and rock out like BLUE OYSTER CULT. "Dance Of The Tarantella" opens with samples before vocals and a relaxed sound take over. It does pick up. Flute before 3 minutes then a guitar solo.

"Tournament Of Love" is just plain bad. Where are my tights because I need to skip in the meadow to this (haha). Sorry but ballad-like music with some of the worst lyrics i've heard will do that. "March Of The Squatamaudars" is fairly heavy to start which is good but then when he sings i'm bailing again. "A Day Without Light" is okay with vocals and flute. "The Wonderful Sunshine / Grand Finale" has strummed guitar and vocals early on. It kicks in before 3 minutes. Just not a fan of this one.

The second half of this album kills it for me. I just don't like this.

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 Assault On Merryland by SURPRISE album cover Studio Album, 1977
3.33 | 20 ratings

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Assault On Merryland
Surprise Symphonic Prog

Review by Slaughternalia

4 stars I would like to give this five stars for recommendation's sake, but I can't bring myself to do it. It's not an essential masterpiece, but a very fine piece of music. Much like other American prog rock from the seventies, such as Starcastle or Todd Rundgren's Utopia, it takes progressive rock's stereotypes to an excess.

The lyrics are incredibly impersonal and fantastical. It's a concept album about a beautiful maiden (Terella) from a paradise called "Merryland" who escapes her arranged marriage, only to anger her mother (the queen), who blames her father (King Ferris) for her leaving. The queen then casts a spell on Merryland sending it into eternal darkness. The creatures of Merryland then set out to find King Ferris, who lives very far away, to seek his help.

Musically, the album is a good balance of hard, psychedelic, and symphonic rock. There isn't a bad song on the album, but some moments are definitely better than others.

If you don't mind some pretentiousness and wankery here and there, I definitely recommend this album, as it is quite a rewarding listen.

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 Assault On Merryland by SURPRISE album cover Studio Album, 1977
3.33 | 20 ratings

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Assault On Merryland
Surprise Symphonic Prog

Review by Finnforest
Special Collaborator Honorary Collaborator

4 stars The very definition of the "lost prog gem"

"Assault in Merryland" is a true lost gem of the late 1970s, an ambitious conceptual fantasy-prog album by the St. Louis, Missouri based band Surprise. Their lone album was inspired by classic Yes and Genesis although the final product here is more in line with bands like Druid, Rousseau, Kansas, or Sebastian Hardie. I really enjoy the album and the fact that the music was written by a very young guitarist named Rick Bess, who was only in his late teens at the time, is even more impressive. Just out of high school, Bess and keyboardist Blair Blake would grab some Pepsi and their guitars/notebooks and head off to the woods near their home to work in silence on their prog opus. In the 90s the album was rescued by Zarathustra Records' Geoff Logsdon, who lovingly crafted a CD reissue with improved sound and a nice booklet, with the assistance of the band members and Benny Quinn.

While I confess that I don't pay much attention to lyrics these days (I'm a music guy), the grand story here revolves around Kings and Queens, enchanted black forests, and magic. Sometimes the music reminds me a bit of Wishbone Ash's "Argus." Their English symphonic prog influences are crossed with the US penchant for more prominent guitar, so imagine a heavy shot of Kansas/Styx injected to the mix, with the results being somewhere between the two. Despite being accused of being too cheesy by some reviewers, "Assault on Merryland" is an ambitious effort and a very good upbeat melodic prog album. The compelling music deserves much more respect than it sometimes gets. The album contained a wide variety of emotions, moods, and energy levels. It was lush and symphonic and adorned with a wealth of instrumentation.

The opening track begins with sound effects from Merryland before the grand entrance of Bess' majestic and melodic guitar leads. He can also get some grooving and crunchy power chords going, or some beautiful mellow acoustic passages, and he covers the bass. Keyboardist Blair Blake soaks the album in great color with mellotron, synths, and piano. Dave Kelly is a damn tight drummer who plays lots of cool fills and interesting percussion devices. Vocalist Mark Biehl has a modest range but an acceptable voice and adds some beautiful flute and piccolo to several tracks.

Mostly the album wins me over with its heart and sincerity. The songs deliver moods of fantasy lands, of a different time and place, of battles on the plains, of campfires on the edge of forests during the dead of night. But it doesn't go too far at the expense of rock and roll. The band still rocks and stays engaging. "Merryland" (the song) delivers lovingly overblown songwriting while "Palace of King Ferris" is sweet and pastoral with folky acoustic guitar and flute. On the flip side "Tyrangatang" delivers a Tommy Shaw styled punchy rock and roll with a blistering solo. The ending is flat-out scorching. The CD booklet, which was designed by Logsdon, contains complete lyrics, and his reissue includes a remixed bonus cut of "Tyrangatang." It's a shame these guys broke up so quickly as I would have loved to have heard their next one.

Sometimes these obscure one-offs are a disaster and sometimes they prove to be formidable. This one, while well short of a masterpiece, is one of those really good ones if you don't mind the whole overblown fantasy/concept thing. I consider it one of those little treasures like the first Emeraude album or the first Rousseau album. 3 ½ stars and rounding up with much affection. (See our ProgArchives band bio for much more detailed info on this interesting group's story).

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 Assault On Merryland by SURPRISE album cover Studio Album, 1977
3.33 | 20 ratings

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Assault On Merryland
Surprise Symphonic Prog

Review by AtomicCrimsonRush
Special Collaborator Symphonic Team

3 stars Pretentious concept album with some shining moments!

Surprise are a real obscurity that came saw and conquered in 1977. As soon as they were on the scene they quickly disappeared but released one concept album based on a mystical journey in a space playground, a fantasy realm reminiscent of early Genesis or ELP at times. There is a definite emphasis on catchy melodies and lengthy instrumental jams, with many time sig changes and mood swings from heavy distorted guitar, stabbing Hammond to ambient sustained keyboard pads and spacey guitar passages.

It begins with Eve Of The Assault / Merryland, the longest track at 6:52. The playground sound effects are the first of many special sound effects that permeate the album and attempt to create the overblown concept. At times it actually works. In this case it is a wonderful start. The guitars and synths kick in with a steady beat and some great twin guitar playing. It is an uplifting sound created. The vocals are clean and sound like King Crimson or ELP. The lyrics are pretentious admittedly borrowing from the prog bands of the era, "trumpets sound aggressive in war of minstrel puppets in the gallery", (Jethro Tull anyone?) The harmonies are quite nice and there are even sounds of crickets chirping and a robot voice heralds the heavier part of the track, an ELP type effect reminding me of Karn Evil 9's robot voice. Hammond flourishes are well executed and there is a constant upbeat time sig, and it settles eventually into a softer prog ballad; "ride on our whirlwind to the edge of the night, on the wave that takes us away, dance on the sun shore? with a cool blanket breeze in the air."

The Acrobat Between The Stars is another of the longer songs at 6:15 that begins with a massive synthesizer riff, that locks in to an acoustically driven off beat rhythm. The lead guitar solo is very well played and then the beat gains tempo in a fractured metrical pattern. The twin guitars are terrific, and then the vocals return, echoed and mystical; "shivering sequins reflect the seasons on the waters below, majestic mountains and snow and ice protect us in our paradise." It uses every prog cliché in the book but somehow it makes sense with the overblown treatment of the music. We hear about a paradise with romantic valleys, mystic forests, flowers that blossom in the sun, the acrobat between the stars is the paradise fantasy world of escapist dreams. The flute is used well on this track and the electronic swells are indeed spacey and effective embellishments.

Palace Of King Ferris begins with the crickets chirping cliché so we know it is night and it is isolated. The harmonics on guitar are divine and then the reflective vocals chime in, full of intense prog clichés; "a gold drop of nectar falls in the dandelion swinging, dancing with fairies, trace the skyline, starlight minstrels over the ocean of glass over the palace of King Ferris, over a cosmic dust shower, under the bridges along the foggy night, cupids are dancing their way to your heart, the angels are singing in harmony" and it goes on. So let's forget the naff lyrics and focus on the music. Well, it is good, lots of enchanting flute and keyboard sounds.

Tyrangatang has a bouncy guitar riff and multi layered echoed vocals. The heavy chugging riff is like Hawkwind. I love the way the Hammond crunches along on this. The time sig changes suddenly in a quieter section and then it returns to the chug-a-chug rocking riff. Pretty good track for sure which has a crackling twin lead break and some crashing drum passages. The synth and guitars trade off too in the instrumental break. Perhaps the highlight of the album.

Dance Of The Tarantella begins with someone crunching along with footsteps on gravel, or is it digging up graves?. The eastern sound is very Tarantella like, and this continues through the track. The synths are weird on this, quite spacey. The lyrics are concerning a witch looking for buried treasure, and a murder of this beast, magic spells from hell, a demon of mischief, and all sorts of delightful mystical stuff that nobody cares about. The music again is wondrous and certainly well executed especially the flute passages. I love the guitar here doing the Tarantella traditional theme. Quite a fun track.

Tournament Of Love has a cool guitar riff driving it, and settles into a melodic beautiful song. The instrumental break is fair but this is one of the lowlights of the album, too soppy with naff harmonies and appalling lyrics. "There I serenade you from a friendly feather pillowed cloud?." Please!

March Of The Squatamaudars is a heavy riffing track, a real surprise from the previous waffle. The keyboards are fantastic on this, like ELP really, and heavy riffs blend with an uptempo beat and bright vocals. There are effects of a princess party, complete with clinking glasses and laughing; you can't accuse the band of being subtle. The lead guitar break is great too and we have another highlight. A Day Without Light is another ballad and once again saccharine sugar sweet with chimes, acoustics, and romantic fairytale lyrics and heartfelt vocals. Perhaps this was meant to attract the female audience, but it's more pretentious than portentous.

The Wonderful Sunshiner / Grand Finale is the huge big finale obviously. It begins with swells of spacey synth and more acoustic, and gentle vocals. The lyrics tell us they were "watching the cinema show late at night", (Genesis anyone?), and then whispers are heard over a flute musical backdrop. The lyrics are as silly as ever until a nice little twin lead solo. The vocals come in with "ladies and gentlemen, I hope you're all well?", (ELP anyone?) and then some cool little guitar riffs help things out. The synth solo is rather nice, and a great Hammond sound over a fast paced chugging riff blazes away, and this is where the band are at their best. The time sig changes again and loud guitars finish it all off in a crescendo.

Tyrangatang (1994 remix) is a remastered better version of the earlier track of the same name. I do love this melody and it is definitely the best thing they have done. It is a bit like Deep Purple meets Moody Blues at times if that were possible. The lead guitars are very good and thus an album ends.

Conclusion; this is a satisfactory prog album from the late 70s and deserves it's place somewhere in the prog archives. The band borrow every cliché they can and the result is it is overblown and pretentious and could have really done with a decent lyricist. However this is quite an entertaining little jaunt into excessive conceptual album territory.

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 Assault On Merryland by SURPRISE album cover Studio Album, 1977
3.33 | 20 ratings

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Assault On Merryland
Surprise Symphonic Prog

Review by victor.cypert

2 stars Not a very sturdy album, the lyrics are a bit contrived and show an obtuse, formulaic approach to creating atmosphere through pedestrian imagery. The album lacks any capacity to connect with the listener on an emotional level and it is obvious that the whole work is contrived to "show off" in terms of talent. One can surmise that the reason Surprise didn't last is because the definitions of the words "talent" and "genius" were muddled somewhere along the way. It sounds like original Piper-era Pink Floyd meets Jethro Tull on a bad day.

While not bad for a first effort, the idea of a band's initial offering being something as ambitious as a full-length concept album. There was real potential here but these lads simply bit off more than they could chew. "Tyrangatang" showed some merit but was too weighty in context of the album's intended direction.

"Assault on Merryland" is proof once again that adjective and adverbs do not atmosphere make and that talent alone does not create a solid album. Disappointing.

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 Assault On Merryland by SURPRISE album cover Studio Album, 1977
3.33 | 20 ratings

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Assault On Merryland
Surprise Symphonic Prog

Review by francoisti

4 stars Speaking about an obscure american band that released only this here LP. And what a ¨surprise¨ indeed it was when I first heard it today. In fact I was not expecting this kind of musical maturity at all. Let's say that this is a VERY welcome companion to my collection of american prog. I don't think I can better describe this CD than Mr James Unger have done in a previous review only by giving 1/2 star more . I would encourage everyone to commit themselves in buying this CD while you still can-=and at reasonable price with that=. It is a fun, energetic and very enchanting piece of work.

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 Assault On Merryland by SURPRISE album cover Studio Album, 1977
3.33 | 20 ratings

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Assault On Merryland
Surprise Symphonic Prog

Review by loserboy
Prog Reviewer

4 stars For many years this album was on my wish list but I was unable to track it down and now thanks to a great new technology we can all finally enjoy this masterpiece from the 70's , completely restored to CD from the kiln and a process of re-baking the oxide to the original mastertape. "Assault On Merryland" is a concept album based around a fantasy land called Merryland and a tale of a prince, princess and king who manage to reverse a spell which left Merryland in total darkness. Musically this is a 4 piece ensemble comprised of Rick Bess (guitars, bass), Blair Blake (Organ, piano, moog, Taurus pedals, celeste), Dave Kelly (drums), Mark Biehl (Vocals, Flute, trumpet). Musically these guys are tight and play with great lustre and technical skill. Songs area all very well written and offer great themes and varied tempos and moods. Overall this album is quite symphonic and perhaps best way to describe the music of SURPRISE would be a mix of FIREBALLET, KING CRIMSON and classic CAMEL. Overall a wonderful album and a definite need for your collection.

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