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Ethos - Open Up CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.88 | 61 ratings

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4 stars As she was cleaning the burrow just the other day, Mrs L turned to ask me:

Why are there so few good US symphonic prog albums Exit? and... please clear away your roadkill after you've finished with it dear...(sigh) mother said as long as he's a herbivore....

This got me thinking and apart from say, the patchy but good Fireballet and less patchy and better Quill, I cannot think of too many examples that fit the bill. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised by this offering from 1977 which, given the time of its release was the dawn of prog's darkest hour, has much to recommend it as a slice of stateside bombastic symphonic prog y'all. This band's lack of commercial success was of course somewhat inevitable after the agonizing birth throes of the nascent punk changeling. Wrong place, wrong time.

Ethos do certainly wear their avowed influences of their gatefold sleeves on Open Up with dashes of Yes, Crimson, ELP, Gentle Giant and perhaps an extra garnish of....more Yes, but in the main they serve up an intoxicating array of complex and detailed original compositions that never fail to entertain. Being an extremely grumpy and grudging rodent I was expecting a little bile inducing Styx, Kansas and Boston etc to peek through the cracks but thankfully, that particular brand of stadium arena wank is absent.

'Pimp City' - Rather incongruous 'glamrock' title to be sure, which starts with a very unnerving montage of laughing/crying? multi tracked voices before moving into an angular unison riff that carries an echo of Crimson circa Pictures of a City. The sung section has a laid back jazzy feel subsequently undermined by an arresting and climactic flanged guitar which leads us to the memorable tagline chorus. Nice use of subtle mellotron to calm things down for the quieter passage featuring a haunting synth lead which transitions into a classical guitar snippet and Frippian hued guitar solo. The main thematic riff is reprised towards the end and such is its strength the repetition is not unwarranted. Ethos go for a tongue in cheek 'everything louder than everything else' bravura orchestral ending here, which at least shows the lads have a sense of humour and unlike many Americans, a firm grasp of irony.

'Start Anew' - It should be evident that Brad Stephenson (bass) and Will Sharpe (guitar) are big fans of the Squire/Howe axis in Yes and their timbres and playing on this track are testimony to the rich source of that inspiration. The groove and stop/start feel of the writing on this tune is not a million light years away from Alex Lifeson jamming with Yes with Bruford still in the drum-stool. (High praise indeed I am sure you will agree) This is a very tightly constructed and disciplined number and I like how the vocal section's relative calmness and steadier pulse provides a counterweight to the very chromatic and schizophrenic music that surrounds it. Nice work fellas....

'UV Melody' - Very short and rather superfluous little flute led solo over acoustic guitar arpeggios. Pleasant enough as a snack but like roadkill, not really sufficient to provide a healthy balanced diet. What's for tea hun?

'Memories' - This song seems to creep up behind the listener with a very low key intro featuring some tasteful Mellotron flute/strings under a beautifully sung melody before mutating into an extended instrumental workout where all the band get their little 'windows' within which to strut their stuff. As talented and accomplished as Mr Sharpe undoubtedly is he does let his 'Steve Howe for Dummies' instruction manual get the better of him in places on Memories.The synth textures and keyboards are very subtle on much of this album and Michael Ponczek displays of firm grasp of how to create eerie and spacey atmospheres as a backdrop to lend sympathetic support to the main solo excursions of the tunes. There is a beautiful guitar solo towards the end which has that thick fuzz tone without the 'twangy' attack portion of each picked note so beloved of the likes of Messrs Fripp and Belew. Lovely bubbling, squawking and delayed analogue synth injections are employed throughout this track to telling effect.

'The Players of the Game' - A very complex piece that undergoes a bewildering array of changes of tempo, dynamics and key which requires lots of plays before the underlying structure starts to reveal itself. We eavesdrop on some chattering analogue simian aliens via Ponczek's synths until a slow kit groove emerges and some of the lyrical content of Pimp City is reprised. (Methinks a concept album is afoot boys?) Thereafter we run the gamut of a jazz tinged acoustic guitar solo, bombastic Moraz inspired synth soloing circa Refugee and a swaggering climax of the repeated and powerful chorus rendered by a disorienting 'cut-up' of the multi layered harmony parts. Even Mrs L thinks this 'rawks' and her favorite band is 'Smokie'

No it ain''s Abba for your information you furry carnivorous wastrel

'Marathon II- Which begs the question, what happened to Marathon I? Jokey percussion effects and kiddies toy chimes introduce this with some flute redolent of PFM. When the main beat kicks in the effect is enervating and I should take this opportunity to remark on how brilliant and 'musical' a drummer Mark Richards is. Like all my favourite percussionists he is not content to just identify the pulse of the underlying music and lay down an 'in the pocket' groove, but instead interacts dynamically with the instrumentalists and is an inseparable part of the composition. Glorious and powerful pant filling chorus.

Oh do behave dear (sigh) you want a salad for a change?

'Sedona' - Sorry hun...nah. Lovely classical nylon guitar intro wedded to some creamy fondant 'tron and a quivering and haunting flutey synth voice a la the Italian school. Very strong melody but rather undermined by some risible lyrics about a fantasy/futuristic haven where everyone with shoulder length hair will eventually sail to ? This is a much more conventionally constructed track and may have made a suitable single from the album ? Even on more mainstream material like this the lads shine and display remarkable innovation within the boundaries set by the shorter pop/rock song format.

'Close Your Eyes' - Yet more inspired drumming on the false/delayed intro which carries a trace of Neil Peart. Another strong tune which eventually evolves into a fantastic eastern tinged solo from Sharpe which is one of the many highlights on this fine album. I think once stripped of his 'Howe' obsession, Mr S really finds his own unique voice here for perhaps the first time. Wonderful. The simple and infectious ostinato motif on the portamento synth reappears at periodic intervals until we build up to an instrumental climax with more dizzying synth lead (is this one of those ARP beasts?) and good use of Mellotron. Ethos close the album with a comedic single tom stroke and high pitched choked guitar 'splutter' before sending us on our way with a droning and resonating ambient soundscape in the fashion of Fripp & Eno. Yummy.

I certainly think this a rather neglected gem in the US stable of symphonic prog records and just hope that more people get to hear this very fine album. If I had to be picky, my only reservations to 5 star status are the huge debt that the bass and guitar owe to Yes and perhaps the rather bland nature of Will Sharpe's voice. Don't get me wrong, Mr S is a very good singer but there is a rather 'nondescript' element to his voice that robs it of any unique personality or endearing character. (Sorry Will)

There are those who might dismiss Ethos as Yes clones and although I can understand this initial reaction, it should be evident that Open Up has a depth and originality that will only be revealed after repeated listening.

ExittheLemming | 4/5 |


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