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Eclectic Prog

4.11 | 603 ratings

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5 stars From the Chicapah "how the hell did I manage to miss out on this one?" school of feeble and diminishing thought I humbly and with vigor slap my forehead whilst uttering a loud Homer Simpson "Doh!" prior to the commencement of writing this essay. Like many things in my sordid history I've approached this heralded but short-lived supergroup's work bass- ackwards by digesting their second LP a full year ahead of procuring this, their initial foray into the competitive world of prog rock. While I liked a lot of what I heard on "Danger Money," I still gave it a rating only a few notches above fairly average and moved on, thinking that I'd come across their debut disc in no time. However, the rule that says whatever album you're looking for will be readily available until you want to find it kicked in and it suddenly became as scarce in the used record bins as "Live Yardbirds." Lucky for me I discovered a copy sitting pretty in the stacks recently with relatively low scratch mileage on the odometer and I grabbed it up greedily. I'm pleased to report that I'm blown away by it.

Of course, when I consider the royal pedigree of this prog animal I shouldn't be too surprised. Quality DNA strands inherited from the ancestry of Yes, King Crimson, Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, Frank Zappa, Gong and Soft Machine all can be detected in the rich genetic makeup of this band yet they avoid sounding all that much like any of them in particular. Runaway egos and stubborn stances usually keep these mixed marriages from ever producing anything memorable but this album is special. Indeed, in a rare instance of the prog planets aligning perfectly, it achieves a utopian symmetry of immense talents that dreams are made of. In '78, as disco and punk were preparing to puncture the prog dirigible full of holes, these four hardy survivors of the golden years of the progressive decade came together to mold a classy, creative tribute to all that makes our revered genre so appealing and aurally addictive. UK touches all the bases during its lead-off grand slam home run trot while retaining a unique personality all its own.

What better way to introduce yourselves to the prog planet than with a stupendous, side- long epic titled "In the Dead of Night"? I can't think of a more impressive ballroom entrance. The opening tune that bears the same moniker features a dynamic intro in 7/8 time that sweeps you off your feet like a prairie tornado. Bassist John Wetton's passionately strained vocal is very persuasive in getting you to buy into their desirable product, keyboard wiz Eddie Jobson's deeply layered synths paint a stunning backdrop, icon Bill Bruford's drumming is nothing short of incredible in its supernatural precision and Alan Holdsworth's liquid guitar runs place a stamp of inimitable originality on the track, making it irresistible to mortals. In a word (two, really), it's a thrill ride. The second act, "By the Light of Day," appears just as the previous song dissolves into an ethereal mist courtesy of Eddie's mastery of the electronic realm. John's voice becomes silky in texture to match the mood as the group slides effortlessly into a soothingly smooth 5/4 movement that ends in drenching tidal waves streaming inland from a synthetic sea.

Part 3 is "Presto Vivace and Reprise" and it's here that the fruits of Jobson's apprenticeship in Mr. Zappa's magic shop surface and the band pulls off the energized, complex staccato flourishes with nary a hiccup before they revisit the riveting, powerful original theme. (Man, do Bill's toms sound great or what?) The last and longest number is "Thirty Years" and it begins with several minutes of serene glory akin to witnessing a desert sunrise and the piece displays the composers' wise respect for contrast. It then abruptly explodes into a driving, colorful rock section that allows all four to fully express their individuality without losing their unified direction. They then retard the pace slightly to dramatize the effect of the towering finale and the peaceful fadeout. Magnificent!

An ominous drone slowly pulls back the curtain on Eddie's "Alaska" as a trumpet-like synthesizer line streaks across the frozen sky, leading you to a soundscape that artfully captures the essence of being alone in an untamed expanse of nature. The second half is as electrifying as a dancing aurora borealis display in the stratosphere overhead and, to these ears, an endearingly sincere homage to Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The tune segues without a crease into "Time to Kill," an intriguing, highly involved song in which Jobson shows off his prowess on the violin as the rest of the band hums steadily like a well-oiled machine behind him.

"Nevermore" is both exquisite and utterly transcendent. Beautiful guitar work from the hands of Alan is followed by jazzy, unorthodox chord patterns that hold the listener in rapt attention. The solo sparring that takes place between him and Eddie is breathtaking and must be heard to truly appreciate. The mystical interlude that evolves out of that ferocious exchange is also unexpected and the cut's majestic ending is awe-inspiring. "Mental Medication" is the closer and its eclectic modern jazz beginning keeps you from getting too comfortable on the sofa. The group then slips into a squeaky-tight groove that they take playful liberties with before leaping into a fiery jazz rock/fusion segment that makes your head swim as you try to keep up with their enthusiastic attack. Hot stuff.

Alas, this masterpiece would be the only studio offering we'd get from this lineup as Bruford and Holdsworth developed cold feet when they came face to face with a long-term commitment and bolted from the altar as soon as the band's profitable tour came to a close. Just as well. Lightning doesn't usually strike twice and they may've come to the conclusion that they'd never manufacture anything this fantastic and cohesive again as a foursome and it was best to get out of UK town while the getting was good. Mission accomplished. Adios, muchachos, vaya con Dios. No matter what happened post partum, the album they collectively gave birth to is a darn near immaculate example of prog rock at its most excellent and it has stood the test of time in exemplary fashion. I may have arrived at the UK coming out debutante party way over three decades in arrears but it still sounds as fresh and vital as it did in '78 and that's a cause for a belated celebration and many more spins on my turntable. If you don't have it already, add it to your wish list. Now, if not sooner.

Chicapah | 5/5 |


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