4.5 out of 5 Stars!
I crave discovering surprises during my “new music hunt” searches for Progressive Rock bands. I’m sure many fans of the genre will have similar feelings. Yet the surprises are usually few and far between. So when I recently stumbled upon this debut album by Heliopolis, labeled as Prog-Rock on many music-related websites, I expected nothing too earthshaking or monumental or overly fun from this five-track debut, certainly nothing that would add anything truly new to the genre. The best I hoped for was hearing a band that had the chops to actually deliver some decent music in the specified genre, a band that would (no doubt) present a nice rehash of something we’ve all heard before.
What I happily discovered was a band heavily influenced by Yes (again, nothing new in the world of contemporary Prog-Rock, yet this is a band dissimilar to a group such as Starcastle that duplicated the Yes sound almost to a “T”). Instead, Heliopolis is a band with a modern, more sparkling “take” on the overall classic Yes sound from the ’70s, a band more in the spirit of modern Symphonic-Prog acts such as Ad Infinitum, Glass Hammer, Ilúvatar, Mystery, etc. So in total, Heliopolis is a band that seems to have completely absorbed the sound of Fragile, Close to the Edge, or The Yes Album yet took those influences into directions that consequently (and cheerfully) produced its own style of sorts.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised, however, considering that the band’s commendable rhythm section of Kerry Chicoine (Bass Guitar) and Jerry Beller (Percussion) were previously members of Mars Hollow, another terrific group that drew eagerly from the “Yes playbook” and released two impressive albums in the past decade. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant discovery to learn that this new band is creating music along the same lines, yet different enough to individualize its overall style.
On Heliopolis’s debut album, the aforementioned Yes influences do pop up immediately, especially when it comes to the lead vocals and background harmonies, the presence of Hammond organ and sparser Mellotron (Rick Wakeman-inspired certainly), the quirky, lively guitar leads (ala Steve Howe), and the wildly Chris Squire-like jamming Rickenbacker bass guitar continually and energetically riffing around in the background of each song.
The opening track, “New Frontier,” makes the Yes comparisons as clear as crystal, especially during the ultra-catchy verses, which have that same bouncy rhythmic feel and similar upbeat melody lines as the iconic song “Roundabout.” The non-Yes influences, however—from Spock’s Beard to Ilúvatar to Transatlantic to Gentle Giant to “whomever”—also (and quite distinctly) rear their glorious head, with some unexpected keyboard and guitar sounds during the intro and mid-sections, some intriguing and elaborate arrangements, and various instrumental insertions (very Mars Hollow in that respect) with a bright, rambunctious, almost bubbly sound. The band’s music is more like a rejuvenated yet refashioned version of classic Yes instead of the same-old “classic/clone” effect. A huge plus. Additionally, the lyrics speak of a band discovering new frontiers, a changing in realities, how the band is perhaps embracing the move forward, embarking on a journey into a real adventure, and a full-out invitation to the listener to “join us.” I, for one, was happy to do just that, especially in light of the fantastic sounds blasting through my speakers. If this is an official declaration that the band Mars Hollow has actually called it quits, than I will certainly follow along to wherever Heliopolis wants to take me on its new adventure.
The high-quality, dynamic musicianship impresses throughout. The next track, “Take a Moment,” is a more “non-Yes” type of song, showcasing the band’s individual style. Again, there are undoubtedly the occasional Yes-like inspirations, and a cross between the bands Ad Infinitum and Ilúvatar first sprang to mind, but only periodically. Therefore, Heliopolis, with its inclusion of a beautiful melody and (especially) a rowdy keyboard-dominated section near its end, displays what it can do as an individual entity and not simply as a band relying solely on its predecessors for its overall sound. Instead, the track displays a band that can create interesting and impressive Prog-Rock of its own making, with only the barest hint of bring inspired (borrowing/thieving?) from other classic groups.
“Mr. Wishbone” is a brief instrumental that earns high scores for again offering up the band’s unique style to a Prog-Rock audience, although one can certainly detect some Spock’s Beard/Gentle Giant inspiration during the bizarre intro and mid-sections. Be that as it may, this is a definite Prog-Rock lover’s type of track, with offbeat rhythms, weird instrumentation, sound effects, and a sense of experimentation throughout.
“Elegy” starts as a mostly piano-dominated, jazzy track, where the vocalist drops an octave during a pretty melody (no Jon Anderson-inspired vocals here), along with another upbeat mid-section with delicious organ and guitar solos before the vocals take control of the ending segment. Another grand, bright, and resplendent showcase of all Heliopolis has to offer outside the “Yes realm.”
The fifth and (unfortunately) final track, the fourteen-minute “Love and Inspiration,” will undoubtedly be the highlight of the album for most fans of the genre. And no reason why it shouldn’t be. The track simply embraces everything the best of Prog-Rock has to offer, with both Gentle Giant and Yes instrumental inspirations in the opening four-minute intro alone. This track also offers probably the most memorable verses/choruses of all the songs on offer here, somewhat reminding me of Spock’s Beard-meets-Yes at its most melodic best. Some spirited Rickenbacker bass melodies drive beneath a splendid guitar solo, which slams through after the initial verse, once again bringing Yes to mind before another jazzy vocal verse/chorus appears. Immediately afterward, a frolicking synth solo blasts through the speakers, along with an all-too-brief drum solo, which eventually brings the track back into focus. As you might glean by now, this is an epic-style track with many changes and moods, a prize in the world of Prog-Rock, one that I repeat often to savor every engaging section.
To sum up, City of the Sun was a wonderful surprise during my most recent Prog-Rock discoveries, an album displaying a band in only its first stages of development, yet seemingly already miles ahead of other more seasoned acts. In other words, this is one damned impressive debut album and a talented band to watch. Should the group’s development continue, I expect Heliopolis will make quite a name for itself in the Prog-Rock universe. I certainly pray they deliver more material in the near future.