Elephants Of Scotland – The Perfect Map (2016)

ElephantsScotland_PerfectMap4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Last year, during one of my numerous “new music searches,” I stumbled upon a band with the unusual name of Elephants Of Scotland. The name alone immediately drew my attention, and with the moniker being so unique, it also proved memorable, which is always a huge plus for a new band struggling to break into the ever-crowded marketplace.

Yet in one respect, the name is also a bit of a misnomer, since the group is not from the UK as one might expect, but from the USA—the state of Vermont, to be precise, as I eventually discovered. But despite that little fact, I soon came to realize that the name is actually quite appropriate, since the band’s music has so much more in common with Progressive Rock groups based in the UK than in America. Indeed, on any of the band’s three studio albums, one can hear numerous musical influences from some of the most “Brit-sounding” acts in the Prog-Rock realm, including Yes, Gentle Giant, Genesis, etc. So bravo to Elephants Of Scotland for selecting a name that not only proved eye-catching and memorable, but wickedly accurate regarding its overall sound, irrespective of its actual origin.

Another good thing I soon discovered about EOS…this talented four-piece is quite a prolific outfit, considering it has already released a trio of highly engaging, above-quality studio albums (plus a live album) since popping onto the scene in early 2013. And this, the band’s latest release, is (to me) the best thus far, and that’s quite an achievement, considering the band’s consistent quality.

With a tight and often-rollicking rhythm section (thanks to bassist Dan MacDonald and drummer Ornan McLean), wildly numerous “old school” keys (courtesy of Adam Rabin), and an adroit guitarist (John “Lefty” Whyte) when it comes to style and substance, the band stampedes into the opening tune, “Sun-Dipped Orphans and the Wizard’s Teapot.”  This track, beginning with thundering drums, and a pleasant concoction of piano, organ, and synths, had me instantly sitting up to take notice. Musically, the song falls into a similar realm to groups such as The Flower Kings, Kansas, and a touch of Yes, but with also a strong “retro” feel ala bands such as a lighter (ie. not too “metal” when it comes to the guitar tones) Presto Ballet. Lyrically speaking, the bizarre song title alone suggests to the potential listener that things with this group tend to be a bit odd, and that is indeed correct. As always happens with Elephants Of Scotland, that quirkiness comes to life with the lead vocals—their tone and delivery—which truly sets the band apart from the aforementioned groups and adds a distinctness—an instantly identifying trait—to the band’s overall sound.

“Counting on a Ghost” contains more frantic synths, off-time rhythms, and a complex arrangement that (depending on the section of the song) might seem right at home on albums by Magellan, Crucible, or IQ. I also must mention the fun closing line of the song: “Gather all your dreams, nail them to a post.” To me, the lyrics of this tune are delightfully zany, and when it comes to music of a progressive nature, zany is always welcome and, once again, adds another positive dimension to this group.

On the next track, “One by Sea,” the beautiful piano-driven melody is sung by guest female vocalist Megan Beaucage, and leads to Prog-Rock splendor in the realm of a group such as Curved Air during its heyday, especially since it also features a short violin solo from guest player Gary Kuo. After some surprising rhythm breaks and tempo changes, a rambunctious arrangement takes shape for the song’s second half. Generally speaking, this was an unexpected track from the group, a different sound and approach (especially with the female vocals and violin), and one that proved highly successful.

The rather goofy “Swing the Gavel” ended up being one of my favorite tracks, showing the band’s true diversity when it comes to its arrangements and creativity. The song is so “British sounding” throughout, and again, considering the band’s name, one would think the group came from the UK during the height of the early-Genesis period in Prog-Rock history. The minor Gentle Giant influences I detected also just prove the point that Elephants of Scotland seem to have been “born” in the wrong century. “Swing the gavel low, swing the gavel high”—zany catchiness at its best.

With its atmospheric intro and opening verses, title track “The Perfect Map” once again brings to mind some of the more moodier tunes by UK Neo-Prog groups such as IQ, Marillion, or Twelfth Night. And better still, with some synth passages that have a tone eerily reminiscent of bagpipes and a melody line that conjures up images of the verdant, sunlit, and breezy highlands of Scotland, the band’s memorable moniker seems more than appropriate here.

The album’s longest track, “Random Earth,” especially with its synth-laden intro, rich and full guitars, driving rhythm section and vocal passages, immediately reminds me of mid-period Rush, although graced with the “quirky” aspect that only Elephants Of Scotland can deliver in its unique way. Additionally, the song’s second half offers minute upon minute of Neo-Prog majesty, with swirling synths and organs, with a blazing guitar solo and solid fills, with scampering bass lines and rip-roaring drums, not to mention numerous rhythm shifts and vocal melodies that bring to mind a perfect marriage of musical influences from groups such as Pallas and Also Eden, The Flower Kings and Transatlantic, with even a touch of (and here’s that word again) “quirky” groups such as It Bites to add musical tinsel to the grand proceedings. Utterly glorious!

And lastly, I cannot forgot to mention “Für Buddy,” a short yet highly emotional instrumental—basically an “outro” to the previous track—with chord patterns and a melody line that actually brought the hint of tears to my eyes. No kidding! Indeed, I had to repeat this track several times, making certain I wasn’t just imagining the emotions the simple little tune evoked. And what a shock it was to realize I wasn’t imagining things after all. Generally speaking, the music of this band is typically lighthearted, whimsical, and frolicking, but this track? Holy hell, for some reason, the song felt like a slam directly to the heartstrings—even without lyrics—therefore making it a pure “bravo exit” to an engaging album.

So overall, on its latest release, does Elephants Of Scotland deliver anything brand spanking new to the genre of Progressive Rock? No, probably not. But what the band does do is deliver a rock-solid package of Neo-Prog fun, and bundled in its own unique package, especially when it comes to those vocals being so damned identifiable—and, therefore, so damned welcomed.

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Arcansiel – Normality of Perversion (1994)

Arcansiel_Normality4 out of 5 Stars!

With some rather silly song titles on display here—”The Girl From Heaven and the Wolf Don’t Care if You Are Glad to Live” and “I’m Crashing Videotapes Behind the Mirrors Against Your T.V. Set”—one might believe this Italian Prog-Rock band is a bit eccentric, and they would be correct. But only to a certain extent.

Yes, the song titles, and some of the lead vocal acrobatics, are a bit “odd” overall, the band in many ways actually delivers a rather straightforward collection of Progressive Rock tracks—generally Neo-Prog mixed with some funky and jazzy AOR influences when it comes to the frequent sax excursions, the inclusion of some trumpet, and the grooves on several tracks, plus some Zappa-like weirdness when it comes to the overall song arrangements and the highly dramatic vocals—which sets Arcansiel apart from most other groups of the genre. Indeed, to me Normality of Perversion sounds as if it may have started out as a slick Steely Dan-inspired album but tossed into a Zappa “Zoot Allures-era” type of blender before its release.

So yes, Arcansiel is definitely unique, and Normality of Perversion may likely be an acquired taste for some listeners/fans of the “normal” Neo-Prog genre, but the group/album is also highly worthy of investigation.

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Jefferson Starship – Freedom at Point Zero (1979)

Starship_FreedomPointZero4.5 out of 5 Stars!

After the band released its rather disappointing, “middle of the road” Earth album in 1978, Jefferson Starship revamped its lineup in the wake of both Marty Balin’s and Grace Slick’s exits, hiring the dynamic Mickey Thomas (The Elvin Bishop Band) as its new lead vocalist and also recruiting ace drummer Aynsley Dunbar (Journey/Jeff Beck/Frank Zappa). More importantly, instead of continuing on in the same musical direction, the band smartly hardened its sound and released one of its best albums.

Freedom at Point Zero included the mega-hit “Jane,” along with the pounding and straightforward “Rock Music,” the beautiful ballad “Fading Lady Light,” and the kick-ass AOR gems “Just The Same” and the almost-proggish “Awakening,” which all showcase Mickey’s exceptional, breathtaking vocals. Incidentally, I also found it quite impressive that, in many respects—especially when the band employed its trademarked “Jefferson Airplane-ish” gang-vocal singing style on songs such as “Girl With the Hungry Eyes,” “Things To Come,” “Lightning Rose,” and the title track (which strongly reminds me of the band’s previously released “Ride The Tiger”)—Mickey Thomas, with his wide range, sounds almost exactly like Grace Slick, making her absence less “stinging” overall for longtime fans of the group who missed her presence.

Be that as it may, this album thankfully rejuvenated the band and became the first in another series of highly successful albums (with Grace happily returning to the fold on the next release). Both this album, as well as Modern Times (released two years later), are probably my favorite albums from the group, no matter its various incarnations.

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Bad Dreams – Apocalypse of the Mercy (2015)

BadDreams_ApocalypseMercy4 out of 5 Stars!

Bad Dreams is a new band from Argentina that plays rather engaging Progressive Rock of the Neo-Prog variety. In many ways, the band reminds me of a cross between groups such as IQ, Also Eden, or Pallas, but with some of the mellower and ethereal aspects of Pink Floyd or Moonrise popping up on occasion.

Now, generally speaking in regards to the six tracks on offer here, there is certainly nothing original when it comes to the band’s style or sound—in other words, there are absolutely no barriers broken in the name of Progressive Rock overall—but the band’s music is always well-performed, seasoned, grand, and sophisticated in both instrumentation and songwriting, and exceptionally melodic, yet occasionally moody during various segments of numerous tracks.

Upon first listen, it appeared that various keyboards (both modern and vintage) seemed to dominate many of the songs, such as on the lengthy opening title track, the more commercial-sounding “Closer,” and the final “The Day Before Tomorrow,” whereas on other songs such as “A Good Man” and “The Hunters (Alien Statement About Men),” which feature some electrifying guitar solos, that guitars actually reigned supreme. But in retrospect (ie. my second, third, and fourth hearings of the album) I realized that the balance between keys and guitars is indeed quite equal, an optimal blend of instruments. Not to be forgotten, the rhythm section of the band admirably holds its own, providing an ultra-solid backbone throughout the proceedings, while the singer, with his clear and crisp tone along with his perfect English enunciation, has quite the captivating voice, reminding me of a complex merging of vocalists such as Peter Nicholls (IQ), Bret Douglas (Cairo), and Ted Leonard (Enchant/Thought Chamber/Spock’s Beard).

Unfortunately, the band’s name, Bad Dreams, is a tragic misnomer, since the group is anything but “bad,” and the music is hardly the soundtrack of nightmares. Instead, the group’s music is almost hypnotically enjoyable, and the musicians are wickedly talented, so I eagerly look forward to any future material Bad Dreams has in store.

So in short, Apocalypse of the Mercy is an album that, in my estimation, should appeal to a wide spectrum of Prog-Rock aficionados. Therefore, I encourage anyone interested in new Prog-Rock bands to investigate this release at your earliest convenience, and (hopefully) you will also savor the material offered here as much as I did.

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