Epidermis – Genius of Original Force (1977)

Epidermis_OriginalForce4 out of 5 Stars!

German band Epidermis released its four-song debut (and probably, its best album) in 1977, which contains a mixture of various Prog-Rock styles, some reminiscent of the more experimental bands of the era such as King Crimson or Grobschnitt. But when it comes to song arrangements and the instrumentation of numerous passages—the surprising inclusion of recorders, for example—and (especially) the vocals—often complex, with multiple counterpoint melody lines and harmonies—Gentle Giant instantly springs to mind.

In fact, the track “A Riddle to Myself” could have come straight off any Gentle Giant album, while the vocal sections on the eleven-plus-minute “Genius of Original Force” are eerily reminiscent of GG’s “On Reflection” from the Free Hand album mixed with some bits off the platter The Power and the Glory—only with Epidermis singing in its native language—while the instrumentation seems to mimic the style of GG’s In A Glass House release.

So for Prog-Rock fans who revel in the Gentle Giant sound and want to experience more of it, Genius of Original Force is an album you’ll certainly want to investigate.

 

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Epidermis_OriginalForce

 

Il Balletto di Bronzo – Ys (1972)

IlBalletto_Ys4 out of 5 Stars!

Ys, the second (and last from the ’70s) album by Italian band Il Balletto di Bronzo, is somewhat of a “freak show” when it comes to the Progressive Rock genre.

I can’t think of another band quite like this one—except for perhaps Jumbo, another Italian group with similar strangeness from the same era, or the modern-day band Regal Worm.

When it comes to “Introduzione”—the opening track, for instance—the listener is confronted by so many outlandish and eerie atmospheres, rhythm shifts, zany Moog, piano, and organ solos, fiery guitar fills, peculiar bass guitar melodies, and unorthodox vocal passages, all hurled at you seemingly at breakneck speed, that it’s virtually impossible to wrap your mind around, and savor, any one element of the music, requiring numerous replays in order to absorb the pure Avant-Prog insanity that passed by in the eleven-minute stretch.

Each one of the other three tracks delivers more of the same. The music is also heavily laced with Psychedelic effects, making the use of headphones/earbuds a wild, almost life-altering experience.

And the even stranger thing is that, for the most part, it works! Sure, some aspects of the eccentric performances, musical arrangements, and instrumentation take some getting used to—such as the almost demented lead vocals—but once your mind settles into the uniqueness of it all, the album actually grows on you.

Perhaps Ys is not a masterpiece, but it’s nearly so.

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Shaolin Death Squad – Shaolin Death Squad (2004)

ShaolinSquad_SDS4 out of 5 Stars!

From the state of Texas comes a truly bizarre band with an equally bizarre name, and even the individual band members take on bizarre personas (“The White Swan” on vocals and keys, “The Black Scorpion” on guitar, “Black Ninja” on drums, etc.) with all of them wearing masks to fit their alter egos. As I said, bizarre…but fun as hell.

Regardless, although the band’s style is often difficult to categorize, Shaolin Death Squad generally plays modern Prog-Rock with some Metal touches, incorporating a wide range of styles (including Zappa) into its music, which in many respects, reminds me of the early Art Rock albums by The Tubes, only with contemporary musical styles and influences vividly coloring the somewhat-theatrical vocal performances, song arrangements, and instrumentation.

Be that as it may, the band’s various studio releases—including this self-titled, six-track, thirty-minute debut EP—are highly creative, often experimental, well-performed, and quite enjoyable.

I wish Shaolin Death Squad (despite its name) a long and productive existence. 🙂

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Thieves’ Kitchen – Head (2000)

ThievesKitchen_Head4.5 out of 5 Stars

Head, the debut album from Britain’s Thieves’ Kitchen, is in many respects a full-out foray directly into Gentle Giant territory, with a singer (Simon Boys) who even sounds remarkably like Derek Shulman from the mighty Gentle Giant itself.

Here, on the five tracks included, such as the sixteen-minute “Mute” and (especially) on the nineteen-minute “T.A.N.U.S,” it’s almost shocking how often the musicians and vocalist seem determined to get as close to the harder-edged sound of, for instance, In A Glass House or Three Friends. Even on the album’s three short tunes—ie. only Prog-Rock lovers can deem songs between seven and eleven minutes in length as being “short,” right?—the GG similarities are on full display. Yet please note, as on the epic tracks, the music on “Time,” “The Return of the Ultragravy,” and “Integrity” includes modernized instrumentation, certainly when it comes to the synths and the beefier guitar tones, therefore the band is by no means a direct GG rip-off, only that the GG comparisons are often striking. Nevertheless, despite the band’s influences, the material on Head is quite melodic and intricate, with grand song arrangements and orchestrations that feature altering tempos galore and expert musicianship at every turn, making for some savory Prog-Rock material and giving the band its own style.

Now, please note, if delving into this band’s back catalogue of releases, Head and the second album, 2001’s Argot, are quite similar in sound and scope. But in 2002, a second incarnation of the band began after Simon Boys left the group, only to be replaced by an impressive female vocalist named Amy Darby, which obviously altered the group’s overall sound. Nowadays, Thieves’ Kitchen no longer has many Gentle Giant influences, yet each new album since 2003’s Shibboleth is equally impressive with Ms. Darby behind the microphone.

Therefore, whatever the incarnation of the group, Thieves’ Kitchen is a band truly worthy of investigation for any Prog-Rock fanatic seeking intriguing music with elaborate arrangements and top-tier performances by all involved.

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Area – Arbeit Macht Frei (1973)

Area_ArbeitMachtFrei4 out of 5 Stars!

From Italy, Area played Prog-Rock that often dove into Avant-Garde territory, almost like a heavier version of Canterbury-style Prog, with highly dramatic vocals.

On Arbeit Macht Frei, the jazzier aspects of the band (those appearing on the title track, “240 Chilometri Da Smirne,” and “Consapevolezza,” where wild, jamming sax, numerous tempo shifts, and creative synth, guitar, and bass riffs keep things really popping) occasionally remind me of Zappa’s Hot Rats period, whereas other tracks (such as “L’abbattimento Dello Zeppelin,” “Luglio, Agosto, Settembre (Nero),” and “Le Labbra Del Tempo”) seem to take those same jazz aspects and merge them with a few Gentle Giant, King Crimson, or PFM influences and add a healthy dose of adrenaline to the mix, making for some wackier Prog and, therefore, creating a unique style for the band.

Although I’m unfamiliar with the majority of Area’s output from the latter half of the ’70s, and the band’s periodic releases afterward, the debut Arbeit Macht Frei (and the follow-up release Caution Radiation Area) are treks along fairly strange and imaginative pathways, and would likely appeal to lovers of offbeat music who enjoy a massive injection of free-form Jazz mixed with their Prog-Rock.

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Témpano – Nowhere Now Here (2016)

Tempano_NowhereNowHere4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve been a fan of Témpano, a Prog-Rock band from Venezuela, for only the past few years, having finally discovered the joys of the band’s 1979 debut (Atabal Yemal) thanks to a friend who thought I might enjoy the band’s experimental style. On its debut, Témpano reminded me of groups as diverse as Area, Nathan Mahl, Gentle Giant, Colosseum II, Frank Zappa, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Return To Forever, artists willing to twist the norms and generate intriguing melodies among odd time shifts and inventive, often Avant-Garde instrumentation.

Thankfully, Témpano not only continues to exist and flourish, but has considerably extended its musical growth, as shown on its latest release, Nowhere Now Here. Certainly, much of the music offered here is of the same high caliber and fascinating variety as the band’s “early days,” but there are also several noticeable differences…

For one, the lyrics are now exclusively in English.

And two, the production is much richer, with the band successfully taking full advantage of modern studio techniques and equipment.

And three, the material (although still Jazzy in places, still bordering on Avant-Prog on many of the instrumental tracks—or even on one wonderfully twisted vocal track called “When Opposites Meet,” my absolute favorite) is a bit more accessible to the average listener. Indeed, a handful of tunes—”The Night Before the End,” “Daylight Moon,” “Whisper of the Blade,” and “Acrobat Citizens”—contain straightforward vocal melodies surrounded by Prog instrumentation, reminding me of some modern-day Prog-Rock/AOR groups with a Jazz-Rock flavor—thanks to the occasional sax insertions and dreamy atmospheres—such as the exceptional Moonrise.

Yet Témpano is nothing if not creative when it comes to popping in strange percussion accents or intriguing rhythms, flashy synth or guitar blasts that shock the system, so even those more accessible AOR-leaning tunes are full of happy surprises both large and small, and I reveled in all of them.

I’ve decided that, since the band are undoubtedly masters of Prog-Rock and do their native country proud, if I had my druthers, I’d direct that a statue be erected in the center of Caracas in their honor. This band is highly worthy of investigation for all Prog-Rock lovers, especially those who like some added experimentation and pizzazz.

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Homunculus Res – Come si diventa ciò che si era (2015)

HomunculusRes_ComeSi3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Homunculus Res is a newer group from Italy that has thus far released two enjoyable albums where the music—heavily jazz-influenced Prog Rock—strongly harkens back to the 1970’s Canterbury music scene in England (or, for that matter, Italy’s more eclectic Picchio dal Pozzo from the late ’70s).

Indeed, were it not for the Italian vocals that occasionally pop up here, one might think they had stumbled upon some forgotten tracks by a British group such as Caravan, National Health, Egg, or Hatfield and the North, especially when Homunculus Res uses vintage keyboards to help forge its sound—what seems like everything from Arps to Moogs to Farfisas to Wurlitzers—and has a full-time sax/woodwinds player and some additional brass “guest instrumentalists” to add to the creative, bright, vibrant, and periodic wackiness of the material.

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Panzerpappa – Pestrottedans (2016)

Panzerpappa_Pestrottedans3.5 out of 5 Stars!

From Norway, Panzerpappa is a highly talented instrumental band that’s been around since the late ’90s, playing some occasionally adventurous and well-performed Progressive Rock with frequent forays into Avant-Prog territory.

In truth, some of the music seems reminiscent of groups such as Dixie Dregs, King Crimson, or even Gentle Giant, only with an updated sound. Furthermore, some jazzy Canterbury Prog influences pop in from time to time, hinting at both Caravan and Hatfield And The North.

Overall, Pestrottedans, the band’s sixth and most recent studio album, is a pleasant and entertaining experience.

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Shamblemaths – Shamblemaths (2016)

Shamblemaths_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Well, hot damn, this release had my jaw plummeting to the ground long before the first of the three lengthy tracks, the twenty-seven minute “Conglomeration (Or: The Grand Pathetic Suite),” had even neared its midpoint. The nine-and-a-half minute “A Failing Ember” and the twenty-minute closer “Stalker” affected me the same way—pure joy and amazement.

Frankly, the debut album by Norway’s Shamblemaths is a wild and wicked trek along countless Prog-Rock roads, and never taking the straight path from one destination to another. Instead, the band whisks the listener along typically adventurous and occasionally familiar avenues (Neo-Prog, Avant-Prog, Symphonic Prog, Jazz-Fusion) yet with abrupt side trips through numerous alleyways that connect each and every one of these main thoroughfares, making for some bizarre twists and turns, often at breakneck pace, enough to bring about the onset of musical whiplash!

So, for Prog-Rock fans who want to experience an enjoyable jaunt along the sinuous and detour-laden boulevards of creativity, this is one album you’ll likely appreciate and applaud as much as I do.

Just make sure your seat belt is firmly secured and hang on tight…

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Van der Graaf Generator – Pawn Hearts (1971)

vandergraaf_pawnhearts4.5 out of 5 Stars!

This is one of my favorite Van der Graaf Generator albums, and (in my estimation) one of the band’s most wild and experimental.

Peter Hammill’s vocals are especially manic on the band’s fourth release, while the music on the three epic (and original) album tracks—”Lemmings (Including Cog),” “Man-Erg,” and the twenty-three-minute “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”—is often dark, atmospheric, and (at times) downright creepy…certainly not for the faint of heart or for Prog-Rock fans who prefer pretty melodies or gentle instrumentation. Nope, the ever-changing rhythms, the screeching saxes, the whacked-out keyboards and discordant guitar arrangements, and those damned demented lead vocals, all seem strategically designed to set the listener’s hair on end, to send shivers down the spine. And if that was the band’s intention, then Van der Graaf Generator succeeded admirably. I love it!

By the way, the remastered version of the album contains five bonus tracks, which are welcome additions, although they aren’t quite in the same spooky “Stephen King soundtrack” vein as the original album. These five tracks are fairly “normal,” or as normal as an experimental Prog group such as Van der Graaf Generator can muster. Regardless, this is the version of the album to seek out.

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