Egg – The Civil Surface (1974)

Egg_CivilSurface3.5 out of 5 Stars!

When The Civil Surface appeared in 1974, it ended up being the third and (sadly) final album by the short-lived Egg, a sort of “retrospective supergroup” of the Prog-Rock/Canterbury Scene that featured keyboardist Dave Stewart, bassist Mont Campbell, and percussionist Clive Brooks—basically, the group Arzachel only without guitarist Steve Hillage on board.

After releasing its first two albums in 1970/1971 and having record company dilemmas along the way, Egg inevitably disbanded, with the members moving on to join other bands, such as Hatfield and the North and Groundhogs. But the trio briefly reformed several years later, however, to create this swansong release, which incidentally enough, also included some contributions from Hillage as a “guest star.”

From my understanding, many (if not all) of the mostly instrumental tracks included in this “reunion collection” were actually leftovers from the trio’s early years, compositions the group had performed during its concerts but—because of the record company woes—never got around to recording while Egg was in regular operation. But no matter the artist or the genre in which they operate, typically when it comes down to tracks considered “leftovers,” a few of them probably shouldn’t ever see the light of day, whereas others occasionally shine. The same is the case with this particular collection.

The longest compositions, the more sportive and intricate “Germ Patrol,” “Wring Out the Ground (Loosely Now),” and “Enneagram,” are pure gold in my opinion, generally matching the same lofty heights of inventiveness as the material that appeared on Egg’s first two albums. Yet on the other hand, most of the shorter tracks don’t come even close to equaling the same imaginative charm as the band’s earlier output. “Wind Quartet I” and “Wind Quartet II” are basically drawn-out exercises in Chamber Music featuring (no shock) woodwinds, and, in truth, bore me to tears. Then there’s the organ-heavy “Prelude,” another bland affair, but saved from being a total disaster in the middle section where guest female vocalists create pretty harmonies, which add a modicum of sparkle. Only “Nearch” offered up a bit of experimental verve to hold my interest, but unfortunately, still seemed way too underwhelming, especially for a band with an otherwise ingenious character.

Therefore, although not as intriguing as the prior albums thanks to a handful of tracks, The Civil Surface was nevertheless a welcome addition to the band’s legacy. And the longer tunes mentioned above include plenty of the same unexpected avant-garde whimsy, jazzy Proginess, and overall mesmerizing creativity that made Egg so delectable in the first place.

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Fruupp – Modern Masquerades (1975)

Fruupp_ModernMasquerades3.5 out of 5 Stars!

With its more laid-back delivery and frequent pastoral tendencies, and its inclusion of Folk, Jazz, Classical, and even a hint of Cabaret into its sound, Ireland’s Fruupp often reminded me of a cross between Symphonic-Prog groups such as Camel, Barclay James Harvest, and early Genesis, with more than a few touches of Caravan, Flash, Supertramp, and Grobschnitt included. Never mind-blowing or ground-breaking in any respect, the group did nevertheless release four rather enjoyable albums in the early ’70s before disappearing, with Modern Masquerades being Fruupp’s final studio effort and (to me) probably its best.

Yet when listening to this album (or any of Fruupp’s releases, for that matter) I can’t help thinking that being devoid of a strong singer with an instantly recognizable voice, as well as not possessing some instrumental “quirk” or a unique overall style, held Fruupp back from achieving greater popularity, and thus, the group remains highly obscure in most Prog-Rock circles.

Regardless, fans of the aforementioned bands who are unfamiliar with this oddly named outfit might savor much of its material, including Modern Masquerades. Here, tracks such as the upbeat and dramatic “Masquerading With Dawn,” the blazing and manic “Mystery Night,” the Mellotron-enhanced and luscious “Misty Morning Way,” the tempo-shifting and highly complex “Sheba’s Song,” and the lengthier Canterbury-like composition “Gormenghast,” offer occasionally whimsical and symphonic fare similar to the groups I mentioned above and show the gamut of Fruupp’s full potential. Moreover, King Crimson’s Ian McDonald not only produced this collection of tracks, but guested on the album as well, with his sax contributions adding to the periodic Canterbury-Prog style, while a gaggle of French horn players tooted out some orchestrations as well, adding to the richness of the short, quirky, Pop-like ditty entitled “Janet Planet.”

Now for a brief, non-musical aside…

Is there anyone who remembers the wild, multi-dimensional character of Janet “From Another Planet” Green—the shy accountant who became a psycho villain and held her sister Natalie captive in a well and impersonated her for months, then for a time (when taking her meds) turned borderline heroine, then (when going off her meds once and for all) turned back into the wacky murderess everyone loved to hate—from the classic American soap opera All My Children? Anyway, every time I saw that character on TV—yes, I was addicted to the show for nearly three decades—I thought of “Janet Planet” from Fruupp. Amazing where the mind goes sometimes, huh?

Oops, my apologies for changing the subject. Now, back on my own meds and returning once again to Modern Masquerades

So, regarding this final Fruupp album—apart from the lead vocals, which I find limited, somewhat lackluster, and a tad off-key in sections, and one filler tune (the piano and vocal-only piece “Why”) that could have easily been eliminated, there’s nothing truly off-putting on display here. Indeed, I’m almost certain that lovers of Prog-Rock created in the mid-’70s will find much on Modern Masquerades to embrace.

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Caravan – Cunning Stunts (1975)

Caravan_CunningStunts4 out of 5 Stars!

Although Caravan’s Cunning Stunts, the group’s sixth studio effort, is actually more straightforward and commercial when it came to its melodies and song arrangements, its sound more Symphonic Prog in nature, much less “Canterbury Jazz-oriented,” with diminished humor compared to previous albums, the album is still a rather enjoyable release, once you get past the band’s shift in style/approach.

Indeed, once I did, I found myself playing this album more and more through the years, savoring much of the laid-back and somewhat catchy material, and finally coming to appreciate Caravan’s altered direction.

Certainly, Cunning Stunts (love the naughty play on words) is nowhere close to being my preferred Caravan album (nothing can beat 1971’s brilliant In the Land of Grey and Pink), but with the fun and creative eighteen-minute, multi-part epic “The Dabsong Conshirtoe” included, along with more Pop-oriented, gentler Symphonic fare such as “No Backstage Pass,” “Show of Our Lives,” “Welcome the Day,” and “Stuck in a Hole,” this album is certainly far better than the majority of the group’s more lackluster (ie. sell-out) mainstream material that dominated the band’s albums during the late-’70s and onward.

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Promenade – Noi al dir di Noi (2016)

Promenade_NoiAlDirDiNoi4 out of 5 Stars!

From Italy, Promenade’s debut album includes some fun and wicked musical gymnastics on the opening track “Athletics” alone.

Actually, the band’s forays into Jazz-Rock and Avant-Prog territories remind me of the old Canterbury style of Prog-Rock, especially with the inclusion of wailing saxes, exciting rhythm shifts, and dexterous keyboard and guitar runs throughout.

Moreover, with some medieval-sounding instrumentation, the ghosts of both Gentle Giant and Gryphon also rear their beautiful heads on occasion, especially on the track “Roccoco.”

Therefore, Prog fans will find some fascinating material on offer here, which could allow Promenade to build a dedicated legion of fans.

There is, however, one major problem I foresee in the group achieving greater notoriety with this debut release—the cover layout. Certainly, the artwork is dazzling, yet it’s typically considered a good marketing strategy to have the band’s NAME/LOGO and the collection’s title actually displayed on the cover itself…somewhere…hello? Just a friendly suggestion to the record company… 🙂

Regardless, Italy’s Promenade—including Matteo Barisone (Keyboards/Vocals), Gianluca Barisone (Guitar), Stefano Scarella (Bass/Sax), and Simone Scala (Percussion)—is a promising young band and deserves some attention from Prog-Rock lovers.

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Khan – Space Shanty (1972)

Khan_SpaceShanty4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Space Shanty is a terrific one-off album from Khan, a short-lived “supergroup” from the U.K. that included lauded and legendary guitarist Steve Hillage (Gong/Arzachel), bassist Nick Greenwood (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown), and keyboardist David L. Stewart (Egg/National Health/Hatfield and the North).

The album is nothing less than a giant caldron bubbling with Canterbury-Prog magic, with only six tracks in total, including “Mixed Up Man of the Mountains,” “Hollow Stone (inc. Escape of the Space Pilots),” “Driving to Amsterdam,” and the wonderful opening title track, officially known as “Space Shanty (inc. The Cobalt Sequence and the March of the Sine Squadrons).” But each tune is crammed with megatons of creativity, haunting melodies, both heavy and lighter passages, some Space Rock atmospheres, and inspired instrumentation. For those who may be unfamiliar with the often-jazzy and occasionally quirky “Canterbury Scene” Progressive Rock sub-genre, then Space Shanty is an album that will more than likely get you hooked.

I can’t help but wonder what Khan might have achieved had it stayed together longer, but thankfully, it left behind at least one enduring masterpiece.

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Gong – You (1974)

Gong_You4 out of 5 Stars!

I’ll admit, I’ve always had a bit of a Love/Hate relationship with Gong, loving much of the French group’s excursions into Canterbury Prog and Jazz-Rock territory, but hating (or rather, “not fully embracing,” since “hate” is too strong a word) much of the silliness that appears on some of its albums, like the hippy-dippy-trippy Psychedelic ingredients that occasionally seem to go on too long, and the spacier, free-form elements that sometimes seem more “endless, boring noise” than actual “engaging music.”

Yet the one factor that has me continually revisiting this band’s early albums is undeniable—the masterful guitar work of Steve Hillage. I adore the man’s talent and his guitar tones, the way he creates a unique sound for himself and, thus, the band in general. And on You, the band’s sixth studio release, Hillage provides some wonderfully tasty solos and fills, especially on tracks such as “The Isle of Everywhere,” “Master Builder,” and “A Sprinkling of Clouds.” I also savor the group’s use of woodwinds and various percussion instruments, often bringing some of Frank Zappa’s best work to mind.

Therefore, I can usually put up with the aforementioned hippy-dippy-trippy Psych and Space Rock experimentation as long as Hillage’s enjoyable guitar contributions, the creative woodwinds, and the exciting percussion remains at a higher percentage of an album’s overall content such as it does on this particular release, one of my favorites by the band.

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Ampledeed – BYOB (2016)

Ampledeed_BYOB4 out of 5 Stars!

Ampledeed is a newer Prog-Rock band from California, and on 2016’s BYOB—the band’s second album—the group created eclectic and engaging music with some strong Canterbury Prog and Jazz-Rock influences, among others, often bringing to mind legendary groups such as Caravan, Hatfield and the North, and National Health, only with a mixture of both classic and modern keyboard and guitar sounds/tones.

The instrumental passages are often elaborate, with dazzling musicianship on display, while the vocal tracks occasionally contain stacked harmonies of both male and female voices and tricky lead melody lines. Interestingly enough, I find that repeated hearings of BYOB always seem to magically reveal new elements, new sounds, new twists and turns in the instrumentation, that I somehow missed during previous plays.

Overall, this is fun and impressive material, highly imaginative and worthy of inspection for fans of the genre. By the way, a tip of the hat to Aaron Goldich, Luis Flores, Max Taylor, and the rest of the studio musicians for sharing their talents with the world. If the band continues to produce albums of this lofty caliber, Ampledeed is bound to make a reputable name for itself in the Prog-Rock community.

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The Tangent – A Place in the Queue (2006)

Tangent_PlaceQueue4 out of 5 Stars!

With guitarist Roine Stolt being involved with The Tangent in its formative years, this U.K. group at first seemed to me merely an offshoot of The Flower Kings, with the music being similar in many instances and just as engaging.

Yet, because of the jazzier passages that appear within many of its songs, The Tangent (expertly grounded and guided since its formation by keyboardist/vocalist Andy Tillison) occasionally seemed more influenced by the Canterbury Prog style as opposed to the Symphonic Prog style of, for example, groups such as Yes.

Regardless, A Place in the Queue (the band’s third studio release, and the first without Stolt on guitar) is a diverse collection of tracks. Most of the longer songs, such as “GPS Culture” or “Follow Your Leaders,” and the twenty-minute “In Earnest” as well as the twenty-five-minute “A Place in the Queue,” contain so many musical styles—from Symphonic Prog to Progressive Folk to Jazz-Rock to even a trace of Avant-Prog—it’s like musical whiplash trying to keep track of all the shifting sections and styles within each tune.

Then, on songs such as “Lost in London” and “DIY Surgery,” thanks mainly to the more prominent flutes and saxes plus the quirky nature of Tillison’s vocals, groups such as Caravan or Hatfield and the North pop into mind more frequently. But again, even the shorter tracks include passages with varied styles, so its always difficult to pinpoint specific outside influences for any one track, meaning that The Tangent (especially thanks to Tillison’s distinctive vocals and keyboard artistry) has developed a signature sound all its own.

So let’s just say that fans of acts such as The Flower Kings, Yes, Spock’s Beard, and Gentle Giant, for example, as well as the aforementioned Canterbury Prog groups will certainly appreciate much of the material on offer here. Indeed, A Place in the Queue will likely appeal to most Prog-Rock fans seeking beautiful melodies, song-arrangement complexity, and adept musicianship.

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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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Matching Mole – Little Red Record (1972)

MatchingMole_LittleRed4 out of 5 Stars!

Oh, man, those weird and wacky Canterbury Scene bands were always concocting rather exciting and (yes, on occasion) some goofy music in the Jazzy Prog-Rock style, huh? Gotta love them, right?

I sure did, and this album is no exception to the “weird and wacky” rule. On tunes such as “Marchides,” “Smoke Signal,” “Gloria Gloom,” “Nan True’s Hole,” “Flora Fidgit,” and “Brandy As In Benj,” Matching Mole shows itself as being one of the wilder and more experimental groups from the early ’70s, and not just when it came to selecting song titles. The stellar and swirling keyboard and guitar interplay make for a lively experience, while the ever-shifting time patterns also keep things hopping at breakneck speed, although I must admit that the vocals were not quite as enjoyable as, for instance, those provided by groups such as Caravan or Hatfield And The North. Nevertheless, the singing proved passable enough and did not detract from the group’s eclectic brilliance, but certainly added to the overall zaniness factor.

Nevertheless, the band delivered two impressive studio albums in 1972 before calling it a day, with each platter including enough off-the-wall strangeness to keep things really interesting. Well, this act was terrific fun while it lasted, and how I wished Matching Mole had stayed around much longer than only a single year.


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