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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Van der Graaf Generator – Godbluff (1975)

VanDerGraaf_Godbluff4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 1971, Van der Graaf Generator released Pawn Hearts, a masterpiece of an album and probably my favorite in the group’s catalogue. But even through the band’s reputation and popularity seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds on the Prog-Rock scene, the group surprisingly disbanded, with leader Peter Hammill deciding to concentrate on a solo career in lieu of keeping the band together. Thankfully, and much to the thrill of many fans, Hammill resurrected the band several years later, and Godbluff popped up shortly thereafter. To my ears, the album proved to be yet another masterpiece, a collection of four complex tracks that certainly matched Pawn Hearts in regards to creativity, moodiness, and technical proficiency, so easily it remains my second favorite of the band’s works and the one I still play as often.

Now, compared to Pawn Hearts, this collection of tunes is almost as musically creepy, almost as wickedly demented, but a touch more straightforward (that is, if one can consider anything released by Van der Graaf Generator during the band’s early years as being “straightforward”) and more jazz-inspired. Included on this album are the classic tracks “Scorched Earth” and “The Sleepwalkers,” the songs that initially enticed me to further investigate this group in the mid-’70s, and causing me to fall in love with Van der Graaf Generator’s overall strangeness. “The Undercover Man” and “Arrow” are equally as enticing, and offer up even more weird and wonderful, dark and dastardly fun, clearly showing Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton, and Guy Evans in tip-top form, while David Jackson’s exceptional and unusual saxophone performances act as the icing on the already wacky cake.

So to me, Godbluff (as well as the previous Pawn Hearts) is definitely a “bucket list” album, one collection that every Prog-Rock fan should experience before they die.

(Additional note: To read my short review of Pawn Hearts, click here.)

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East Of Eden – Snafu (1970)

EastEden_Snafu4 out of 5 Stars!

From out of the U.K., East Of Eden’s sophomore album Snafu, like its predecessor, is a blending of Progressive Rock and some jazzy and wacky Avant-Prog, even Blues-based Psychedelic Rock, with guitars and bass diddling and twiddling, with flutes fluttering and saxes wailing and trumpets harping and violins screeching and percussion occasionally clanging and banging at the oddest of times.

Certainly, a few of the tunes here are fairly “normal,” where the band plays relatively “straight” full-out rock and roll, such as on the short opener “Have To Whack It Up” or the bonus tunes “Biffin Bridge,” or “Blue Boar Blues,” where the band comes off as almost an early Jethro Tull or Blodwyn Pig imitator. But then, sounds and styles quite similar to groups such as King Crimson and Gentle Giant seem to come into play on compositions like “Leaping Beauties for Rudy / Marcus Junior” and “Nymphenburger,” where East of Eden adds wild Avant-Prog or Jazz-Rock elements. Moreover, on “Xhorkom / Ramadhan / In the Snow for a Blow” and “Gum Arabic / Confucius,” Middle Eastern atmospheres and rhythms infiltrate a portion of the songs before the band heads back into more traditional Jazz-Rock territory, occasionally reminding me of Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats period. And then, there are other tracks, such as “Uno Transito Clapori” and portions of “Habibi Baby / Beast of Sweden / Boehm Constrictor,” that are just plain bizarre and experimental, sort of in the same relative musical sphere as Amon Düül II or Can.

By the way, if hunting for this album, it’s worth the effort to seek out the copy of the remastered version that includes numerous bonus tracks—a few additional songs that either didn’t make the actual release and some alternate versions of the tunes from the album-proper. These include the rocking and fiddling “Jig-a-Jig” (released as a single, if you can believe it), the rather catchy yet Symphonically Proggish “Petite Fille” (where the string orchestration reminds me of The Beatles’s “Eleanor Rigby”), as well as the aforementioned “Blue Boar Blues” (which is a definite highlight for me).

But like the music of Frank Zappa and the other bands mentioned throughout this review, the strangeness of Snafu as a whole, the experimental sounds, the extended free-form jamming passages mixed with solid Jazz-Fusion, just somehow seems to work, as if by magic. Therefore, Snafu—as well as East of Eden’s debut album Mercator Projected—is recommended for Prog-Rock fans who yearn for something a bit off-the-wall and adventurous.

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Passport – Cross-Collateral (1975)

Passport_Cross4 out of 5 Stars!

Since its formation in Germany back in 1970, Passport has been one of the best (mostly) instrumental Jazz-Fusion/Prog-Rock bands (and one of the longest-lasting bands in the genre) to have emerged. The material is ultra-professional (well-performed and well-produced), and the albums (especially those from the 1970s, like Cross-Collateral) are typically highly rated by many fans of the group and are some of my favorites in the genre.

Even way back in 1975 on Cross-Collateral, it’s abundantly clear that Klaus Doldinger (on sax, flute, and keyboards, including Moog and Mellotron) is masterful at his craft. The man’s woodwind solos always soar wildly with jazzy melodies, while his keyboards add the perfect spacey and ethereal atmospheres to tracks such as “Homunculus,” “Albatros Song,” and the blazing and lengthy title track.

Plus, the other musicians throughout history who’ve appeared on Passport albums also deserve high praise, especially those who perform on this release. Kristian Schultze’s Fender Rhodes piano contributions, sometimes wonderfully mellow as shown on “Damals” and the aforementioned “Albatros Song,” always add sparkle and structure, while Wolfgang Schmid’s nimble and melodic bass lines and Curt Cress’s always tight, slamming, and often-funky percussion energize tunes such as “Jadoo,” “Will-O’The-Wisp,” and “Cross-Collateral,” making for a seamless merging of Prog-Rock and Jazz Fusion.

As I mentioned, the band stands at the head of this particular sub-genre of Prog-Rock, falling along the same “high-quality” lines set by groups such as Brand X, Weather Report, Return To Forever, and Frank Zappa (his jazzier releases). Passport is top-class all the way!

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Frank Zappa – Sheik Yerbouti (1979)

Zappa_Sheik4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I state unequivocally, I love this double-album collection by the legendary Frank Zappa for three main reasons…

#1: To me, Zappa became a musical GOD the moment I first heard the album Hot Rats. The man not only shredded on guitar, churned out fresh and typically above-average material on a shockingly regular basis, and was a musical genius when it came to songwriting and scoring in a wide variety of genres. He was, in a word, brilliant.

#2: This collection of tracks is one of Zappa’s most creative and, in all cases with his music, is wonderfully performed by every musician involved.

And #3: Personal amusement…and now, it’s flashback time…

Way, way back in 1979, I was working at a local record store (remember those, folks?) and one day we received a shipment of albums marked “PROMO,” including Sheik Yerbouti. The general rule, as my annoyingly prudish manager (so tight-assed you couldn’t pry a needle out of her butt even when using a tractor) had drilled into my head and those of my co-workers, was to immediately take ALL new “PROMO” albums (regardless of our personal musical tastes) and, throughout the week, play them repeatedly over the store’s sound system, thus encouraging customer purchases. (This rule was—and I quote her exact words—”A MUST! No excuses to do otherwise or face the consequences!”)

So I did as I was ordered, and during one of my shifts, promptly placed this album into the usual “weekly rotation.” Well, imagine my manager’s already pale face when the track “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” came blasting out of the wall speakers during prime shopping hours on a Saturday afternoon.

Well, let me tell you, I about pissed myself freaking silly when she actually wobbled on her skinny legs when hearing the most sardonic (okay, wickedly crude) Zappa lyrics. Needless to say, she was NOT happy with me or the other employees for “following HER rules,” and for that utterly delicious moment in my personal history alone, I placed Zappa at the top of my “Music To Freak Out The ‘Suits'” Category, and (miraculously) adored him even more than I thought humanly possible.

Therefore, this album, which contains not only the hilarious “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” track, but other zany, satirical, and classic ditties such as “Flakes,” “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” “City of Tiny Lites,” “Dancin’ Fool,” “Jewish Princess,” and “Yo Mama,” plus stunning guitar showcases such as “Rat Tomago,” will always hold a special place in my heart since it not only displays Zappa and his group at their creative best, but instantly brings to mind that magnificent Saturday afternoon at the record store.

By the way, a quick FYI…remember that store manager I mentioned? Well, she finally recovered from her shock at hearing the “A” word, then canned every single employee (including myself) several weeks later, turned the shop into a “religious-music-only” store while hiring fellow church members to replace us, and ultimately put the store out of business within two short months. Karma’s a bitch, and Zappa Rules! Oh, and most importantly, I swiped that “PROMO” copy of Sheik Yerbouti from the “to be returned” bin when I picked up my final paycheck and have cherished it ever since.

And RIP to the magnificent Frank Zappa (1940-1993), who is sorely missed.

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The Brecker Brothers – The Brecker Bros. (1975)

BreckerBros_14 out of 5 Stars!

Randy Brecker’s time with the original line-up of Blood, Sweat & Tears proved short-lived unfortunately, and I heard nothing more significant from this talented trumpeter until he joined up with brother Michael (sax) in another fleeting group called Dreams (which also included ace drummer Billy Cobham).

Eventually, however, the siblings found a more permanent gig for themselves by forming The Brecker Brothers, which released its first album back in ’75.

Certainly initial comparisons to Blood, Sweat & Tears are understandable, but instead of sticking to strictly Jazz-Rock, the band also injected a healthy dose of Funk into its overall style. Heck, the vigorous and buoyant opening track is called “Some Skunk Funk”—which lives up to its name, by the way—and other flamboyant ditties such as “Twilight,” “Rocks,” “A Creature of Many Faces,” and “Sneakin’ Up Behind You” occasionally toss more Funk influences into the sophisticated song arrangements, although often blended with Jazz, Soul, and even Progressive Rock due to their general complexity. Thus, the debut album by The Brecker Brothers becomes almost a melding of Blood, Sweat & Tears with Tower of Power, only a mostly instrumental version of such.

Regardless, this debut, featuring—as one would expect—an impressive blaring-and-blazing horn section (the brothers along with the legendary David Sanborn on alto sax), plus a stunning array of Jazz-oriented backing musicians, is a thoroughly energetic and enjoyable affair, not only for “brass enthusiasts” like myself, but also for those who delight in often-intricate Jazz-Fusion material.

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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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Puzzle – Puzzle (1973)

Puzzle_14 out of 5 Stars!

Is there anyone besides me who remembers this group? When hunting through my album collection not long ago, I yanked out the two platters by an extremely obscure band from Chi-town named Puzzle.

Now, I hadn’t heard these albums for decades, yet the moment I reviewed the song titles listed on the back covers, snippets of “tune memories” immediately raced through my mind and I itched to revisit these collections again.

Now, despite the band including a horn section, a rarity in and of itself, Puzzle truly offered nothing revolutionary in the Jazz-Rock/Jazz Fusion world. Indeed, the band sounded remarkably like Chicago, even featuring a lead singer (the band’s drummer) with a voice similar to Robert Lamm’s. Although since Puzzle did not include a trombonist, but two trumpeters and a sax player, the brass section is thinner—not as round or as full without the trombone—setting it apart from Chicago’s signature brass sound. Plus, groups such as Chicago, Ides of March, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Chase had already been around for several years before Puzzle popped onto the scene, so again, the band offered nothing truly unique.

Still, the band had potential, and on its debut album, produced catchy, well-arranged material featuring wailing brass such as “On With the Show,” “You Make Me Happy,” “It’s Not the Last Time,” “Brand New World,” “Lady,” “Suite Delirium,” and the intriguing instrumental “The Grosso.”

Personally, I prefer Puzzle’s self-titled debut since the sophomore effort (boringly christened The Second Album) had a lesser emphasis on the brass instruments, yet Jazz-Rock lovers (especially those who enjoyed Chicago’s earliest albums and songs in the style of “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Saturday in the Park,” or “Beginnings”) will likely find some satisfying material on either platter (both of which appeared, oddly enough, on the Motown label).

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Gecko’s Tear – Primati (2016)

GeckosTear_Primati3.5 out of 5 Stars!

A decade after Italy’s Gecko’s Tear released its rather weird and impressive debut album Contradiction, the band finally returned in 2016 with a brand new album called Primati.

Like the first album, Primati includes some rather strange and complex material, a combination of Prog-Rock with a load of avant-garde arrangements, time signature shifts, awesomely bizarre vocal interplay (as on the track “Preambolo”), and highly creative instrumentation, bringing to mind the more Jazz Fusion albums by acts such as Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention and Frogg Café, along with other groups from Italy such as PFM, D.F.A., Jumbo, and Area.

And if memory serves me correctly, please also note, unlike the debut album, all lyrics on this second release are in the band’s native language.

Be that as it may, the tunes on Primati are often wild and wacky, definitely different from the norm and geared toward the more adventurous Prog-Rock listener who savors endless yet euphonious twists and turns and unpredictability in their music.

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Zen Carnival – Lucid Dreamer (2015)

ZenCarnival_LucidDreamer3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Lucid Dreamer, the third and latest album from Zen Carnival, contains touches of various Prog-Rock sub-categories such as Avant-Prog and Jazz-Fusion along with Neo-Prog and Symphonic Prog, yet with also a healthy dose of straight-up AOR and Pop Rock when it comes to several vocal melody lines, such as the catchy closing track, “Love is the New Way.”

Overall, the music on Lucid Dreamer, which incorporates a pleasant variety of keyboards (including Mellotron), both aggressive/mellow and electric/acoustic guitars, plus mostly upbeat and often-punchy rhythms, occasionally reminds me of the more poppier side of groups such as Camel and Caravan with some quirkier instrumentation (as on “Medieval Suite,” for example) that would seem right at home on albums by Gentle Giant or Spock’s Beard.

A fun album from a promising group!

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