City of the Sun
10t Records, 10T10078 (2014)
Back in 1989, I was certain that progressive rock was dead. I had a fairly decent view of the landscape back then, as I was publishing a monthly newsletter on the genre entitled On Reflection. Though it wasn’t the reason I started the venture, one of the biggest perks was that labels and bands sent me their wares to review. Unfortunately, it was the quality of those wares that led me to believe that prog had indeed fossilized into the dinosaur remains predicted more than 10 years earlier when punk took hold. Simply put, most of the recordings were awful.
It wasn’t so much that the musicians didn’t have chops, manly of them were quite talented. The problem was that they were not progressive. They didn’t just wear their influences on their sleeves, they draped them over three-piece suits. There were bands that sounded just like Genesis, or just like Yes, or just like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. If a band had the courage to attempt to sound just like more complex outfits like Gentle Giant and King Crimson, I would give them points for effort, but they were justifiably few in number.
It got so bad that I eventually shut down the newsletter and plunged myself into the healing waters of jazz, where the musicianship was even more impressive, the idea of blatantly copying another musician or group was anathema, and the music was heartfelt and honest – with no Taurus bass pedals, no ridiculous lyrics, and no capes.
In the ensuing years, I have continued to enjoy the prog that I always liked and have been downright suspicious of any modern attempts to wave the banner. I have written features and CD reviews for Progression magazine (which, incidentally, was originally launched as a continuation of On Reflection by one of my subscribers, with my blessing and assistance) since 2010, and while no 21st-century progressive band has joined my personal Mount Progmore, I do realize that there are artists doing interesting things with the tools and technologies now available, who have a couple more decades of influences to absorb, and who are facing an even more hostile recording industry.
So perhaps my heart has softened, perhaps I have become more sentimental and nostalgic, perhaps I have left my guard down, but I do now acknowledge that prog has a pulse left. Even so, nothing could prepare me for City of the Sun, the debut album of Los Angeles-based Heliopolis, which I have to say is freaking awesome!
At the outset, they have all the trappings of prog-chic: a cosmic name; a five-piece lineup with wailing lead vocalist and hot-shot guitarist, keyboardist, bass, and drummer; and suite-like songs in excess of 10 minutes in length. A Theremin even appears, played by Probyn Gregory of the Wondermints and Brian Wilson’s band (in the latter group it is he who plays the Theremin – actually a Tannerin – on “Good Vibrations”).
As for the music, well, it’s classic prog as well, and while influences are discernible (the opening suite, “New Frontier,” in addition to sharing a title with a Donald Fagen composition, starts off with Crimson-esque crunch and cacophony, and once the vocals appear the composition ends up sounding like it could have borne the credits of Lee, Lifeson, Peart), there are no slavish imitations of anything that came before. Rather, there is a rich diversity of moods, tempos, and arrangements, where pop overtones and reflective balladry meld smoothly with jazz fusion and hard rock. For example, the six-minute “Elegy,” dedicated to the late singer/drummer Shaun Guerin, is not in the least bit funereal, unless you’re talking about a Viking funeral. This track has energy and passion to spare.
As for the players themselves, the high tenor vocals of Scott Jones are more Steve Hogarth than Greg Lake, and his articulation and emotion make the words worth listening to. With drummer Jerry Beller, keyboardist Matt Brown, and bassist Kerry Chicoine supplying harmony vocals, the voice component of the musical mix is thoughtfully and effectively deployed throughout.
On multiple keyboards, Brown supplies a wide range of compelling sounds and textures. With a focus on evocative musical expression, he is not one to supply aimless synth washes or death-ray flares; rather, he uses interesting voicings to complement what I would call “real” playing, as on his funky/jazzy solo on “Elegy” or his spacy but substantial solo on the 14-minute closer, “Love and Inspiration.”
The “rhythm section” is typically more a topic for discussion in jazz than in prog, where in many cases the bassist and the drummer act as competing soloists rather than as collaborating cogs in a unified rhythmic system. Chicoine and Beller defy that characterization, deftly executing sudden tempo shifts and providing exactly what the complex music requires to keep from falling apart – along with ample opportunities to add exciting filigrees.
Guitarist Matier eschews the prog stereotypes of pretzel fingers and faux classical renderings, preferring to wring a mix of intensity and lyricism from his instruments, playing metal power chords one moment and soaring, melodic solos that get under your skin and drill intro your brain the next. On the short, Rundgren-esque Mr. Wishbone, Matier plays all the instruments except drums.
My personal favorite track on the album (with five tracks in all, the CD clocks in at a respectable 42:48) is the second, the nearly-nine-minute “Take a Moment.” Musical and lyrical drama and intrigue are built through an ascending vocal line, frequently shifting tempos and dynamics, and powerful solos from Brown and Matier. The lyrics includes the following lines:
Life’s but a journey
Never ending, Just unfolding
Always happening the way that it should be
Grudgingly, I have to admit that the same could apply to progressive rock, even in 2014. I guess I have Heliopolis to thank (or blame) for that.