Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to listen to many discs that have emanated out of the Canvas Productions studio. This is the latest and it’s called Troposphere consisting fifty minutes of music split into ten tracks ranging in length from just under four minutes (most of them are just over four) to as long as eight minutes. The most apt musical description I can come up with to describe the band’s musical style is Melodic-Prog or perhaps Prog-Lite. Now that shouldn’t be taken in a negative way as there is a solid level of musicianship on display here and it’s the kind of music that borrows a little from Steely Dan and a little from Barclay James Harvest. Some of the songs feature more proggy embellishments while others rely on traditional song structures and catchy melodies to rise to the surface. Either way these tunes are lovingly crafted to straddle that fine line of making even the more mainstream tunes be infused with some level of musicianship. It’s not always the longer songs that deliver a more proggy vibe though they are more complex in structure, the shorter four-minute tunes still offer up some interesting musical change-ups to keep things interesting. Take for example the instrumental “One Track Mind” [4:03] which displays a nice variety of musical layers of proggy-ness. Instrument wise there is some nice variety as well with plenty of keyboard and guitar tones on display. The feeling I got was that there was a lot of thought put into each of these pieces to get them to each sound unique and yet part of the larger sound. There is a lot of really nice playing throughout the whole CD. I found every one of these tunes enjoyable and satisfying and real easy to listen to over and over again. If you enjoy the music of either of the bands mentioned earlier I’m quite sure you’ll find much to appreciate and enjoy with the music of Troposphere.
It seems the band get tighter with each release. This is also combined with a more focused musical direction. The 10 tracks on Long Way to Mars will remind you of the music of bands like Steely Dan: the playing is detailed and the arrangements a few notches above the regular mainstream fare as heard in the title track “Long Way to Mars” [4:17]. Sprinkled throughout is a soft-jazz sensibility, where instrumental virtuosity is celebrated, that is they’re not afraid to inject short instrumental solos here and there. The other musical influence heard this time is a leaning to a more soulful sound sometimes taking over the whole composition as in “Brightest Star” [4:51]. At other times their music continues to project a familiar Alan Parsons-like melodic art-rock vibe as heard on “Valkyrie Days” [6:53]. There is also a subtlety running through these compositions: on one hand they seem obviously simple lacking complexity and yet the more I listen to them the more I hear new and different things, especially in the musical structure. It seems they’ve save the crunchier guitar work for the later tracks. The mix of male and female vocal leads adds a nice dimension as well.
This is probably the most musically varied of all the Canvas releases so far. It’s also the most well-crafted and played I think. And in some ways it’s also their most detailed work with plenty of proggy embellishments to hold your interest along the way, getting more and more proggy and heavier as you work your way through to the end. With each release Canvas has taken their game up a notch and Long Way to Mars is certainly yet another step forward.
Canvas is led by talented multi-instrumentalist Matt Sweitzer (guitar, bass, organ, keyboards) and the equally as talented Chris Cobel (trumpet, vocals, keyboards, organ, vocals). Long Way To Mars is the follow up to their debut Digital Pigeon, released in 2008. The band is an offshoot of The October Tree who recently released the excellent album The Fairy's Wing. The music here is mostly melodic rock but the band has a very refined approach. In other words this is not your typical run of the mill rock. It is definitely more than that. There are also plenty of progressive moments to keep the prog heads satisfied. One of the best parts of this album is the vocals. The first five tracks have no less than five different vocalists and they all offer good performances. Tammy Lounsberry deserves special mention as she is outstanding. Her smoky voice envelops the listener in the excellent "Brightest Star". Musically I hear elements of Pink Floyd, especially in the guitar work. Organ flourishes, crunchier rhythms and a lead guitar that tears apart the soundscape is what the band delivers in spades. In the album opening title track guest musician Mike Florio offers nice lead vocals fitting perfectly into the tracks laid back style. The lead guitar is excellent going from gritty leads to soaring melodic passages.
Overall, the band has a real smooth sound. "Better" is another melodic rock gem with some big organ sounds while "Valkyrie Days" is a bit moodier with percolating keys and a nice laid back groove. This one has a bit of an On Air Alan Parson's vibe and ends with a sweet vocal arrangement. "Johnny Don't Know" is another excellent track with soaring lead guitar and jazzy keyboards reminding me of Steely Dan at times. Another highlight is the melodic "Scheherazade", a straight ahead rocker with more outstanding vocals from Tammy Lounsberry producing an earworm of the highest order.
Long Way To Mars should have tremendous crossover appeal for fans of melodic rock while prog fans should appreciate the band's sophisticated arrangements and top notch playing. Any way you slice it Canvas have carved out a real winner. Highly recommended.
Review of Long Way To Mars by G.W. Hill at Music Street Journal
Long Way to Mars
Review by G. W. Hill
I really like this album a lot. It’s almost more mainstream AOR rock than it is progressive rock. That said, there are enough purely prog moments and enough variety here to get it set into that style. I like how different songs feature different vocalists. That said, I have to say that my favorite voice of the bunch, the one which really steals the show (particularly on “Brightest Star”) is the voice that belongs to Tammy Lounsberry. All the rest of the singers are good, too, but she really knocks it out of the park. This is a great album that would probably please prog fanatics and those who aren’t as into progressive rock as much almost equally.
|Track by Track Review
|Long Way To Mars
This song comes in with a real fusion groove. As the vocals come across it’s got more rock music to it. Still, fusion is definitely a big element of this. There is a great retro sound to this. That’s true of the whole track, but the guitar solo (calling to mind David Gilmour quite a bit) really drives that home. The keyboard dominated sections later are particularly noteworthy, too. They drop it down to a short mellow jazz segment for a false ending. Then it powers back up into the chorus one final time.
There’s a bit more of a mainstream rock sound to this cut. Still, it has plenty of progressive rock built into it, as well. There are some intriguing instrumental forays, but the vocal sections really capture the listener.
Fusion meets Floyd as this tune works out with a guitar solo driving it early. The female vocals come in with a very sultry, soulful, jazzy sound. The cut really takes on a jazz presence in full at that point. After this vocal section there’s an instrumental portion with some more guitar soloing. That one has a great bluesy rock vibe to it. I love how the guitar keeps soloing as the next set of vocals are heard. The cut really gets powerful and the vocals rise up to keep at an even level. There is some serious wailing going on here, both instrumentally and vocally.
I’m not crazy about the keyboard sound on the opening of this tune. The great fusion groove, though, sells it. It builds out to more of a Pink Floyd like rocker. There are some great guitar soloing moments, perhaps more in keeping with things like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. We get more fusion later.
|Johnny Don't Know
In some ways this is more of a straightahead rock song. That said, there are sections that are definitely more fusion-oriented. Some killer guitar soloing is heard later, too. This is another cool song that’s both meaty and accessible.
One could almost think of this one as a straightforward rocker, but it’s also got plenty of progressive rock in the mix. I really like the melodic movement at the end a lot.
The retro prog sounds on this are great. It gets into fusion, too, though. Overall, it’s another potent tune combining classic prog and jazz into something that’s quite effective.
|The Beginning Is Near
This instrumental has a nice balance between mellower and hard rocking sounds. The guitar lines on it are quite classy. It’s a cool tune.
There’s a real late 1960s early 1970s vibe to this song. When it powers out later it has a more modern sound, but that classic element still remains. I love the riff driven instrumental section and the flute solo that dances over the top of it. Some scat vocals there bring more fusion to the proceedings. They drop it back to the earlier modes for the return of the vocals, though.
Here we get a cool modern prog tune with both retro sounds and more modern (at times quite crunchy) ones. It’s another sound that manages to put a lot of meat into a pretty straightforward song. That said, the alternating mellower, folk rock like sections with harder edged ones shows off a great understanding of contrast and the drama it brings.
The idea for the project came from Greg's desire to give Tammy a platform to perform as lead vocalist. Coincidentally, she immediately knew that she wanted to do a concept album about fairies, and Greg quickly wrote a draft of an allegory. He goes into more detail by saying that "the soul of the album is a trilogy of songs that I wrote based on a couple of melodic themes, called 'Parallels,' 'Mirrors,' and 'Epiphanies.' The first, being the observation by the Minstrel who loved her, the second, Alisyn's reflections, and third, her epiphany." Naturally, reading the printed novelette would help explain the tale, and fortunately, it's been posted on their official site.
The rest of the band consists of Matt Sweitzer, Chris Cobel, John Swope, and the Lounsberry's son, Daniel. Interestingly, Cobel and Sweitzer are also part of Canvas, another indie prog act. Perhaps even more charming than the unassuming music itself is the fact that October Tree is made up of a modest group of family and friends. While so many new groups form to shamelessly emulate others and prosper financially (the latter would easily appeal to the Lounsberry's too, no doubt), October Tree exists as a labor of love and creative harmony. Listening to The Fairy's Wing, one can definitely hear the magic in the makeup.
Chirping birds and Floydian guitar riffs open the title track, which starts the album. Soon, Tammy introduces the narrative with enjoyable melodies as the piano plays warm chords and the percussion keeps everything steady. The psychedelic, fun timbres recall artists like Nektar, Eloy, Echolyn, and Caravan, and Tammy's voice is similar to Geddy Lee's (albeit much gentler and less annoying). As the name suggests, "Dark Carnival" is much more ominous and ghastly, although it's just as hypnotically intriguing. There's a definite similarity to early Genesis (specifically, Steve Hackett's trademark sound) on "Parallels," and the thick male vocals help give The Fairy's Wing some diversity. "The Ogre" ranks as one of the albums best tracks thanks to its lovely piano chord progression and Canterbury production, and "Into the Glade" is a majestic interlude that leads into the melodically engrossing "Howl." Once again using male vocals, "Mirrors" feels like a fine combination of The Moody Blues and the Allan Parsons Project. Finally, album closer "Epiphanies" features brilliant transitions and impeccable musicianship. It concludes with a burst of energy that helps leave the listener wanting more.
The Fairy's Wing is easily one of the most impressive debuts I've ever heard; the sextet creates and performs with one shared mind, and it's a regal, earthly mind at that. Somehow, the album captures in music form the wonder and enchanted mystery of childhood fairy tales; however, they write, produce, and perform as skilled masters. The future of the genre will indeed be bright with bands like October Tree at the helm, and I for one can't wait to hear what they do next.
Jordan Blum for Sea Of Tranquility.org
The Fairy's Wing
2012 (CD, 46:46)
CLASSIC ROCK/ PROGRESSIVE
Florida-based OctoberTree's core duo consists of studio engineer/guitarist Greg Lounsberry and his singerwife
Tammy. This album's concept -- also published as a novelette on the band's web site (written by Greg) -- concerns a broken-hearted young woman who is told by a witch that the only cure for her sadness is to steal a Fairy's wing. This causes a chain of fantasy-based trials and tribulations.
The music here exists to support the story, and you must be open to what increasingly has become standard prog lyrical fare (fairies, ogres and witches -- oh, my!). Mid-tempos dominate, and the bands style often resembles a marriage Fleetwood Mac and Supertramp. But there are special moments that clue us in to this group's real potential - a David Gilmour-esque guitar intro on the The Fairy's Wing and in particular, the albumclosing, eight-minute 7/4 rocker, Epiphanies.
Best song overall is Cult at the White Witch, featuring tastily melodic
fretwork over a nice groove whose intensity builds throughout. Beautiful album art helps establish a tone for the wonder and enchantment inside, so bring your inner child to the party.
- JIM CIRCLE