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(Jugular Records 77516 51612 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/12/2002)
In the current market-oriented environment for commercial music, when a rock band is described as new, different or original, that usually means something to do with fashion, attitude, or most importantly, merchandising. The quality of the music has become next to irrelevant in an era where a video-friendly teen heart-throb who might well be tone-deaf can be electronically manipulated into a pop music star. This is perhaps one of the reasons that even young music fans who were have no direct memory of the era, say that music from the 1960s and 70s was so much better than today's hits. This is understandable if all they are exposed to is the mass commercial media. Of course, one of main themes of this radio program is to disabuse people of that notion, and show that if one takes the time to look, one can find a lot of music being made today that is in every way equal or indeed superior to anything from three decades ago.
This week we have another worthy example -- a rock band that borrows influences from the past, in this case the progressive rock of the 1970s, bits of funk, Beatles-influenced melodic pop, and electronic sounds, to create something that is quite fascinating and creative. The group is called Guest, and their CD is entitled Entrance.
Guest were formed around 1998 as the result of an improvisational gig in the Columbus, Ohio, area, where they are still based. The individual members cite a remarkably wide range of influences, from R.E.M. to Bob Marley to straight-ahead jazz to, naturally, 1970s progressive rock. They bring together their influences with refreshing abandon, easily slipping between quirky, angular progressive rock motifs to danceable grooves to jam band mode to hummable songs with tight vocal harmonies, and often they careen back and forth within a single tune. The result is a new spin on progressive rock that does not lose sight of genre's founding tenets as laid down by groups like Yes, Gentle Giant and early Genesis. Some of the combinations work better than others, and there are some musical ideas that fall a little short, but the musicianship is first-rate, and the band's arrangements are always interesting.
Like many art rock bands, Guest concentrates their compositional efforts into the music and arrangements, with the lyrics being a lower priority, but their words could I suppose be called "innocuous" rather than the sometimes embarrassingly quasi-cosmic lyrics of some of the original "prog" rockers. But Guest more than makes up for any lyrical shortcomings with their instrumentalizing.
Guest's members are keyboard man John Hruby, who gives the group its connection with the art-rock scene with his combination of classic organ sounds, retro synthesizer timbres, plus acoustic piano that might remind one of Bruce Hornsby's rhapsodic tendencies. J.R. Hecker is the guitar player who claims Bob Marley is a strong influence, which might explain the near-tropical sounds that turn up on one track he wrote. The lead guitarist is Drew Santer, who also shares an interest in roots and ethnic music. On bass is Mark Montrell, who lists among his influences Les Claypool of Primus, and Victor Wooten of the Flecktones; and playing the drums is John Garrett, the fellow who cites jazz performers such as Dennis Chambers as sources of inspiration. Though keyboard man Hruby was the composer of the most pieces on the CD, all the others contributed to the writing, with one joint band composition plus pieces written by various combinations of the other players. With one or two exceptions, the group's musical philosophy seems to be to specialize in musical arrangements that take sudden turns in mood or sound, making for interesting contrasts. That, of course is a classic art rock approach. They also have an interesting tendency to throw in some repetitive riffs that can approach being irritating before the music veers off into some more interesting territory.
Opening the album is one of its shorter pieces, The Room, written by keyboard man Hruby which despite its only three-and-a-quarter minute length manages to take several of those musical twists and turns. <<>>
The track called Felt the one on the CD credited to the entire band as composers, is another interesting mix. There's a synthesizer riff that grows more annoying with each of the many repetitions <<>> and just as you're ready to hit the "next track" button the CD player, the piece takes off into a Gentle Giant style instrumental excursion with an organ part that conjures up the 1960s minimalist music of Terry Riley. <<>>
On the Screen is another curious piece. With perhaps the most intriguing lyrics on the CD, the composition features bits of a funky, drum-machine-driven rhythm and vocals reminiscent of the Bee Gees, alternating with a kind of jam band section. <<>>
Given the other material, the track called Come In by guitarist Hecker, is a bit of a surprise. With flowing island beat, the track is eminently danceable <<>>, but in true Guest fashion, there are the group's trademark musical curveballs. <<>>
The one all-instrumental track, Mineshaft, also written by Hecker, gives the band a chance to have a good time with their musical eclecticism. <<>>
Back in the 1970s, there was an excellent American art rock band called Ambrosia that combined the musical complications of the form with a tendency for melodic pop songs with strong vocal harmonies. One can hear that influence either intentionally or coincidentally on the track Awkwords by Montrella and Santer. The result is one of the strongest on the album. <<>>
The yin-yang contrast between the melodic and the more so-called progressive aspects of Guest's sound comes on the Hruby piece called My Lie, on which the composer's piano plays a prominent part. <<>> It goes out with a kind of jam-band interlude. <<>>
The CD concludes with yet another interesting stylistic conglomeration. Nune Tomorrow, manages to superimpose a kind of funky beat with a degree of spaciness. <<>>
The title of the album Entrance is appropriate for the Ohio band Guest. Their debut recording shows a well-developed quintet who draw on the progressive rock scene of the 1970s, but also add an interesting collection of other influences culled along the way from pop to funk to jam bands. This is a group with members coming from different stylistic backgrounds, and they're not afraid to mix them for music that's progressive rock in the best sense.
Our sound quality grade is an A-minus. The recording, done by producer/engineer/mixer Billy Hume in Georgia, captures the group's sound well, and he does it without much fuss or special effects. The "minus" in the grade comes from our usual complaint about the restricted dynamic range and compression all too ubiquitous on rock CDs these days.
While progressive rock is certainly not as common as it was a quarter century ago, Guest is yet another reminder that they do indeed make music as good as they used to.
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