(Purple Pyramid Records)
A couple years back, Yes guitarist and keyboardist Billy Sherwood had the idea to launch a project with a bunch of his talented prog-rock pals and former bandmates and see what would happen. Sherwood solicited collaborations from members of Yes, Asia, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and others who recorded together as the Prog Collective, the outfit's 2012 self-titled debut album performing better than anybody involved had expected.
The Prog Collective's Epilogue
Hoping to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time (or on tape, as the case may be), Sherwood enlisted an all-star collection of talent for the creation of Epilogue, the sophomore effort by the Prog Collective. This second kick at the can includes artists like Rick Wakeman and Chris Squire of Yes; Jordan Rudess and Derek Sherinian, both veterans of Dream Theater; Larry Fast (Synergy); Steve Hillage (Gong, solo artist); John Wetton (Roxy Music, Asia); Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple); Patrick Moraz (Moody Blues); and Tony Kaye and Peter Banks (both Yes, Flash). There are a bunch of other musos here, as well as ol' Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, providing vocals on one song as only Shatner can.
The resulting music is exciting and exhilarating, blending traditional 1970s-styled progressive rock with contemporary sound and recording techniques. After all, modern day proggers like Spock's Beard, the Flower Kings, Dream Theater, and others have updated and expanded the definition of prog-rock over the past 20 years or so, dragging the music's intricate sound and virtuoso instrumentation into the 21st century with a focus on balancing songcraft and melody with flailing guitars and buzzing synthesizers.
Are We To Believe?
"Are We To Believe?," the opening track of Epilogue, is a perfect example of the Prog Collective's tightrope walk, the song sounding like a cross between early, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and poppy, 1980s-era Yes. XTC's Colin Moulding takes the microphone for "Are We To Believe?," sounding curiously like Phil Collins in his vocal phrasing, but delivering an altogether otherworldly performance as Rick Wakeman's synths rage away in providing an instrumental foundation for the song. Steve Hillage adds some nice texture with his innovative guitar solos, while Mel Collins fleshes out the tune with squalls of sax and flute.
The vastly underrated John Wetton provides vocals for "What Can Be Done?," the Asia frontman bringing a particularly British sort of soul to his performance as guitarist John Wesley and keyboardist Derek Sherinian create a claustrophobic, dark-hued musical ambiance to serve as an instrumental backdrop. Fee Waybill of the Tubes is the odd man out on Epilogue, a seemingly out-of-character choice as collaborator, and his vocals are all but lost below the backing harmonies and instrumental fury of "Adding Fuel To The Fire." Steve Morse's guitar swats and stings like a pterodactyl-sized wasp here, while Jordan Rudess's understated keyboard fills strike like a stiletto rather than hitting like a bludgeon, and Sherwood's lively percussion proves to be a deft addition to the song.
Tomorrow Becomes Today
"Tomorrow Becomes Today" features Peter Banks' final performance, recorded before his death earlier this year, the guitarist layering his gorgeous tone and brilliant stringplay behind the soft, almost buried-in-the-mix vocals of Curved Air's Sonja Kristina. Banks' guitar soars and flutters like a nectar-drunk hummingbird before Larry Fast's cacophonic keyboard runs break the spell. Banks' guitar continues to flow with the current, though, rising to the top at times, otherwise just propping up the fragile construct. It's a stunning swansong, and a fitting tribute to an overlooked talent.
By contrast, "Shining Diamonds" is a sort of Yes/Moody Blues hybrid with bassist Chris Squire and keyboardist Patrick Moraz cementing the rhythmic bedrock on which Alan Parsons layers his breathless vocals and closet prog-rock fan Steve Stevens (best-known as Billy Idol's longtime guitarist) contributes a solid effort of electric and acoustic guitarplay. Moraz's imaginative keyboard solo showcases both his talent and influence on younger keyboard wizards like Rudess and Sherinian while Stevens' energetic solo displays his unassailable prog chops.
Just Another Day
Sherwood takes the vocal spotlight on "Just Another Day," a spry prog-pop tune with classical undertones, the song bringing more than a hint of vintage Pink Floyd to its mystery. Gentle Giant's Gary Green adds a gorgeous mix of electric and acoustic guitars while Tony Kaye provides brilliant Hammond organ and other keyboards to fill out the performance, bringing up memories of his long-forgotten band Badger. Sherwood's voice is tailor-made for this sort of lofty space-rock exercise, capturing a cosmic vibe while his rhythm guitar and subtle percussion work create a mesmerizing instrumental tapestry.
Shatner has become somewhat of a prog-rock aficionado these days, and his upcoming album Ponder The Mystery is produced by Sherwood and includes contributions from guitarist Steve Vai, keyboardist Rick Wakeman and other prog and jazz legends. Here Shatner delivers a spoken word performance on the title track atop a miasma of Sherwood's six-string chaos and drummer Jim Cuomo's solid timekeeping. Shatner's voice is electronically-altered to fit with the mood of the song, but it's an effective effort as no heavy lifting is needed in the face of Sherwood's energetic and innovative fretwork.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
It's unlikely that the Prog Collective's Epilogue will gain many converts among those rock snobs who turn up their noses at progressive rock's frequently meandering soundscapes (even while they wax poetic about Miles Davis's bleating improvisations). For those of us who grew up during the golden age of bands like King Crimson, Yes, ELP and Gentle Giant, though, the Prog Collective is like catnip to a bored feline.
While there's little innovation on Epilogue, neither is there a need to reinvent the wheel here…this is music performed by virtuoso instrumentalists for listeners who enjoy its intricacy and dimensions. Plus, it sounds like everybody here is having a heck of a lot of fun playing music without commercial expectations, and if the Prog Collective manages to convey the charms of prog-rock to a few younger listeners, 'tis all the better!
Click on the CD cover to buy the Prog Collective's Epilogue from Amazon.com