09 October 2008

REVIEW: Unitopia - The Garden

It’s really pretty interesting when a band comes totally out of the blue and surprises me.

It doesn’t happen all that often; either that means that I am hard to please or that I’m jaded. I’m not 100% sure. But I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of ‘new’ bands (i.e., only 1 or 2 albums out) that I’ve come across that have caught my ear and not let go of easily. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (in 2003) and Viima (2007) are two that come to mind immediately as bands that caught me completely unawares and hit something that made their music addicting to me.

I’m not 100% sure that Unitopia fits that bill yet, but the fact that I keep going back to their latest album, The Garden, speaks volumes.

Unitopia is an Australian sextet releasing their second album, a 2-CD set, on InsideOut Music. The press release, which I received with the album, compares the group to the Flower Kings, Van der Graaf Generator, King Crimson and…Men at Work?

Yeah, one of those things is not like the other. I’m not sure where they got the Men at Work angle unless it’s just because that band is also Australian, but that’s neither here nor there. Repeated listens make it hard for me to even find links to Crimson and VdGG, unless it’s the fact that all three bands have features some sax playing in their music. Nor really can I compare Unitopia to the Flower Kings…unless it’s the fact that like TFK, Unitopis draws some influence from bands like Yes and Genesis. The music is generally pretty uplifiting and bright…positive sounding music. I also hear some serious Queen bits as well…the track “Don’t Give Up Love,” despite the possibly slightly cheesy title, is filled with Queen-isms, from layered choral vocals to harmonised guitars. Mark Trueack’s voice does bear some comparison to Peter Gabriel (and perhaps Ray Wilson as well)…while not a dead ringer for Gabriel, they share a similar dark, slightly raspy lower tenor vocal range.

Unitopia tosses a lot of music at the listener on this release; the two CDs total about 101 minutes of material. Included are a pair of epics…”Journey’s Friend” is a 5-part suite that opens the second half of The Garden, while the 22-minute title track features some of the more overt Genesis bits, including a closing section that doesn’t necessarily mimic the end of “Supper’s Ready” as much as works in a similar stylistic arena. “Journey’s Friend” maybe sounds a bit Transatlantic-ish as well…and considering that Transatlantic was intended in many ways to mine classic progressive rock styles, this may not be surprising. The heavy section some 9 minutes in, with thick, throaty almost screamed vocals and powerful orchestration, is wonderfully balanced by a pastoral section that immediately follows. The shift might be disruptive, but it’s a great sue of light and shade to create tension.

The shorter tracks have much to offer as well. I am particularly enamoured of “Give and Take,” complete with lushly arranged vocals and guitar playing from Matt Williams (I am assuming) that sounds like textbook Steve Howe. I also get a feel that is similar to the material on Genesis’ Calling all Stations release (a pretty criminally underrated album, if you ask me, and perhaps fodder for a future article)…it’d not sound out of place surrounded by songs like “Uncertain Weather.” “321” is another powerful piece…written as a tribute to the bravery of the Beaconsfield miners, Brant Webb and Todd Russell and the tragic death of fellow miner Larry Knight following the tragic mine collapse at the Beaconsfield gold mine in northern Tasmania on 25 April 2006. It’s evocative lyrically, and the music matches the mood and tension with aplomb.

Throughout the release, many things remain constant. Monty Ruggiero’s drumming is solid, while Tim Irrgang contributes some nice percussive flourishes that I can’t help but call Australian…there’s a bit of tribal/Aboriginal rhythm there that I’d like to think he adds. Sean Timms and Matt Williams are excellent guitarists, playing with a bit of flash but keeping the song as main focus. Shireen Khemlani’s bass playing deserves special note; fluid and graceful, she’s mixed up just enough to maintain presence without distracting from the rest of the musicians. Mark Trueack, as mentioned above, is an enjoyable singer to listen to, with a delivery that is effortless and rich.

I’m impressed by Unitopia, and find The Garden to be a pretty refreshing slice of melodic, symphonic prog. Don’t let the press release sway you away…this is no Flower Kings pastiche, but a band using the same influences to create something that sounds pretty uniquely their own.

Mark Trueack, vocals

Sean Timms, keyboards, guitar

Matt Williams, guitar

Monty Ruggiero, drums

Shireen Khemlani, bass

Tim Irrgang, percussions

CD 1:

01. One Day

02. The Garden

03. Angeliqua

04. Here I Am

05. I Wish I Could Fly

06. Inside The Power

CD 2:

01. Journey's Friend

02. Give And Take

03. When I'm Down

04. This Life

05. Love Never Ends

06. So Far Away

07. Don't Give Up Love

08. 321

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