23 July 2010

CD REVIEW: Mars Hollow - Mars Hollow (10T Records, 2010)

I wanted to open this review with some witty observation about how new progressive rock bands seemed to fit in one of a few very specific categories…the ones aping Dream Theater, or the ones mimicking the classic Genesis/Yes formula, or whatever. The more I thought about this, the more I realised a few things:

1) It really doesn’t break down that way very easily.
2) You reach a point where you say ‘(band name) is copying the Flower Kings, and since they were influenced by Genesis and Yes, is (band name) really copying TFK or mimicking Genesis/Yes?’
3) It starts getting very silly very quickly.

What does any of this have to do with Mars Hollow?

Well, I’ve been listening to their debut release for the better part of a week now, and I feel I’ve gotten pretty familiar with it. For those unfamiliar with the name, Mars Hollow is a new band out of California, with a debut album just released on 10T records, home of Frogg Café, From.UZ, The Rebel Wheel, and several other excellent newer bands. A quartet, they’ve done a very good job of not falling into the trap of moulding their sound after one of the bigger names in the genre. Honestly, in listening, I hear a lot of elements that bring to mind the lost American prog bands of the 1970s…

Let’s look a little closer.

Standing at the front, in a metaphorical sense, is John Baker, the group’s guitarist and lead vocalist. His guitar playing is influenced by the jazzier side of things, as he lists John McLaughlin among his primary influences, with Steely Dan also mentioned. His playing is fluid and lyrical, with a lovely sense of melody. Vocally he reminds me of a combination of Geddy Lee (post Grace Under Pressure) and Rick Rodenbaugh, the late original lead vocalist from Yezda Urfa. Yes, his voice has a higher timbre to it, but it’s not nasally or unpleasing to listen to. Once you factor in that the rest of the band contributes backing vocals as well, you realise that this is a group that puts as much emphasis on a quality vocal experience as much as an impressive instrumental showcase.

On the melodic side of the band, Steve Mauk picks up the keyboard slot and runs with it. His choice of sounds is impressive, and goes a long way toward continuing that vintage, 1970’s feel. There’s loads of piano, some rich organ tones, and synth patch choices that come fully out of the mists of the 70’s. I really enjoy his playing, especially his use of multiple sounds layered one atop the other.

Finally, the rhythm section is manned by Kerry Chicione (bass) and Jerry Beller (drums). Chicione is very impressive on bass; his tone is punchy, and he’s set nicely in the mix. His playing is ever present without being too flashy or too rooted. I wouldn’t say he’s a lead bassist, but this music wouldn’t sound at all the same if he just played the root and was unobtrusive. Beller’s drumming is also incredibly enjoyable, and his ability to pound it out and then switch to lighter percussive accents is one that brings a smile to my face. Musically and vocally, Mars Hollow has the pieces put together in the right order.

The album opens with the nine minute long ‘Wait for Me.’ The opening instrumental section is joyfully angular, with syncopated guitar and drums/bass shifting back and forth. Some short piano flourishes here and there break things up for about a minute before the band kicks in to full speed. Baker offers up a nicely fuzzed guitar lead, Mauk counters with some hot organ lines, and before we know it, we’ve hit vocals. The band lays back, Baker singing over some fluid piano playing and a melodic bass line. Layered and harmonized vocals show the band’s desire for a balanced emphasis on vocals and instruments both; too often bands focus on one (usually the instrumental side of things) to the detriment of the other.

‘Midnight’ follows on from ‘Wait for Me,’ with a lighter, jazzier style evident. There’s a smoky musical feel here, very laid back, with some nicely groovy drumming from Beller and clean, almost chorused guitar from Baker. Baker’s double tracked vocals are a joy to listen to, while Mauk offers up a fantastic synth solo about 3:30 in that really shines. I like the fact that the opening pair of tracks are so different from each other, yet identifiably the same band. I’ve heard the band described as a symphonic rock band, and while there are certainly some similarities, I find that their jazzier influences really make that label an inaccurate one, and place them more firmly in the traditional Ameriprog arena.

Having said that, the next track seems hell-bent on proving me wrong. ‘Eureka’ opens up with the thickest slab of 1970’s ELP-style instrumental fireworks you could imagine, with organ and Emerson-esque piano playing over an energetic and sprightly bit of rhythm playing. The addition of guitar to his mix is what keeps this homage from being a full on pastiche of that style of music. Once the song moves to vocal sections, things sound much more Mars Hollow-like, with the same mix of keyboard sounds used in a much different manner. There are some great melodic hooks evident here, and sections that just scream out for singing along to; it’s a shame that there are no lyrics printed in the liner notes to enable this (thankfully the lyircs are on the website, but that’s of no help when you’re away from home).

‘If I were You’ shifts things back to the lighter, jazzier side of things, but a pacier, organ driven instrumental section around the 4:30 mark adds a nice flourish and some sonic seasoning to the mix. ‘In Your Hands’ is a pleasant melodic rock piece, with some very cool vocal moments, a great fuzzed solo from Baker, and sprightly drumming from Beller. Vocals are the definite highlight here, perhaps the strongest bit of vocal performance on the album. Attentive ears will notice the (none too subtle) quoting of ELP’s ‘Tarkus’ at 5:22, even recreating the Moog patch that was such a part of that tune. ‘Wild Animal’ continues the series of impressive vocal performances, but there’s something about this track that I find somewhat less enjoyable or enduring. All the elements seem to be there; there’s great keyboard playing, excellent drumming and bass playing, absolutely amazing vocals throughout. I just find myself drifting when this song is on, somewhat less actively listening.

Things pick up in a big way, however, for ‘Dawn of Creation,’ the album’s closing track. A hefty 12:23, this is a piece that allows Mars Hollow to bring everything they have to bear for one epic blow out. An ambient opening section sets the table, with a very cool, somewhat restrained piano/bass/drum instrumental bit rising from the quiet. Baker’s guitar playing is at first reminiscent of the violin like notes Steve Hackett created on ‘Hairless Heart’ before taking on his own sound again. Great vocals, interesting lyrics, and wonderful band and solo playing make this a powerful and tight album closer that really shows what the band can do. If I had to pick one song off this release to play for someone curious about what Mars Hollow Sounds like, this is the one I’d pick.

Mars Hollow (the band) has been getting a lot of hype and publicity on genre websites and forums, and it’s hype and publicity that’s deserved. While Mars Hollow is not a perfect album, almost no debut album ever is. There’s room to grow, room to evolve and progress, and I know that I hope they have the opportunity to do so. I’m looking forward to seeing this band continue to make music for many years to come, and hope that this is the beginning of a long and enjoyable musical voyage.

Wait for Me 9:30
Midnight 5:07
Eureka 9:21
If I Were You 7:32
In Your Hands 6:33
Wild Animal 7:11
Dawn of Creation 12:23

John Baker – guitar/lead vocals
Jerry Beller – Drums/percussion/vocals
Kerry Chicoine – Bass/vocals
Steve Mauk – keyboards/vocals


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