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THROUGH AND THROUGH (Laser’s Edge LE1033) [2000]

I put off getting this album for a year, a victim of its advertising. The Laser’s Edge advertisements all stressed comparisons with Echolyn and Genesis. I have Echolyn’s albums, but rarely listen to them. Throw in the obligatory reference to Genesis and you’ve convinced me that this is a neo-prog band, somewhere in there between Marillion and Pendragon. And what does a line like “Forward thinking symphonic rock with a reverential glance backwards” tell you?

Oddly enough, that line is surprisingly accurate. But The Underground Railroad (or URR) has nothing to do with neo-prog. I found that out when I saw them open Sunday’s program at the 2001 NEARfest – immediately after which I was first in line at their table to get a copy of their CD.

I’ve been living with that album since then, and I’ve yet to exhaust its virtues, although the album does have its weaknesses. Primary among those weaknesses are the vocals. URR is an American band. Americans know how to sing rock & roll – we invented it – but few of us know how to sing progressive rock. It does not come naturally to us, based as it is on a European musical sensibility. When we try we tend to sound either overly earnest or glib. URR errs in the direction of earnestness, sounding much of the time like Happy The Man (who always had the same problem – why does it sound so much better in a British accent?). But occasionally (as on “The Doorman”) they sing in a tight unison that is reminiscent of Peter Gabriel backed by Phil Collins during parts of Genesis’ classic, “Supper’s Ready.”

What URR has going for it is a wide-ranging musical approach – something we haven’t seen in an American band since Frank Zappa’s heyday – which takes in all of 20th century music, specifically including its avant garde. The band’s two principal composers, keyboardist Kurt Rongey and guitarist Bill Pohl, are at home in the broad history and traditions of European music and this allows them to work on an equal footing with Europe’s finest progressive musicians and bands. This became increasingly obvious to me as I watched them perform at NEARfest – especially when the bassist and drummer left the stage to those two.

According to the NEARfest Program Book, the band had its origins in 1996 when Rongey and Pohl decided to put together a band that would “sound like Genesis.” Rongey had been a solo artist with several obscure albums behind him (one, THAT WAS PROPAGANDA, was initially conceived in 1991 during the August Russian coup and was recorded in 1991 and 1992 but was released in 2000 by the Mellow label in Italy) and Pohl (who had contributed to THAT WAS PROPAGANDA) had been a “fusion guitarist” with his own Bill Pohl Trio.

While Rongey and Pohl worked on developing and recording material – some of it predating the band; “The Doorman” was the first composition created for the band – a drummer was found in John Livingston, and Matt Hembree was recruited on bass to do the recording (but was replaced by Michael Richardson when they played at NEARfest). The recording proceeded over a period of several years, beginning in the spring of 1997 and concluding in the summer of 1999.

The album consists of six pieces, the final, title piece running over 20 minutes. The music is varied, ranging from shorter, song-oriented pieces to symphonic suites. (The second, third and fourth pieces – “The Comprachicos of the Mind,” “In the Factory” and “The Doorman” – are all segued into what amounts to one suite.)

I am least fond of the album opener, “May-Fly,” which is the only thing on the album which really merits comparison with Echolyn. It has a musical superficiality which borrows chord progressions from fusion music and focuses on vocals. While the lyrics of this song are at least not jejune, reading them (printed in the booklet) was as unrewarding as hearing them – making me wish that they’d been in a language I did not understand, so I could more easily ignore them. (The lyrics to most of the other songs strike me similarly and make me grateful for the long instrumental passages. The one exception is “The Doorman.” While much of its music owes more to Canterbury than Genesis, its lyrics do successfully capture some of the Genesis magic of FOXTROT days.)

My favorite track at this point is “The Comprachicos of the Mind,” which is one of the two pieces which predate URR – mostly for the middle section: slow brooding music over which the guitar builds from metalloid slurs and discords into singing tones. Powerful stuff. The long concluding track, the 20-minute “Through And Through” (the other piece which came before URR) is full of fascinating, ambitious musical ideas but strikes me as unfocussed. Perhaps as I listen to it more I will find its structure. Indeed, URR uses so many musical ideas on this CD that it feels longer than its actual 54:43 playing time.

In the meantime, I want to recommend this album. It’s the first American progressive rock album to earn a review here, and it can hold its head up in the company of the European albums and groups which dominate these reviews. Congrats to Laser’s Edge for spotting and promoting a winner. I look forward to The Underground Railroad’s next album.


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