The HillBenders

August 6, 2015

Album cover for The HillBenders’ Tommy. Yes, it’s an homage to the original cover, and yes, they did get the original artist’s permission to do this.

Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m a pretty big Who fan, from their early stuff at least through Who’s Next. But especially Tommy. My first Tommy album was The London Symphony Orchestra version … The perfect vehicle for bringing a young classical music fan into the scary long-haired hippie freak world of Rock ‘n’ Roll. (That and the Moody Blues Days of Future Passed … But that’s another story …)

And after falling in love with this album, I find it’s not the original! There’s a rock band version (ahem … did I mention I was inexperienced?).

At first, I chafed. It sounded so different from the real version :/ I was having a tough time of it. But then it started to sound good to me. This taught a symphony orchestra lover into a rock fan (and then the movie version bringing me into multitracked synthetic string ensembles … also another story)

So why am I telling you this? Because I just discovered an album that is threatening to broaden my musical horizons yet again. The album? Tommy. No not any of of the lame new versions Pete Townshend is releasing to try to milk it for a few more years. This version is by a band called the HillBenders. And, yes, it’s a faithful version of the original rock version by The Who.

The Hillbenders are a bluegrass band. Did you see that coming? I sure as hell didn’t. Did I mention the full album name is “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry”?And this version is bluegrass, complete with strumming, picking and body-slapping guitars and mandolins, twanging (or spacey) dobros and lightning-fingered banjo playing. It’s not just good, it’s right up there with the original in every way. Every bit as exciting, innovative and heart-rending as the original. No drums or synths, though … can I stand it? I find I can. Easily.

The vocals are attributed only to “The HillBenders,” and they’re phenomenal, though watching their videos it looks like mandolinist Nolan Lawrence is their lead vocalist. He’s good. His vocals are as good as Roger Daltrey’s originals without sounding that much like him. These are rock vocals, and they’re what sell this concept (though perhaps if Uncle Ernie was being sung by a yodeling cowboy vocalist … OK, just a thought …). The arrangements manage to be simultaneously faithful and innovative. How can it sound so different yet also the same? How do they do that?

I could say this album is going to be among my top releases of 2015, but feh … Big deal. This album, like the original Tommy, will open up a whole new area of the musical world. Just as the original led me to rock and thence Progressive Rock, the HillBenders will lead me to Progressive Bluegrass. And I didn’t even know it existed. I just know there’s more …

Have I ever told you I have a complete score in my head for a New Wave version of “Supper’s Ready”? It would sound like a mashup of The Cars, Ultravox and Thomas Dolby. Maybe with some Bill Nelson too. No, wait. Don’t go. It would be really cool. Really.

The HillBenders are:
Mark Cassidy – Banjo
Gary Rea – Bass
Jim Rea – Guitar
Nolan Lawrence – Mandolin/Lead Vocals
Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves – Dobro

Down To My Last Dollar (10)
Can You Hear Me? (12)
Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry (15)


Consider the Source – World War Trio (Parts I, II & III)

June 21, 2015

Yeah, it’s been a long time since I posted here. But I just heard a new band that I really want to talk about. Well, they’re not that new, just new to me. They are Consider the Source, and they describe themselves as “sci-fi middle eastern music.” I’ll buy that, but I’d say “sizzling world fusion” would speak to prog fans more. More western than middle eastern, but with a nice flavoring of that and other world sonorities. Guitars, bass and drums. No keyboards, no vocals. But you won’t miss the keyboards … lots of interesting electronic sonorities, I suspect being driven mostly by the guitar, but also sometimes from the drums. Beautifully strange polyrythms and microtonal pitch bending you usually never hear from a guitar interlock with conventional and slap-bass counterpoints and math-rock polyrhythms from the drums. This music’s got everything, unless you want deep philosophical vocals, in which case look elsewhere.

Consider the Source is an American band formed in 2004, and features Gabriel Marin on fretless double-neck guitar, John Ferrara on bass guitar, and Jeff Mann on kit and other percussion. The fretless allows Marin to play otherwise-impossible note flurries which move from western folksy to Indian ragas to middle-eastern to Discipline-era Crimson to prog-metal in an instant. This is virtuosity, from all band members.

I picked up the World War Trio Part I EP and the double-CD World War Trio Parts II & III on the strength of a review and auditioning some cuts on Bandcamp (see link below). I’m very glad I did. It’s not often these days that something new really grabs me and turns me on, and when it does, it’s usually something that harks back to ’70’s prog (i.e. Steve Hackett‘s Genesis Revisited), but this is totally new and totally awesome. It’s hard to say it reminds me of anyone else. And that’s hard to do. You go, guys!

And, as an aside, let me give them kudos for not being afraid to play middle eastern sounding music in our current atmosphere of hostility towards anything that seems even vaguely middle-eastern. As if the music has anything to do with the politics or religion of the region. If CtS has any political or religious agendas, it’s completely non-obvious from their albums, so don’t be concerned about that. Just enjoy some of the hottest music you’re likely to hear for a long time to come. — Fred Trafton

Esperanto (2008)
Are You Watching Closely? (2009)
That’s What’s Up (2010)
F**k It! We’ll Do It Live – Volume 1 (2012, Rec. 12/2011)
F**k It! We’ll Do It Live – Volume 2 (2013, Rec. 5 & 8/2013)
World War Trio (Part I) (2014)
World War Trio (Parts II and III) (2015)

Web Site

Jon Anderson Press Release

February 8, 2012

The following’s too good to not share … it’s been edited to remove Jon‘s tour dates and his new release Open. Go to his web site (link follows) for further updates on that.

But the question is: did Chris Squire get his free tickets or not? And, if not, did he pay to get in? We’ll probably never know.

A Statement To The Press By Original Yes Vocalist / Songwriter Jon Anderson

2/8/2012 – Asheville, NC – In response to recent rumors circulating about music legend and original Yes vocalist / songwriter Jon Anderson being asked to re-join Yes – these rumors are unfounded and false. Jon Anderson is busy with his solo career; he is currently on tour performing solo, as well as recording new music.

Jon also had this response to recent quotes in the news by Chris Squire that he is in regular communication with Jon: “I haven’t spoken with Chris in four years, and the only e-mail I have received from him in the last 3 years was him asking for free tickets to my show in Mesa, AZ last week – very sad, but true.”

Click here for Jon Anderson‘s web site

Agents of Mercy – The Black Forest

January 16, 2012

The Black Forest

For my previous reviews of Agents of Mercy, I had only heard bits and pieces of the albums I talked about, a fact I hope I made that clear in those reviews. However, for their 2011 offering The Black Forest, I got to hear the album in its entirety several times. So what to say about this album? It does indeed have the similarities to Transatlantic I mentioned before, particularly in the high quality of the production. But where Transatlantic has a definite Beatles vibe, The Black Forest is completely missing such a flavoring. Instead, imagine if Genesis had become a bit more accessible while still remaining progressive and you’re in the ballpark of what this sounds like. That’s doubtless at least in part due to vocalist Nad Sylvan‘s Peter Gabriel-like tone, though he seems to have cut back on this just a bit for this album, at least for some of the songs. He’s a very verstile and emotional vocalist, and it’s great for him to have such a high quality backing band behind him now (relative to his former band Unifaun, even though I liked them too).

And it’s great for us too, because The Black Forest is a really good album. It’s not ground-breaking or challenging in any way, but it’s really good symphonic neo-prog with great playing, mature compositions, and sparkly-clean studio work. If you need challenging or avant-garde wierdness in your music, you’ll undoubtedly characterize The Black Forest as “boring and uninspired” or something similar. But for my tastes, this is a really good album that I’ll be listening to with some frequency for years to come. Check it out and decide for yourself … very nice in my opinion. — Fred Trafton

Click here for Agents of Mercy‘s web site
Click here for Agents of Mercy‘s MySpace page

Blue Mammoth

January 16, 2012

Blue Mammoth’s debut album full cover art

Blue Mammoth got started in 2009 as a project of bassist/producer Julian Quilodran (Octophera) and keyboardist/composer Andre Mitchell. Originally, this was a studio project with just these two, but the quality of the music began to attract other musicians, and they soon became a band including drummer Thiago Meyer and guitarist Andre Lupac (later succeeded by Cesar Aires when Lupac had to leave due to “personal issues”).

The resulting debut album Blue Mammoth is steeped in ’70’s prog mannerisms, heavy on synthesizers/keyboards and intricate bass lines (no surprise given the origins of the band), but with a bit of King Crimson flavoring as well, and even a Gentle Giant-ish a capella vocal section. Mitchell also handles vocals (in English, with only a little detectable accent). It’s heavily symphonic, with lots of heavy, majestic passages and important-sounding philosophy. And a great album cover (above, pasted together into the full panorama from separate jpg’s found on their old web site … I don’t think they ever published the entire thing, which is a shame. Right-click to open the thing full-size in your browser … it’s amazing) by artist Julio Zartos, see link to his web site below.

I’ll admit, Blue Mammoth was a slow-grower for me. I had to listen to it multiple times before the music and lyrics started to really touch my emotions, so I suggest at least three times through the album before you give it a thumbs-up or -down. Now that I’ve let it sink in, I think this album is near the top of my favorites list for 2011, it’s a wonderful album, leaving me hoping for more from these guys. Definitely one you’ll need to check out if you like ’70’s-style symphonic prog. — Fred Trafton

Click here for the official Blue Mammoth web site
Click here for the web site of artist Julio Zartos

Chosen 30th Anniversary Remaster released

January 3, 2012

For about 12 years now, I’ve had in my GEPR F.A.Q. page a paragraph that mentioned my old christian prog band Chosen. I said that one day I’d get our album digitized and make it available. So, over the Holidays, I finally found time to make it happen. I said in the F.A.Q. that I wanted to do it as a freebie, but now with the band discussing a 30-year reunion album, I thought I’d charge a small amount to help finance the new work. You can audition the whole thing using the below widget (if it doesn’t work, go directly to If you like what you hear, download a copy at our Bandcamp site.

One word of warning: if you think a new album will be like the old one, probably not. It probably will be quite different. Guitarist Jerry Kosak has gone on to create a really new and unique guitar style and is now way beyond where he was at the time (which I always thought was pretty cool even then). The rest of us still play as hobbyists, but have also moved on to different styles and even spiritual paths. But I still think we could make some fabulous music together … we’ll see. In the meantime, enjoy our 1982 album remaster. 30 years? Man, that’s hard to believe!

Click here for Chosen‘s rather old and lame web site. May be upgraded if/when we start work on a new album.
Click here for Chosen‘s Bandcamp site.
Click here for Jerry Kosak‘s web site.

Gabriel/Yes “Watcher” Bootlegger Revealed

November 12, 2011

A few months ago, I posted this story about an allegedly authentic version of “Watcher of the Skies” performed by Yes with vocals by Peter Gabriel. Everyone, of course, knew it was a fake, but who did it, and what were the circumstances surrounding its creation? Well, now, the truth has been revealed! And loads of fun it is! See the YouTube link below. And when you’re done, order the album they mention in the video … not only does it have a cleaned-up version of the “Watcher Fantasy Bootleg”, but the rest of the album is also spectacular … and will be reviewed here separately when I have the time. Meanwhile, get the story.

With appreciation to JL who posted a link to this video in a comment to my previous post.

Ancient Future – World Without Walls re-release

November 8, 2011

World Without Walls by Ancient Future

What’s an album like World Without Walls doing in the GEPR? “That’s not prog!” I hear you say. Well, in my view it’s definitely progressive, in the true sense of the word, rather than the “sounds like Yes, Genesis or King Crimson” sense. Ancient Future coined the phrase “World Fusion” to describe their music. Not insipid easy-listening “World Music”, though it might make you think of that if you aren’t listening closely. World Without Walls is a remastered re-release of their 1990 classic, and doesn’t sound dated at all.

World Without Walls is a fusion of musical stylings, scales and rhythms from around the world. The main influences I hear are Middle Eastern, Indian and South American, though there’s also Jamaican “Island Music” sounds, Balinese and probably dozens of other influences too subtle for me to notice. The instruments run the gamut of acoustic instruments like violins, piano, tuned percussion instruments and tablas (by renowned master Zakir Hussein) and also electric guitar synths and synthesizers. Leader Matthew Montfort plays (along with other guitars) a unique scalloped-fretboard acoustic guitar which allows for subtle pitch-bending and timbre-modulation effects. A careful listen will reveal that this is way beyond the usual health-food store “World Music” offerings and is instead a high-energy, very experimental fusion of styles from around the world. Highly recommended, and now offered as a digital download for the first time (see link below).

Click here for Ancient Future‘s web site
Click here to download World Without Walls from iTunes


October 3, 2011

Hess and Franzen are a pair of multi-instrumentalists who have released an amazing album that defies easy categories. Hans Hess lives in Bristol, UK while Renan Franzen lives in Puerto Alegre, Brazil. Together, they have achieved what I can only describe as a masterwork in the genre of … uh … Electronic Prog-Metal Crimsonish Space Rock. Ugh. A woefully inadequate description, even if it does hit some of the styles these guys obviously appreciate.

{CLOSEDLOCKEDSEALED} is a high-energy album of instrumental music. The initial release is 300 CD’s mounted on LP-sized boards with the cover art printed on it and the whole thing in a sealed anti-static envelope. The packaging is a work of art in itself, like LP’s used to be in the old days. In fact, due to the size of the package, you’ll probably want to store this with your LP collection. Doubtless what Hess and Franzen had in mind. If this seems like overkill to you, you can also download the album from CD Baby for the paltry sum of $4.99. (In “Genre” on this site, they call it Metal/Punk: Instrumental Metal. Don’t you believe it. This is prog.)

Now to describe what the music is like … the guitars are prog-metal if you consider Lark’s Tongues in Aspic to be prog-metal. The busy bass lines are more along the lines of what you’d expect from, say, John Myung, and the drums are definitely double-bass prog-metal in style. Except that, near as I can tell, there is no drummer … I believe these are sampled drums, and they’re incredible. What gives them away is the incredible stereo imaging of the drums, rolling across the headphones like thunder echoing from nearby hillsides (oh, yes, you’ll want to listen to {CLOSEDLOCKEDSEALED} on a good set of headphones!). That and the fact that I’m not sure any human could actually play these drums. Not even Mike Portnoy.

And yet there are also sampled string sections, lyrical piano interludes, and even one section that sounds as if it’s about to be a female vocalist any second, though she never actually starts singing. Never mind, then … “she” is a very natural-sounding sample. There are also influences of space rock throughout, both the Hawkwindish metal type and the Hidria Spacefolk synth-based type.

But ultimately {CLOSEDLOCKEDSEALED} isn’t prog-metal, space rock or any other genre you could name. Hess and Franzen have come up with an incredible debut for their fresh new style, and I recommend it very highly. If I had to complain about something, it would be it’s LP-ish length … about 47 minutes. I could have easily listened to much more of this … perhaps a bit more on the next album, which I sincerely hope is in the works. — Fred Trafton

Click here for Hess and Franzen‘s web site
Click here to download {CLOSEDLOCKEDSEALED} from CD Baby
Click here to listen to samples on SoundCloud

Ahvak – same

August 22, 2011

Left to Right – Dave Kerman (long hair, drums, percussion), Roy Yarkoni (tall guy, keyboards), Yehuda Kotton (beard, guitars), Ishay Sommer (very long hair, bass), Udi Koomran (black short hair, sound/computer), Udi Susser (French beard, horns, keyboards)

I can’t believe it’s taken *cough* seven years to get around to reviewing this awesome album. I’ve had it since its release, and I’ve listened to it a few times over those years. But though it was obviously a technically brilliant album, it just never spoke to me. It seemed like too much chaos and no structure. It didn’t sink in. But this past week, with my life in utter chaos … my daughter going into labor, taking my precocious (read: hyperactive) three-year-old grandson off her hands so she could concentrate on that, an angry customer screaming at me at my job, and finally my refrigerator conking out … I chanced to put Ahvak on again. Guess what? It’s not chaotic at all! It’s carefully and precisely structured, with every note and percussion hit fulfilling its necessary role, and every noise, sound treatment and special effect meticulously placed for maximum effect. If I ever needed a lesson about how, in music, context is everything, this would be it. I actually found Ahvak to be calming.

Ahvak, I’m told, means “Dust” in Hebrew. Pertinent, since most of these band members are Israeli with the exception of Dave Kerman, who I believe was visiting Israel during this time. Fortunately for all of them, they teamed up with Israeli sound/production icon Udi Koomran (who, you’ll notice, is granted full “band member” status on this album for his contributions) to create what will surely be recognized by those who decide such things as one of the all-time masterworks of the RIO/Avant-Garde genre of prog. If I’ve never before quipped in the GEPR that RIO is simply Avant-Garde with drums, then I’ll do so here. It would be hard to argue that this is really modern classical music played on rock instrumentation, and of course with drums. It has a lot in common with bands like Thinking Plague, Yugen or 5UU’s (and I don’t just mean Dave Kerman), but without vocals. That just makes it even more difficult to carry off without the human element of voices.

Ahvak‘s sole release is an absolute masterpiece, and if you’re a fan of RIO at all, it’s a must-have in your collection. If you’re like me, it may take a few listens before it registers with you, but if you have the right ear for this style, it’s a thrill ride. Superb. — Fred Trafton

Click here for an excellent fan web site review
Click here to order Ahvak from Cuneiform Records