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(49:11, Wheelhouse Music)
TRACK LIST: 1. Strangelet 0:41 2. Dark Matter 15:12 3. Tambourin 5:42 4. Running Room 7:12 5. Entry of the Shiny Beasts 3:53 6. Miracle in the Mind 9:49 7. Rotten 6:40 LINEUP: Michael Clay – piano, keyboards; guitars; saxophone Ernie Myers – vocals; guitars Steve Powell – bass; b/vox Marc Cook – Warr guitar John Fiveash – drums Martin McCall – drums, assorted percussion
Prolusion. HANDS, from the States, became a cult band in the second half of the ‘90s when it released its first four albums, “Hands”, “Palm Mystery”, “Prism Live” and “The Early Years”, all of which were recorded in the mid-to-late ‘70s, but none of which saw the light of day at the time. The first two of these (both being full-fledged studio creations) were particularly warmly received by prog lovers, which inspired founding members, Michael Clay and Ernie Myers, to reform Hands. The band’s new chapter of work was opened in 2002 with the issue of “Twenty Five Winters” – their first full-blown studio effort in 25 years. “Strangelet” from 2008 is a successor to that epochal recording.
Analysis. Just like in the case of its predecessor, most of the music on “Strangelet” is inspired by classic ‘70s bands, such as Camel, Kansas, ELP, Gentle Giant and Genesis (listed in line of descent according to their influences’ weight in the album), but this time out Hands somewhat lacks the imagination of those groups. The brief opening cut, bearing the same title as the whole output does, generally contains nothing but a low monotonous noise generated by a synthesizer, and it doesn’t even come across as an intro to its follow-up, since there is a pause between them. The other six tracks are all complete compositions, although two of the three songs, Dark Matter and Miracle in the Mind (both being the longest pieces here, totaling 25 minutes in length), are slightly overextended. The introductory theme of the first of these is repeated eight times during its first fourth which, though, is generally quite uneventful from the progressive perspective, contrary to the rest of the epic where we get either a dense, greatly complicated, alloy of symphonic Art-Rock and progressive Hard Rock or much gentler and smoother, yet still compelling, music with a lot of acoustic guitar patterns. All the same terms and expressions are applicable to the first and the last third of Miracle in the Mind, whilst the track’s middle section is strongly lacking in structural cohesion, and what’s going on there can overall hardly be taken otherwise than as an artificial eclecticism, no matter that the band’s influences are very obscure there. Though basically slow, Running Room is nonetheless a refined art-rock piece; it features plenty of sparkling keyboard work (mainly either organ or synthesizer) and guitar leads, too, but shows compositional and performance clarity throughout and no overt repetitions in addition. Lead vocals, which are handled by Ernie Myers, are only occasionally joined in by (bassist) Steve Powell’s supporting ones, so there are noticeably less harmony vocals here than on the band’s preceding outing. Either way, sections as well as tracks with purely instrumental arrangements are the stronger point of this effort. Of the three instrumentals, Tambourin, Entry of the Shiny Beasts and Rotten, the first two don’t involve any guitars and are generally kindred creations (the only two such compositions here), both offering quite remarkable Symphonic Progressive with elements of Classical which are particularly widespread within their acoustic piano intermezzos. Quite the contrary, the latter piece is free of any keyboards and most of it sounds very heavy: somewhere in the style of That’s on My Mind from Kansas’s “Leftoverture”, but with a stronger, almost doom metal-like, hypnotic sense.
Conclusion. “Strangelet” is by no means as great an album as “Twenty Five Winters” which is almost a complete masterwork, the absence of violins and woodwinds on this recording being another point in favor of its predecessor’s superiority. Nevertheless, it’s still a good, perhaps very good, release overall, and those into retro-sounding symphonic as well as hard progressive rock music should find most of its contents to be enjoyable.
PS. With more than 120 discs in my personal queue on average, it sometimes takes as long as a year for me to get around investigating, etc., what I have to. I must spend no less – often more – than 12 hours (read: two days) on any particular recording to achieve an objective, deliberate, review of it. I clearly realize that many label managers as well as ‘independent’ musicians hate delays with reviewing their output (some of them having already stopped sending me those :-), but I must admit it turned out to be beyond my powers to switch a more superficial approach to my work. After all, the survival of our beloved genre wholly depends on its consumers, and so I see the main task of any progressive reviewer as trying to keep them well informed on what they’re looking for, to put it in a generalized way.
VM=Vitaly Menshikov: May 22, 2009
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