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(53 min, Ambient)
TRACK LIST: 1. Almost Babylon 4:23 2. Chinese Leftovers 7:55 3. Yesterday's Brain 7:45 4. Crumbs 5:53 5. Lesser Beings 3:34 6. Misfit Toys 6:07 7. Chimps in Space 13:05 All tracks: by Fox & Bocchino, except 4: Fox & 3, 5, 7: Helmet Of Gnats. Produced & engineered by Conese. LINE-UP: Chris Fox - electric & acoustic guitars Matt Bocchino - acoustic & electric keyboards Wayne Zito - electric fretted & fretless basses Mark Conese - drums & percussion
Prolusion. The US band HELMET OF GNATS was formed in the early '80s. They started as a cover group, playing songs by Brand X, UK, Happy The Man and Return To Forever, amongst others, but later turned to all-original material. The band, as well as their label Ambient Records, presents this CD as their second (eponymous!) album, but doesn't give any concrete information on its predecessor, saying only it was independently released in 1996 and is now out of print.
Analysis. Of course, the band's natural predisposition for Jazz-Fusion didn't change with years, and the experience they've gained while playing the works of the genre's brightest representatives has stood them in good stead. All this, however, does not signify that the album is done exclusively in the classic Jazz-Fusion traditions, i.e. not without the influence of the band's favorites. The music is highly original, with no cliches, not to mention borrowings. I would've been really surprised if it were vice versa. After all, this band has been around for nearly a quarter of a century. The album is excellent in its entirety, but the first two compositions: Almost Babylon and Chinese Leftovers (cool titles, as well as most of the others) are notable for some brave, really non-typical decisions. The parts of the rhythm section are mostly fixed, displaying a lot of hypnotic energy, especially when being accentuated by slow, pronouncedly heavy guitar riffs, which are available only here. The guitar and organ solos vary in tempo, tirelessly crossing the length and breadth of the basic themes and always contrasting with them. All in all, the music on said tracks appears as a really unique combination of quasi Jazz-Fusion and Cathedral Metal, though of course, it could have not managed without some leftovers:-) of Chinese music in the second case. Then follows Yesterday's Brain, where the guitar riffs and, thus, the heavy component as such, were out once and forever. The keyboards, particularly piano and synthesizer, apart from the Hammond, have not only widened their realms, but also prolonged the episodes with quiet arrangements, which resulted in the appearance of symphonic Space Rock and related textures. This is another brilliant composition in the set, though the story's climax is yet to come. On Crumbs and Misfit Toys, the number of composed themes and solos exceeds that of authentic improvisations, as well as everywhere on the album. However, these two are closer to a traditional Jazz-Fusion in sound. Partly, this event can be explained by the absence of Metal-related textures, though above all, it's due to the fact that here, the band often resorts to using such typical jazzy features (or methods, if you will) as swingy rhythms, syncopations, slap-solos on fretless bass, etc. Both are very good tracks, but aren't masterworks, as most of the others. Nevertheless, it's only the presence of Lesser Beings (among the Titans, figuratively speaking), which prevents me to rate the album with all the six stars I have. Performed by keyboardist Matt Bocchino alone, this short piece of spacey symphonic music, blended with synthesizer effects and naturalistic sounds, isn't bad, but being almost completely out of the general musical context, it looks like foreign matter here. In my view, the picture would've been more coherent without it. Although not as highly mesmerizing as the first two tracks, the 13-minute Chimps in Space surpasses them compositionally and is actually the highlight of this recording. The band shines with inventiveness and virtuosity, equally at easy working with improvisational and symphonic harmonies, sometimes turning even to Classical music forms, provided by the parts of acoustic guitar and piano. By the way, it's for the first time here that Chris Fox actively uses both of the guitars he has in his equipment.
Conclusion. Helmet of Gnats is a clever, genuinely inspired band, offering the listener a real progressive music, tasteful, original and highly intriguing all alike. Only to those frigid to Jazz-Fusion I wouldn't recommend this album. However, please note: this is predominantly a quasi Jazz-Fusion, with most of the themes and solos being thoroughly composed. Finally, here is the quote from the CD booklet. "The basic tracks for this SACD (Super Audio CD) were recorded live in the studio without the use of headphones. A highly analog multi-track tape machine was employed with no noise reduction at all, and all tracks were recorded to it as direct as possible. The mixes were made without the use of automation, directly to DSD (Direct Stream Digital). This SACD represents the sound of an all-analog production and can be played on any standard CD player, as well as on any SACD player." I don't have such a player, but I have ears to hear that this CD has an audiophile sound quality.
VM: Febrary 1, 2005
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