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(50 min, Black Widow Records)
TRACK LIST: 1. Ceres 5:45 2. In Memory 4:43 3. The Balloonist 5:31 4. Alien 2:59 5. Chronicles 4:16 6. Law & Crime 3:26 7. Nature Abounds 4:23 8. Below the Line 5:33 9. Opus None 5:37 (b/t) 10. Genesis to Geneva 7:26 (b/t) LINEUP: Roberts Owen – ac. guitar; saxophone; keyboards; vocals James Larner – vibraphones; piano; flute, harmonica Jeff McMullen – lead vocals; el. guitar Mark Knox – analog keyboards Paul Klotzbier – basses Jim Miller – drums
Prolusion. Formed by multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Robert Williams (AKA Robert Owen – R.I.P.), the US band MAELSTROM existed from 1971 to 1980. This reissue of their first-and-only LP, “On the Gulf” (which was released by band members themselves in 1973), contains all the eight tracks from LP, and also two ‘new’ compositions that the band performed live at the Three Rivers Festival in 1980, both of them instrumental pieces.
Analysis. The original of the album was only distributed in Canada (which is very strange, considering its quality) – maybe because it has a very English feel to it, sounding like no one other American band that existed at the time. Either way, this album is undoubtedly a creation that will be a very pleasing surprise for any progressive rock fan, particularly for those into the classic, British school of the genre. For the most part, the music is intense and fast-paced, highly complex symphonic Art-Rock, with strong jazz-fusion overtones in places, which challenges the senses while retaining a strong melodic sensibility throughout. At times it will remind you of Genesis (as within the piano-laden interludes on both Chronicles and Alien) or of Yes (as in the middle of Opus None) or even of Soft Machine – as in the finale of The Balloonist, where the saxophone leads are purely improvised. The vibraphone-driven arrangements, which play a fairly important role on both In Memory and Law & Crime, are reminiscent of Gong; the second half of the last of these evokes Caravan, and some of the moves on Genesis to Geneva bring to mind both Jethro Tull and ELP. However, the main influences are Van Der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant, especially obvious in the keyboards and drums and vocals respectively, drummer Jim Miller soloing non-stop, sounding like being an apprentice of Guy Evans. On the other hand, comparisons with classic acts are often overshadowed by Maelstrom’s own unique style, and its judicious use of dissonance, complex meter and plenty of original arrangements at times take the music will beyond the standard fare. Opus None and the gorgeous Genesis to Geneva (which is highly intense throughout) both demonstrate an inclination toward dramatic Symphonic Prog, one that contains more than enough complexity and thoughtful arrangements even for the most discerning fan. Disc opener Ceres and the fourth track Alien explore various facets of the symphonic style, though the latter piece does so in a somewhat quieter way than the former, let alone the two previously named compositions. In Memory (the only instrumental from the original LP), Chronicles and The Balloonist all additionally incorporate jazz-fusion elements into the blend, although a culmination in all cases has a darker, forward-moving pulse that brings to mind Van Der Graaf Generator. Each of these five pieces goes through a number of phases, all of which fit comfortably together, including some surprisingly avant-tinged moments. Progressing through multiple permutations and featuring virtuosic drums, guitar and brilliant keyboard work from Mark Knox, each of them is the excellent representation of the skill and maturity. For something this big, it never wanders off or loses focus while allowing the band to stretch out in many directions. Law & Crime is the sole track on the disc that belongs exclusively to Jazz-Fusion or, rather, quasi Jazz-Fusion, since there are few genuinely jazz improvisations here. The original LP ends with two more conventionally melodic (having a distinct balladic edge of a sort), yet undoubtedly beautiful tracks, Nature Abounds and Below the Line, both of which consist for the most part of purely acoustic arrangements.
Conclusion. All of the compositions presented are tight and very listenable, and the playing is excellent: on a par with that of the best vintage bands. This is certainly one of the best progressive rock albums of the era, a masterpiece, so it is indeed very strange that it didn’t receive a proper distribution (to say the least) at the time. It’s a diverse, sweeping statement done with finesse and a high degree of professionalism. Very highly recommended! I’ve just added the album to my Top-20 chart of 1973.
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