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(57:33, 10T Records)
Prolusion. MARS HOLLOW are a quartet based in San Fernando, California (USA), whose four members are veterans of the Los Angeles progressive rock scene. They first got together in 2007, when drummer Jerry Beller met Steve Mauk and Kerry Chicoine, who had been playing in an ELP tribute band. Mars Hollow’s self-titled debut album, released in June 2010, was produced by King Crimson associate Chris Ronan Murphy. At the time of writing, the band are scheduled to perform at the 16th edition of ProgDay, the longest-running progressive rock festival in the world, which will take place on September 4-5, 2010, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (USA).
TRACK LIST: 1. Wait for Me 9:30 2. Midnight 5:07 3. Eureka 9:21 4. If I Were You 7:32 5. In Your Hands 6:33 6. Wild Animal 7:11 7. Dawn of Creation 12:23 LINEUP: John Baker – vocals; guitars Steve Mach – keyboards; vocals Kerry Chicone – vocals; bass Jerry Beller – drums; vocals
Analysis. References to the red planet abound in the history of rock, as proved by such diverse outfits as David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars and 21-century progressive innovators The Mars Volta. Mars Hollow’s name, on the other hand, has no real connection to outer space, since it refers to a place in rural Vermont close to where bassist Kerry Chicoine grew up. In some ways, nostalgia is part and parcel of Mars Hollow’s makeup, since the band follows firmly in the footsteps of the great progressive rock acts of the Seventies. Many people nowadays scoff at anything even vaguely ‘retro’-sounding, and I have myself been often ready to point out whenever a band or artist was clearly too derivative. On the other hand, Mars Hollow prove that it is fully possible to pay one’s dues to those who led the way without sounding like mere copycats. The four members of Mars Hollow are obviously seasoned musicians with a keen ear for melody, as well as impressive chops – all of which is brought to bear in their debut album, one of the most highly awaited prog releases of 2010. The result of their efforts are seven songs ranging from 5 to 12 minutes in length, each one of them remarkably cohesive from a compositional point of view. The overall impression is one of maturity, as well as solidity – something quite rare from a band at their recording debut. “Mars Hollow” is one of those balanced, well-rounded albums that, while not perfect, come across as deeply satisfying. Without claiming to be reinventing the wheel (as many musicians are wont to do when advertising their output), Mars Hollow manage to sound like themselves rather than like a host of other bands. True, there are influences to be detected, as is normal for everyone but the most genuinely innovative (and accordingly rare) acts. A powerfully keyboard-driven ensemble, they pay homage to one of their main sources of inspiration by inserting a snippet from ELP’s iconic Moog bravura piece Aquatarkus bang in the middle of In Your Hands. Unlike the seminal British trio, though, Mars Hollow keep songwriting rather than displays of individual skill at the forefront of their musical vision. Their compositions are tightly structured, and convey a feeling of harmony and balance even when approaching the 10-minute mark. Even the album’s epic, closing track Dawn of Creation, is conceived like an actual song rather than a sprawling patchwork of solo spots with more time signatures than you can wrap your head around. If I had to compare Mars Hollow to any established acts, two American bands come to my mind: Kansas and Spock’s Beard. Since both Jerry Beller and Kerry Chicoine (the band’s main songwriter) have in the past collaborated with keyboardist Ryo Okumoto, it is not surprising to find echoes of Spock’s Beard in Mars Hollow’s output; while Kansas have been enormously influential to many prog acts that privilege melody and lush arrangements. While Mars Hollow lack the Topeka-based band’s trademark violin, they share the same flair for airy, well-paced compositions striking a nice balance between vocal and instrumental sections. Moreover, though lead singer/guitarist John Baker’s soaring tenor vocals have been compared to the likes of Geddy Lee or Jon Anderson, I see Steve Walsh as a much more fitting parallel. Vocal harmonies also play an essential role on “Mars Hollow”, with some intriguing textures reminiscent of Yes and even Gentle Giant. Not unlike ELP, the guitar here has more of a supporting than a star role; while Jerry Beller’s drumming, always precise and never overwhelming, works in perfect synch with Kerry Chicoine’s powerful bass lines. As a whole, the quality of the compositions is quite high, so that it is not easy to identify any standout tracks, or any glaring weaknesses either. Personally, I find the chorus on Wild Animal a bit too close to AOR for comfort, though it is infectious in its own way and very nicely done; the whole song is probably the closest to the mainstream the band get, with vocals given much more relevance than the instrumental parts. On the other hand, Midnight – another strongly vocal-driven effort - manages to be catchy while avoiding the pitfalls of overt commerciality, especially thanks to Kerry Chicoine’s meaty yet melodic bass. Chicoine is also responsible for the vocals on In Your Hands, another catchy number that reminded me of Yes’ first two albums; while not as gifted in the vocal department as Baker, he does quite a good job of it – though his star moment is the stunning bass work (including a solo passage) on If I Were You. Opener Wait for Me, Eureka and Dawn of Creation are instead rich keyboard-fests, with remarkably smooth interplay between the individual instruments. I especially enjoyed Steve Mauk’s effortlessly fluid shifts from organ to piano to Moog synthesizer within the bounds of the same track. Indeed, this is Symphonic Prog with a modern touch – even if some might say that “Mars Hollow” is not an overly progressive effort, and also a tad on the derivative side. While there might be some truth in both these statements, I have found it a vastly more rewarding listen than many of the discs to which those definitions could apply. For a debut album, this is very mature and accomplished, even if I would not mind hearing Mars Hollow stretch their boundaries a little bit further in their next release.
Conclusion. Mars Hollow’s self-titled debut is one of those rare albums that manage to balance accessibility with progressive sensibilities without descending into cheesiness, all the while keeping an eye on that most prized of quality – cohesiveness at the compositional level. This is a very promising debut by a bunch of experienced musicians, and one that is likely to appeal to most listeners but the most elitist ones.