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Prog Rock: Joe Deninzon, the Muffins, Present, Rascal Reporters, the Red Masque

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JOE DENINZON: The Adventures of Stratospheerius (CD on D-Zone Entertainment)

Russian-born/Cleveland-bred/New York-based violinist Joe Deninzon has played with Sheryl Crow, Smokey Robinson, Johnny Mathis, Jay and the Americans, Everclear, and many more. On this 70 minute CD from 2002, Deninzon spreads his solo wings (accompanied by a full back-up band who superbly flesh out the songs).

While rooted in a rock foundation, this music employs elements of power jazz and sultry funk to produce an exuberant frenzy that is quite comparable to Joe Satriani (if that Joe's instrument were a smoking violin instead of a guitar). Deninzon's violin mastery belts out riffs that delightfully blazes with searing riffs, plunging the music into a fiddle frenzy that bestows the tuneage with unbridled energy.

Fleshing out the Stratospheerius sound are: sultry guitar, rumbling basslines, frantic drumming, sinuous keyboards, and celebratory vocals that enunciate lyrical outlines of life.

The songs are gripping and energetic. Insistent melodies are made compelling by the violin passion. Fevered solos are cradled between lyrical passages that tremble with breakout rock stamina. A Bayou flavor lurks in several tracks, creating a strange fusion of bluesy funk and studied progressive tendencies. The result is goodtime music that will get you dancing.

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THE MUFFINS: Bandwidth (CD on Cuneiform Records)

This 51 minute release from 2002 marks the return of the Muffins after an absence of over two decades.

The Muffins are: Thomas Frasier Scott, Dave Newhouse, Billy Swann, and Paul Sears. Also featured are contributions by: trombonist Doug Elliot (who performed with the Muffins during the Seventies), cellist Amy Cavanaugh (formerly from 24fps), violist Kristen Snyder, and violinist Amy Taylor (formerly from Grits).

The core of this music remains a solid fusion of numerous saxophones, clarinets and flutes, slippery keyboards and driving percussion with a dash of growling guitar and rumbling bass tossed in as flavoring. The instruments blare and coalesce, producing a melodic force that raises eyebrows and fun quotients with their cheerful passion.

Influenced by Canterbury music, Henry Cow, Sun Ra, and an overall flair of jazz and progressive rock, the current Muffins are delivering solid compositions in the same vein--but elevated into a modern framework.

Fans of unbridled progrock will celebrate this new release, while the uninitiated are invited to experience the ecstasy found in this feverish jazz music.

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PRESENT: High Infidelity (CD on Carbon 7 Records)

This CD from 2002 features 48 minutes of grippingly haunting music.

Present is: Roger Trigaux on guitar and vocal, Reginald Trigaux on guitar and vocal, Piere Chevalier on keyboards and vocal, Dave Kerman on drums and vocal, Keith Macksoud on bass, Matthieu Safatly on cello and vocal, Fred Becker on saxophones, Dominic Ntoumos on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Udi Koomran on sound, with guests Yuval Mesner on cello, and Meidad Zaharia on accordion.

From that line-up of instrumentals alone, one can gather that Present's sound is quasi-classical. To hear the music, one immediately is cast into a gothic realm of eerie melodies and surging energy.

The guitar wails, demanding attention and proving its emotional point with savage expressions. Horns careen from cavewalls, pummeling the audience with their vibrant lament. Nimble keyboards warn of dire consequences lurking just behind the next passage. Agile percussion cavorts through the pulsating melody, adding punctuation as well as rhythm to the flow. The bass rumbles with an animal ferocity. These instruments jostle for dominance in the music, frequently allowing each other solo passages...only to converge with a passion that dazzles the listener with carefully orchestrated crescendos.

Starting with the basics of Rock in Opposition, Present forces a darkness into the tuneage that transplants medieval dread into the modern world. Tension is a constant throughout the music, a relentless impression of foreshadow and impending incidence.

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RASCAL REPORTERS: The Foul-Tempered Clavier (CD on Pleasant Green Records)

This 62 minute CD features 50 minutes of fresh material (recorded between 1995 and 1999) and twelve minutes of bonus tracks (originating from the band's late Seventies days).

The Rascal Reporters are: multi-instrumentalists Steve Gore and Steve Kretzmer. They are joined by special guest Dave Newhouse (from the Muffins) on saxophones, clarinets and flutes.

This music is dynamic and exuberant, with fancifully nimble keyboards and devious percussive threads mixing with serious woodwinds and rascal horns. Complex and rapid keyboard runs cavort through melodies at breakneck velocity, while never stumbling or giving quarter. Electronics are employed to enhance this surging quality, bestowing a sparkling edge to the fervent melodies. The percussion has a distinct sense of humor as the rhythms veer into unexpected territories in the midst of driving tempos, leaving the audience bewildered but amused. Some guitar (electric and acoustic) can be found, but their appearances are fleeting and buried in the thick mix of the whole.

While there are a few snappy tunes on this CD, the majority of the music can be considered dense and stately, molded in the style of Seventies Progressive Rock colliding head-on with Rock in Opposition. The overall tone is one of carefully planned improvisation--a concept that is in many ways as contradictory as the Rascal Reporters' music itself. All these contradictions and unconventional motives only imbue the tuneage with endearing qualities, producing an exciting dose of pleasantly erratic harmonies.

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THE RED MASQUE: Victoria and the Haruspex (CDR on the Red Masque Music)

This CDR from 2002 features 48 minutes of intensely dark, haunting prog rock. The Red Masque are: Steven Blumberg, Nathan-Andrew Dewin, Brandon Ross, Lynette Shelley, and Vonorn, with a guest appearance by Abhi Taranath on electric guitar on the 24 minute epic track "Haruspex". (A haruspex is an ancient Roman diviner who based their predictions on the interpretation of animal entrails, natural prodigies, and unusual meteorological phenomena.)

That epic track begins with a drawn-up passage of meandering calm, instruments pattering at random to generate an expectant tension. When the music finally coalesces into emphatic cacophony, the expansion displays grand proportions with growling bass, searing guitar, loudly whispering drums, serpentine keyboards, and screeching vocal effects. The loose threads all merge to formulate a seething dragon of sound, thrashing its mighty rhythms and unfurling fiery riffs. Each time chaos or a slow moment tries to emerge, the miasma rises again, swallowing the mix and the listener.

The remaining three tracks on this CD exhibit more conventional structure and demonstrative melody. These songs apply the band's energies to produce strong tuneage rich with gothic sentiment. From towering spires of a dark castle there explodes guitar pyrotechnics, blazing across the wicked sky to illuminate the misty marshes. Those haunted fields are alive with the fervor of dynamic percussion and squealing keyboards. The husky female vocals rise to enunciate dire consequences to all who dare venture deeper into this music. And the audience is drawn in, unable to resist the lure of darker secrets.

The Red Masque excel at building passionate cohesion from furious chaos. Their music employs delicate structure, but it is prone to explode into feverish cacophony, generating a blur of freeform fury that dazes the unprepared audience.

Crystalline harp plays a vital part in the CD's final track, establishing a mournful conclusion that places all the frightening scenarios in a more mortal context.

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