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Three Flavors of Progrock: Mahogany Frog, Simak Dialog, Soft Machine

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Progrock comes in a lot of flavors. At one end, there's the utterly cacophonic type (stuff that barely sounds like music it's so random and noisy); at the other end of the spectrum there's commercial stuff like early Genesis and a lot of bands that pursued a symphonic mode. And in-between...thousands of bands can fall into this catch-all classification. (Notably, when music critics fail to understand a band, they'll call them "progrock," wielding the term as if it excuses their unwillingness to delve deeper and reach a comprehension of something that is too different from Top-40.)

Here, we're going to look at three diverse takes on "progressive rock." Mahogany Frog exemplifies a guitar-heavy approach with a touch of fusion jazz. Simak Dialog explores a left-of-center World Beat sound. And Soft Machine...well, the Softs were one of the bands who forged the genre in its infancy days, compressing together rock and jazz to create a whole new form of sonic expression.

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MAHOGANY FROG: DO5 (CD on Moonjune Records)

This release from 2008 offers 47 minutes of intense progressive rock.

Mahogany Frog is: Graham Epp and Jesse Warkentin (on guitars, synthesizers, string ensemble and keyboards), Scott Ellenbergen (on bass, organ and percussion), and J.P. Perron (on drums and electronics). The trumpets are played by Graham Epp and Scott Ellenbergen.

Expect deceptive surprises here. The first track is an explosive barrage of aggressive guitars and powerhouse drums, while the second track has a long intro of seemingly aimless low-key noodling that slowly leads to a mounting progression of grinding tension with growling guitars and slippery keyboards.

The guitars are really fierce and impassioned. Their pitch is diverse, sliding from searing rockout to heavy with feedback to delicately lilting; the switching styles drag the audience along on a rollicking excursion that can be exhausting--but delightfully so.

The keyboards provide a sweetness that is often buried beneath the guitar hostility, poking out in the gaps like an underlayer of honey. Yet there are instances where the keyboards are allowed full reign, in which they shine with glistening nobility, delineating lavish sweeps of cascading chords.

The percussion alternates from frenetic compulsion to quirky chaos, the latter usually appearing in melodic lulls placed to give the audience a chance to catch their breath. Complexity is matched by velocity, resulting in rhythms that threaten to disengage molecular cohesion.

The trumpets resound at times like manic brass sections stranded on high pinnacles.

Often mired by everything, the bass rumbles with electrified potency, lending a gritty undercurrent to the mix.

The compositions are where the prog aspect flourishes, attributing the band's ferocity with a cerebral character, transforming intensity into deliberate efficacy. What initially seems to be brutality is revealed as adroitly staged beauty as gravity shears away the epidermis of reality to expose a transcendental infrastructure of alluring tuneage.

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SIMAK DIALOG: Demi Masa (CD on Moonjune Records)

This CD from 2009 features 70 minutes of refreshing progressive jazz of international scope.

Simak Dialog is: Riza Arshad (on pianos and synthesizer), Tohpati (on guitar), Adhithya Pratama (on bass), Endang Ramdan (on lead Sudanese kendang percussion), and Erlan Suwardana (on Sudanese kendang percussion). They are joined by: Emy Tata (on percussion), Mian Tiara (on vocals), and Dave Lumenta (on soundscapes).

Nimble-fingered keyboards establish aqueous tendrils that unfurl and undulate with delicate resonance. These melodies possess a crisp quality in which each note sparkles like diamonds on velvet; meanwhile that velvety aspect bestows a favorable slipperiness to the chords so that they flow together into a liquid sound, more like a waterfall than any molten spillage.

For a molten sound, we must look to the guitar, whose riffs cascade forth with volcanic heat--but not fury. The guitarwork tends to be quite delicate (albeit searing at times when indulging in severe punctuation), a fragile mien that conveys congeniality more so than fevered fury. There are times, however, when the guitar adopts a strummed acoustic demeanor, creating a churning tension.

The bass lurks like a predator, content to rumble in wait and supply subliminal support to the melodies.

The percussion is wholly natural (no synthetics here), resulting in a very sultry flavor. Intricate rhythms are produced in several layers which intertwine to generate even deeper complexity.

These compositions adhere to very relaxed mannerisms. Even when things grow somewhat impassioned, a sense of affability remains. Levels of intensity are achieved, but they are not of the teeth-gritting variety; instead, they focus on communicating a jubilant glee, at times reaching a spiritual eminence.

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SOFT MACHINE: Drop (CD on Moonjune Records)

This CD from 2009 offers 62 minutes of classic tuneage recorded live on the band's German tour in the fall of 1971.

In this incarnation, Soft Machine was: Mike Ratledge (on organ and electric piano), Elton Dean (on saxello, saxophone, and electric piano), Hugh Hopper (on bass) and Phil Howard (on drums).

Volatile is an integral description of this music. The fusion of classical, rock and jazz influences into a modern gestalt are blatantly and delightfully evident in this live music. For all their studio luster, Soft Machine's live performances took things to a transcendental level, creating tuneage of volatile beauty and enduring passion.

The keyboards are slippery and agile, producing riffs that glisten as they swoop upon the audience. An insistent quality is present, but it is a pleasant insistence as melodies are offered, not forced, for mass appreciation. With dual keyboards contributing to the music, there's a wonderful juxtaposition displayed by the coexistence of shrill organ definition with the a Fender Rhodes' sparkle.

The basslines are pure molten glory, not content to remain buried in the mix, oozing forth with an equality that fits perfectly in unison with the rest of the instruments. The burred notes carry a rumbling puissance that is often as compelling as a guitar solo might be.

The sax (in minor and major modes) pierces the veil of cohesion with rewarding clarity, communicating sweetly cavorting melodies that consistently indulge in unexpected diversions.

The drumming is fierce and powerful, packed with authority but tempered with an endearing charisma that carries the winning flavor of a dinner with an old chum you haven't seen in years. Intricate and emphatic, the beats belt forth with a remarkable allure.

Soft Machine performances usually consisted of heavy improvisations, resulting in surprising manifestations each time the songs were played. This gig's versions offer torrid takes on Soft favorites.

Besides the obvious sonic enjoyment contained on this CD, this release serves as a glorious document of Phil Howard's brief-yet-indelible tenure as the band's drummer. While only with the band for five months, his performances are legendary and fondly remembered--and served to hone the talents of his bandmates for their future evolution.

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