“Contrary to public opinion, you really can have a prog band without a Mellotronm,” said mega-drummer and Sweetwater instructor Nick D’Virgilio to an amused audience at a recent prog rock clinic. That night also marked some of the initial performances of his new prog supergroup, The Fringe. Well, perhaps the ubiquitous moniker “supergroup” is not applicable here, but the resumés of the individual members of The Fringe inspire awe and wonder, especially if one is from Europe where prog music never really drowned with the changing tides of disco, punk, and new wave of the late 70s. On drums in this trio is D’Virgilio, late of Spock’s Beard and Big Big Train; the timekeeper on Calling All Stations, the final Genesis album; touring drummer for Tears for Fears; and now house percussionist extraordinaire at Sweetwater studios. Bass duties are fulfilled by Jonas Reingold of The Flower Kings fame. Guitarist Randy McStine amply shreds, albeit very melodically, to fill out the sound.
A pleasant afternoon of listening to the streaming prog radio station morow.com will prove that long, intricate songs with amazing musicianship did not die in 1979. The genre is bursting with fresh alumni still playing actual instruments, singing coherent lyrics, and being largely ignored by mainstream radio.
Listening too long will also show that some of Yes’ progeny can sometimes be snared by the two giant clamps of prog death: (1) being Version 2.0 of the Great Prog Fathers who preceded them, or (2) wandering down some path of obscure musicality, only to turn and find that no one is following, having made songs that are pretty much unlistenable.
The Fringe avoid these traps deftly, breaking away from the clichéd and the expected while still proudly wearing the grand label of prog rock. No, there is nary a Mellotron to be found screeching anywhere on these eight tracks. Steady yourself – hold on to something – these tracks are devoid of a Mini Moog, ARP or Hammond B3 as well. Well, then, there must be some long songs about grand themes? Most of the tunes clock in at under five minutes, the exception being the excellent song, “Flare,” coming in at 9:56 and containing a long, wonderfully melodic guitar lead and multiple parts to soothe one’s hunger for the epic. Okay, okay, then, there must be instrumental virtuosity and finesse to either inspire the budding musician to woodshed or lay down their instrument completely, right? Well, D’Virgilio scrambles and purees time signatures extensively with great vigor, but this album is not about how many great licks he can fit into a half measure of music or how many guitar strings can be bent or bass strings thumped in two seconds; it is about something prog bands often forget: writing good songs. This album is the more accessible “poppy” side of prog – more Asia or Flying Colours (sans keyboards) than King Crimson or Gentle Giant. No one is showing off; we know what these players are capable of, so we can just enjoy the songs.
The opening track, “You,” begins with some 5/4 time and everything and its brother being run through a whirling Leslie speaker to remind us what genre we are listening to. But the tastiness really begins with track two, “Opening Day,” which also proves plausible lyrics can be written over 7/4 time. Track three, “A Second or Two,” has an accompanying video and is really the earworm of this album. Just try to forget the riff after listening a couple times!
The epic “Flare” is nicely followed by “Go,” a wonderful ballad that includes what all great prog must have: great harmonies and tips of the chapeau to the Fab Four. This is followed by “My Greatest Invention,” with a great memorable riff and more Beatlesque harmonies to soothe the savage breast. “Snake Eyes” is the bad-boy rocker of this album, and then everything winds up with the final track, “Yours to Steal” which almost hearkens back to the lofty era of the great Kings X ballads.
Listening to this debut album, I get the impression that I am getting in on the ground floor of even greater things to come. The foundation has been platted. This is prog for the 21st century that really doesn’t sound like any other band I can think of, and that is what makes it special. (Keith Roman)
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Marcus King Band
July 21 • Sweetwater Performace Pavilion