There really seems to be something about the legends of King Arthur and his round table that works with the prog rock mentality. Whether its the noble bombast of their quests, the presence of strong, virtuous characters or merely the fact that proggers generally tend to have a vested interest in this sort of literary culture, I doubt there would have been many raised eyebrows when Blake Carpenter (mastermind behind The Minstrel’s Ghost) first announced his intent to adapt these legends into a progressive rock epic. Although “The Road to Avalon” may not be quite as musically ambitious as the prospect of an hour-long suite may suggest, the work Carpenter and his round table have invested into this project is very evident.
Particularly for an album intent on telling some of the most epic stories in the English (and French) literary canon, it’s surprising that “The Road to Avalon” is so mellow. Although the symphonic traditions of classic Genesis are evoked, The Minstrel’s Ghost draw much of their influence from the well of Pink Floyd, particularly the chillout instrumentation of “Wish You Were Here”. Although Carpenter’s style of composition remains very focused on the melodic aspect of their sound, there is plenty of time within the album’s hour for the musicians to spread their wings. In particular, Colin Tench earns top marks for his soulful leads, the likes of which I’ve heard before in his work with BunChakeze and Corvus Stone. Although he sticks to the background for the most part, drummer Zoltan Csorsz shines when given the chance, particularly during the drum solo at the beginning of “The Life”- a momentary burst of chaos very reminiscent of Neil Peart’s solo on Rush’s fantastic “The Fountain of Lamneth”. Blake Carpenter’s keyboard work is pleasant, but rarely as impressive as Tench’s skill with the guitar. Instead, Blake’s best contribution to the performance lies in his singing. Although he doesn’t sport the greatest vocal range I’ve heard in my recent listening, he has a pleasant, warm tone to his voice that fits the music. Comparisons to Peter Gabriel are inevitable.
Making an hour-long piece of music is an ambitious undertaking by any stretch, and though The Minstrel’s Ghost never once rushes to get anywhere, there are plenty of ideas here that take longer to fully appreciate than the hyper-melodic style might imply. Although there are a few sparse moments of narrative dialogue to help advance the story, most of the album is split between instrumental lead passages, and Carpenter’s expository storytelling. The lyrics do a fairly good job of covering the bases of the Arthurian legend, and earn an extra feeling of warmth and sincerity when filtered through Blake’s voice. Sadly, the lyrics stick almost obsessively to an ABAB rhyme scheme, and though it gives the album a greater sense of flow, it would have been great to hear the story told somewhat more imaginatively. The music is weakened by this uniform approach as well. Unlike many epics, “The Road to Avalon” does feel like a start-to-finish piece of music, but there are few surprises delivered therein. To its merit however, Blake Carpenter is an expert at using recurring motifs and themes effectively. The finale in particular stands out, injecting the album’s most common chorus with a galloping intensity that sits a stone’s throw away from progressive metal territory. Also included on the album is a condensed, thirteen minute version of the album, which acts as a welcome ‘quick fix’ for anyone who might not have the time to listen to the entire thing.
As I’ve come to expect from anything released on Melodic Revolution Records, “The Road to Avalon” enjoys a crisp sense of production. The artwork and packaging is incredibly engaging, and although Ed Unitsky’s usual style of saturating every square inch of the canvas with activity can be overwhelming, the colourful design is a joy to the eyes.
In a way, “The Road to Avalon” brings to the table what the Carpenter/Tench-involved Corvus Stone failed to; that is, a memorable flow and firm sense of composition. For my tastes, The Minstrel’s Ghost may fly a little too closely to the mellow end of the spectrum, but there’s no denying the vision and talented musicianship that has gone into the making of the album. “The Road to Avalon” is- if nothing else- a tasteful hour of music. The Minstrel’s Ghost are not fighting on the frontlines of the current progressive scene. Rather, they are celebrating the mellow groove and melodic spirit that made the original wave of neo-prog so impressive. There are recurring motifs and instrumental depth enough to keep an attentive listener engaged, but if you would prefer to lay back and let it wash over, The Minstrel’s Ghost shall allow it. Check it out!