“There are some moments in life where we never want to let go and hold on to it, even if it’s just supposed to be a withered memory, like many others. There’s always this urge to think it is real, like walking into a framed photograph, and living a life in there. Introspection is one thing, and living in the past, another.” – Usha – Smiley Side Up.
What a great, bold and far reaching statement. What triggered this in my mind? Well, we all know that one of the pioneering bands of the progressive rock, one of the founding fathers in fact, Yes, have released a new album this year, ‘Heaven & Earth’, to rather lukewarm, in fact downright mediocre, reviews. This has invited a flurry of defensive comments about the band and a lot of music fans pointing out that there are much better bands out there that can produce what the 70’s behemoths have done in a decidedly more impressive fashion. Bands like Druckfarben, Glass Hammer and Perfect Beings.
This got me thinking, isn’t this just damning these other artists with faint praise? Instead of comparing them to the past legends, shouldn’t we as ‘progressive’ rock fans be looking forward and actually progressing? I think we should be taking each band on its own merits and not harking back to the glories of the original progressive rock period. To take Usha at his own word, stop living in the past and start looking forward.
I am going to start by looking at Perfect Beings and their debut, self-titled release. L.A. based, the band was formed by Moth Vellum founder, guitarist, and great solo artist in his own right, Johannes Luley. In November 2012 he had approached songwriter, pianist and vocalist Ryan Hurtgen, recently arrived in L.A. from Nashville about collaborating on a concept album. Loosely based on Suhail Rafidi’s sci-fi novel ‘TJ and Tosc’, the novel’s themes of transformation, self-identity, technology, and love in a post-apocalyptic world were a perfect fit with the music.
They added drummer Dicki Fliszar (Bruce Dickenson band) to the ranks and then enlisted Jesse Nason (Fliszar’s former bandmate) on keyboards and Chris Tristram (ex Slash) on bass. Perfect Beings are all about the interplay of five forces, each bringing their individual styles and talents to the plate, combining them into one big musical feast.
So then folks, it is time to listen to the music and see if it can stand tall on its own merits or whether it will stay in the shadow of the acknowledged greats like some pale imitation.
Well, to be honest, the start of the album is rather inauspicious. The first two tracks The Canyon Hill and Helicopter are firmly in a sort of alt-rock pop stance that is quite underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, it is well done, the vocals quiet and understated on the first track but it is very unfulfilling and leaves you wanting more. Helicopter tries to add a bit of wackiness to proceedings but just comes across as a lightweight Red Hot Chilli Peppers with the short, sharp guitar riff and over-emphasised vocal delivery. It has been done before and done a lot better in my opinion. There are some nice touches like the break in the middle with the nicely harmonised vocals but, at this moment in time, I am left wondering who these guys’ actual influences are?
All is not lost though as the intro to Bees and Wasps promises a lot more. A decidedly funky 70’s prog bassline and tinkling piano are what I really want to hear. The track builds on this foundation, the vocals kick in earnestly and everything just hangs on the edge a tad. Nice little guitar interludes and the classy percussion show that this band do know where they are going as they blend modern with classic. Odd time signatures abound as you would expect and a coruscating guitar section adds a hint of mystery. This is intensive, thought provoking music with attitude, not the youth oriented pap of the first couple of tracks and leaves you wondering if they were accidently left on the final master. The delicate piano and keyboards are a nice touch and my opinion is very much starting to change, the way the vocals build towards the end of the track is sublime showing the power of Hurtgen’s voice, let’s see if this is a total change of direction or just a shining light in the abyss of bleak normality. Well, things definitely seem to be on the up with a continuation of classy music. Walkabout is an acoustic delight, the gentle guitar and beautifully harmonised vocals play with your emotions and leave you with a feeling of contented wonderment. The bass is used as major player rather than just a rhythm aid and is captivating. The song construction is complex but totally accessible. The section in the middle where the keyboards are given free rein is excellent and then, when the guitar is allowed to blast off with a Duane Eddy vibe, you just can’t help but smile. This is where the golden era influences begin to seep out and show their classic style, the song being over nine minutes long but never feeling like it is impacting on your time, you are happy to immerse yourself in it and let it wash over you. Dicki Fliszar is almost allowed to get away with a drum solo in the middle of the track as the song takes a laid back interlude in a wholly mesmerising fashion before coming to a mellow, unhurried close.
The next track on the album, Removal of the Identity Chip, lulls you into a state of stasis with its congenial, unthreatening introduction, a whole jumble of guitar, drums, bass and keyboards meanders along amiably like a casual wander through an unfettered soundscape. The tide turns with the introduction of a powerful organ note and a guitar sound that harks right back to the progtastic 70’s. It is quite superb and really pulls on the emotions, Johannes Luley’s playing is masterful and the little signature bass sound as the song comes to a close is a nice touch. Program Kid begins with a keyboard note and vocal tone that really brings The Eels to mind for me, gently psychedelic in its composition. Gentle and unimposing is dances along the edge of your psyche, almost melancholy in its delivery. Once again, the delicate vocals are central to the track’s allure. There is a short pause and then the blue touch paper is lit and off we go with a quite glorious instrumental section led by the animated bass playing and chiming guitar. This really does bring to mind classic Yes, I have honestly been trying to keep away from the comparison but here it is just brilliant execution that cannot help but remind you of that band in its heyday. The way the track finishes is just superb.
Remnants of Shields begins benignly and considerate with a gently strummed acoustic guitar and lush keyboards. The percussion is just in the back of your mind as the vocals begin smooth and mellow. It is almost transcendental in its delivery, dreamlike and serene. You just kick back and relax and the world and its worries drift away. A nicely harmonised vocal leads in Fictions before the soaring guitar takes centre stage transfixing you. There are elements of modern pop intertwined with the classic progressive guitar sound and hushed, flowing keyboards. The band are looking forward but always tipping their metaphorical hats back in a nod to the greats of the past. On this track Johannes Luley really lets rip with a vintage guitar note that bleeds passion, spellbinding in its intensity.
Primary Colours begins with a repeated piano note and a funky guitar riff before the vocals begin in an undulating fashion. That guitar note leaches into a familiar prog edge and the off beat drums and bass hold everything in sway. This song is short, sweet and quite delightful delivering beauteous sounds for your aural pleasure. The last song on the album is, quite possibly, the most straightforward, prog led track. One of Your Kind begins in a quite uplifting way, the vocals being low and luscious, flowing over you. The tempo is deliberate and steady as the track opens up a musical vista in front of you. Acoustic guitar interludes that dance along with infinite grace and humility are just one of the sumptuous ingredients in this smorgasbord of sonorous delights. It is like the shackles of restrainment are off and the band are let loose on a stylistic progressive jam of fast paced keyboards, incredible drumming and a guitar that literally talks to you. The amazing range and quality of Ryan Hurtgen’s vocals are fully on show as he leads the song along. Just sit back, forget about the outside world and let this musical journey seep into every pore as it reaches the heights. It is like the whole album has built up to culminate in this track, everything perfected as the record comes to a poignant close.
Well, what can I say, after a rather lacklustre beginning Perfect Beings have delivered an excellent album that, whilst taking all that is good from the annals of progressive music, is proud to forge its own path. The influences are there but they are not the main focus of the music, the band have created something that is wholly progressive and forward facing whilst never forgetting the musicians who began the genre 4 decades or more ago. Definitely worth investing in and the future can only be bright for this talented group.