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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Mark Hillis

Acoustic Environment

Review by Gary Hill

It seems that acoustic progressive rock works pretty well a lot of the time. Bands like California Guitar Trio certainly pull it off. This album should appeal to fans of that group, but it's not the only sound you'll hear on this. Besides, the disc is far from a clone of that band's work. The disc flits between rock and roll, folk, jazz and progressive rock in an entertaining mélange of instrumental pieces that is nearly always effective.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Climbing the Walls
This piece reminds me a bit of some of Kansas' acoustic work with perhaps a bit of Steve Howe thrown into the mix. The violin certainly adds a lot to the arrangement. They move it out into a fusion like fast paced section later that's a nice change of pace, then take it into a dramatic and evocative more balladic section.
Shades of Red
Just under two minutes in length, this starts with a tentative, playful sort of sound. It's full of fast paced, fusion-like acoustic jamming. It's a dramatic piece of music that's remarkably effective considering its short length. This gets quite powerful as the arrangement is expanded and grown and more layers of instrumentation come across. This one is really quite amazing.
Breathe
This feels a lot like California Guitar Trio to me. It's more mellow and full of atmospheric textures, but still the guitar manages to weave some pretty intriguing melody lines. Trumpet adds a jazz texture to the piece. They ramp this up later into a more full-grown groove of a jazz arrangement. This one is among the standouts on the CD.
Synthesis
Violin starts this one off in a sad (but doesn't solo violin always sound sad?) tone. It runs through for a short time then a killer acoustic guitar pattern starts this off. As a thumping bass joins the violin returns to run patterns over the top of this pattern of music. This is another powerful cut and in fact one of my favorites. The bass gets a chance to pull way out in the mix and yet the rest of the instruments still get their share of the limelight. This is very much a fusion sort of jam with a dynamic set of changes. Eventually it crescendos and the violin ends it.
April 20
A chiming guitar pattern begins this and they are off on another inspired jam. The thing is, after running through for a short time it shifts gear completely to the most straightforward rocking sort of jam thus far. This one is very much along the lines of something that might show up on one of Steve Morse' solo albums. They drop it back to the section that began it, though, then pull it out into an entirely different movement. This has a bouncy sort of prog rock/fusion approach and is quite tasty. This dynamic piece is another that works quite well.
Solitude
In case the title didn't give it away this one is Hillis' guitar work without accompaniment. Unfortunately, if there's one on here I don't like, this is it. The guitar textures are all right, but it seems to repetitive and a bit too dissonant at points for my tastes. Still, the faster paced sections seem to work better. It also seems to drag on a bit too long.
Acoustic Environment
This one starts off in much the same way as the last cut, with a picked pattern on Hillis' acoustic. The difference is other instruments help to add to the musical themes of this one. I hear a lot of elements that remind me of Pink Floyd on this one, particularly sections of the Animals album. The trumpet brings in more of those jazz tones, though. This one is possibly my favorite on the album. Talk about a contrast from one piece to the next. They just seem to get everything right here.
Squirrely
This one comes in with a more rocking texture. It's a more playful and fun piece of music. It's an interesting way to end the disc with a bit of a laugh - literally. 
 
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