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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Klaatu

Sun Set

Review by Gary Hill

For me this 2 CD set has been like being reintroduced to an old friend. Klaatu is a band that probably more than any other has major supporters and major nay-sayers in the prog rock community. Looking at their recorded output, it's easy to see why. Their debut disc and the follow up Hope truly were prog rock masterpieces, but not in the lengthy epic style of progressive rock, but more in the song-oriented sub-genre practiced these days by artists like The Flower Kings. When they released their third album the pressure from the label to produce a hit was getting pretty fierce, and they focused more on the pop side of the coin, but still there was merit in much of the material. After releasing their third album of a five record contract, the label made them an ultimatum - one more album, but there had to be a hit. They begrudgingly focused on material that they thought would get them radio airplay. But even then the label replaced long time producer Terry Brown with a "hit maker" and even went so far as to bring in studio musicians to actually perform the album. The tracks included here to represent that disc are the band's demos for the songs. The pseudo Klaatu album (seems a good way to refer an album by a band, but played by studio musicians instead - unless you are the Partridge Family or Milli Vanilli) didn't generate the sales that Capitol was looking for, and they cut Klaatu lose one album early. The final album, Magentalane was a gift to the band from Capitol Canada - the US label had dropped them - but was only offered if they toured - and they did. The CD saw the band looking back to their roots. As the book that accompanies this collection explains they decided that if this was going to be their last album, they wanted it to be something their long time fans could appreciate. They couldn't stand the idea of the aptly titled Endangered Species being their last product.

So, with such a powerful first couple of albums, what went wrong to keep this band from not achieving the level of other prog contemporaries? Certainly, as with any such situation, varying factors came into play. Not the least of these were the Beatles connection. The band has always had a strong tie to the sound of the Beatles. Frankly, much of their music feels like something that John, Paul, George and Ringo might have produced if they had decided to move further into the progressive rock stylings hinted at with Sgt. Peppers. The sound was so reminiscent that it caused more than one writer to speculate that this outfit was actually the fab four playing incognito. I even remember hearing some idiot on the radio say that they had done voice print analysis and came up with that answer. This rumor was further fueled by a highly respectable concept that the band had made part of their contract. They wanted the music to speak for itself. To that regard, no mention of their names or any pictures of them were published on the albums. They did no live performances until very late in their career. Unfortunately, in keeping with this credo they chose to not respond to the speculation - which was probably a big mistake. Once the hype wore off and people began to realize that this was not in fact some reunion of the Liverpool lads, there was almost a sense of resentment on the part of many listeners and some of the media. This certainly hurt the band in the long run. It's a case of someone sticking to their ethics, but having it cut their legs out from under them in a real sense.

With this collection the group have put together a lot of alternate takes, rarities and single versions and created a 2 CD set that should be a welcome breath of nostalgia for those, like myself, who were fans in the day. It probably also represents something that would make a good introduction and cross section of the career. The accompanying book really chronicles the history of a band who had strong musical talents, high standards and were victims of rumors and prevailing industry pressures that sank their career. It, combined with the music, therefore presents a cross section of their career, the highs and the lows - and offers the uninitiated a great place to start to learn about this unique outfit. All of those facts would be enough to sell me on the collection, but there is more. The Hope album was originally recorded as an epic concept album, complete with a full orchestra. Through situations that are chronicled in the book - that version was never released, instead reworked into the album that Klaatu fans know. For the first time that set is presented here in all it's original glory. The long and short of the whole situation, though, is this - Klaatu's music will always live on - and for the true believers, this will forever be a great tribute to a very talented group of musicians.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
Hanus of Uranus
This slightly psychedelic crunchy rocker is quite a bit different than the version on the self titled LP, but is quite cool nonetheless. I like the guitar sound here a bit more than the original. This version was the first song they ever recorded - that in itself makes it a perfect album opener.
Sub Rosa Subway
This symphonic Beatles-like prog rocker is catchy and fun, but oh so tasty. I've always love this cut about the origins of the subway in New York City. It also includes one of Terry Brown's (producer of the release - best known for his work with Rush) only spots in front of the mic - the spoken words "It's far too rude" are none other than him. If the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers had been still more prog rock oriented, it probably would have sounded a lot like this. There is so much going on in this one that it's hard to believe it's only a little more than 4 minutes long.
Cherie
If the last song sounded like the Beatles, this acoustically driven ballad is a dead ringer. This is the original arrangement of a song that would be reworked for the Sir Army Suit album.
Dr. Marvello
This one has a great mysterious and tentative texture with a further take on the psychedelic Beatles-like sound. This is another that truly shows how the band could merge prog elements with quirky Beatles-Like arrangements and a catchy pop rock sensibility.
For You Girl
Another bouncy cut, this is also one that feels a lot like the Beatles. It starts as a piano based ballad and grows from there. While not a bad cut, it's not one of the strongest on show here, but the arrangement is intriguing. This is the first time this one has appeared on CD - its only release previously was as a B-Side of the Canadian single of "Dr. Marvello".
California Jam
This quirky bouncy rocker was always a bit lightweight for my tastes. It's not bad, just a little too generic. Still the arrangement does hold a few surprises.
Calling Occupants (Of Interstellar Craft)
The first track I heard from Klaatu and it was the one that hooked me, this has been covered by both The Carpenters and Star People, but this is the real deal. This one doesn't differ much from the version originally released and it is an incredibly powerful steadily growing number that serves up an invitation to extraterrestrial visitors. Sections of this sound a bit like something from Wakeman's solo career and other parts do call to mind the tried and true Beatles. This cut moves through a lot of intriguing changes and still holds up remarkably well in its artistically creative and yet very catchy series of sections. In my book this one stands up well against any of the more song-oriented cuts by any prog band. This one alone is worth the ticket price! To quote the lyrics, "…close your eyes, you concentrate…" and this one will wind you over in no time.
Little Neutrino
Another awesome track, I remember the original album version with the vocals run though a vocoder being stronger than this one. That said, the incredibly tasty prog/space rock progression and ever growing themes are another highlight of this set. This cool sci-fi number is a definite winner in any form. This is a masterpiece!
Around the Universe in 80 Days
The first track from the orchestral Hope tracks, this one starts with a tentative and mysterious synthesized intro that builds ever so slowly. Then it drops to atmospheric keys and voce 'til piano comes in to accompany. As this builds it becomes a sci fi prog cut that feels like something The Beatles might have done if they had wandered further into progressive rock. It stays in this manner for a time, then drops to more atmosphere. Then a very short symphonic type mode give way to a keyboard based spoken word segment. Then it jumps to something that can probably best be describe as "space calypso music" It then moves back to the spoken segment, jumping up the theatric almost rock operaish mode after that. It moves back to the opening verse to carry forward, then morphs up again to the space prog Beatles mode to end. Its amazing to believe that as epic and complex as this cut is it is less than five minutes in length.
Madman
Keys start this cut out of the space that begins it. A short mellow verse gives way to a cool Pentwater like hard edged, slightly psychedelic jam. Then it drops back to a mellow verse before the fast paced weird prog returns to take it onward. Another drop to the mellow verse makes an appearance, and then it jumps up again. This time the jam moves into a cool new meaty territory to end.
Long Live Politzania
Harpsichord starts this then a quick burst of old word pomp gives way to an odd sort of spoken verse. Then the cut streams out in a very tasty rocking jam that works exceptionally well. They take it back to the Old World pomp, and then it drops down to the earlier spoken section. The harder rocking segment returns to carry it forward and the familiar pattern of pomp returns. Then a new classically oriented segment moves in and the group takes off on a jam that's part classical and part prog rock and all cool. They work this in varying directions creating and recreating the themes in unusual ways. Then a crescendo gives way to just keys. The spoken segment returns, but dark and more powerful this time. They rework this theme this time into an off-kilter prog-rocking take on it, then the classically tinged mode takes over again. A keyboard and vocal chorus leads into a new movement that sounds a little like The Beatles meet Queen with a symphony backdrop. They turn in a Beatles-like singalong type chorus after that eventually crescendos and orchestral sounds take it into its next movement a full on rocking symphony a bit like "The William Tell Overture" at times. This eventually leads to a rousing conclusion.
The Loneliest of Creatures
A pretty intricate ballad like section starts this and it builds slowly. Eventually a more developed melody builds overtop. A bouncy sort of verse takes it and a bombastic Queen like chorus answers the verses. Then a new more dramatic and quite potent verse section takes over. The bombastic chorus returns to dispute the singer's claim that he is "the loneliest of all creatures in the universe". The new verse enters and eventually reveals that a lighthouse keeper who is the last of his kind in fact holds that title. A round begins saying that although the narrator knows he isn't, he still feels like he's "the loneliest of all creatures."
Prelude
This dramatic neo-symphonic prelude at times feels like Nektar, but much more symphonic in nature. It drops to orchestral atmosphere, then gradually builds from there until a Russian sounding bouncy melody takes it in a cool new jam that eventually bursts up into hard rocking fury with a guitar sound that calls to mind Queen a bit. These two modes fight for control of this instrumental and in the process create one of the coolest synthesis of classical and rock ever heard. Eventually a pretty new melody takes it, then it moves into an incredibly lush brief Old World section. Then piano gains control before the Russian tones herald the return of the fight of styles. Eventually, this evolves into a bouncy sort of jam with both sounds firmly represented and this grows in dramatic and triumphant tones until it ends abruptly.
So Said the Lighthouse Keeper
Keys start this out of the silence from the last cut. As one might imagine, this track tells the tale of the aforementioned lighthouse keeper. It moves in a very spars e arrangement, then bursts into a new prog/space rock movement that builds in intensity and emotion until crescendoing, then drops back to a new powerful more balladic movement. After this works through for a time it gives way to the more sparse arrangement. The band then build this up in power and intensity once again to carry forward. They drop it back to atmospheric tones for the next verse. Then a mellower, but very pretty and powerful movement take it forward from there. They build this ever higher as they carry it forward and eventually fade back down.
Epilogue
This is a very brief and pretty cut. It doesn't appear at all on the original release of the Hope disc.
Hope
This one carries the themes of the Hope album to a fulfilling positive close with a pretty rather balladic and very Beatles-like cut. The guitar lines on this one feel a lot like George Harrison's style. As it moves into the new harder edged potent resolution the entire arrangement begins to feel even more like something from Harrison's solo career. They drop it back later to carry forward. While not the stronger track the group have done, it serves as a great conclusion to the whole Hope suite and disc one of this set.
Disc 2
A Routine Day
Starting with the sounds of rain, this one comes in as a piano based ballad like the Beatles, then grows into a very potent prog rock take on Sgt. Peppers territory. This moves through several changes and variations in a killer complex, yet catchy arrangement.
Juicy Lucy
To me, this one feels a lot like Sweet with just a touch of John Lennon. It's not all that prog, although Sweet could get pretty proggy, but it's a fun rocker. The bass line turns quite discofied in the late segments here.
Everybody Took A Holiday
This is bouncy and a bit like the odd old time Beatles style. The even added white noise to the backdrop of this cut to add to that vintage sound. Interestingly enough it feels a bit like some of the unfinished Yes demos from the post Tormato era at points. That doesn't mean that this feels unfinished, though, but rather that it is similar in style. It's quirky, but rather fun.
Older
This rocker (the only live song on show here) is a fun one that feels a bit like Sweet and Bowie. It's slightly psychedelic and weird, but also very cool. It is a smoking jam with a deceptively complicated arrangement. Its main rhythm theme, though, feels a lot like a certain Spinal Tap song. I wonder if Derek St. Hubbins and the guys ever heard this one.
Dear Christine
This pretty cut is a Beatles-like and quite effective ballad.
Marilyn Manson
Dark, bouncy and almost metal, this has a rather Zappa does the Beatles approach. It's very different, but quite cool with psychedelic overtones.
Tokeymore Field
A big change of pace from the previous one, this is another that is quite Beatles-like. Bouncy and pretty it's a killer pop song. This actually feels a bit like an old jazz standard at times.
Sir Rupert Said...
This is an unusual number. It is a section of audio of the producer of the album speaking with Columbia Records exec Rupert Perry's secretary and then him to get a sound bite of him saying "peddle yourself". When they actually get it, there are four takes and on each of them, the only music in the track, the band puts in a poppy musical arrangement as accompaniment. It's odd, but a lot of fun.
Sell Out, Sell Out
Their answer to the never ending corporate pressures, this is a cool, bouncy poppy, yet very interestingly arranged rocker. It is too fun. It's catchy and sarcastic and includes a couple of talk box solos.
Howl at the Moon
More of a prog cut than the previous one, this has a similar tone to "Dr. Marvello". It's a pop oriented track, but still has a lot of substance. In some ways, though, it's their take on the blues - at least in terms of the vocals. Not a total standout, the texture on this is cool nonetheless.
I Can't Help It
To me this feels like a more mainstream take on Vanilla Fudge in a way. It's mostly proggy in its over textures, but it's a cool rocker. The Sweet and Beatles elements also show up here.
Paranoia
Another bouncy one, this has a killer groove and more of the Beatles sounds on the vocals. It is a very strong one. It becomes a very powerful jam as it caries forward with both Beatles like and prog sounds.
Set the World on Fire
This cut feels a lot like modern Crimson meets the Beatles taking on Sugarloaf's "Don't Call Us - We'll Call You". It's a little funky, very bouncy and incredibly fun.
Dog Star
After a keyboard lead in, the band jumps into a hard-edged cut that again feels a lot like modern KC.
All Good Things
This is an acoustic guitar based ballad. It again feels like the Beatles. It is a tribute to man's best friend.
There's Something Happening
A Beatles like rocker this is a fun, but not exceptional track.
I Don't Wanna Go Home
This is a balladic cut that has the classic Klaatu sound. It's very pretty - rather basic, but quite cool.
At The End of the Rainbow
This comes in with a chord structure that almost feels Yesish. Then it shifts to a more bouncy Beatles-like approach. This arrangement shows that the group could still pull together that catchy Beatles like sound in a prog oriented motif. This is creative and accessible.
December Dream
The pretty and haunting Klaatu sound is back with the early modes on this beautiful cut. The arrangement ramps up as it carries forward, then drops back where it came from. This has such a classic Klaatu sound and is very powerful and poignant. It just keeps getting better.
Mrs. Toad's Cookies
A twisted calliope sound starts this, another bouncy Beatles like one. It's a little silly, but catchy and fun. It shifts into a cool lusher segment for the bridge and ends with laughter.
Magentalane
This is a rather pretty Beatles like ballad, but another with a more proggy take on that sound. They take a fairly simple song structure and create a varied and complex piece from it. The segment before the false ending is awesome. They come back with a "la la la la" refrain that leads to a reprise of the main chorus and the ending.
Ambrose Lightship
Starting with space rock sounds a triumphant sort of acoustic guitar line enters, but never fully develops as weird sounds take over. The sounds end, then the guitar returns with keys empowering it for a short burst that ends this brief instrumental.
 
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