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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Pentwater

Pentwater (Reissue)

Review by Gary Hill

Pentwater may well be the best progressive rock band whose name you have never heard. The Chicago area band released one record on their own label in 1970's, their unique, innovative and quirky blend of humor, weirdness and musical virtuosity earned them a definite cult following. That record, long out of print and fetching hundreds of dollars from collectors, with some additional material is remastered here. A compilation type CD entitled "Out of the Abyss" was released several years back, but is also out of print. The debut record was one of my long ago favorites, and got destroyed in a flood, so count me as ecstatic to have this disc. You can bet it will be one of my picks for top 5 albums of the year.

For more info (including about the reunion and future activities of Pentwater), or to order the disc, pop over to the band's website at pentwatermusic.com.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2003 Year Book Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Frustration Mass
Starting with blood curdling screams, you might think you have mistakenly popped in the latest death metal album, but just wait. Creepy quirky tones enter and the song begins its strange journey. This one is probably one of the oddest, but given the chance, coolest prog cuts you have ever heard. It is sort of Frank Zappa meets Gentle Giant with a dark edge, and the lyrics are a tongue-in-cheek series of everyday horror stories.
Living Room Displays
This is more traditional prog, but still has that quirky Pentwater edge to it. The cut is sort of one part Genesis, one part Yes and one part late '70's Midwest power pop. A great bridge showcases one of the things they do best by weaving a strong dramatic atmosphere. This is fun and awe-inspiring at the same time.
Memo
An incredibly dramatic piece, this is based in balladic style. It is one of the strongest numbers on the disc, and although very classic prog in approach, still has a vaguely dark tone that suits it quite well. If this were the only stellar song on the album (and its not) it would be worth the price of admission. The rather Squireish bass line here really drives the song.
Orphan Girl
A gentle, almost classical melody that is just a bit sad, but hauntingly beautiful serves as the intro. As the song proper enters it is near perfection, feeling quite a bit like a somewhat harder edged early Genesis arrangement. The lyrics to this one are downright chilling, though. An acoustically based interlude leads into space for a time, and slowly builds in pretty, but rather unsettling tones. This has to be one of the more interesting prog arrangements you will ever come across, and sets itself on the same musical level with the giants like Yes and Genesis. The fast paced jam segment is an incredible combination of raw edged Zappaesque wanderings and classic progressive rock. The dramatic build up that serves as a resolution to this is magical - check out those vocal harmonies!
AM
This fast paced hard rocker pokes fun at the whole contrivance of AM radio type songs. This is a lot more straightforward than a lot of the material on this album, but should have plenty of quirky changes for the most dramatic prog-head.
Palendrode
This is another that casts an incredible mood in its unusual balladic style. It is probably the most traditionally based prog piece on the disc, and again calls to mind Genesis just a bit. The outro here has an old time feel, and also feels rather like Queen.
Prelude to War
A new recording of the previously unreleased intro to War, this is a classical string movement.
War
A Keith Emersonish jazzy keyboard introduction starts this. As the other instruments join in a fast paced progression, the ELP comparisons are certainly reinforced. This instrumental jam is rather freeform, but still manages to capture a regimental texture at times. This is quite nearly a full on jazz number at points. It succeeds in continuing to change directions and textures while still maintaining a coherent musical theme - bravo! It gets quite chaotic at time, but what else would you expect from a piece called "War"?
Death
A gloomy string arrangement serves as the dirge that takes us out of the trilogy. This is nicely dissonant and off kilter. It is another that is a fresh recording of original music from the '70's that never made it to recorded rendition before. It is quite weird, but captivating, much as old King Crimson could oft-times be.
Gwen's Madrigal
With its superhero story line, this cut is a frantic and fun prog jam, and the rendition here is definitely more lush and powerful than the one presented on Out of the Abyss.
Wave
The first of two previously unreleased cuts, this is a slightly rough around the edges track that combines slightly strange psychedelia with a fast paced prog arrangement.
Radioactive
Percussion starts this one off, and the track is an unusual combination of prog and late 1970's pop rock. The instrumental break feels like a cross between ELP, Yes and Gentle Giant and is another place on the album where the bass seems to find space to shine.
 
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