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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Various Artists

Leonardo The Absolute Man

Review by Gary Hill

This is a rock opera based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Although this album says "original cast recording" and I have (as does Magna Carta on their website) listed it here as by "Various Artists", it is probably closer to the truth to say that it is by Trent Gardner and friends. Indeed that album was conceived and written by Gardner, so in many ways it is his baby. However, what a list of "friends" he has here. They include James LaBrie (Dream Theater, Mullmuzzler), Davey Pattison (Gamma, Robin Trower), Michelle Young, Josh Pincus (Ice Age), Lisa Bouchelle (Mastermind), Mike Baker (Shadow Gallery), Robert Berry (3, December People), Steve Walsh (Kansas), Chris Shryack, Bret Douglas, Wayne Gardner (both Trent's brother and bandmate in Magellan), Patrick Reyes and Steve Reyes. The music here runs the gamut from hard edged prog to very sedate, olde world and neo-classical. A recurring texture, though it one that seems to relate to the music of Rick Wakeman, circa mid-'70's. I'm sure there are many who would agree that this is certainly praise. It does really fit, too, in that this music is attempting to combine both rock elements and olde world and also classical styles to produce a work that is historical and tells a story. The parallels are strong, and at times the music truly reflects them. This is a fine album and a great example of how the art form known as "rock opera" can be pulled off in an entertaining and classy way.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2002 Year Book Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Apparition
A fusion oriented arrangement gives way to more dramatic, sedate, neo-classical textures. They create and further a dramatic aura. The cut begins evolving from there, feeling a bit like Rick Wakeman's more dramatic work. This one creates some wonderfully powerful themes. An instrumental, it sets about to create the theme of the album. It becomes a symphonic sort of prog arrangement that feels a little Yesish at times. It also encompasses and emulates the kind of fanfare music of da Vinci's era. In fact, it does a wonderful job of fusing sounds old and new, and even manages to be a quite jazzy at times. The later segment of the piece starts a dramatic building to generate an energy and focus, the as its resolution the composition evolves out of that mode to leading into the next piece.
Aria For Italy
Beginning with sounds that call to mind an olde world European courtyard, very modern sounding keys take the piece from there. This is a brief instrumental.
With Father
The first vocal track on the CD, this one begins with slow, atmospheric keys and a quiet sort of vocal dialogue between James LaBrie and Davey Pattison. The cut slowly builds as the interplay between father and son is developed. This is a pretty and dramatic son. It carries straight into "Reins of Tuscan".
Reins Of Tuscan
Continuing the atmospheric tones of the previous number, percussion is added to the mix. However, the quiet calm is quickly broken as hard-edged metallic crunch takes over. The majority of the piece is in a strong progressive rock tradition with definite metallic tendencies. That said, the central melody keeps evolving in too many varied directions to keep up with at times. The strong points of the song include killer percussion; a wonderful vocal arrangement and a great prog instrumental break driven by the keys. That break really smokes. Some of the guitar work in the latter parts of the piece is quite tasty. Very dramatic and evocative piano work serves as the outro.

Reproach
Another instrumental, this one has a texture firmly rooted in medieval traditions with the addition of some modern instrumentation. The ending segments feel a bit like Pink Floyd at times.
Mona Lisa
A song about the woman who owns the most famous smile, this one begins in quite an evocative piano/voice styled ballad format. After a fairly extended section in that vein, the cut changes gear into fast paced progressive rock jamming. This movement combines elements of classic prog with more modern. As the composition drops to a dramatic piano style it moves into the next section. That movement is a dramatic and operatic one that takes on sounds somewhat reminiscent of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". The dramatic piano based ballad approach returns with an even more emotional texture. It jumps back up to a more accessible prog arrangement that has a great style. The operatic and Queen leanings eventually return, especially in the guitar solo that serves as the outro.
Il Divino
The next instrumental, this one starts with a reserved energy, feeling like it is about to explode. As it finally does, it is in the form of a killer keyboard solo backed by percussion that calls to mind some of the most energetic moments of both Wakeman and Emerson. After this segment carries the piece for a time, other instruments join and a hard-edged prog jam ensues.
Inundation
This instrumental has a great mellow harpsichord sort of sound as its basis. It has a somewhat melancholic feel to it and is fairly brief and dramatic.
Apprentice
Noisy sounds somewhere between machinery and a foghorn begin this one. Then a killer keyboard sound takes the track for a just a couple of moments. It quickly shifts gear to hard edged riff based prog that pretty well screams out. Almost demonic sounding vocals enter as a chorus. After some time of this, it switches to more mainstream prog. This one gets quite powerful and complex.
First Commission
Based in a pretty acoustic guitar-based balladic mode, Steve Walsh's vocals add a Kansas texture to the cut. It becomes a dramatic sort of dialogue between Walsh's Calco and Caterina (portrayed by Michelle Young). The arrangement on this one is lush and beautiful.

Mother Of God
Another of the album's instrumentals, this one has a heraldic sort of texture and with it's modern take on Olde European themes really feels like something from one of Wakeman's early solo albums. This is a brief, but quite dramatic piece.
This Time, This Way
A balladic sort of mode gives way to sedate and mysterious elements. An atmospheric keyboard approach yields to a bombastic prog build up. As the piece moves into the song proper, it is in the form of an energetic balladic mode. The arrangement and vocal performances here are quite impressive. It is another that becomes rather jazzy as its prog stylings carry through.
Inventions
The main riff on this cut feels like one of the more hard edged Kansas jams. Walsh's vocals add to that texture, but some of the guitar here is a bit more metallic than that. The four-way vocal interplay is very effective, as is the instrumental break that starts in a Dream Theater sort of mode. This one really smokes.

Shaping The Invisible
This is a monologue by da Vinci set in a beautiful and poignant balladic style. The arrangement and vocal performance both work together to create a very powerful and emotional piece. As it comes into the second movement the cut intensifies and becomes more hard edged. It is still based on the earlier themes, though. This is another killer song.
Introduction To Francois I
This short cut consists of da Vinci being introduced in French at a court appearance. A medieval fanfare and applause follow his introduction. Then the medieval sorts of sounds begin a building process, playing through in grand fashion. This one again feels rather Wakemanesque. The crescendo carries into the next number.
Heart of France
As the crescendo from the previous piece ends, a hard-edged burst of sound appears and strong prog modes begin building. This is another that has an exceptional vocal arrangement and guitar work that calls to mind Queen at times. It drops to just quiet keys for the dramatic final verse.
Sacrament
This instrumental is a dramatic one that combines olde world sounds with modern.
End of A World
Another composition that is full of drama, this one begins with a piano-dominated progression. It carries on by adding intensity and layers to this foundation. The cut represents a powerful and satisfying conclusion to a killer album and adventure.
 
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