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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Unitopia

The Garden

Review by Julie Knispel

Unitopia is an Australian sextet releasing their second album, a 2-CD set, on InsideOut Music. The press release, which I received with the album, compares the group to the Flower Kings, Van der Graaf Generator, King Crimson and…Men at Work? Yeah, one of those things is not like the other. I’m not sure where they got the Men at Work angle unless it’s just because that band is also Australian, but that’s neither here nor there. Repeated listens make it hard for me to even find links to Crimson and VdGG, unless it’s the fact that all three bands have features some sax playing in their music. Nor really can I compare Unitopia to the Flower Kings…unless it’s the fact that like TFK, Unitopia draws some influence from bands like Yes and Genesis. The music is generally pretty uplifiting and bright…positive sounding music. I also hear some serious Queen references scattered throughout as well.

Throughout the release, many things remain constant. Monty Ruggiero’s drumming is solid, while Tim Irrgang contributes some nice percussive flourishes that I can’t help but call Australian…there’s a bit of tribal/Aboriginal rhythm there that I’d like to think he adds. Sean Timms and Matt Williams are excellent guitarists, playing with a bit of flash but keeping the song as main focus. Shireen Khemlani’s bass playing deserves special note; fluid and graceful, she’s mixed up just enough to maintain presence without distracting from the rest of the musicians. Mark Trueack, as mentioned above, is an enjoyable singer to listen to, with a delivery that is effortless and rich.

I’m impressed by Unitopia, and find The Garden to be a pretty refreshing slice of melodic, symphonic prog. Don’t let the press release sway you away…this is no Flower Kings pastiche, but a band using the same influences to create something that sounds pretty uniquely their own.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
One Day
The Garden opens quietly, piano and vocals floating along gently like a summer’s breeze.  Small amounts of bird sound are interspersed here and there, only adding to the pastoral, summery feel.  Mark Trueack’s vocals are impressive here…while a few moments feel almost strained, the tension adds to the powerful delivery.  “One Day” is a brief two minutes in length, but it sets the stage nicely, almost like the prologue of a theatrical performance.
The Garden
The 22-minute title track features some of the more overt Genesis bits, including a closing section that doesn’t necessarily mimic the end of “Supper’s Ready” as much as works in a similar stylistic arena.  Percussion, nature sounds, flutes and wind sounds open the piece, which shifts through a plethora of moods and styles, befitting a progressive rock epic.  Off-hand references to Heironymous Bosch certainly don’t hurt from a lyrical standpoint, and the band acquits themselves with ease, keeping the track interesting throughout its duration.
Angeliqua
“Angeliqua” follows a similar formula to the preceding track; it opens gently, this time with female vocals and quiet guitar replacing the flutes and percussion parts that open “The Garden.”  Never fear though…the song bursts forth about two minutes in with loads of tasty, crunchy guitar and a powerful rhythm section driving things.  By the time Trueack’s vocals kick in, the song has settled back into a pleasant mid-tempo groove, and it moves toward slightly more traditional "power ballad"  territory.  Having said this, there is some of the nastiest slide guitar this side of “Swinging the Axe” by echolyn or “In My Time of Dying” from Led Zeppelin spicing things up.  “Angeliqua” is a nice enough song, but I feel a combination of lyrical lightness and an almost overabundance of variety musically weaken the track somewhat.
Here I Am
This piece sees the band expanding on the piano ballad style they explored on the album opener, this time in more of a band setting.  This is a great pop song, and I say that with no derisiveness…in a perfect world, this would be getting airplay on major radio stations across the country.  Had Yes or Genesis released this in 1983, it’d likely have been a top 40 hit.  Trueack’s vocals are sublime, the band’s playing is perfect for the song, and the composition simply shines.  This is a brilliant piece of songwriting, and shows Unitopia equally adept at crafting expansive, multi-part epics and concisenumbers where the song itself is of utmost importance.
I Wish I Could Fly
The album shifts back to a slightly more epic feel with “I Wish I could Fly,” a two-part mini-opus clocking in just under 7 minutes.  The piece is filled with gentle orchestration that swells and ebbs, building to brief climaxes before slowly diminishing.  There’s some gorgeous fingerpicked classical guitar on display here, with synth backing creating an almost English pastoral feel.  The flute work here is wonderful, and the song begins to feel more Italian (i.e., PFM or Banco for points of comparison) than English.  The second half of the track, separately indexed, arises quickly from this gentle instrumental, with organ and restrained guitar musically evoking the flight-based lyrical themes.  This piece is almost too precious sounding…so fragile it might break.  The fact that the band doesn’t disrupt this mood speaks volumes for their skill.
Inside the Power
The first half of the album closes with “Inside the Power.”  The piece opens insistently, heavily orchestrated and with goosebump-raising guitar work.  Vocal sections feature stripped back arrangement, with just bass and drums/percussion under much of it.  I love the contrast from the more mid-tempo verse sections and the go for broke bridge/choruses, where the band lets loose and shows what they can do with light and shade.  If the album opened quietly, Unitopia makes sure that the first part closes with a bit of a bang.
Disc 2
Journey's Friend
”Journey’s Friend” is a 5-part suite that opens the second half of The Garden.  The piece sounds a bit Transatlantic-ish…and considering that Transatlantic was intended in many ways to mind classic progressive rock styles, this may not be surprising. The heavy section some nine minutes in, with thick, throaty almost screamed vocals and powerful orchestration, is wonderfully balanced by a pastoral section that immediately follows. The shift might be disruptive, but it’s a great use of light and shade to create tension.
Give and Take
I am particularly enamoured of “Give and Take,” complete with lushly arranged vocals and guitar playing from Matt Williams (I am assuming) that sounds like textbook Steve Howe. I also get a feel that is similar to the material on Genesis’ Calling all Stations release…it’d not sound out of place surrounded by songs like “Uncertain Weather.”
When I'm Down
The band continues a short series of briefer tracks with “When I’m Down,” coming in at 4:47.  The piece opens with a sample from an old RCA radio commercial, followed by distant, over the telephone style vocals.  Acoustic guitar then comes in, underpinning Trueack’s vocals.  The song itself is more stripped back, more acoustic, showing another side of the band entirely.  It feels and sounds folkier and bluesier than previous pieces, and it’s interesting to see the group working in this style.  I’m not sure a full album of tracks like this would be a stellar idea, but here the added variety helps.
This Life
“This Life” is another highlight shorter piece, with an urgency and insistence in the delivery and playing that really impresses. Shireen Khemlani’s bass playing is in fine shape here, pulsing, high enough in the mix to really assert a presence that enriches the band’s already solid sound.  There’s still plenty of orchestration throughout, and the almost staccato-sounding string parts help build tension.  Fans of vocal interplay will find much to enjoy here as well, as layers of choral vocals create walls of sound.  A tasty guitar solo (which turns into a duet with sax) two and a half minutes in is just the cherry on top.
Love Never Ends
Back to ballad territory., “Love Never Ends” is a sweet piece with gorgeous male/female vocals, acoustic guitar, and the ever present lush orchestration throughout.  The piece almost has a cinematic feel to it…I could easily see this piece being played over some romantic scene in a movie, and for those of you in a fulfilling relationship, I will wager the lyrics really hit close to home.
So Far Away
This composition begins right after the final intonation of the title words from “Love Never Ends,” and in some ways feels like an extended coda.  The piano work here is excellent, with fluid grace and occasional bursts of notes creating sheets of sound that reverberate around the open, airy mix.  This is a side of the band I’d love to see explored more, and hopefully future releases will feature more extended examples of this style of play.  It’s as distant a difference from the previous song as could possibly be done, yet the two pieces flow so easily that one is tempted to consider it a mini-epic itself.
Don't Give Up Love
The track “Don’t Give Up Love,” despite the possibly slightly cheesy title, is filled with Queen-isms, from layered choral vocals to harmonised guitars. Mark Trueack’s voice does bear some comparison to Peter Gabriel (and perhaps Ray Wilson as well). While not a dead ringer for Gabriel, they share a similar dark, slightly raspy lower tenor vocal range.
321
“321” is another powerful piece…written as a tribute to the bravery of the Beaconsfield miners, Brant Webb and Todd Russell and the tragic death of fellow miner Larry Knight following the disastrous collapse at the Beaconsfield gold mine in northern Tasmania on 25 April 2006. It’s evocative lyrically, and the music matches the mood and tension with aplomb.
 
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