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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Return To Forever

Returns

Review by Gary Hill

When you’ve got a bunch of musicians this talented, what can you really say? Chick Corea is (like the rest of these guys) an amazing player who is one of the true masters of his instrument – in this case multiple keyboards. Al Di Meola is possibly one of the two or three best guitarists in the world. Stanley Clarke is world renowned as an incredible bassist. Lenny White’s drumming is equally respected amongst those in the know. For those who will argue that these guys are jazz, I won’t disagree. What I will say is that they are fusion and when you mix rock with jazz what you get is either fusion or prog rock – and for me the border is a tenuous one at best and I tend to think the musical forms are really the same.

This is a reunion concert audio recording of the band. As good as the music here is, it’s hard to believe they took any time off. This is some of the best live instrumental music you’ll ever hear. Every one of these guys is a virtuoso, and yet it’s not a series of solos. These are musicians who understand letting their light shine within the structure of a composition. They create a type of sound that’s ever evolving in the course of being played. That makes it hard for a reviewer like me to describe. It doesn’t make it hard for you to listen. That part comes easy. This is a great set that will certainly thrill long time fans of the group (or any of the individual members for that matter). It would also make for an excellent introduction to this essential group.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
Opening Prayer
This is a fairly short instrumental with an extended keyboard dominated movement followed by a more tentative building process. It basically serves (as the title suggests) as an introduction to the proceedings.
Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy
They jump out into the fusion here with this fast paced and frantic jam. It’s extremely tasty and dynamic working through a number of killer variants and alterations. It’s dramatic and powerful. It’s amazing how much powerful jamming these guys can work into this considering it weighs in at less than four minutes in length.
Vulcan Worlds
I’m not sure if Mr. Spock would find this logical or not.  It starts mellower with some keyboards and funky bass and then launches out into a high energy, but perhaps a bit less frantic, fusion journey from there. Once again they take us along a series of intriguing vistas and at times I definitely think of Frank Zappa on this one. At well over thirteen minutes in length this is by far the longest cut so far. The group use this space as room to change from here to there and move through a series of altered states. Everyone gets the opportunity to show off a bit on this killer journey. It’s not the most cohesive thing I’ve heard, but it never fails to amaze. I have to say that, as a bassist, some of the bass work on this, more than anything else, is extremely impressive.
Sorceress
There’s a more funky feeling to this and the guitar purely screams with passion and fire. Around the three-minute mark they drop it back for a pretty and much mellower motif. It builds up from there as they carry forward. It works out into a killer classic jazz musical journey after some time. There’s a smoking hot funky movement later in the track. 
Song to the Pharaoh Kings
This massive epic is nearly half an hour in length (OK, it is off by roughly the length of a pop song). The first couple minutes are basically a keyboard solo and other elements gradually enter to support this. Around the five minute mark it powers out into a serious hard rocking fusion jam, but bits and pieces of this emerge here and there before then. It becomes quite an incendiary piece of music as they carry on. Then a little past the eight and a half minute mark they bring it way down and begin a percussion dominated section that’s mellower but feels on the verge of exploding. This becomes quite a cool musical exploration as they continue. Before the eleven minute mark they drop it down again after bursting back out and the keyboards hold it for a time before a new dramatic bass line rises ready to take us in new directions. The bass solos nearly unaccompanied for a while. Other instruments join as they continue forward, bringing more and more intensity and fire to the table as they do. By the fourteen-minute mark the piece has been brought out into a whole new musical exploration. After the fifteen-minute mark it drops way back down and they build it up again from there. As this is built upon we get some extremely passionate guitar work and then it climaxes with the guitar and drops back to just keys to carry on. That’s in the nineteen-minute plus zone. Once more they build up from there. It becomes a very powerful jam as they reach new heights. They take it through a few more explorations before drawing it to a close. 
Al's Solo including Children's Song #3/Passion Grace & Fire/Mediterranean Sundance/Café 1930/Spain
As one of the greatest guitarists in the world, one would expect Al Dimeola’s solo to be great – and it is. He starts it off accompanied by Chick Corea, but eventually works his way out to his true solo territory. He takes this through a number of varied pieces in a great medley of music. Corea returns later in this journey. 
No Mystery
Here’s a more cohesive (as in less dynamic) and perhaps more mainstream jazz jam. This is melodic and pretty, but still has enough fiery changes and virtuosic playing to please the purists. There’s an almost classical symphonic sound to parts of this. As they build this up and move it into different directions we get more of those sounds that are rather like some of the stuff Zappa used to do – of course in a more serious tone. 
Disc 2
Friendship - Chick's Solo including Solar
Chick's Solo including Solar – This is quite a cool keyboard solo focusing on some seriously jazzy tones. It does turn more classical later in the piece, though. Other instruments do join later in the piece. 
Romantic Warrior
Piano starts us off here in a very classical styled motif and this begins building from there, Al Di Meola’s guitar bringing some new levels of beauty and musical drama as it enters. This really feels quite classical in tone for a while, though, even when it explodes upwards. Eventually it moves towards more purely jazz stylings and they take us through a number of connected sort of musical movements. Everyone gets a chance to show off during the course of this – and the beauty is it’s continued later as they use is a bookend for a couple of solo segments. 
El Bayo de Negro – Stanley's Solo
Stanley Clarke gives us a killer upright bass solo, although it’s not an completely unaccompanied one. This guy has a heck of a reputation and after hearing this, it’s well-deserved. OK, I knew that before, but this reinforces it. He works through some classical stylings and different modes and musical motifs. We even get a bit of a blues treatment in this. 
Lineage - Lenny's Solo
From there we move out into Lenny White’s drum solo, but this is a full band jazz treatment. White just smokes it big time. Of course, the rest of the group do drop away and give him the room to really solo. 
Romantic Warrior (Continued)
They come back out into this all the more vitalized and ready to really jam. They move it out into territory that’s more mainstream prog rock for a short time before taking it out. 
Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant
This starts with a rather classical build up that reminds me a bit of early King Crimson. Then they take into something that’s closer to UK and after that we’re out into a killer jazz jam that’s got plenty of UK but also plenty of Frank Zappa in its mix. It turns to a more melodic groove after a while. It turns rather funky, mostly due to the bass. They take us through a number of varying styles and movements as this continues. It’s another killer cut that’s quite dynamic and diverse. We get a killer Di Meola solo later in the number. There’s also a more mainstream prog rock keyboard solo in this. An incredibly intense extended crescendo ends the piece in style. 
500 Miles High
It begins in a fairly mellow and traditional jazz motif. They bring it out into a Latin textured jam that’s closer to the sounds we’re used to from this band. It builds into one heck of a fiery powerhouse and then settles down into the more sedate for a while. They bring it back out from there, though. They continue altering the format. They drop it back for a keyboard dominated movement that’s more in a traditional jazz style but also include plenty of scorching hard rocking fusion. This keeps being reinvented and re-envisioned. As you would expect from these guys for the final showing of the concert everyone gets a chance to truly shine.
BBC Lifetime Achievement Award to RTF as presented by Sir George Martin, including a performance of Romantic Warrior
Well, you can’t argue with that title now, can you? That’s exactly what we get here. I kind of think that this might have been better as the opening piece of the set – thereby setting the stage for the concert, but really you just can’t go wrong with this.
 
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