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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Mars Hollow

World in Front of Me

Review by Grant Hill

When I first heard the name “Mars Hollow” in 2009, my initial thought was “how perfect a name that was for a neo-progressive rock band.” When I subsequently heard the band’s initial, self-titled release, I was impressed. The term progressive as applied to music can take one in a myriad of directions. To be a neo-progressive band should imply much more than a rehash of what was progressive in 1971. Does the band delve into new arenas? How does a modern artist foray into these new areas? The band’s rookie release proved to be an intriguing, hauntingly soulful sound I hadn’t experienced before. When a band can authenticate an identity without drawing a series of musical comparisons that would render any sense of uniqueness moot, this to me is a statement of artistic victory. The first album was just such a release. To be sure, it had me excited to stay tuned to the progress of completion of the sophomore release by the band, World in Front of Me, available now. If I hadn’t been a Mars Hollow fan before, I would have easily become one with this new release. The integrity and the beauty of the first album was no fluke, and this second one shines even brighter.

Los Angeles proggers John Baker (Guitar, lead vocals), Jerry Beller (Drums, vocals), Kerry Chicoine (Bass, vocals) and Steve Mauk (Keyboards, vocals) comprise Mars Hollow, signed to 10T Records, a growing musician-centric label. The band’s Facebook page places the instrumentation credits ahead of the also notable fact that all the members actually can sing. The performance is beyond proficient and squarely in the category of elite playing throughout the entire album. In fact, the production to me is reminiscent of the work done in the 1990s by Billy Sherwood on Yes’ Open Your Eyes. That would likely be because Sherwood has stepped in to really push the production envelope with Mars Hollow. It possesses a very current twenty-first century sound that gives the listener a multi-dimensional aural focus. The recording is rich in depth, albeit not overly layered. I like the production very much.

The musical balance on the entire album makes each song distinct and acutely enjoyable. Beginning to end, the songs make a wonderful volume. I would consider Mars Hollow to be a band that will withstand the test of time for the advancement of the progressive genre. If you haven’t yet acquainted yourself with the soulful sonorities of World In Front Of Me, you may be missing out on a future classic. I can only recommend that you treat your ears to the set.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Walk On Alone

After the power vocal ensemble chords at the beginning, a multi-metered instrumental feature introduces the listener to the band’s bold virtuosity. The syncopated accents and meter breaks build some nice tension grooves before settling into a beautiful vocal line in A-Minor. What intrigues me is how a melody like this can really capture emotive spirit, strongly driven forward lyrically. I hear evidence of Celtic and Appalachian folk influences in an almost mournful, psychologically intense but haunting expression that strikes me in a primal way. My first listen was solely music oriented, so when I read the lyrics I was surprised at the topical depth. Lyrically, it speaks of the failures of growth and change in connected relationships, the free will of opportunity, and hope in the act of letting go when one is not prepared to move forward contiguously. Thus, the individual has to walk on alone. The construction is excellent, well structured in soloing and overall ensemble. Chicoine’s lyrical solo, followed by Baker’s sensible guitar feature to match his vocal track, all work to get the listener begging to hear more!

Voices
This song is even darker. Is the speaker possessed, schizophrenic, or simply unaware that the voices in his head are really his own corrupted thoughts? It speaks of keeping secrets, of implied crimes or moral deficiencies, or maybe simply unwarranted perceptions of guilt. How sick does one feel inside when are known the dark secrets of someone we may care greatly about, or do we simply fear consequences if the larger world finds out? This is a bit of a journey into man’s dark heart. The introduction is syncopated and edgy, the melody mysterious, the chorus a twistedly joyful mania. I really enjoy the modal transitions this band engages frequently. The bridge structure reflects back to the introduction, with lots of dynamic tension and relaxation. The phrasing and instrumental pivot points generate complexity and listener interest. I have had to hear this track over and over. I would prefer no fade-out, but that is my universal preference. I prefer written cadences and resolutions. However, that’s the purist in me. Overall, this is superb work!
Weapon
The next track opens with a classically influenced guitar pattern and Beller’s clean snare roll which crescendos into a head bopping rock groove. I love the syncopated backbeat utilized to drive the catchy melody. The dynamic contrast from alternating instrumental and vocal features builds and relaxes tension effectively. This is very nice! Mauk’s keyboard and Baker’s guitar solos are outstanding, played above Chicoine’s noteworthy Rickenbacker polyrhythmic motifs. Contrary motion is very effectively utilized throughout the ensemble. The vocals taunt the listener. He is the hunted, but well prepared to fight with weapon in hand, as if to say “bring it on!” Scenes from a toxic relationship filled with enmeshment do seem to abound here. Very nice interplay exudes between all members of the band. It’s a cool story and even cooler music!
What Have I Done
The track features a repeating cello phrase, sequential instrumental layering with very well written parts. I’m amazed at Beller’s percussive musical unity within the ensemble. He never sounds obnoxious with the oft-overused double kick like so many current bands, and the fills are executed to resounding perfection. The entire piece is very, very dynamic. Passion is here, sadness, a sense of lost love and the craving to get it back despite intense pain and resentment. “What have I done to end up like this?” sounds the chorus. The bridge is beautifully flowing. The intensity builds through the final verse and chorus into the crunchy rhythm section beneath the keyboard solo to the end. This is haunting and heart wrenchingly beautiful to hear.
Mind Over Matter
The song features Baker’s skillfully melodic acoustic guitar providing the backdrop to his vocal lead. The chordal changes are well conceived and thoughtfully placed. The melody is very dulcet, despite the lyrical emphasis about struggle to overcome oneself. All humans can relate to this internal battle. Great harmonies prevail on the chorus. This is another solid offering.
Prelude
This tasteful song is essentially a neo-classical piano solo performed by Mauk. The opening reminds me of Jean-Luc Ponty’s piano work, but he clearly places his own unique mark on the composition. I like the transitions. Mauk’s theory is sound and well conceived throughout. The piece is excellent with great motion from both hands and clean, dynamic playing and phrasing. I enjoyed the logical integration of structures beginning to end!
World In Front Of Me
Clocking in at eleven minutes, this is a short epic. It begins with a mid-tempo common time introduction and a series of dynamic metered transitions which apex at the triumphal vocal proclamation that “This is the world in front of me!” Whatever is needed is there. It sounds like the joy of discovery, being able to survive and carry on. The skillfully played parts fit well, and express this joy. Each instrumentalist is well featured. The support within the ensemble remains consistent. There are no weakly staged execution problems, but more importantly the writing on the song has no weaknesses that I can perceive. A series of consecutive changes drive the song forward. Instrument features are re-voiced through the duration of the piece. Absolutely, this is a great song to complete the album.
 
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