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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Chris Opperman

The Lionheart

Review by Grant Hill

This is a most intriguing CD from progressive composer/pianist Chris Opperman. Berklee trained, having splashed onto the contemporary music scene with his extensive work with Mike Kenneally, Steve Vai connected with Opperman and hired him as his orchestrator. Since that time, Opperman has released several of his own albums. The Lionheart takes the listener on a varied journey. What I really like about this production is the fact that he takes all the usual historical treatments that we would listen for in an orchestral rock production and sprinkles in some additional jazz stylings and twenty-first century musical ideas. It is an eclectic mix of aural delights, ranging from the edgy piano at the open to the full jazz-rock orchestra in “The Porpentine.” The CD stretches boundaries and gives us a hint, perhaps, of some of the kinds of great quality music we may be hearing in our genre in years to come. This is both groundbreaking and real. I encourage you to buy a copy if you want to add a collectible piece to your music shelf which is musically endearing, trend-setting, and noteworthy for discussion. This is excellent work!

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Haasis

This is a piano adventure of modal and rhythmic intensity, immediately introducing the listener to the album by grabbing one’s attention. No commonplace introductions here, the album opens with a bang that exclaims that this will, indeed, be a musical journey.

Beware of the Random Factor

“Beware of the Random Factor” opens with a repeating string pattern, then the drum kit kicks in with piano doubling the strings. Belewesque guitar chords accentuate the intro. I like the instrumentation combination. It sounds to me like what I would call a “jazz-rock orchestra” in a statement that speaks apprehension, mystery and revelation. I like the acoustic/electronic mix of instrumentation. I really enjoy the cello solo statement against the rhythm mix. Opperman employs nice piano treatments throughout. This is an intriguing composition which deserves many listens! The piano solo builds on fundamental structure, and Opperman spreads into some musical treatments that remind me of some of Michel Camillo’s work. Opperman clearly spreads layers of free form percussive piano over the well-structured foundation. The sax work is both funky and proggy. The full groove with the guitar doubling with sax on the melody line is cool, and the bass line transforms to a nearly samba vibe, dark and sanguine. There is nice use of spaced silence in the conclusion. It’s a very motive piece and all around cool song!

Miles Behind

This piece opens with cello, sad and wistful. The melody is semi-balladic and introspective. Opperman does have a nice jazz expression in his piano playing, but he fits it into the ensemble as a true orchestrator should. This is a sensitive piece. The most telling thing as I progress through this album is that Opperman constructs his works carefully. The compositional technique is excellent. Everything fits. I can hear every part and they dovetail quite beautifully.

Gen-Edbulous

“Gen-Edbulous” is brighter, opening with woodwinds, piano, bass and drums, then finally guitar. The 5/4 treatment is expressive and the whole thing grooves nicely. The piece teases the listener with “So, you want to hear more of how this all makes a statement?” It’s very, very musical! This is high level orchestral style playing in a progressive setting. Extremely impressive, this is a very uplifting song!

Telepathy on Mars

This opens with a series of chords in progression while the speaker, clearly an astronaut, has a psychic experience with a lost loved one while landing on the red planet. The lower strings matched with the drums and piano work extremely well. This is well written, beautiful work. I can now see why Steve Vai and Mike Kenneally both would feel comfortable with this kind of orchestration wrapped around their melodic rock stylings. Nice rudimental snare work is included in an excellent drum mix. There’s also a soulful legato violin solo and nice motion in the cello feature which follows. This includes an avant-garde ending, and the piece is very balanced!

Johannah

“Johannah” opens with piano in a very Beethovenesque sonata form. The double-bass kicks in with a melodic statement, and then full rock orchestra kicks in. The mood of this piece reminds me of Chris Squire’s Fish Out Of Water, but I must say that Opperman is more lyrical and dynamic in his range. This is another great song!

Knight of Winter’s Day

This number opens with a more Coreaesque solo piano feeling and impressionistic stylings. Opperman understands the dynamic possibilities of the grand piano very well. The piece flows like a breeze in the autumn wind stirring up leaves and debris in a yard or field. It’s whimsical through the first half. Classical chords enter just past the halfway point with nice damper usage.  This song goes through an entire range of piano expressions not usually exhibited by the typical performer. This is fabulous writing and equally good performance technique. I’d give it five stars!

White Willow

“White Willow” is more poppish, opening with guitar and piano playing off one another beautifully. When the rock groove kicks in, the style evokes Dave Grusin and even Stevie Wonder to my ears. It is funky, fusionesque, and proggy. Every instrument states itself well within the ensemble. There is fluid playing and interaction throughout the number, everything sits in the pocket perfectly and makes sense. By this point in the CD, the listener should have the idea that the entire release is worthy of more sequential listens. This is totally groovy!

Idaho Potato

The song starts with a clean sixteenth note piano figure and an enchanting soprano vocal melody. The vocalist is spot on, pitch-wise. She has superb tone and a pure voice. It’s an excellent choice!  There’s nice harmony, too. Again, the dynamic range on this song is superlative. This is exactly the kind of dynamic range being lost in less musical releases of the current era. This album reads like a compositional clinic. It’s another great song from Mr. Opperman!

The Porpentine

The closer clearly qualifies as an epic, clocking in at over fifteen minutes in length. The opening motif speaks of hope and excitement. I can’t stop raving about the sound of the jazz-rock orchestra.  A nice progressive statement reminds me of RTF’s MusicMagic album, or perhaps Chick Corea’sThe Leprechaun. The technique of combining true orchestration within the electronic ensemble has been a musical technique not used often enough, and Opperman uses it better than most, by far. I like the two versus three feel of orchestra to piano early. Superb development leads from one thematic idea to the next. There is great orchestration! There is also a cool hard groove section with avant-garde textures over the top. The mallet figure is Zappa reminiscent. Halfway through, the intruments dance, again quite whimsically. The song employs great expression. Good tension and relaxation exists throughout the piece.  There seems to be a quiet musical confidence displayed in this composition. Strong, well-filled coherence exists between all musical actors. A nice minor modulation occurs 2/3 through. Excellent dissonant treatment after 11:00 develops stressful tension, but no musical confusion or chaos. There’s a climactic moment, then the piano solo begins at about 13:00. The triumphant entrance of the ensemble is a very positive ending to the entire album. This is a must listen! It’s quickly becoming a favorite of mine, I recommend this unique release to all!

 
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