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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Six Elements

Primary Elements

Review by Scott Montgomery

Instrumentally and compositionally, Primary Elements is largely the brainchild of Michael (Misha) Shengaout (keyboards) and Jeff McGahren (guitars, organ).  Shengaout is responsible for the lion’s share of the music and lyrics, as well as the production, and his beautiful lyricism permeates an album full of delicacy and wistfulness, conjuring sweetly melancholic reflections on the journey of life.  For many listeners the most familiar point of entry will be the vocals ably provided by the superb Stanley Whitaker (of Happy The Man and Oblivion Sun renown).  The trio of the band is augmented by tastefully understated rhythm section of Dave De Marco on bass and Marc Norgaard on drums.

At times, echoes of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway reverberate in the seamless flow of shorter songs that seem to coalesce into a larger narrative.  The song-cycle develops a rumination on life and the indomitable spirit of transcending adversity.  Given Stan Whitaker’s recent struggles with, and overcoming of, serious health issues, this musical journey is all the more moving and inspiring. Perhaps more of a grand suite than a song-cycle, the numbers flow together to create a most satisfying and unified narrative experience – both musically and lyrically.  The piano-driven nature of the compositions and their pastoral air are redolent of the softer side of mid-70s Genesis, an aural kinship that is furthered by Whitaker’s vocals which sound remarkably Gabriel-esque in their symbiosis of emotive rasp and evocative grace. With variations in tempo and instrumental coloration, even these short songs capture the dynamic spirit of progressive rock in its classic vocabulary.  Though essentially a suite or cycle of short songs, there is a rewardingly rich heterogeneity of tone and sensibility that belies the often simple song structure of its component parts - effectively using variation to carry the songs through a series of subtle variations that make the album a most rewarding listening experience.  Never overtly heavy, Primary Elements delivers a pleasantly varied sonic palette that maintains a comfortable unity within a lyrical pastoralism that fits the wistful and occasionally poignant text of the song cycle.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2012  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Overture

A pastoral, dreamy intro begins with synthesized flute wafting like a melodic shakuhachi over sustained organ chords.  Electric guitar enters, giving it a Floyd-esque sensibility before the piano and rhythm section enter, turning to a loping (and very pleasing) lovechild of Genesis and Camel.  This brief intro (really an intro and not an overture proper) seamlessly segues into the first song proper, appropriately giving welcome to the listener and the album’s theme of life. 

Welcome
With a sudden crunch of electric guitar, a solid rock intro swiftly drops to a stately pace, as Whitaker intones a welcome to a theater of life as will be explored in the course of the album – the “theatrical event” of the listener’s experience. Alternating between more punchy guitar parts and more lyrical melodies (on synthesized harpsichord and other patches), this first song continues the progressive dynamics set out in the "Overture."
Childhood Books
The only song on the album exceeding five minutes, this is the closest thing to a mini-epic that this album offers.  While not grandiose, it carries the listener through a wide array of twists and turns that somehow never derail from the fluidity of the overarching composition.  Opening with Whitaker’s almost mournful voice over a delicate harpsichord, the song slowly builds along a winding path of reminisces of childhood past.  Quiet, delicate piano-based vocal passages alternate with gorgeous instrumental parts in which tasteful guitar and keyboard melodies intertwine.  A sublimely beautiful synth-flute passage crescendos into a powerful instrumental break with prominent organ and synth-flute, providing a punch that gives the number a bit of a “Musical Box” dynamism.  No sooner has this developed, than it turns to a calliope cadence for another series of varied musical passages that underscore a series of snippets of early love.  While the lyrics here border on the trite, the music maintains enough variation to keep the song engaging to the ear.  There’s never a dull moment here, though not in terms of aggressive changes, but rather in terms of rich variation of ever-melodic possibilities.  It does seem to end rather abruptly, making me wish that the piece would further develop this rich sonic journey through childhood reminisces, perhaps extending to greater epicocity.
Nightmare

After the previous number, this one initially comes off as a bit clunky – the melodies less memorable and the musical changes less comfortably fluid.  As the song builds, so do its satisfying complexities. Nonetheless, it is still a pleasing number, particularly due to Whitaker’s effective and beautiful vocal harmonies.  Beautiful Hackett-esque guitar figures from McGahren add gorgeous texture to the gentler passages, while Shengaout’s ever-lovely melodic synth-flute embellishes nicely.

Invictus
Seamlessly bursting from the previous number, this piece initially flirts with almost medieval-inspired melodies, accentuated by occasional hand percussion.  The lyrics are provided by William Ernest Henley’s 1875 poem of the same title (with a fifth stanza added by Shengaout) that conveys the essence of resolute mental fortitude.  Whitaker’s vocal delivery aptly captures both the tenacity of spirit and the fragile humanity of the poem’s unconquered protagonist. The middle section, with a dynamic interaction of electric guitar and synth-flute, provides one of the most forceful and musically engaging portions of the album, coming closest to the progressive grandeur of early Genesis.  This resolves into the quiet piano of the final stanza, with Whitaker intoning the final lines (“…and make you either cry or sing”) as a delicate flute melody drifts off toward the next song.
Words of Love

Perhaps the sweetest song on the album, this delicate ode to embracing love is a lovely number, but somehow does not hold the power of some of the album’s stronger pieces.  Nevertheless, it is pleasing and provides a moment of reflective calm – like a moonlight reverie – that pulls us away from “daily strife” toward the rarified world of “the words of love.”

Summer
Beginning with Whitaker’s voice over strummed acoustic guitar (revealing perhaps the co-authorship of McGahren), this number is among the most pedestrian of the lot (not in any pejorative sense, but simply more familiar in its song structure).  Guest vocalist Betty Seni provides strong, clean vocals that are somewhat reminiscent of Broadway sensibilities and nicely compliment Whitaker’s more soulful delicate rasp.  While this piece might sit comfortably in a show on Times Square, it slides exquisitely into the album’s magnificent centerpiece.
If
Delicate piano (at the hands of guest Inna Satunovsky) introduces a beautiful and moving setting for Rudyard Kipling’s splendid (1895) paen to the virtue and wisdom in tenacious resolution…and a life well-lived.  Whitaker’s haunting vocal delivery effectively captures the balance between plaintive frailty and determined aspiration that characterize both the poem and the musical setting.  The exquisite vocal delivery and haunting lyricism of the music infuse the song with a sense of poignancy that is achingly beautiful.  From the melancholic, sparse piano/vocal first stanza, lyrical melodic coloratura (on synthesized flute – though I would swear that this was an actual flute!) allows the song to gently build to an understated yet lush lilt for the second stanza, softly propelled by tasteful acoustic guitar.  At this point, flute-synth liltingly soars as the song swells to a beautiful middle passage that builds to a more forceful third lyrical stanza that more powerfully promises hope and self-knowledge.  Effectively easing into a more gentle staccato piano rhythm, lushly overlaid with delicately dancing, interwoven melodic figures, the exquisite final stanza is delivered with a moving grace that is both powerfully affirming and subtly melancholic.  A delicate coda allows the wistful wisdom of the piece to gently wind down.  While many musical settings of poetry seem forced and overbearing, such is not the case here.  Six Elements have succeeded in perfectly complementing Kipling’s poem, aurally teasing out the great emotional depth inherent in the poet’s words.  Such a compatible and mutually-augmenting marriage of poetry and song is all-too-uncommon in the world of rock and modern music in general.  This is a real high-point of the album.

Winter
A delicate intro by the Fauxharmonic Orchestra sets the tone for a gentle, yet somewhat non-descript piano-based song.  The tune is pleasant to-be-sure, but it is a bit of an anti-climactic end to an album of such promise….or perhaps it is just a bit of a let-down after the exquisite “If.” 

If (Radio Mix)
The overall structure of the “album version” is maintained, while the instrumental middle break is given a somewhat greater punch with the addition of electric guitar paralleling the flute-synth melody.  This more dynamic middle section lends a marginally more varied feel to this version without disrupting the overall delicate unity and lyricism.  Given the very close similarity to the previous version, the addition of the “radio mix” serves as something of a full-length reprise of the song, perhaps a bit redundant, but effective in allowing the entire album to close on this sublime note.  As one of the real stand-out tracks on the album, this is actually a stronger note on which to end than the less-distinct “Winter,” so the recap of “If” provides the suitable closer that this album richly deserves.  Though I find the “album version” slightly more pleasing in its softer, understated qualities, the “radio mix” will more likely catch the fancy of the average radio-listener.  If…if only one could find such thoughtful and beautifully-crafted songs on the radio these days…
 
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