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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Valerie Gracious, Steve Unruh, Phideaux Xavier

71319 Live at Monforti Manor

Review by Gary Hill

This is an unusual release. Each live CD here represents one set of a show from July of 2019. In fact, the CDs are labeled "Set 1" and "Set 2." The first set is essentially a set by Steve Unruh, focused on his musical creations and featuring him handling most of the lead vocals (and more to be mentioned in a moment). For the second CD the focus in Phideaux Xavier with his songs and vocals featured.

That said, the lineup is the same throughout other than the male lead vocal part. Valerie Gracious provides e-piano and vocals. In addition to his vocals, Unruh plays a range of instruments including guitar, flute, violin and more. Xavier plays acoustic guitar, bass and e-piano.  The whole concert, despite the differences between the two sets, feels like a cohesive and strong prog rock performance.

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Track by Track Review
Set 1
Learn to Love Rain

Playful tuned percussion serves as the backdrops as the vocals weave melodies that feel like they belong in a Renaissance Faire.

Twilight in India
Seeming to merge Indian world music with a dramatic prog build-up, this uses acoustic instrumentation to create an intriguing tapestry. The vocals paint a more folk prog kind of concept. The piece has some great melodic movements in the mix. It turns more rocking further down the road. This gets more driving and intense as it continues. It has some definite psychedelic edges but is full-on prog. 
Violin Raga (on Song to the Sky) --> Focus -->
As you might guess, the first section of this is a violin solo. The second part is an unaccompanied poetry reading. It's fast paced and intriguing in terms of its delivery and meter. From there a cool acoustic guitar jamming emerges. It gets pretty driving before it's over.
Something in Heaven Bleeds
A rocking number, this has some cool shifts and changes. There is a definite folk prog element at play on this. The tune works out into a killer instrumental jam later that is fast paced, a bit crazed and so tasty.
The Lawn Chair Song (with improvisation)
The main core of this song is a playful, homey kind of folk tune. The fast paced instrumental movement mid-track really rocks and takes it in proggy directions.
Two Little Awakenings
The first epic of the set, this piece is close to 19-minutes long. A bright and energetic acoustic guitar pattern serves as the backdrop for the first vocals. The track turns to more of a dreamy, contemplative movement from there. As that section finishes its evolution, an almost Genesis-like building, soaring prog concept takes control. The piece continues to grow from there. This continues to work through varying movements and sections. This number has some particularly powerful moments. As you might guess of something this long, it goes through all kinds of changes, and has some real contrast, too. There are slow moving, mellower sections, more rocking, soaring ones and just about everything in between. It gets quite artistic at times. When the female vocals (Gracious) emerge over a playful arrangement around the two-thirds mark, it's a great touch. It grows outward from there to more powerful prog territory with those vocals as the lead ones. After a crescendo, a mellower section with the male vocals takes over. That motif evolves and holds the track to the end.
Luxury Denial
Another of the more epic length, this is over 11-minutes long. It has a lot of driving energy. As the cut continues there is a killer non-lyrical section, with multiple vocals working very well together. This continues to drive for a time, but then it drops down to a mellow and rather intricate guitar section. The cut twists toward old-time rock and roll for a short time before it works out to more of a melodic prog motif to continue. The changes continue from there, though. This thing is a real powerhouse.
Set 2


The Error Lives On

Piano, flute and other mellow elements bring this into being. The cut grows out with drama and style, becoming a powerful and dramatic prog arrangement. This evolves and drives forward with a lot of style. There are a number of intriguing changes. The cut has a real theatrical vibe to it in a lot of ways. Around the halfway mark, this drops to a piano arrangement and powerful female vocals deliver some of the most passionate singing of the whole performance. The powerful and involved instrumental section that takes over after that part of the song is so strong. This is actually one of my favorite tunes of the whole show. It just has everything going for it.

Candybrain --> The Sleepers Wake

There is a dreamy kind of vibe here. The cooperation of male and female vocals is so strong. This is such a powerful piece. The violin brings some real added magic to this. I really love the evolution and transitions on this number. It's another highlight of the set. The almost spooky violin near the end is so cool, too.

Darkness at Noon
Starting with Gracious' vocals accompanied only by some sparse piano, this has a powerful melody and treatment. It starts to grow out there with style, ever so gradually. It doesn't get beyond the piano and voice treatment, but it doesn't need to.
One Star

A more bouncing, driving kind of prog concept, this is classy. Folk music, classical and traditional prog all seem to merge on this powerhouse tune. It makes good use of multiple vocals and really soars at times.

Inspecting the Spoils
Piano begins this number. That remains the only element for a time, joined after a while by Gracious' voice. It works out in an evocative balladic style from there.
You and Me Against a World of Pain
Swirling, dramatic piano melodies serve as the backdrop for the male vocals as this cut gets underway. This piece grows outward and Gracious joins in a duet on the piece.
A Curse of Miracles

A guitar based rocker, this has more energy and drive. It's a fun piece that works pretty well. Some killer clean electric guitar brings an almost glam sound to this. Comparisons to Supertramp aren't out of the question at times, on this. That's particularly true when it's reborn after that guitar section in a more ballad-like movement and builds back upward.

The Doctrine of Eternal Ice (Two)
The only long-form piece on the second disc, this is nearly ten-minutes long. Starting with piano and vocals, this grows with a lot of drama and emotion. It has plenty of classical music in the mix. Violin brings a lot of charm to later portions of this.  A drop to piano and flute is packed with class. Gracious' vocals take over with the piano as the backdrop. The cut shifts out from there into a fast paced piano led jam. From there it gets into more powerhouse prog zones.
Infinite Supply
Gracious' vocals accompanied by piano and violin bring this number into being. It works with a dramatic, yet classical ballad based approach. The violin really brings something special, but so does the whole song.





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