This review is a little overdue after the 2014 release of this third album from the extravagantly named The Samurai of Prog, but it is certainly well worth investigating. Whereas the multinational collective that make up The Samurai have concentrated on cover versions and reinterpretations of classic Prog pieces for their previous releases, The Imperial Hotel sees them make a move towards original material.
Also responsible for the production, the core band of Marco Bernard (bass), Steve Unruh (vocals, violin, flute, acoustic guitar) and Kimmo Porsti (drums and percussion) are assisted by a variety of guests including keyboardists Robert Webb (England), Robert Myers (The Musical Box) and Linus Kåse (Änglagård) plus guitarists Kamran Alan Shikoh (Glass Hammer) and Yoshitisa Shimizu (Kenso).
Housed in sumptuous sleeve packaging with wonderful artwork from Ed Unitsky, it really is a delightful object. But we’re mainly here for the music…
Despite being more than accomplished composers in their own right – Unruh’s work should certainly be familiar to many through his solo work, Resistor and other projects – the core trio took the decision to approach outside composers to provide the material. Possibly a strange choice but the result is that the five tracks come from four independent writers. To the credit of the band their arrangements mean that the finished product does not sound fragmented.
Their previous releases have a kind of novelty tag (and the band name does not help them much there!) but this album marks a new dawn. The opener After The Echoes, written by and featuring keyboardist Octavio Stampalia of Jinetes Negros, is a strident and uplifting number carried aloft on Steve Unruh’s high pitched vocals and Yes-like harmonies. The main melody is central but it is the additional sections that make it work, the various keyboards adding different textures with Unruh’s flute and violin increasing the variety. It is at times tricksy and chocolate boxy but never gets too schmaltzy and makes for an expansive piece of Prog to set the scene, the piano and violin outro being just beautiful.
The bright and breezy Limoncello was written by Robert Webb and he also adds keys and vocals here. A different version of it apparently appeared on the second part of the Colossus Project’s Decameron album. I am not familiar with it but as the core band also featured on that album they are sort of covering themselves this time. Suffice to say that it is a fun piece, lovely staccato piano intertwining with other keyboard lines to build the piece organically to Shimizu’s guitar solo which really cuts through. Unruh’s violin again makes a difference and the harmony vocals are delightful. At its heart is a very simple song that has been expanded and inflated but it all works and the extended instrumental section at the end is simply superb.
The gorgeous piano melody of Victoria’s Summer Home, written and performed by David Myers, deserves attention on its own merits and it is almost a shame that here it acts as a prelude to the album’s main event, the title track. That said, it works perfectly in the role, the culmination of birdsong and a car pulling up on a gravel driveway leading us beautifully into The Imperial Hotel itself. An unreleased song co-written by Robert Webb and England it certainly deserves to be heard and the trio have done a fine job with it. Webb again adds keys and vocals and the guitar of Kamran Alan Shikoh is excellent. An extended and self-contained story shot through with the kind of theatrical Victoriana that Genesis used to do so well, it is a great centrepiece and the highpoint of the album. I won’t spoil the story but it is is witty and well realised with a lovely surprise ending. The music takes you through the ups and downs of the story and it is all beautifully realised and played with enthusiastic passion. This is a half hour epic with not much in the way of excess flab and keeps you hooked throughout, it doesn’t move far from the England original recorded in 1975 (which you can find Here) but extends some of the instrumental passages. There is nothing “new” here, so to speak, but it is engaging and a great lost song from the ’70s that The Samurai have done full justice to.
After all that we get Into The Lake by Linus Kåse to finish, another full-on Prog extravaganza of excess to finish things off. Very much influenced by Gentle Giant, it’s one for the fans of that style of music to enjoy. It is dense and intricate, the complex music harking back to the classic era of Prog with hints of Genesis again, but it is all beautifully done and a resounding way to finish off an album such as this.
Steeped in what you might call “traditional” Prog stylings and performances it is bound to be disregarded by many as a pointless exercise of rehashing but that is to miss the quality of the performances and arrangements which are what makes it all work. If you are looking for the future and new avenues – turn back. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for interesting music packed with melodic hooks and wonderfully warm playing then this might well be for you.
The Imperial Hotel is a quite beautifully crafted work that deserves to be heard more widely. Some of the passages are simply breathtaking and the title track is a wonderfully conceived extended work in the grand traditions of High Prog to which The Samurai have added their own stamp.
01. After the Echoes (8:43)
02. Limoncello (7:57)
03. Victoria’s Summer Home (2:53)
04. The Imperial Hotel (28:09)
05. Into the Lake (8:43)
Total Time: 56:27
Marco Bernard – Bass
Kimmo Pörsti – Drums & Percussion
Steve Unruh – Vocals, Guitars, Violin, Flute
Robert Webb – Keyboards, Vocals
Kamran Alan Shikoh – Electric & Acoustic Guitars
Yoshihisa Shimuzu – Guitars, Synthesizers
Octavio Stampalia – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Linus Kåse – Mellotron, Backing Vocals
David Myers – Piano
Johan Oljen – Guitars
Kristofer Eng – Guitars
Maria Kvist – Backing Vocals
Martin Henderson – Backing Vocals
Andrew Marshall – Taurus Bass Pedals
Record Label: Seacrest Oy
Catalogue Number: SCR 1009
Year of Release: 2014