This is my second encounter with The Samurai of Prog, the first being three years ago when I reviewed their second album, Secrets of Disguise, largely a cover album which didn’t bring very much to the songs it covered. Indeed, songs like Jacob’s Ladder suffered, purely because TSoP aren’t as good at their instruments as Rush are! Last time, I wrote “Not only are The Samurai making their money off the backs of others, but they’re hindering the progress of the genre itself by rehashing the past”. I also advised the band to “keep on writing new stuff, but if you are to cover obscure gems, the name Fruupp may come in handy”. Without wishing to rehash the past myself, I’ll get on with my review.
Unsurprisingly, the band haven’t followed my advice; their fourth album, Lost and Found, consists of unearthed material from largely unheard-of American prog bands such as Quill, Lift and (my personal favourite) Cathedral. It seems that Fruupp will remain known only to me and a few scant others. Unfortunately though, as you’d expect from a band with a name like The Samurai of Prog, this doesn’t do so much to progress the genre or push boundaries as it does to make one’s eyes roll at how inbred our beloved genre has become. It seems we’re now paying tribute to bands who originally paid tribute to the original classics such as Yes, Genesis, etc. Let’s get on with it.
Interestingly enough, the best spot on this album is the start. The band kick the album off with a nifty arrangement of Preludin by Pavlov’s Dog, elongated to include more themes from around the album itself. TSoP even managed to get the Dog’s guitarist Steve Scorfina to contribute to this one. I have to say, the whole thing works pretty well, with shifting themes keeping things interesting throughout. This is swiftly followed by the short but sweet piano instrumental, Along the Way.
Up next is our first ‘epic’, Inception, supposedly composed by Lift back in the day. It’s safe to say that from here on out, it feels as if every song is simply long for the sake of being long, knowing that a prog fan’s eyes will light up if they see anything over a quarter of an hour. While Inception does have its fair share of tuneful moments, these are far too often broken up by dull or irritating themes. For one thing, it’s difficult to tell just how seriously the band take themselves; a 20-minute joke is one that has definitely been taken too far. Ultimately it feels rather pointless, as the track doesn’t really go anywhere, but just meanders aimlessly through various themes and imagery.
Here and elsewhere throughout the album, the band seem to limit themselves from doing too many technical ‘twiddly bits’. This is perhaps because they’re aware that they’re not very good at them, even though prog effectively thrives on this sort of thing. Three and a half minutes into Inception for example, you can hear one such attempt; the whole thing isn’t exactly tight, and it feels as if drummer Kimmo Pörsti falls behind a bit.
She (Who Must Be Obeyed) is without a doubt the worst track on the album. Featuring the signature vocals of Glass Hammer’s Jon Davison – now, of course, the vocalist for Yes – this twelve-minute monstrosity demonstrates the very worst in prog. For one thing, the “main theme” or verse is really grating and the singing isn’t catchy at all. Furthermore, everything is all too saccharine-sweet, it honestly gives me a headache. What could have saved this track was some sort of meaty, fast-paced instrumental for the band to show off their (non-existant) technical prowess, but this never comes, and it just feels like this plodding calamity will never end.
At some point it does, and then we’re onto a Cathedral track, Plight of the Swan. Now, this one catches my attention, purely because I’m quite fond of the band’s sole album, Stained Glass Stories from 1978. Original band member Ton Doncourt joins the band on Mellotron, Hammond organ and other keyboards. You can definitely hear the similarity to original Cathedral tracks such as Introspect, especially in the melancholy atmosphere and in the faux-battle-cry style vocals. I’d go as far as saying band stalwart Steve Unruh does a good job of capturing the original’s emotion. Nevertheless, the whole experience is hampered by TSoP’s poor handling of the music. Cathedral’s instrumentation always felt exciting and innovative, and I could never fault the drumming on Stained Glass Stories. Pörsti on the other hand refrains from doing anything interesting at all, and stays laid-back throughout with very simple rhythms while bassist Marco Bernard perversely gives a somewhat bouncy feel to the bassline. It just feels like they really hammed this one up: Cathedral should never have been heard in plodding 4/4. Fortunately, there’s a 1978 live version of this track on SoundCloud which sounds infinitely better, bringing us far closer to how the track was originally intended to be heard.
On to CD 2, and the good news is that there is only one track left! The bad news (depending on how you feel about this) is that this particular track is in excess of 57 minutes! Oh boy. The Demise is penned solely by Ken DeLoria; if you don’t know that name, don’t worry, neither did I. A quick search on Ye Olde Prog Archives shows that he is a former member of the little known band Quill whose sole output consisted of one album (Sursum Coda, 1977), itself consisting of two sidelong tracks, creatively titled First Movement and – you guessed it – Second Movement, apparently forming a fantasy story involving wizards, mountains and kings. Come to think of it, that’s what all my friends seem to think prog is anyway. What I’m trying to say is, this guy likes telling fairy tales in long-form prog. And why shouldn’t he? Let’s take the plunge and find out!
For one thing, 57 minutes is a long time, even for a prog fan. Finding that kind of time to devote to one album, let alone one track, is difficult. I managed to use the track as a sort of goal whilst doing exercise: I wanted to run a certain distance before the time was up. But for a song to really be worth listening to for 57 minutes, it has to have something about it that keeps the listener gripped. Does this track have that? I’m not so sure.
The Demise is a story told in 36 parts. Yes, you heard me, thirty-six parts. That’s less than two minutes per section. Some of the best long form tracks include extended sections, but The Demise keeps it fairly choppy and changey throughout. Just like in Inception, this track weaves between quite satisfying tuneful sections and hopelessly clichéd prog. A small factor that adds so much value to this track is the inclusion of saxophone to a few sections, bringing some fiery heat to the recordings. It might not be Coltrane, but Linus Kåse’s contribution is greatly appreciated nonetheless.
The story itself, as far as I can tell, is about a character called Lorne who has to get the Book of All Knowledge and save it from the evil Emperor Malikus, with the help of the divine servant Basil. I have to say, it really helped me power through my run to keep hearing my name in lyrics such as “Basil the Wise”, and generally hearing about what a hero I am. Nevertheless, this story is even less penetrable than Dream Theater’s The Astonishing, which was helped massively by a webpage with the synopsis. Even reading the lyrics in the glossy Ed Unitsky designed booklet doesn’t get me very far. Without really being able to follow the story, it’s hardly worth listening to the track all the way through.
The Samurai of Prog are certainly an ambitious lot; you wouldn’t expect many a band to release a twenty minute song and an hour long song on the same album, let alone work with so many prog alumni at one time. Nevertheless, I’ve found the quality of the material lamentable in places and, worse still, the band don’t really seem to have the raw skill to be able to effectively pull it off. When bands such as Haken and Dream Theater seem to be able to play for hours on end without dropping a note and making it look like a piece of cake. To see The Samurai of Prog struggle through the occasional “twiddly bit” just seems depressing. As before though, it has opened my eyes once again to some new progressive bands that I probably would have never found otherwise. Lost and Found indeed.
01. Preludin (7:39)
02. Along the Way (2:22)
03. Inception (20:03)
04. She (Who Must Be Obeyed) (12:12)
05. Plight of the Swan (10:33)
01. The Demise (57:18)
Total time – 1:50:07
Marco Bernard – Rickenbacker Basses, Project Coordinator
Steve Unruh – Vocals, Violin, Flute
Kimmo Pörsti – Drums & Percussion, Audio Engineering
Stefan Renström – Keyboards
David Myers – Piano
Tom Doncourt – Keyboards
Chip Gremillion – Keyboards
Johan Öijen – Electric & Acoustic Guitars (on She, Plight of the Swan, The Demise)
Kamran Alan Shikoh – Electric Guitar (on Inception)
Jon Davison – Vocals (on She)
Steve Scorfina – Electric Guitar (on Preludin)
Richard Maddocks – Narration (on The Demise)
Keith Christian – Vocals (on The Demise)
Mark Trueack – Vocals (on The Demise)
Linus Kåse – Saxophones (on The Demise)
Llorián García – Electronic Bagpipes (on The Demise)
Record Label: Seacrest Oy
Country of Origin: Multi-national
Date of Release: 20th April 2016