Published on 30th December 2019
Various Artists – A Prog Rock Christmas
Let’s get something clear straight from the off: I love Christmas music, always have done since first hearing Slade’s Merry Christmas Everyone and the masterpiece that is Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas, and countless other incarnations, reinventions and covers. I love them all, well, usually that is, but then I heard this album.
The brainchild and possibly bastard ego of Billy Sherwood, of Yes and Circa fame, here he delves into his little black phone book and calls some of his “friends” to help him indulge in some yuletide festivities, with a view to releasing his own take on Christmas music of the past and of today, summoning help from the likes of Steve Morse (Flying Colors), Jon Davison (Yes), Sonja Kristina (Curved Air), Patrick Moraz (Yes & The Moody Blues), and even an old appearance from the late John Wetton.
On paper, this sounds like a Prog Dream, but sadly the reality falls pretty far short, and it pains me to say this but seriously, I’d avoid this like the plague. The music itself is OK, as are the guest performers, but somehow it is lacking in any emotion or atmosphere and I find that very sad indeed.
After opening with Jon Davison’s Run With the Fox, a pale copy of the Chris Squire and Alan White original, Christmas Lights is a new song to me, but it is very pedestrian and Kasim Sulton (of Utopia) is not the World’s best singer, bringing nothing fresh or interesting to this song whatsoever. Steve Morse shreds Carol of the Bells well enough, his guitar soaring as always, but the drums are truly awful, insipid and dull. This is followed by a fairly dire version of The Twelve Days of Christmas by Annie Haslam of Renaissance, whose fine voice is wasted on this mush. Backing vocals support her but not to any great effect. The cover of Wonderful Christmastime with Billy on vocals and Patrick Moraz on keyboards is passable and pleasant enough – any Moraz keys are good with me. Possibly the best of a very poor bunch, this one at least has an element of jolliness to it, despite all attempts to thwart this.
Original Wishbone Ash bass player and singer Martin Turner massacres Greg Lake’s classic, reducing it from a monstrously epic piece to a damp squib of failed firework, also lacking from this song are the magnificent Moogs of Keith Emerson, which it really needs to lift the song from the dull depths in which it lies, unwanted and neglected. Martin’s voice is OK but lacks the purity of Greg’s original version and whilst a melody is played, it lacks the emphasis and power of the original. This is a poor version of a great song.
Fairytale of New York is next and again compared to original this is a very pale shadow of a classic song. Robin McAuley (MSG) and Leslie Hunt (District 97) try their hardest but this falls so far short that it completely misses the mark. This song is supposed to swing but instead it barely crawls along, a real wasted opportunity. At least you can hear what they are singing, but it lacks the raw emotion of the original version. My view is that if you attempt to cover a classic you need to do something different with it, but certainly not merely to clone it, and poorly like this one.
Next up is Sonja Kristina’s take on O Come All Ye Faithful which tries hard to be epic with a stately choral majesty, but again it falls somewhat short. Sonja sings it very well but she is not tracked enough to make an impression. A Christmas Song by Thijs Van Leer of Focus opens with a good bass riff and Thijs’ soaring flute, but this merely meanders without any discernible melody and a spoken part from Thijs is again insipid, missing the mark despite its social message.
You’re A Mean One Mr Grinch is pointless, to me it sounds like something from a bad pantomime and Malcolm McDowell should really know better. He adds nothing of any real note and it’s a pretty worthless track to these ears. Linus and Lucy from Geoff Downes (Yes and Asia) is a lively little piano romp that doesn’t really go anywhere apart from showing off Geoff’s not inconsiderable skills. All very nice but what is this trying to achieve as it simply doesn’t impress enough, instead you’ll probably start skipping this one. It’s followed by Silent Night by Nik Turner and Simon House (ex-Hawkwind) and it’s not too bad. I usually find Silent Night depressing and maudlin, this version is listenable enough but as an instrumental it lacks variation and pace.
Thus it is left to John Wetton to round the album out with a version of Happy Christmas (War is Over). This was a favourite song of John’s apparently, and he is in ever fine voice here. The backing vocals sound somewhat contrived and lack the power needed to really make it special. This is one of the better songs on this poor album, the backing track musically is spot on here but it’s a little too late to rescue things.
I hate to be so negative but good intentions alone won’t make for a good album. I think Billy Sherwood has tried but sadly failed on this occasion and my honest opinion is to avoid it and find a better prog Christmas album, like A Proggy Christmas from The Prog World Orchestra from 2012 where they both play up a storm and seem to be having fun in the process.
01. Run With the Fox (Jon Davison) (4:08)
02. Christmas Lights (Kasim Sulton) (3:57)
03. Carol of the Bells (Steve Morse) (2:50)
04. The Twelve Days of Christmas (Annie Haslam) (4:30)
05. Wonderful Christmastime (Billy Sherwood & Patrick Moraz) (3:03)
06. I Believe in Father Christmas (Martin Turner) (4:12)
07. Fairytale of New York (Leslie Hunt & Robin McAuley) (3:48)
08. O Come All Ye Faithful (Sonja Kristina) (2:52)
09. A Christmas Song (Thijs Van Leer)
09. You’re A Mean One, Mr Grinch (Malcolm MacDowell) (3:07)
10. Linus & Lucy (Charlie Brown Christmas Theme) (Geoff Downes) (3:04)
11. Silent Night (Nik Turner & Simon House) (5:34)
12. Happy Christmas (War is Over) (John Wetton) (3:25)
Total Time – 48:56
Record Label: Purple Pyramid Records
Date of Release: 1st November 2019
A Prog Rock Christmas – Bandcamp