Marco Bernard and Kimmo Pörsti are, respectively, bass player and drummer of The Samurai of Prog, a band formed by Italian-born Marco in Finland as part of a musical project creating prog tribute box sets. Joined by American multi-instrumentalist Steve Unruh, they have released seven albums of ‘old school’ symphonic prog and, despite Marco and Kimmo taking top billing, you can pretty much regard this as TSOP number eight.
The trio usually surround themselves with an army of helpers, and Gulliver is no exception. There are about twenty additional musicians and all the tracks are written not by the band but by visiting keyboard players. Despite that, they manage to maintain a cohesive musical style.
It’s a concept album, folks, based on the 18th Century satire by Jonathan Swift in which the titular hero, Lemuel Gulliver, discovers the perils of sizeism. There are six tracks chronicling all four of Gulliver’s travels: To Lilliput, where everyone is teeny-weeny; then Brobdingnag, where the grass is as tall as trees and the locals equally humongous; to Laputa, where the people waste their time in preposterous schemes, rather like the current Tory government; and, finally, the Land of the Houyhnhnms where he finds a race of talking horses and demented human creatures called Yahoos.
Returning home, Gulliver becomes a recluse, spending his time talking to his horses, but all they do is shake their heads and say “Neigh…”
Anyway, how to chronicle all these adventures in a scant 62 minutes? The two Samurai go back in time for inspiration – not to the 18th Century but to their 1970s prog heroes. So the album is full of influences from the likes of Genesis, Focus, Camel and ELP, some more blatant than others. The faded-in military drums and fife on opener Overture XI will make you jump out of your seat and yell “The Battle of Epping Forest!”, while the first few seconds of The Land of the Fools bear an uncanny resemblance to Wind and Wuthering’s …In That Quiet Earth. Add the occasional vocals channelling Peter Gabriel and you realise Gulliver wears its old school prog influences on its sleeve.
Thankfully, Marco and Kimmo are capable of more than lazy musical mimicry. At their best they can produce some dramatic and melodic instrumentals, welding earthy vintage keyboards with restrained, evocative guitar phrases, spicing them up with occasional jazzy sax and Tull-ish flute. Overature XI is a classic example that opens with some Bach-like harpsichord musings, inserts the ‘Epping Forest’ moment, introduces a dramatic keyboard and guitar duel before settling down into a stately, bluesy instrumental that could have come with Focus’s Eruption suite.
The Giants begins by taking a gentler, more wistful approach, gradually increasing in intensity and darkness until Marek Arnold’s nimble soprano sax leads the band into jazz fusion territory. At the five minute mark, it suddenly speeds up to showcase Mimmo Ferri’s keyboard flourishes, driven by Marco’s bass and Kimmo’s powerful drumming, before ending with dramatic major key chords under Carmine Capasso’s soaring lead guitar. It’s an entertaining, cinematic piece of music that you will want to hear again and again.
The album’s centrepiece is the 18-minute Lilliput Suite, telling in some detail the story of Gulliver’s first voyage to the land of the little’uns and discovering their fondness for bondage. Split into six distinct parts, it shows the band’s strengths and weaknesses – strengths in the complex but catchy instrumental sections, weaknesses in Marco Vincini’s vocals that bear a remarkable resemblance to Peter Gabriel, with a bit of a Roger Chapman warble thrown in, but fail to find sufficiently distinctive and memorable musical phrases.
There’s a lot of exposition to get through here, from Gulliver’s arrival in The Voyage of the “Antelope” to his escape in The Departure, and at times the music seems to take second place to the storytelling. But the final few minutes of The Theft of the Blefuscudian Fleet are superb, featuring an emotional guitar solo over climbing chords, followed by a fast, tight keyboard and guitar section, and The Departure gallops along nicely to the end.
The Land of the Fools` works a bit better – at nearly 15 minutes long it feels a bit more cohesive. This time Daniel Faldt supplies the vocals but, again, he doesn’t seem to find many melodic phrases that lodge in your brain. I was more impressed by Alessandro di Benedetti’s nimble keyboard work and Marco and Kimmo’s tight rhythm section.
Third Samurai Steve Unruh appears on Gulliver’s Fourth Travel, providing violin and lead vocals in the English section, while Italian lyrics are sung by Stefano Galifi in typically dramatic, operatic style. Again, there’s a lot of storytelling here and not enough melody, although Unruh is a fine violinist who provides some fast and furious phrases.
This leaves us with a short but entertaining three-minute Finale – a sort of triumphant fanfare driven by stabbing organ chords, wailing lead guitar and Kimmo’s busy drums.
To sum up, Gulliver is an album that requires repeated listens to unlock its treasures, and even then you may be hard-pushed to hum anything from the Lilliput Suite. But it attacks its material with confidence and musical dexterity, offering some excellent keyboard and guitar work that matches the dramatic intensity of its source material.
Full marks also to the CD designers – it’s quite a lavishly-produced item with a 20-page booklet and a cover that opens out to show Gulliver lying on the rock shore being tied up by his captors, something you usually have to visit specialised websites to see. Ahem…
01. Overture XI (7:42)
02. Lilliput Suite (17:53)
– Part 1: The Voyage of the “Antelope”
– Part 2: Prisoner
– Part 3: Inside the Emperor’s Palace
– Part 4: Peculiar Traditions
– Part 5: The Theft of the Blefuscudian Fleet
– Part 6: The Departure
03. The Giants (8:42)
04. The Land of the Fools (14:30)
05. Gulliver’s Fourth Travel (10:17)
06. Finale (3:11)
Total Time – 62:15
Marco Bernard – Bass Guitars
Kimmo Pörsti – Drums & Percussion
Andrea Povoni – Keyboards (track 1)
Kari Riihimaki – Guitars (track 1)
Marek Arnold – Saxophone (tracks 1 & 2)
Oliviero Lacagnina – Keyboards (track 2)
Marco Vincini – Vocals (track 2)
Ruben Alvarez – Electric Guitar (track 2)
Rafael Pacha – Acoustic, Classical & Electric Guitars, Recorders, Whistles (track 2)
Marc Papeghin – French Horn, Trumpet (track 2)
Olli Jaakola – Flute, Piccolo (track 2)
Tsuboy Akihisa – Violin (track 2)
Mimmo Ferri – Keyboards (track 3)
Carmine Capasso – Acoustic & Electric Guitars (track 3), Guitars (track 6)
Alessandro di Benedetti – Keyboards, Backing Vocals (track 4)
Daniel Deldt – Lead Vocals (track 4)
Massimo Sposaro – Guitars (track 4)
Luca Scherani – Keyboards (track 5)
Stefano Galifi – Italian Vocals (track 5)
Steve Unruh – English Vocals, Violin (track 5)
Marcella Arganese – Guitars (track 5)
Alessandro Lamuraglia – Keyboards (track 6)
Record Label: Seacrest Oy
Country of Origin: Multi-national (but very Finnish)
Date of Release: 25th January 2020