If Only is the impressive debut release by the American symphonic/neo/melodic prog rock group The Far Cry. It is a refreshing and varied collection of tracks which, whilst showing the musician’s own influences – from the classic ’70s prog/classic rock period, through the neo-prog era and on to more modern prog – creates a musical landscape that is a unique mix of all of these as well.
Jeff Brewer (vocals and bass) and Robert Hutchinson (drums and percussion) first met in 1976 as part of a short-lived rock covers band, and later would be involved in the Connecticut progressive rock band Holding Pattern through the ’80s and ’90s, though not simultaneously. However, it was not until 2013 that the seeds of The Far Cry were sown, when the two friends reunited and decided to push on together with a dream of forming a new progressive rock band to showcase their love of the prog rock giants, whilst shaping the sound into something more contemporary. Finding suitable musicians in the New England area was not easy, but Bryan Collins (guitar) subsequently joined the band as they began work in the recording studio, and when Chris Dabbo (keyboards) was recommended by the studio owner John Bolduc – initially for session work – the final piece of The Far Cry jigsaw had been found.
These seasoned and talented musicians steadily evolved the band sound over time (including the extended pandemic period), and have finally produced their debut album, If Only, this summer. It is clearly a labour of love that demands a much wider audience amongst progressive rock fans who value melody, subtle complexity and a symphonic prog panorama. Although it has a loosely-based concept linking common threads of human emotion and perspective meeting real human conditions, the compositions are varied in style, atmosphere and duration, making them an enjoyable and eclectic listening experience individually, but perhaps working best when listened to in one session.
As Jeff told me, “We didn’t set out to write a concept album, as such, yet as the writing and recording evolved, and many of the longer tracks were completed, we began to want to structure the album, so it had a flow, to give the listener a complete musical experience rather than just have eight separate tracks. This is what was great about those early bands from the ’70s. In those days you put on a set of headphones, turned down the lights, closed your eyes and immersed yourself in the music from beginning to end. So, we wrote shorter, mellower songs to cleanse the palette, if you will, from the heavier pieces and allow the listener to take that complete journey, so to speak.”
The opening track, The Mask of Deception, was one of the last pieces written for the album, with lyrics co-written by Jeff and Robert reflecting the steady erosion of freedom and personal choice resulting from big government’s handling of the pandemic in the USA. It begins with dark, foreboding keyboards, barked orders and the repeated mantra “Take the shot or the bus to camp…”. Jeff stresses it is not specifically an anti-vaccination track, but hints at a darker, futuristic world order where the control over us and loss of individual liberties could become all-pervading – especially from the perspective of recent years. Strong stuff indeed, and the acerbic lyrics are matched by the power and complexity of the music. Dream Theater-style guitar/keyboard intermeshing and tempo changes introduce a playful, but mocking tone to the vocals, akin to Spock’s Beard, with a stalking rhythm propelling the ensemble-based music onwards. There is even some alto and tenor saxophone in the musical melting pot. A refreshing mid-way change signals some extended keyboard noodling from Chris, with expressive guitar solo lines from Bryan, before a return to the original theme.
Programophone is an entirely different style of track, with a spoken diatribe by Robert about the programmed control that streaming organisations and the media have on the music we listen to: “I’d say it’s mechanised madness beyond our control, as we’re forced fed our daily bread of prescribed rock ‘n’ roll.” A spritely keyboard, drums and bass pattern forms a foundation to the almost rap-style delivery of the angry, occasionally explicit, lyrics. Hints of Frank Zappa, perhaps? Some more typical progressive musical patterns keep the music fresh throughout. Challenging and complex prog for sure and maybe not to all tastes, but the band’s ambition and vision is to be applauded.
Winterlude, the first of the shorter instrumental pieces, provides an immediate contrast and signals the album’s shift into more traditional symphonic and neo-prog soundscapes. Delicate acoustic guitar and Peart-like twinkling percussion dominate this calm and evocative track, providing a gateway into the heart of the album.
Simple Pleasures is an undoubted highlight. Highly melodic and accessible, a Howe-like guitar motif heralds this vibrant slab of melodic progressive rock. Fans of Starcastle, Styx and Glass Hammer will lap up this track and there is also an Asia-like AOR feel to the vocals and instrumentation that makes it very easy on the ear. Nicely pitched vocals from Jeff set the tone well: “Simple pleasures so sublime. Hidden treasures of the mind… Taking in the veranda’s moonlight. Savouring a fine Beaujolais. Follow shooting stars in their flight. Contemplating the close of day”. The middle section has some expressive and gently paced Emerson-like piano before being progressively added to by the rest of the band, including some swirling keyboard and synthesiser work (flute sounds from the bass too) and lively electric guitar soloing (with subtle referencing of Yes and Styx), all before the main theme reprises as the track concludes with a gentle fade.
The Missing Floor is a more extended and darker instrumental and once again the compositional complexity of Dream Theater, and even Liquid Tension Experiment, come to mind. Intricate playing and instrumental mastery by the whole band dominates the sound, but then there is a change in atmosphere from dark to light towards the end, and the tone becomes more optimistic and brighter. Winterlude Waning is the piano-led companion piece to Winterlude, with stately grace and grandeur, especially when lush keyboard/synthesiser accompaniment briefly washes over the delicate theme. Another example of the album’s ebb and flow in mood that shows why the album is best enjoyed in one complete listen.
The title track is the longest on the album at over 16-minutes, and is undoubtedly the cornerstone that defines what The Far Cry are all about. A multi-faceted epic with shifting tempos, power and styles which continually entertains the listener with its twists and turns. There is a poignant link to the CD artwork of an empty Versailles-style theatre (an atmospheric photograph of the New Bedford Orpheum Theater in Massachusetts along with its empty seats) and the sadness of musicians not being able to perform during the last year or so – and whether things will ever be the same for many. The lyrics emphasise the passage of time and the melancholic yearning for the past; “Oh… To be young once more. When every day seemed an open door”, and they combine with the wonderfully melodic music – one minute dynamic and bombastic, and yet mellow and contemplative the next.
It begins with a gentle, acoustic guitar introduction, then a Europe-like keyboard call, followed by powerful guitar and keyboard interplay and Spock’s Beard-style vocals. A haunting Awaken-like interlude, the ticking of a clock over a delicate piano and guitar theme before Gentle Giant-like vocal pacing and then some full-blown symphonic prog flights of fancy from Bryan and Chris. However, at all times, Jeff’s bass guitar and bass pedals and Robert’s exuberant drumming keep everything grounded. The epic concludes more hopefully with a defiant shout of “I will fight. I will fight, I will face my fears and fight again” and a fading march to drums into an uncertain future.
It is a tough song to follow, and final track Dream Dancer does not attempt to compete with it. Instead, it is a gentle instrumental coda, with Jeff’s soothing bass notes sprinkled over a wistful wash from his bass synthesisers, building slowly to perhaps emphasise a sanguine feel for what the years to come might bring us all.
If Only is a confident, ambitious and assured album by excellent musicians that has a broad range of melodic prog music styles. It doffs its cap to the past, whilst embracing the present, and mixes it all into a singular and varied style. There is a refreshing chameleon-like character across all the eight tracks, with surprises around the corner for any listener, and yet it works as a whole. Their heart might be in the symphonic and neo-prog rock of the ’70s and ’80s, but they are not anchored there at all. This is definitely an album worth exploring for progressive rock fans who like their melody and complexity is equal measures.
01. The Mask of Deception (11:26)
02. Programophone (6:51)
03. Winterlude (2:25)
04. Simple Pleasures (13:23)
05. The Missing Floor (7:23)
06. Winterlude Waning (2:28)
07. If Only (16:26)
08. Dream Dancer (6:28)
Total Time – 66:47
Jeff Brewer – Lead & Backing Vocals, Bass, Bass Synth, Bass Pedals, Guitar
Robert Hutchinson – Drums, Percussion, Spoken Word
Bryan Collin – Lead, Acoustic & Electric Guitars
Chris Dabbo – Piano, Keyboards, Vocals
Kendra Emery – Alto & Tenor Saxophone (track 1)
Richard Silva – Keyboards (track 2)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 9th July 2021