The name Vast Conduit may at first sight appear somewhat ungainly, but it is appropriate for the fortuitous circumstances in which this new band, built around Enchant keyboardist Bill Jenkins, came into being. Nominally based in California, the sextet are actually spread far and wide so the album was recorded at distance, a fact certainly not apparent from the music, which flows beautifully amid the dextrous interplay of the musicians.
This really is a top class group of players, and the music fizzes with energy and vitality. The ‘Smooth Prog’ tag may have initially been suggested in jest by guitarist Michael Harris, but it does actually fit a collection of songs that takes elements of classic prog, jazz and accessible rock into a very enjoyable whole.
Though not carrying a concept, the album is thematically dedicated to the notion of building and cherishing parent/child relationships, regardless of circumstance. The songs are all from Bill, including three co-writes, one (Endless Days) with Enchant guitarist Doug Ott.
From the twinkling keys of the opening to Barrier, it’s obvious that this project lies within the prog real, but the smooth side soon comes through in the fine vocals of Friel and fretless bass from Jeff Plant, amid complex rhythmic and tonal shifts. The use of multi-tracked vocals sometimes reminds me of echolyn, with the addition of the flowing violin of Jim Hurley soaring above. There’s so much going in in these songs – don’t let the ‘smooth’ tag lead you into a false expectation. The compositions are multi-layered, beautifully structured and intriguing, paying great rewards with repeated plays. Again in Barrier, Friel’s voice superbly threads it’s way through the driving end section, giving way to a storming instrumental fade with Harris soloing hard.
Harris takes a lead role in the jazzier but darker Soul Truck, and throughout the album his playing covers the gamut from incendiary lead lines to emotional depth. The changes from pounding rhythms and quirky time signatures, driven by drummer Will Jenkins, back to Bill’s exemplary piano work is realised with precision and the album is a fine listening experience all the way through; at times intense, at others driven by the emotion of the material, and always held together with a deep sense of melody.
All the songs are in the four to six-minute zone, giving them time to go to the places they need to while keeping things tight. Friel really is a great find, his voice effortlessly and emotionally working through the higher registers to deliver the songs with finesse, against the backdrop of the often startlingly versatile musicianship.
There is soloing aplenty, but Always Be There never approaches the ‘wankfest’ arena of showing off; the songs are all beautifully controlled and centre on the ensemble playing of the band as a whole. It’s quite something to be able to pull this kind of thing off, but Vast Conduit have done it in spades. The softer side of the band comes through in tracks like Endless Days, building from the piano and fretless bass intro into a soaring and emotional work. Hurley’s additions are particularly noteworthy, used sparingly to lift the music into new areas, duetting beautifully with Harris on Of A Feather. You can just sense the pleasure the players are getting out of it.
The jazz quotient is increased for tracks like 500 Miles, and the instrumentals Philly Etymology, with guest trumpet from Tom Abraira, and Too Busy, another fascinating workout with a lovely fretless solo from Plant. The mid-section of Odessa also benefits from a tastefully smooth treatment, and Early Eclipse features an acoustic guitar contribution from Bert Lams of the California Guitar Trio.
Finally, we get Wesley Save Us, with its somewhat harder rock direction setting it slightly apart from the rest of the album, but Friel’s excellent vocal keeps it on track as another component part of a very enjoyable feast.
Hats off to Bill for pulling this album together and providing the material to make it a solid winner. I picked it up as a punt and I’m so glad I did. A very rewarding album that all those involved in should be heartily proud of. The songs are great, the playing is superb and hopefully we’ll get to hear more from Vast Conduit in the future.
01. Barrier (6:21)
02. Soul Tuck (5:10)
03. Always Be There (5:48)
04. Endless Days (6:39)
05. Too Busy (5:44)
06. Odessa (5:56)
07. 500 Miles (4:44)
08. Philly Etymology (5:39)
09. Early Eclipse (6:58)
10. Of A Feather (5:01)
11. Wesley Save Us (4:31)
Total time – 62:33
Bill Jenkins – Keyboards
Will Jenkins – Drums
Michael Harris – Guitar
Jeff Plant – Bass
Friel – Vocals
Jim Hurley – Violin
Manon Roem – Vocals (track 1)
Tom Abraira – Trumpet (track 8)
Bert Lams – Acoustic Guitar (track 9)
Betsy Walter – Vocals (track 9)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 16th February 2022