As a fan of live music, it’s a particular thrill for me any time an artist releases a live album from a show which I attended. It offers the chance to both savour a memory and hear the detail that escapes you in the moment. Joe Deninzon & Stratospheerius performed at the ProgStock festival in Rahway, New Jersey during both 2019 and 2021. I was lucky to be in attendance for both shows, which have now been compiled into a four disc boxset including two CDs, one DVD and one Blu-Ray.
Joe Deninzon is based in New York and as a violinist has worked with artists as diverse as The Who, Bruce Springsteen and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Along with his band Stratospheerius, he has released five studio albums of progressive rock, jazz fusion and funkabilly since 1998. All these styles and more are captured on the upcoming Behind the Curtain – Live at ProgStock. This album faithfully captures all the excitement and eclecticism of a band at the top of its game.
The first disc of Behind the Curtain, recorded on 13th October 2019 leads things off with a rock and roll assault where Deninzon’s vocals are front and centre. The violin lurks stealthily in the background, sawing away at riffs until it is unleashed for the first solo of the performance. You know right away you’re in for a high energy performance of accessible prog pop tunes with an edge that encompasses everything from bluegrass to classical to jazz and whatever else fits in between. A veritable arsenal of violin sounds is unleashed in the first minute of Release. Picked, bowed, scraped, tortured, the violin holds its own against Michaelangelo Quirinale’s metal guitar rhythms. The guitar takes the first solo, soaring high and bright, coaxing the violin to follow it into (dare I say) the stratosphere. Deninzon handles the lead vocals on all tracks, but the vocal abilities of each band member make for a full, rich bed of harmonies. Blistering violin introduces Imposter!, but things quiet down for the vocal section, allowing for a dynamic build back to a reprise of the intro. Thanks to Dave Kerzner’s superb mastering, the bass and drums are crisp, enhancing the incredible violin and guitar duels that pop up here and elsewhere. As good as the songs are, it is not the composition that dazzles so much as the instrumental prowess of each band member and how they cohere as a unit.
The first of several cover tunes makes an appearance as the band takes on King Crimson’s Frame By Frame. Relatively faithful to the original, it is no less impressive that any human can play the opening riff as fast and accurately as they do. The violin replacing one of the guitars adds new tonal colours to the song, so what you hear is not just KC lite. Paul Ranieri’s bass is magnificent, locking in with Jason Gianni’s seemingly eight-handed drums. This is truly one of the highlights of the show; both the band and the audience know it too. Climbing uses a very intricate yet playful Mahavishnu vibe circa Birds of Fire to add even more variety to the band’s palette. The light of the vocal sections contrasts with the shade of the instrumental interludes for what should be a huge radio hit in a perfect world. Not to be outdone in the vocal department, The Missing Link uses four-part harmony over odd meter music to make for one of the most winning tracks of the set. Deninzon takes a wah-wah-infused solo to enhance the song’s prog credentials.
Sounding like a synth set to stun, the plucked violin which opens Gods takes a back seat to Quirinale’s song-stealing solo. These guys know how to write concise prog rock/pop tunes in a way that reminds me of the debut Asia album. Catchy as hell, yet still there is no denying the progressive aspect at the heart of it all. Every song has enough hooks to crochet a blanket big enough to cover a football stadium. Listen to Game of Chicken for a fine example of how each instrument chases the other, daring one another to follow into the twisty-turny alleys of the music. Interesting chord sequences and mood changes pile one atop the other in waves of pleasant surprise. While the guitar and violin solo, listen to the interplay of the rhythm section which appears to be having at least as much fun as the lead instruments. The energy of this track never lets up for the entire six minutes.
The first show closes with The Prism, an assemblage of ascending chords that take the listener ever higher. The violin takes on a hint of Middle Eastern scales to add even more spice to the musical stew. The sound is rapturous, bringing the set to a satisfying close.
The second show, recorded on 2nd October 2021, takes more chances and offers more rewards. No songs are repeated from one show to the next, and the high-octane performance remains consistent. Ranieri’s bass starts things off with a riff that the rest of the band mimics on Take Your Medicine. The tune has a hard funk edge at times with the violin veering off in other wild directions. At times you have to remind yourself that some of the leads are not being played on guitar. Cognitive Dissonance has Deninzon’s vocals at heart. He can growl, purr and rock as well as any of his contemporaries. If I have any quibble, it’s a minor one. When the guitar or violin are soloing, there are moments when you wish there were a bed of keyboards to put the solo in a chordal context. But hey, that’s live music for ya.
The ubiquitous Rachel Flowers makes her first guest appearance on the Michael Sadler (Saga) co-write Storm Surge, based on Frederic Chopin’s L’orage (The Storm). Her piano and flute add a sense of delicacy that you haven’t yet heard from this band. Still, make no mistake, it is Stratospheerius’ show all the way. The violin juxtaposed against the flute is exquisite and emotional, like the song itself. The storm here is inner turmoil, beautifully rendered by the band, with Deninzon’s violin sitting on top of everything. The violin/flute coda is pure magic, leaving you wanting a whole lot more. Flowers sticks around and former Stratospheerius guitarist Alex Skolnick joins the proceedings along with Deninzon for the highlight of the set – a trio rendition of Chick Corea’s Spain. Beginning with a quote from Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez on piano, the violin and Skolnick’s acoustic guitar join forces for a simply jaw-dropping performance. This is a virtuoso tour de force that will leave you wondering how they have not been performing this piece together for years. The joy and exuberance is apparent in every note.
A cover of Muse’s Hysteria turns the original inside out. Ranieri’s bass is frantic and Deninzon and Quirinale play as if their lives depend on it. Blistering! But wait… Skolnick returns for Heavy Shtettle, a co-write with Deninzon. The audience clap along to the 7/8 drum pattern that introduces the song before the violin begins to layer more Eastern-tinged riffs. When he and Skolnick start trading licks, it sounds like Testament stranded in Syria. While the bass and drums keep a bare bones rhythm going, Deninzon and Skolnick duel for supremacy on their respective instruments. Watching these two guys show off is actually fun as they push each other’s egos and boundaries. Eventually, even Ranieri gets in on the opportunity to exhibit his chops, strangling and slapping his bass into submission. Sure enough (this is a live show after all), Gianni gets into the act with a comparatively understated drum interlude while the rest of the band plays softly behind him. A monumental crescendo brings the song to an end and the house down.
How do you follow a tune like Heavy Shtettle? With an encore of prog pop glory, One Foot in the Next World. Tight unison riffs give way to Deninzon’s final opportunity to grab the spotlight. This is not navel-gazing noodling. These guys rock hard enough to rip your face off.
I would rarely recommend a live album as a starting point, but if you are unfamiliar with Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius, the strength and variety of these performances behoves me to do so. If you are familiar with the band, you will want this set as a reminder of the power and exhilaration of live performance. The covers are added incentive, with the performance of Spain worth the price of the package on its own. There is something for everyone across these two hours. The performance is so alive, I can almost feel the discomfort of the old theatre seat on my bum. Wow!
01. Behind the Curtain (4:08)
02. Release (5:48)
03. Imposter! (8:20)
04. Frame By Frame (5:54)
05. Climbing (5:24)
06. The Missing Link (4:26)
07. Gods (6:38)
08. Game of Chicken (6:38)
09. The Prism (5:10)
Time – 52:26
01. Take Your Medicine (5:02)
02. Cognitive Dissonance (4:41)
03. Storm Surge (7:14)
04. Spain (12:31)
05. Hysteria (4:28)
06. Heavy Shtettle (16:54)
07. One Foot in the Next World (6:00)
Time – 56:50
Total Time – 109:16
Joe Deninzon – Lead Vocals, Electric String “Viper” Violin
Michaelangelo Quirinale – Guitar, Vocals
Paul Ranieri – Bass, Vocals
Jason Gianni – Drums, Vocals
Rachel Flowers – Piano, Flute (Disc Two, tracks 3 & 4)
Alex Skolnick – Guitar (Disc Two, tracks 4 & 6)
Record Label: Melodic Revolution Records
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 19th May 2023