The Samurai of Prog – The Man In The Iron Mask

The Samurai of Prog – The Man in the Iron Mask

The Samurai of Prog have always struck me as an odd conceit for a band. It’s three core members (bassist Marco Bernard, drummer Kimmo Pörsti, and utility man Steve Unruh) are always supplemented by guest musicians who also just happen to be the main songwriters on any given album. Given this approach, it’s incredible that with the keyboards, guitars, composition and vocals all (or more often than not) being farmed out, the band still has an identifiable sound. And a pretty damn good one at that.

On their latest outing, The Man in the Iron Mask, the Samurai have employed (ahem) the talents of a familiar collaborator, Latte e Miele keyboardist Oliviero Lacagnina. Lacagnina’s resume is an impressive one. He has worked as a composer, arranger and conductor, performing throughout the world with various orchestras and ensembles and working in both film and television. The very orchestral and orchestrated nature of this musical retelling of the story of the secret twin of the French Sun King is inspired lyrically by the works of Dumas and Voltaire but, in a departure from much of the Samurai’s previous work, the album is comprised largely of short instrumental tunes, none of which break the five-minute mark. This approach allows the music to speak volumes, richly rewarding the serious listener.

Opening with The Iron Mask Ouverture, the symphonic keyboards and rock rhythms set an up tempo, widescreen vibe, practically begging for a full orchestra to perform this music. In what will become the template for the rest of the album, the guitar, flute and violin take turns adding beautifully bombastic melodic leads. The keyboards underpin the song, carrying it along on waves of colour and motion. As you might imagine, Celebration for the Birth of the King is overtly joyous, full of soaring guitar and synth lines dancing over a martial drumbeat. It is not until the third track, Berceuse to the King, that Steve Unruh appears as the vocalist. This is a gentle piece with a light Renaissance (the era, not the band) feel, and Unruh gives the first of several incredibly sensitive vocal performances. Sax player Marek Arnold (United Progressive Fraternity) provides a magnificent solo that steals the song. The synth tones throughout this song – and the rest of the album – are sublime and very seventies in their feel, enhancing the retro aspect of the music.

The music grows darker and more ominous in The Secret Twin, appropriate for the intrigue of the story. While Unruh gives another stellar vocal turn, the lyrics could have benefitted from a bit more attention. They never quite seem to match up to the high standard set by the music. Speaking of the music, because of the relative brevity of each track, each soloist makes the most of their allotted time – usually only a few bars at a time – to provide impressive performances at every turn. The Temple of the Rosicrucians and The Conspiracy of the Rosicrucians continue the impressive arrangements. Lacagnina has a chance to shine on the former, particularly with his harpsichord work. Temple would not be out of place on an early Alan Parsons Project album, considering its myriad moods, creating pictures for the mind. Conspiracy, on the other hand, relies on rhythmic, staccato keyboard stabs overlaid by slinky solos to help capture the conspiratorial nature of the lyrics.

Palais Royal reflects the palace intrigue in its symphonic style. At turns confident, sinister and questioning, Lacagnina’s music is a perfect vehicle for the formidable talent of this band. Showcasing yet another of the composer’s many talents, Richelieu’s Testament could have been lifted from a Broadway production. Rafael Pacha’s classical guitar interlude adds a deceptively light touch to the otherwise high level of tension created by the keyboards and the plucked strings. Unruh’s violin has a touch of Parisian street musician about it, so I was a bit surprised not to hear an accordion accompaniment, but that’s just my perspective.

Much of the latter half of the album is instrumental glory. Dance at the Court is a stately period-sounding piece made contemporary by the addition of guitars and synths. Synthetic horns add a splash of colour and the organ contrasts amazingly well with the harpsichord. The period authenticity is highlighted by the use of the flute, recorder and violin as the song charmingly morphs beneath the dance rhythms. Mazzarino’s Plan has the drum and bass putting their powerful stamp on the tune while leaving plenty of space for the vocals and soloists. The time signature changes seem an apt metaphor for the development of the titular plan, changing and finessing as it all comes together. The Fortress’ busy string intro provide an air of mystery which is further highlighted by solo violin. Applying the established pattern, each soloist takes a brief turn before the song cycles back to its opening string arrangement. By contrast, The Ambush and the Clash is energy and action represented by rapid-fire changes in tempo, tone and instrumentation.

Lauren Trew duets with vocalist Unruh on two short and emotive tracks. A Ghost from the Past and Father and Daughter showcase Trew’s obviously trained vocals, but Unruh does not suffer from the comparison in the slightest. The New King starts with a tentative harpsichord and piano which segues into a sort of bravado that matches the barely veiled threats of Unruh’s vocal passages. The album ends with the final instrumental, the fittingly titled Epilogue, a fiery piece which encapsulates all the emotion and prowess the soloists have to offer. Full of energy and ideas which spin in and out, it brings the album to a satisfying conclusion.

The Man in the Iron Mask is an album which unveils its beauty slowly. This perception may have been colored by my own expectations of epic songs. As always, though, the Samurai of Prog are a class act: from Ed Unitsky’s outstanding artwork to the impeccable production, which I have come to take for granted, to the stellar musicianship. This is a band that never disappoints. Considering Lacagnina’s prodigious talent, not to mention the facility and power of The Samurai of Prog (both core members and the recurring guests), I’d love to hear what they could do with the Lacagnina should he submit some long-form pieces. I’m hoping that this is a collaboration which both parties are eager to explore further.

01. The Iron Mask Ouverture (3:23)
02. Celebration for the Birth of the King (2:13)
03. Berceuse to the King (3:25)
04. The Secret Twin (4:07)
05. The Temple of the Rosicrucians (4:05)
06. The Conspiracy of the Rosicrucians (3:53)
07. Palais Royal (3:23)
08. Richelieu’s Testament (4:29)
09. Rock Star (4:57)
10. Dance at the Court (4:04)
11. A Ghost from the Past (2:34)
12. The Fortress (4:15)
13. I Am No More (2:42)
14. The Ambush and the Clash (4:34)
15. Father and Daughter (2:15)
16. The New King (3:21)
17. Epilogue (2:39)

Total Time – 59:34

Marco Bernard – Bass
Kimmo Pörsti – Drums
Steve Unruh – Vocals, Violin, Flute
Oliviero Lacagnina – Keyboards
Marcel Singor – Electric Guitar
Federico Tetti – Electric Guitar
Juhanni Nisula – Electric Guitar
Thomas Berglund – Electric Guitar
Rafael Pacha – Classical & Electric Guitar, Recorder, Viola da Gamba
Marek Arnold – Saxophone
Lauren Trew – Vocals

Record Label: Seacrest Oy
Country of Origin: International
Date of Release: 16th June 2023

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