SONIC BRIEFS: Excellent Prog-Rock Collaborative Albums

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The following three albums all have one thing in common: they draw heavily on guest artists and collaborators to form their identity. In all cases, there is one visionary who plants the seed and sets the wheels in motion. In some cases, they’re even the principal songwriter. But it’s the creativity, strength, and diversity of their collaborators that truly form the end product. Released this past month, these three new releases are all worthy of your attention, boasting a wide range of styles and cameo appearances. 

Mandoki Soulmates – “A Memory Of Our Future”

Leslie Mandoki might be one of the most important musical activists that many Americans have never heard of. Making an adventurous escape from then-communist Slovenia in 1975 via a 5-mile tunnel, Mandoki worked as a musician and producer with many of his heroes (Phil Collins, Chaka Khan, Lionel Richie, etc…) in the 80s before forming the Mandoki Soulmates over 30 years ago, which boasted an initial formation of Ian Anderson, Jack Bruce, Al Di Meola, David Clayton-Thomas (Blood, Sweat & Tears), Bobby Kimball (Toto), Mike Stern, Anthony Jackson, Bill Evans, and Randy and Michael Brecker, many of whom still play with the Soulmates today.

Some might put the label “supergroup” on this ensemble, but as it’s spanned the decades, the term Soulmates truly captures the spirit of this musical force that Mandoki has put together. The core band has become close friends and shared many life experiences along with their music. Along the way, Mandoki has brought in such bright lights as Greg Lake, Roger Hodgson, Jon Lord, Peter Frampton, Steve Lukather, Midge Ure, and dozens more, all of whom hail Mandoki’s skills as a producer, drummer, and humanitarian. Who IS this guy? And why haven’t all of us heard of him over the past decades? Fortunately, Inside Out Records recently started bringing the Soulmates to those of us who may not have been fortunate enough to be aware of them during the past 30 years.

Combining British prog-rock with American jazz-rock, the Mandoki Soulmates create a wide musical array of styles while being rooted in social and political discourse, idealism mixed with realism. Indeed, their last album was called “Utopia For Realists”. But times have grown darker amidst a world pandemic, wars, misinformation, authoritarian threats, financial manipulation devoid of morals, and more. The new album sports a black swan on its cover, and the lyrics sing directly to the dire straits in which we find ourselves.

Ian Anderson launches the album with the characteristic trill of his flute opening “Blood In The Water”. Although the subject matter is overwhelmingly troubling, the pace of the music stays upbeat and engaged: “Blood in the water, sharks are all around, get up on the ground, so play the music loud.” Multiple vocalists sing together on the chorus and take turns on each verse.

The vibe gets jazzier and more heartfelt on “Enigma of Reason”, featuring plenty of Al Di Meola’s beautiful nylon string guitar, Richard Bona’s incredible fretless bass, and Till Brönner’s trumpet, amongst many others. “When words fail, music speaks,” sing the Soulmates in “The Devil’s Encyclopedia”, which laments the dangers of how social media further clouds true information in these tenuous times. “Courage is calling for people like us, against totality, in a quest for reality, against brutality, courage is calling.”

“A Memory Of Our Future”

There are autobiographical stories here too, mixed alongside the social commentary. Given Mandoki’s colorful life – his father would tell him “Live your dream and don’t dream your life!” – there are as many tales to tell as there are instruments to be played. With Simon Phillips, Randy Brecker, Mike Stern, Bill Evans, Tony Carey, and numerous others in the band, there’s no shortage of top-tier instrumentation. 

What’s more, the whole album was completely recorded in analog: “In these times of digital deception, scam bots, and internet trolls, the Soulmates are also making a statement as a kind of “revenge of the analog.” “We stay loud for freedom and peace!”

Throughout the 100 minutes of jazz-rock music offered here, we are constantly inspired and engaged by this unique assembly of stellar musicians and their cause. The sheer impact of so many musical styles being mixed in this melting pot ensures that we remember that we are global citizens as we listen to this album and that we must do our part to protect all of the world; remembering what unites us more than divides us. If you don’t have a Mandoki Soulmates album in your collection yet, it is time. 

Order “A Memory of Our Future” HERE.

Songwriting: 8
Musicianship: 9.5
Originality: 9
Production: 9.5

Legacy Pilots – “Thru The Lens”

Frank Us’ ongoing project Legacy Pilots has flown under the radar of many a prog fan, which is a shame because he consistently offers some of the very finest modern prog happening today. While each Pilots album features a stunning array of prog superheroes, the ace up Us’ sleeve is that he is an extremely accomplished musician, songwriter, and producer in his own right. The important thing to understand is that he doesn’t NEED these co-pilot guests to make a great album. But if he’s going to bring in the likes of Marco Minnemann, John Mitchell, Todd Sucherman, Steve Morse and many more on every album, who are we to argue?

“Thru The Lens” is the fifth album under the Legacy Pilots moniker and at this point, Us has forged lasting connections and friendships with many of his co-pilots. They come blazing out of the gates on the instrumental “Where The Pilots Meet” which features Minnemann on drums, the mighty Lars Slowak on bass, and Us on everything else, save a jazz guitar cameo from Carsten Rehder. Slowak’s bass tone is just so damn good in providing the stable foundation for all the songs on this album, giving Minnemann plenty of room to give the frenzied performance that he is known for.

We then get into the first vocal song, “Nemesis”, which John Mitchell ably delivers with his gravely, seasoned voice. Again, Slowak dominates the low end, but we’ve got the great Todd Sucherman on drums this time. It’s a dark piece, illuminated at the end by Mitchell’s guitar solo before an abrupt stop. In addition to that cool, brooding song, Mitchell and Us also share co-writing credit on “The Matter”, another strong offering. It’s always rewarding to hear Mitchell’s voice and guitar playing, and hopefully, his fans will seek out all of the Legacy Pilots songs where he is featured.

“Thru The Lens” Album Artwork

Us then comes to the fore on lead vocals for “Don’t Chase The Rainbows”. He’s got an intriguing, moody timbre to his voice (not far from David Sylvian’s range) which duets here with guest vocalist Liza. A rewarding piece, especially considering the guitar solos played by Us, with Sucherman and Slowak killing it in the rhythm section. “The Inner Fire” also finds Us singing lead, accompanied by his nylon string lead playing until Steve Morse cuts in with a characteristic fiery solo guitar.

Jake Livgren offers up his excellent vocals on two songs, the best of which is the mini-epic “Cosmic Sea”. Once again, Minnemann is a delight to behold on his drum kit, while Us sounds impressive on guitars and keys throughout. Livgren’s voice is so AOR-friendly that he turns any song into a rock classic, but he also pairs up well with Us’ proggier approach. On “Fooled Again” Livgren gets the opportunity to pen scorching lyrics to skewer an all-too-obvious target, while Steve Rothery lends a hand on the six-string solo.

Finally, “The Professor & Me” closes the album with a 10+ minute instrumental where Sucherman gets to go to town amidst orchestrations, solos, and jams from Slowak and Us. The whole album goes down rather smoothly thanks to the crisp production courtesy of Us. Whether you’re a fan of any of the guest musicians or just want to hear sleek modern prog done very well, Legacy Pilots is definitely a flight to catch.

Order “Thru The Lens” HERE.

Songwriting: 8.5
Musicianship: 9.5
Originality: 8
Production: 9.5

John Holden – “Proximity & Chance”

Our final review features another one-man band leader, John Holden, who has had a great run of albums featuring beloved musical guests. Holden’s albums offer a diverse range of styles, from classic prog to folk to classical orchestrations. Perhaps most importantly, each piece is a vehicle for good storytelling. Fans of bands like Big Big Train will likely appreciate the history imparted by the songs herein, which are told in greater detail in the liner notes.

On the musical front, Holden covers guitars, bass, keyboards, and orchestra himself, so most of his guests are vocalists or the occasional guitar or keyboard maestro who can take it to the next level. Unfortunately, guest drummers don’t seem to be in the budget so Holden’s programmed drums lay down the rhythm. Holden has plenty of good rhythmic ideas so it’s not a big deal, but that’s one area where the aforementioned Legacy Pilots have decided to shine, in contrast. Still, Holden’s unique songwriting shines in other ways than dazzling percussion.

The great Peter Jones lays down vocals on three songs, two of which bookend the album with the opener “13” and the closer “Chance”. The superstitious first track benefits from much more history than Stevie Wonder’s classic song, chronicling the legendary “Thirteen Club” which was founded in 1880 and designed to debunk urban legends of unlucky 13, breaking mirrors, walking under ladders, and more. It’s a well-arranged and performed song featuring Holden on nearly every instrument, with the addition of a guitar solo from Dave Brons, but suffers from uneven production which doesn’t maximize the fine performances. “Chance” is an upbeat ending to the album, marveling at how chance encounters between people result in elaborate family trees. With a strong chorus, chiming guitars, and a final solo from Luke Machin, it’s a winner. But Jones’ greatest moment on the album is as lead protagonist for the dramatic story told in “Burnt Cork and Limelight”, a role which he pulls off with cunning aplomb.

“Proximity & Chance” Album Artwork

The new vocalist of Southern Empire, Shaun Holton, gets a turn to sing other tales of intrigue and drama on two tracks, while Sally Minnear lends her sweet voice in the bittersweet love tale of “Fini”. While all of these pieces have aspects of orchestrated prog, Holden really roles up his sleeves on two instrumentals: the lovely “A Sense Of Place” featuring John Hackett on flute and Vikram Shankar on piano, and the cosmic “Proximity”. A nice balance to the whole flow of the album.

John Holden’s discography is definitely worth discovering and he has featured various special guest cameos along the way to lend their unique talents. Enjoy reading the generous liner notes and illustrations as you listen to the musical renditions he has artfully arranged. He’s one of Prog’s hidden gems.

Order “Proximity & Chance” HERE.

Songwriting: 8
Musicianship: 8
Originality: 8
Production: 8


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