My brain always becomes numb when I see a performance of someone who’s terrible at an instrument (usually the acoustic guitar), and also at singing, for that matter, being hailed as ‘honest’ music (oftentimes of the singer/songwriter variety, I might add). They might be performing in good faith as they pour out what’s in their hearts, but those around them listening intently to their mediocre sounds (and I use the term generously) are either dishonest or must be getting something that I’m not getting; maybe somehow I’m insensitive to that ‘soulful’ or ‘full of feeling’ element. I’m sure they’ll just write me off as a music snob, as the media by and large has labeled proggers for quite some time. Apparently we somehow missed that ‘honest’ element.

In my opinion, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Prog is music where virtually any style, any combination of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art form or genre goes. While many consider us to be ‘closed minded,’ I argue the contrary. Many of us are quite the opposite, and anxiously seek out music where the most disjunct of elements are being combined in masterful ways. What could be more radical than melding genres in ways that make both the MTV everyman and the music department chair run and puke? At any rate, perhaps where we differ from many others is our goal at welcoming weird combinations of genres while others like to see their music in closed little boxes. This is our claim, but do we?

I oftentimes find myself scratching my head as I read reviews on certain prog albums, where some fans or reviewers criticize bands because they are being too ‘pretentious’ or are straying too much from that ‘gritty,’ ‘honest’ element. Sounds like we’re turning into the mass media. Let me shoot straight. Below there are four mini reviews. As I was looking into what others said about some of them, I was surprised that some were hesitant about the releases because of their elements that strayed, apparently too far, from rock music. I refer to Zuffanti’s Merlin and Kotobel’s Concerto for Piano, where it seemed that some were scared of by existing or potential broadway musical elements or a concert hall experience.

Well, that’s unfortunate. Among the following reviews are some of the finest albums I have yet to review since I begin the weekly Bite-size series about four months ago. Enjoy them while they’re still on I have a feeling they’ll wet your mouth enough to buy at least a couple of them.

Kotebel – Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble
Kotobel’s Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble is a fierce and elegant trip into progressive territory. While the piano is given the sufficient number of moments to justify this as a piano concerto, the prog band definitely does not just hang out in the back. The arrangements are at times pulverizingly heavy and aggressive (in the prog sense, not the ‘metal sense) and at times mesmerizingly gorgeous. One thing that immediately caught my attention was the very in your face approach of the album in the way drums, bass, and dissonance are used to create an effect. Kotobel tends to lean a bit towards the dark side of prog, but includes a variety of influences, including both jazzy and avant-garde moments. This is a recording that doesn’t leave you behind or allow you to daydream as you listen. Carlos Plaza Vega’s composition does not only solicit your attention, it demands it.

Hostsonaten – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Chapter 1
Time and time again I am realizing that Zuffanti is as good as gold. With so many projects that span so many different styles, it’s hard to get bored when plunging into his discography. What he offers us with his newest Hostonaten release is an epic concept album based on Colerige’s classic poem that is jammed packed with most everything you could want. The arrangements and instrumentations are amazing, bringing everything from classical guitar, to piano, violin, and of course, tons and tons of mellotron used in the most effective of ways. But, what makes this album stand out for me is the masterful use of melody and theatricality. The vocals and narrative approach remind me a bit of Ainur mixed with a lot of Peter Gabriel era genesis, however, this is no Genesis rip off. With Hostsonaten, Zuffanti combines the early Genesis feel with the best of classic Italian prog and what I consider to be a Scandinavian type sensibility for the mellotron (even though he’s Italian). Once again, a huge applause to Mr. Zuffanti for yet another great album; I’d imagine most symphonic prog fans will love this. Plus, for those Iron Maiden fanboys out there looking for some more Rime of the Ancient Mariner, here’s where you stop looking and start basking in the glory.

Zuffanti and Heward – Merlin: The Rock Opera
 For those of you who haven’t heard Zuffanti/Heward’s 2000 work, Merlin: The Rock Opera, now is your chance to pick up the rereleased/remixed/remastered edition (that’s a lot of ‘re’!). While I think this album could draw mixed reactions, all I can think as I listen is, “I would love to see this live!” One thing that makes this record so cool is that it doesn’t sound like a copy of Zuffanti’s other projects, and it doesn’t just sound like a concept album with a bunch of singers. The composition, types of melodies, lyrics, and music, all lend themselves to a musical stage production. This will surely encourage some and scare away others, but for me, it is a fantastic blend of prog elements and instrumentation with stage musical style composition. Don’t be expecting lengthy and ambitious instrumental sections; the music and arrangements are meant to strengthen the story, the singers, and their dialogue rather than steal the show themselves. Does that make it a less ‘proggy’ album? In my opinion, no; you might not hear five minute moog solos on here, but Zuffanti/Heward definitely managed to delight me with this ambitious prog rock release.

Barrett Elmore – Woodlands
 Barrett Elmore’s latest effort, Woodlands, brings to the table what I consider to be a fine representation of psychedelic prog that sounds extremely classic while maintaining a modern edge. Buried beneath ambient layers of chorusy guitars and grooving basslines there is something definitively Swedish going on here, perhaps it’s that tad bit of haunting melancholy that permeates songs such as the title track, “Woodlands.” While psychedelic isn’t generally my cup of tea, I will say that thoroughly enjoyed this album and recommend it to all, especially to those who are into the Swedish scene in general and those who are have been wanting to dig a little more into psychedelic prog but haven’t yet done so.