Deluge Grander: Heliotians
  • Composition
  • Musicianship
  • Production
  • Originality
  • Physical Presentation (all other bands are on notice!!)

I had to go out and purchase my copy of Heliotians, the third effort by Deluge Grander, aka Dan Britton’s band. It wasn’t easy to find, and it wasn’t cheap. Why did I have to do this? Because this album differs greatly from the band’s previous two efforts: Deluge Grander made what seems like the financially irresponsible but artistically heroic decision to have an extremely limited release of Heliotians. The album is available digitally on Amazon for $3, but if you want a physical copy, you must buy one of the 205 hand-numbered copies of the LP/CD set. Each LP features hand painted cover artwork with handwritten lyrics (and yes, all three “hand” words are spelled correctly; English is a stupid language), and is signed by every member of the band.

If anything, Deluge Grander has given me the opportunity to experience the exclusivity of limited releases and fan club editions that were commonplace in the early days of progressive rock. Living in close proximity to Syn-Phonic Music, I had the opportunity to choose from well over 30 copies of the pressing and hear stories about rare Italian releases from the 70’s and the many thousands of dollars they’re worth today. I spent about 10 minutes going through the stack and another five agonizing over two unique copies; I settled on one with a small orange sun and the album and band names (usually inside the sun) written in the sky.

I was surprised to discover how much the release format affected me. The most prevalent feelings I’ve had are about how truly independent and creative the artists were allowed to be on this record and how this record must be the highest pinnacle of Dan Britton’s musical art. Both of these feelings are unfair to the band, and I’ve listened to the album several more times than I normally would to try to reduce any bias and judge the music on its merit alone. It’s worth noting, though, that there does appear to be something special about a physical release like this, and this album has confirmed to me that packaging and exclusivity can be a major influence in musical presentation.

After thinking about the financial implications of a limited release like this, I had a question for Dan Britton, who was kind enough to share some insights with me. I had assumed the band was sacrificing excessive amounts of potential income; in fact, thanks to the low markup on regular CD sales, Deluge Grander is doing just as well with the handmade release as they would have with a mass-produced CD release. In Dan’s own words:

When I first had the idea of doing an album with handmade artwork, I was pretty excited by it. I knew it would be a lot of work, and be very risky, but it just seemed like such a unique way to release something that I knew I wanted to do it. As you might guess from the previous few paragraphs [of our discussion], I also enjoy playing with numbers, making ballpark estimates, and speculating about profits. So I like the artistic aspect, and I think it’s actually a pretty viable “business strategy” too. It’s pretty rare that something is both artistically and financially justifiable.

And although it seems that the band broke even on this limited release, this was still a labor of love. Based on the 300-500 hours spent making the jacket, plus another 300-500 hours making the music, we’re talking about less than minimum wage. Nobody ever accused today’s prog musicians of being materialistic!

As for the music… what do you want? It’s a Deluge Grander album! Expect well-written, keyboard-driven symphonic prog music that is a truly original ship in a sea of derivative material, at least compared to the rest of the symphonic sub-genre. Heliotians separates itself from its predecessors with splashes of ambience on a very organic sounding recording and, after skipping them completely in The Form of the Good, it makes use of vocal parts from four different individuals (more on that later).

One aspect of the album I’d like to touch on is the combination of voicing in the composition and the sounds chosen for that voicing. This might sound lazy, but I’m going to use the first few measures of the album to demonstrate; the opening notes were a perfect opening to this album, and I believe they demonstrate a strength throughout. Look at the first three measures (actually four, because that last note is held longer):

As far as I can hear, these notes represent the entirety of the melody. It’s so simple, right? But the opening piqued my interest immediately, especially with the percussion adding rhythmic intrigue. The keyboard sound is PERFECT here, with that haunting tremolo effect that immediately sets a dire mood. As for the voicing, it just sounds right: the opening chord, which is the second inversion of a C minor chord, gives the notes room to breath and sets up that broken A minor in root position. I’ve always loved Dan Britton for this, and Heliotians takes it to a whole new level — the composition might not be his most original, but the sounds are so well placed that you get the impression Deluge Grander has hit a new level of sophistication in their music. Also, you simply can’t go wrong with mellotron and hammered dulcimer.

My only beef with this record is the vocals. To me they have an inconsistent place in the mix and are often too far back. Here’s the deal, straight from Dan: “I recorded attempts from all four singers (including me) for most of the vocal sections, and then I just chose who sang which parts best.” He also admitted, “I do often like having the singing present but not upfront, which I think some listeners find odd.”

I’m not opposed to “non-traditional” vocal stylings, loosely defined as anything deviating from the lead vocals paradigm we’ve enjoyed in popular/rock music since the days of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. I regularly listen to artists such as Opeth (death growls), Therion (operatic), and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (once performed with a Tuvan throat singer). My wife has even recently introduced me to Sigur Rós, an Icelandic post-rock group that treats their vocals more like an instrument to create ambience in the music. The problem for me was that these lead vocals weren’t ambient — they came off as background except for the few times the female vocalist sang with real authority.

In the end, though, this is a truly fantastic album. Deluge Grander continues to be my favorite American symphonic prog band, and Heliotians is a beautiful and interesting album that is worth anyone’s respect. If you can get your hands on the LP, DO IT! If not, please take advantage of the affordable digital edition, sit back, and enjoy.