St. Elmo's Fire, Artifacts of Passion (Sprawling Productions) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Well, this goes to show you that you simply can't have any formula for a masterpiece. With more than a decade for compositions to ferment, be recorded, etc., one would expect the long-awaited follow-up to early 80's American prog masterpiece Splitting Ions in the Ether to be a masterpiece of epic proportions. It's not, but on the other hand, it's barely a step below Splitting. Not flawless, unlike I expected, but still a release few bands could equal. Most of the album's compositions come from the the time of the group's first album, and several actually appeared on it. The biggest difference in the two albums seem to come from the fact that, unlike its predecessor, Artifacts of Passion is a studio release. As such, Artifacts seems to lack a tad in, uhh, passion, compared with the group's incredible live sound. However, I'll stop the comparisons here and evaluate the album on its own merits. St. Elmo's instrumental attack is still undeniably powerful. The album opens with a blast of shofar (a Hebrew wind instrument made from a goat's horn), but disappears momentarily into a floating dream, suddenly punctuated by acoustic guitar chords and gentle drumming, and finally, a majestic, mysterious mellotron theme. The tron continues, sounding more Middle-Eastern, as drums, bass, and guitar propel it to higher planes, where another Moog-like keyboard instrument and eerie chanting take over. Pretty incredible stuff. One definite plus to this album is the abundance of exotic sounds, both in instruments (shofar, violin, bagpipes, even banjo) and thematic content. If the idea of such music paired with a ferocious King Crimson-like attack appeals to you, you'll eat this album up. Other highlights include the sudden key changes of the driving "North-West Territory," the visceral, menacing "Contortions of the Balrog," the otherworld Eastern / Celtic (odd combination, eh?) sounds of "Esmerelda," the dark and intense vocal piece "The Nemo Syndrome," the epic "The Abduction of the Adolescents," and the thundering bagpipes of "The Lake Effect." Actually, now the only tracks I haven't mentioned are "Erin and the Little Green Man" and "The Dog Eared Page," which are decent compisitions but rather reminiscent of better moments on the albums. Actually, these are the only two truly new compositions (I made this discovery after deciding my opinion on them). A very great album, no doubt, but still perhaps slightly short of the consummate masterpiece mark. Depending on your tastes, this could be even greater to you. Most prog fans should check it out. ~Jon Dharma Murphree~
Paul M. Kollar, Subtle Matter (Sprawling Productions Ltd.) E-mail: email@example.com Indeed, Subtle Matter is an appropriate title for this disc, which consists of delicate Frippian soundscapes produced in real-time by guitarist/keyboardist Paul Kollar. Kollar, of course, was also the guitarist and keyboardist for the criminally underrated American prog band St. Elmo's Fire, and these pieces date from the same era as Elmo's incredible LP. Kollar performed these "spontaneous compositions" at St. Elmo gigs before the full band entered. Although I can imagine the contrast between the ethereal, free-floating solo pieces and Elmo's aggressive Crimsoid attack would make these works click even better, an entire album's worth of just this style holds up fairly well. The first and longest (nearly 11-minutes) composition, which the album takes its name from, is probably the most "subtle" - one gets the feeling of otherwordly exploration, a seeking of the unknown make more poignant by each sparingly used note. Occasionally a hint of doubt or some other emotion presents itself, usually through the choice of a single unexpected note. This piece really shows off Kollar's skill at making every single note count. Although the otherworldy feel is apparent throughout the album, their are myriad different moods. "She Painted Her Face" feels exotic and lonely, "The Ring and the River" evokes a sense of peace, even terror and confusion on "The Lie" (which incorporates segments from what sound like a soap opera, with bizarre effects). Bottom line: Not a good buy for those with ADD, or for that matter those who like a lot going on in their music. But for those who enjoy soaking in this kind of atmosphere, Subtle Matter comes highly recommended. ~Jon Dharma Murphree~
St. Elmo's Fire, Splitting Ions in the Ether (Sprawling Productions, Ltd.)SPL 9801 1980/1998 re-release E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org St. Elmo's Fire were one of those unfortunate late 70s/early 80s prog bands in America that just never got the recognition they deserved. It's a real pity, too, because this album is quite a prog masterpiece. Elmo are easily comparable to Lark's Tongue or Red-era Crimson, but this is really more in terms of darkness and intensity than compositional style. Splitting Ions in the Ether consists of 7 songs, arranged approximately in order of intensity. All tracks were recorded live, but surprisingly good sound quality and a phenomenally tight ensemble rarely betray this fact. From the first song, the almost ambient "Searching for Food" to the brooding intensity of "Gone to Ground in the Khyber Pass" and "The Balrog" to the "Fracture"-like sonic explosions of "Parasites and Bureaucrats", the disc maintains an almost constant crescendo. Constant are the regal synth and Mellotron themes of John Stavnicky, the fercious interlocking guitar parts of Elliot Weintraub and Erich Feldman, and (after the first piece) the explosive rhythm section of bassist Paul Kollar and drummer Mark Helm. Unfortunately, the flow of the album is disrupted somewhat by the first vocal number, the heavy metal-ish "Aspen Flambe." Despite a good riff and a fine performance from the band (although the sound quality seems to degenerate a bit), it's dragged down by the uncertain vocals of (presumably) Stavnicky, which seem to hover between regular singing and death metal growling, but never actually doing either. After this indentity crises, the band returns to form with the sublime 11-minute "The Reluctant Bride," which features all the hallmarks of their established style, with a hint of ethnic influence and some achingly beautiful flute and keyboard. If that wasn't enough, the band closes with the ultimate finale in the form of the 9-minute piece "Fantasy Come Reality." Although this another vocal song, it fits perfectly with the other pieces on the album, beginning with a soft vocal and keyboard sections reminiscent of Happy the Man's vocal songs and then transforming into a positively earth-shaking rock riff developed in a wonderful symphonic style. Even the vocals are quite tolerable in this one, and close the album quite perfectly. The 1998 Sprawling Productions Ltd. CD-reissue adds two bonus tracks, also recorded live but at an earlier gig, which are quite worthy of the Elmo banner. In case you couldn't tell, Splitting Ions in the Ether has been one of the best prog albums I've heard in a while. -Jon Dharma Murphree
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