From time-to-time I find myself faced with a backlog of demo CDís waiting to be reviewed. As I methodically whittle my way through the stack, lethargically plucking out the next in line - expecting it to be another in a long line of prog/metal Dream Theater clones which seem to populate the stack - I'm instead pleasantly surprised by what comes through the speakers.
"You mean 'this' has been here all the time!"
Unfortunately, unlike cream which automatically rises to the top, or the liquified shape-shifting T-1000 Terminator, a plastic jewel case and polycarbonate CD can't animate life and ooze it's way to the top of the stack like some amorphous blob of mercury and scream out ... "Pick me you fool - I'm actually something you 'want' to listen to!"
And so was the fate of the Aethellis 2011 release "North Umbria" as it waited patiently for it's time to shine.
And shine it did ... like a precious diamond scattered among cubic zirconium gemstones.
"North Umbria" is the second release from Aethellis. The self titled 2003 debut (reviewed by Ron Fuchs on November 11, 2003) was essentially a one man solo recording from the talented multi-instrumentalist Ellsworth Hall. But on "Northumbria" Aethellis has evolved into a complete band which includes: Ellsworth Hall (keyboards, lead/backing vocals, guitar, "digi-drums"), Mark Van Natta (guitar, lead vocals), Erik Marks (bass), Chris Marks (guitar), Mike Harrington (drums), and Dwyer (saxophone).
As indicated on the band member profiles (from the website):
Being a keyboard player myself I tend to gravitate and focus on the keyboards - and Ellsworth Hall is an absolute monster keyboardist deserving a place at the table alongside Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Tony Banks, Patrick Moraz, Kerry Minnear, Eddie Jobson, John Lord, Kit Watkins, and Eric Norlander.
- Ellsworth Hall is classically trained on piano and has performed solo in California, New England and the Mid-Atlantic. He has performed in several bands including Tailwind, Sabre, Logos Affinity, Urban Nomads and Dolly-Dagger. Ellsworth also creates music and sound effects for multimedia, film and video projects.
- Mark Van Natta performed with Baltimore legend Tim Fields for several years and later studied at Peabody and Berklee. He is the founder of Affinity Music Library , providing stock and custom music for media clients. He is also a veteran of several bands in the Greater Baltimore area including Tailwind, Sabre and Logos Affinity.
- Erik Marks attended the University of Maryland Baltimore County where he studied classical upright bass and trumpet in the early '80s. He also built the studio where Aethellis often rehearses and added such amenities as a vintage 1950s Coke machine. He has performed blues in Memphis, TN and played rock and funk in the Greater Baltimore area with Logos Affinity, George Jessup, The Jaded Saints, The Forever Valentines and Global Warming among others.
- Chris Marks is a classically trained virtuoso guitarist and veteran of many Baltimore / D.C. bands including Cosmic Structure, Semolina Rice Band, The Kid Band, Logos Affinity, Hot Type, Chemical Man, The Source, and Dolly Dagger. He currently performs with Global Warming and 2nd Sole.
- Mike Harrington was invited by Mark Van Natta to the "take the throne" in Fall 2004. Mike has been a long-time musical associate of Mark's since the early 1970s, performing with local Baltimore legend Tim Fields. He very much enjoys playing in 15/8 meter and sits in with various other bands such as Aveos and Singular Confusion (along with son Connor).
- Joseph Dwyer performs with the band when available and contributed his soloing talents to the new album Northumbria. He is otherwise occupied as a pilot for Delta Airlines, saxophone instructor and owner/director/writer/editor of Flyboy Film Productions.
The pastoral splendor of Tony Banks' majestic chunky chord washes which elevated tracks like "Supper's Ready", "Firth Of Fifth", and "The Cinema Show" from a musical performance to an ethereal religious experience, coupled with the rapid-fire lead arpeggios of artists like Rick Wakeman, Patrick Moraz, and Keith Emerson are all at play on "North Umbria". And Ellsworth Hall and his keyboard arsenal are clearly in control, taking center stage.
The opening track "North Umbria" sweeps the listener away with a majestic choral arrangement before spinning off into ELP territory with the swirling distorted Hammond organ and synthesizer gymnastics one might associate with Keith Emerson.
On the instrumental track "The Awakening" I not only detect a Genesis and Eloy influence but also Jo Zawinul's Weather Report and a bit of Soft Machine. And jazz fusion bands like Weather Report, Spyro Gyra, Passport, Brand X, are front and center on the funky instrumental track "Celui Qui Soit La Bosse", which features great synth horn arrangements, piano work, and a smoking sax from Joseph Dwyer.
Now unlike many hardcore prog aficionados who lambasted the post- Gabriel/post-Hackett Genesis era of the 80s' and beyond, I remained a steadfast supporter of the group (although I support any movement to delete "Who Dunnit" from any "Abacab" CD's pressed in the future) all the way up to "Calling All Stations". So the fact that 80s' era Genesis comes alive on the album with tracks like "Sounds Good" (echoes of "Duke's Travels" & "Duke's End"), "Exchequer Prague" ("The Brazilian") and "Dire Need" (shades of "Turn It On Again") are a plus in my book.
And the track "Without A Sound" has all the earmarks of a Tony Banks composition that you might find on one of his solo albums like "A Curious Feeling", "The Fugitive" or "Still".
It was at this point in the review that I decided to listen to the first album and see if I could detect a noticeable difference between Hall's 'one man band' approach to the expanded 'band dynamic' of "Northumbria". And although Hall made masterful use of his 'digi-drums' on the debut album, the solid rhythm section of bassist Erik Marks and drummer Mike Harrington greatly enhanced the sound of Aethellis. And the masterful guitar work of Mark Van Natta and Chris Marks compliments each track with the varied texture that keyboards alone can't adequately provide.
And the music on "North Umbria" reflects a greater level of sophistication in composition, arrangement, and production. Yet on the whole I found both albums to be equally impressive and well worth adding to any music collection.
On "North Umbria" Aethellis has captured the very essence of the original prog/rock pioneers who soldiered on to help shape the changing face of progressive rock as it edged into the 80s', as well as the many neo-progressive artists who emerged from their shadow like Arena, IQ, Marillion, Pendragon, Jadis, Grey Lady Down, Galahad, and Pallas.
The album is highly recommended to fans to symphonic rock, neo-progressive, and fusion. And anyone with a healthy respect for keyboard driven prog/rock.
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on March 30th, 2014