“2 Musicians … 4 Instruments … 1 Prog Band” – is the tag line adopted by the incredibly talented progressive rock duo Gravity Tree, consisting of Linc D’Amario (vocals, assorted acoustic and electric guitars, custom Tenor-Bass Combo Guitars, percussion stand) and Alan Nu (vocals, acoustic and electronic percussion, synthesizers, guitars, sound design).
The prog/rock duo is not a new concept. In the early 70s’ Kieran O’Connor and Ken Elliott formed the two-man progressive rock project ‘Seventh Wave’, proving that a keyboardist and drummer could create a multi-layered wall of sound in the studio. A feat also accomplished by one man - Mike Oldfield - with the release of his landmark album “Tubular Bells”.
But Gravity Tree takes this one or two man ‘wall of sound’ concept to another level by duplicating their sound outside the confines of a controlled studio environment - live on stage - without the aid of sampled loops, computer sequencers, or hidden musicians playing in the darkened corners of the stage … a commonplace practice with today’s performers.
To accomplish these lofty goals the band customized instruments, creating 'combo guitars' with both bass and guitar strings on the same neck with special pickup and electronic configurations allowing them to incorporate two distinct sounds; and a keyboard and several synth triggers mounted to a drum kit, allowing the drummer to play keys and drums simultaneously. The band takes great pride in this ability to duplicate the complex compositions on “Ultimate Backwards” on stage.
But all the technical jargon and electronic tinkering means nothing if the music isn’t worthy of all the time and effort to reproduce their sound in a live venue. So what’s the verdict?
On their album “Ultimate Backwards” Gravity Tree has captured the spirit of 70s’ pioneering British progressive groups like ELP , Gentle Giant, King Crimson and Genesis at their prime – as well as lesser known US prog groups Ethos, Easter Island , and Atlantis Philharmonic. Yet despite assimilating elements of these successful prog pioneers into their persona, Gravity Tree emerges with its own unique identity. Unfortunately, that amorphous identity harbors a schizophrenic split personality … the good twin/evil twin syndrome.
There are tracks on this disc that are absolutely outstanding – one I’m ambivalent about - and one I absolutely loath! And the culprit on these less favorable tracks is - in a word - vocals.
But let’s begin by accentuating the positive – Tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 8.
“No Rest Part III” opens the album with a bang - a grand scale prog epic complete with keyboard gymnastics, crunching guitar, a dash of Gentle Giant/Spock’s Beard vocal interplay, and lead vocals reminiscent of Gordon Haskell on the King Crimson disc “Lizard”. An impressive opening track.
“Wind” is a tasty acoustic guitar transition piece leading us to “Aim To Please”, one of the best tracks on the disc. The song smacks of classic Genesis. It’s easy to imagine this on “Trick Of The Tail” or “Wind And Wuthering” – the guitar work is vintage Hackett. The soaring keyboards and guitar weave an emotional tapestry of sound that harkens back to those magic moments created by Tony Banks and Steve Hackett. Very nice and quite impressive! “Aim To Please” is symphonic prog at its best.
Another stand-out track is the raucous Zappaesque tune “Conversing With The Dead”, a high energy rocker that not only showcases the instrumental prowess of the duo but has a great sense of fun.
“Can” is the ambivalent tune where I find myself straddling the fence, not sure exactly how I feel about it. Not too crazy about the vocal interplay on that one. A bit weak in spots. But I plan to return a few more times to see if I warm to it. Quite possible.
A personal favorite is the instrumental track “Wait”, which should appeal to fans of groups like Happy The Man, Gentle Giant, Yes, Camel, Djam Karet … and once again Genesis (an influence which is evident throughout the album). I freely admit to being a fan of instrumental progressive rock so it’s no wonder I gravitated to this tune.
When the band is running on all 8 cylinders they are a force to be reckoned with - skilled musicianship, complex arrangements, and quality production - but there are occasions on the disc when dirt gets in the carburetor and the engine sputters.
Case in point ...“Go Away”. And I wish it would.
I’m not sure who the vocalist is on this tune but he absolutely butchers the song. The first four words set the tone for what is to come … “I’m looking your way”.
Only four little words … yet the first word out of his mouth seems to be a struggle to get into pitch - and by the fourth he appears to be completely tone deaf. Didn‘t they play this back and listen to it? How could someone sound so good on the earlier songs then suddenly deteriorate to this state – and let it slip by unnoticed without correcting it before I had to listen to it?
Had this been an audition for American Idol these first four words would have earned him the right to be in the highlight blooper reel.
But that’s not the worst of it. Up until this song the vocals on the disc were quite good. Then for some God Awful reason the vocalist morphs into the Bill Murray lounge singer character from Saturday Night Live – even worse - Bill Murray doing a bad impersonation of raspy voiced Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong.
This couldn’t possibly be the same group of musicians that recorded the brilliant track “Aim To Please”?
Once I got through “Go Away” I was hoping the group would abandon that vocal gaff, but ‘Satchmo’ creeps back in spots on the final tune “Motion Sickness”. This is a crying shame, because “Motion Sickness” begins with the promise of a “Larks Tongue In Aspic” era King Crimson epic, and then teeters back and forth between Crimson and Murray ’s faux lounge act.
The song “Motion Sickness” is a microcosm of Gravity Tree, summing up what is both good and bad about the group. There are moments of sheer brilliance as the band captures that power and passion of Crimson – but then sidesteps in midstream into a somewhat out of place bluesy number fronted by that Bill Murray lounge singer. Sorry guys, but the abrupt transition between the two music styles didn’t work for me.
It’s very frustrating, because ¾ of the tune is superb while the other ¼ detracts from what could have been a kick-ass climactic finale to the album.
Which takes us back to question …”what’s the verdict”?
You might assume from the tone of my last few paragraphs that I’d give this a thumbs down. But you’d be sadly mistaken. Because as much as I disliked the song and faux pas highlighted, the remaining tunes (of which there are many) I thoroughly enjoyed, and highly recommend.
The old adage “one bad apple spoils the barrel” does not apply in music.
And as I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions … music is subjective.
The tunes I dislike may actually be the highlight for another listener. I’ve read numerous reviews praising “Motion Sickness” without my caveat. So as with any review … take this with a grain of salt and consider the source … me.
My recommendation … buy this CD and simply program your CD player to skip “Go Away”, and then any minor vocal gaffs in “Motion Sickness” will probably pass as a brief musical hiccup to an otherwise very good album.
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on July 24th, 2007