"Vikings" is the second CD release from Pennsylvania USA's New Eden Orchestra. Their first effort, "Anyman", was released to good reviews in 2003.. But in the eight intervening years between albums, tragedy struck the band with the 2008 death of their guitarist, keyboardist, composer and guiding light, Mike Lunn. In the aftermath of that tragic event, the remaining members of NEO dedicated themselves to completing the songs and recordings that Lunn had been working on at the time on his death. This CD is the final result of those efforts. In the liner notes, a special dedication to Lunn from his former bandmates reads; "The members of NEO wish to dedicate this effort to Mike, who inspired the creation of music in all of us. Mike, it has been a privilege to work with you".
The music represented here could best be described as an ode to classic 70s prog-rock, but with with some elements of Celtic, folk, Broadway, and even a few unexpected funk grooves thrown in along way.
The album kicks off in grand style with the titular "Vikings" - actually a suite of nine interlocking shorter tracks which weave an intriguing tale of sailing vikings and Norse mythology in just over 28 minutes. Some of the jerky, counterpunctual instrumental breaks are quite reminiscent of 70's Kansas, or maybe even Gentle Giant. The fifth part of the suite is particularly enchanting, with a tribal drumbeat and Middle-Eastern sounding synthesizer riff played against one another. The sixth part, on the other hand, might make one wonder if they weren't listening to a lost track from the first ELP album, with something of a "Barbarian/Tank" vibe to the keyboards and drums. The blending of male and female vocals, singing such story-driven lyrics, also adds a hint of musical theater to the proceedings - though Andrew Lloyd-Webber fans might want to note that this is some pretty proggy musical theater!
Heading in a different direction after the opening suite, "Anytown" is a somewhat funky social critique with lyrical references to Wal Mart and McDonalds rather than Vikings and sailing ships. Showing that prog can occasionally have just as much fun as any other genre, "Super Monkey" is another funky, groove-based track, featuring some of the most comically bizarre lyrics you're likely to find on a prog album in 2012!
Changing courses (and tempos) yet again, "Katherine Ives" is a slower-moving, more cerebral piece that tells the tale of an old widow living in a Victorian house. NEO's female vocalist, Heidi Engle, really makes her presence felt here - sounding down-to-Earth and folksy one minute, angelic and ethereal the next.
Ending off the album, "Mike's Final Peace" is a very special track with a history behind it. A haunting instrumental, it was the last song that Mike Lunn ever wrote or recorded. According to the liner notes It was even played at his funeral, with it's gentle Celtic-inspired melody driving people to tears. This same melody is also heard earlier on the album in a full band & vocal arrangement, with lyrics honoring Lunn's life and devotion to music.
The musicianship of NEO is quite impressive throughout the album. Special notice must go to drummer Dave Marion, who expertly holds together some fairly tricky instrumental breaks. The sound quality throughout the CD is also quite good, having the warm, organic feel of an authentic 1970s analog recording.
All in all, a prog fan can't go too far wrong with this CD, particularly those who prefer the heady heydays of ELP, Gentle Giant and Mike Oldfield to the metal and alt-rock influences of some of the more modernly-minded new prog bands. With this impressive, moving labor of love from his bandmates, I get the feeling that Mike Lunn may just win himself a whole new group of fans in 2012 and beyond...and deservedly so.
Reviewed by Jeff Matheus on October 26th, 2012