Times have truly changed. At the dawn of the progressive rock movement the only artist linking Sweden to the genre was Bo Hansson and his 1972 concept album “Lord Of The Rings”, but in the decades which followed Sweden has consistently produced some of the most interesting and diverse artists on the scene (Ankedoten, Anglagard, Isilburs Bane, The Spacious Mind, Par Lindl Project, Simon Steensland, Kaipa); as well as and one of the most successful neo-progressive groups, The Flower Kings. Add to that list the amazing group - Ritual.
Ritual was formed in Stockholm , Sweden in 1993, with musicians Patrik Lundstrom (lead vocals, electric and acoustic guitars), Fredrik Lindqvist (bass guitar, bouzouki, mandola, mandolin, hammered dulcimer, recorders, tin whistles, vocals), Johan Nordgren (drums, percussion, mallets, jaws-harp, vocals), and Jon Gamble (keyboards, harmonica, vocals). Two years later their impressive 1995 self-titled debut album was released on the Musea label blending elements of folk, high powered energetic rock, and brilliant vocal counterpoint arrangements. The tunes varied from large sweeping arena/rock anthems to acoustic folk tunes performed on traditional instruments. The track “Big Black Secret” falls into that epic category and is one of my favorite tunes from that album. So with the memory of “Big Black Secret” fresh in my mind I was salivating like Pavlov’s Dog in anticipation of their latest release; hoping it might match or exceed my expectations. It does!
The new 2007 release “The Hemulic Voluntary Band” is truly a wonder to behold for old-school fans like myself … a delightful throwback to the early 70s’ when bands like Gentle Giant were in their prime. A time when symphonic bands tempered complex arrangements and digital dexterity with a sense of spiritual passion and the ability to construct honest to God melodies and not just helter skelter light speed finger exercises to dazzle and impress. This is progressive rock at its finest without the padding, endless noodling, and pompous over-indulgence.
‘Track One’ tossed me an unexpected curve ball. I was well aware of their Gentle Giant influences - but what came out of my speakers might well have been some recently discovered track from the “Free Hand” recording session, right down to Jon Gamble’s choice of vintage keyboards. The one big difference … Patrik Lundstrom has a lot more Freddy Mercury in his voice than Kerry Minnear. So think – Queen meets Gentle Giant.
But after the first track Ritual peels away the Gentle Giant persona to assume a darker dissonant identity, setting them apart from their light and airy Swedish counterpart The Flower Kings.
Jon Gamble dispenses with the standard fare Hammond organ and bank of synths you might associate with a prog/rock keyboardist, opting for an ominous Harmonium - conjuring up a darker Zeuhl element to the music. In what appears to be a change from their last album “Think Like A Mountain”, the band has scaled back on studio tricks and over-production, creating an intimate ‘unplugged’ atmosphere – although obviously ‘plugged in’ and energized. With the minor exception of vocal arrangements, there appears to be little in the way of multi-layered over-dubs.
“The Hemulic Voluntary Band” could well be a concept piece, but unfortunately I’m reviewing a Promotional Disc and the lyrics are not available, but there seems to be an underlying thread throughout – culminating in a 26+ minute epic that would make Roine Stolt proud. I’d rank this among the Top 5 releases of 2007, giving it a solid 9 out of 10 Rating!
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on December 8th, 2007