Richard Poulin 24-April-2008 Bantam to Behemoth (Emkog Records)

  • Dan Britton – Keyboards, guitar, vocals
  • Malcolm McDuffie –Drums, trumpet, violin
  • Brian Falkowski - Saxophones, flute, and clarinet
  • Brett d'Anon- Bass and guitar
  • Megan Wheatley – Vocals on "Chronicle of the Invisible River of Stone."
It started around the time that King Crimson took us by surprise with the most adventurous blend of jazz, rock and avant garde packaged in one of the most enduring icons of album art. And for a while, about half a decade in fact, it looked as though it would never end. Week after week, music that combined the energy of rock with the craft of ‘serious’ music, a term which for us youngsters, included classical music as well as jazz, flooded the stores and the radio waves and overwhelmed us. I was lucky to have a friend with a passion for progressive music and wealthy parents who could afford to buy, week after week, all those obscure imports from Italy, Germany, the U.K., etc. and gave me the opportunity to realize the sheer size of the tidal wave of experimental rock that followed the first ‘observations’ made in the court of the Crimson King. Mesmerized so often by that Vertigo label swirling on the turntable, symbol of the most exotic progressive music from overseas!.... And it was huge, as we know very well now. Just search for what rates the highest here at Gnosis, and note the year. Musicians of the highest caliber had one common denominator, as we truly realized later, i.e. an almost complete creative freedom and the license to experiment with all the cultural or chemical influences that a rapidly changing world was exerting on them. It was a collective maelstrom that had something for every one and every taste, because it was moving into all directions and was sustained by the same quest. The quest for a new world order and for answers to metaphysical questions that all intelligent or educated people were facing, in large part due to the collective angst that seized mankind in 1945, when we realized that doomsday was not an abstract concept anymore.

And then a gigantic reality check hit this revolutionary period, like for any revolution, because we are only humans after all, and such an effervescence can only last for as long as money pours in. And as we all know too well, money is in large part a viscous, gooey black liquid that suddenly stopped being a cheap commodity. And holes started to be punched in the delicate continuum of the evolution of progressive music, and the maelstrom engulfed the most part of its creators into almost complete oblivion.

Almost. We have many reasons to rejoice now. There have been many attempts over the last 10 years at capturing again the ebullient creative spirit that was underlying the Golden Age of prog rock, but too often, the efforts sounded too much like reproductions of the styles defined by the giants of that era, rather than their natural extensions. After all, we live in a totally different world and if albums as perfect as a Nursery Cryme or a Three Friends of A Passion Play or a Red were made at the time they were made, it’s because there was a whole cultural environment that could breed such beautiful monsters without in vitro fertilization. Today, we are reduced to acting like so many Dr. Moreau’s or Dr. Frankenstein’s trying to give life back to relics of that glorious past. Unless...

....unless more Dan Britton’s manifest themselves. In 2006, the world of progressive rock was blessed by an album replete with such magnificence and such inventiveness and that had so much the effect of a time warp that I prayed that the inspiration of that musician would keep pouring in unabated. That ‘August in the Urals’ by his group Deluge Grander would not be just a one shot effort like so many of these artists of the 1970-75 era ended up being, making collectors of curios happy, but sadly reminding us that artistic production is a fragile process if success does not follow. Honestly, I did not think that King Britton (as I have baptized him endearingly) would give us something better, or at least of the same high caliber as ‘August....’. But he did. And fast. He surpassed ‘August....’. And he did it big time.

His new formation, Birds and Buildings , differs little in fact from Deluge Grander, except that it is even (almost unconceivably) better, and that it incorporates more wind instruments (flute, saxophones, clarinet). Otherwise, the Britton trademark sound is unmistakable: dark, ominous, Mellotron-decorated music of amazing complexity and nebulous beauty. On ‘August in the Urals’, the only real weakness I saw was in the vocals department. Britton sings in a very subdued manner, like a Peter Hammill with a mute, and he knows it. That’s why he deliberately mutters the lyrics, why the vocals are buried in the background, almost under the Mellotron. And guess what? I have started to really like it and to listen to it as to yet another exotic instrument, like a very idiosyncratic element of the sound he created. In the end, Birds and Buildings have released what could easily be the best new album of 2008, and by a wide margin at that. I use the word masterpiece reluctantly, but the first release by Birds and Buildings, ‘Bantam to Behemoth’ is one of a kind. And I hope that the word will soon be out: for those who are looking for the same level of musicianship, originality, complexity and greatness that used to be commonplace some 30-35 years ago, there are now Deluge Grander and Birds and Buildings, and the horizon of progressive music looks suddenly looks much deeper.

The magnum opus starts on full gear with the title that gave birth to the group’s name (a bit like King Crimson had ended side 2 of their first LP):’ Birds Flying Into Buildings’. The track lasts only (!) 9’13, but it is so replete with ideas, it is so constantly unpredictable and contains so many layers of complex textures that it manages to package more musical excitement than many side-long suites that have too often led to nowhere in that genre. As we hear the first measures, we are swept by the wildest, most energetic and nervous drumming that catapults us into total aural ecstasy on a background of ominous Mellotron (that is generously poured throughout the album). And then enter the Crimsonian saxophones, that will regularly paint the music with exquisite colors that inevitably transport us back to the era where such experiments had started. Again, Birds and Buildings manage to do that without ever sounding like Van der Graaf Generator, or King Crimson, or Genesis, but like the best of all these worlds and many more. Like a painstaking distillation of all the stylistic bases of the symphonic prog genre, completed by colors that evoke various prog groups less notorious than the Big Six. For those who have not heard Deluge Grander yet, the now diagnostic King Britton’s sound plunges us into a foggy, gloomy, dark, almost gothic atmosphere, where the various instruments blend in into a whole where none takes the front. Almost as though B&B’s sound engineers wanted to duplicate the somewhat mushy sound of Gabriel-era Genesis, and yet manage to let all players be heard distinctly if one lends an ear carefully to one instrument at a time. There is in fact so much complexity in the musical constructions, so many variations in the orchestration of each number, measure after measure, that one can listen to the record 10 times and still make new, unexpected discoveries. Here is a collection of compositions so rich in ideas, so packed full of inspiration and virtuosic display that it withstands perfectly the test of time, which is the hallmark of a classic.

Trying to describe track after track that incredible gem would not do a favor to the artists’ talent, and would be the ultimate illustration of Elvis Costello’s famous saying that ‘writing about music is like dancing on architecture’. One might add that some of the instruments are used especially exquisitely. The clarinet and the flute are generously present and add much to the atmosphere of the music. Britton’s guitar playing, especially on the acoustic, and his use of the keyboards, are constanty ravishing and keep surprising the listener during 70 min. There are moments of pure genius on virtually all tracks. Two tracks are worth mentioning in that regard: ‘Chronicle Of The Invisible River Of Stone’ (track 5), that features a female singer for the first time, has a middle section with flute, saxophones, synthesizers, singing bass lines and percussion that sounds so incredibly baroque, magnificent and unique that it will seize you with surprise and emotion and will be a moment you will long to hear again and again. The use of highly syncopated lines of saxophone (or clarinet), piano and bass here reminds one of early Pekka Pojola (e.g. on Pihkasilmä Kaarnakorva or Harakka Bialoipokku), or the eponymous Moving Gelatine Plates or Missus Beastly albums. And the composition is also typical of most others on the album: tight ensemble playing that keeps you on the edge of your seat all the time (this is obviously composed music, and the synchronism of the musicians is absolutely fabulous). And then there is the following track, ‘Yucatan 65: The Agitation Of The Mass’, that seems to take over the last track of ‘August in the Urals’ where it had finished: a sort of flamenco-like composition on acoustic guitar with aerial flute (somehow reminiscent of Gotic’s Escenes), and adds layers of Mellotron to it. Here the rich, fluid acoustic guitar playing takes the front scene and sounds much clearer here than on the rest of the album. And then enters a very unusual movement where one hears a furious, toccata-like harpsichord playing that builds in intensity like some ominous Fandango, together with some very weird synthesizer; Britton is throwing down the bases of a new subgenre: progressive flamenco!

Now that your curiosity has been aroused, you are left with only one option: this is an essential album, and everybody knows what that means..... As essential as anything by Uzva, Far Corner or Alec Redfearn (just to name some of the best) to get a taste of the champagne of current progressive music being made in the 21st century. And what is even more satisfactory is that there is no filler here. Some may find this too dense perhaps for their own taste, and it is indeed music that requires lots of concentration to really appreciate it. But even more important, although there is a lot of King Crimson in King Britton, I tell you: you will find more substance on ‘Bantam to Behemoth’ than on the first three King Crimson albums combined, and I would even dare to add Islands. So?

Needless to say, the expectations for the coming second Birds and Buildings will be towering... Even if Britton is equal to himself, who could complain getting yet another bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal?

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