Richard Poulin 10-May-2009 The Form of the Good

- Dave Berggren / guitars
- Dan Britton / keyboards
- Brett d'Anon / bass
- Patrick Gaffney / drums

Hark! Here the second Deluge Grander comes ! I must confess: after much aural rejoicing from being so well treated by their first one, ‘Autumn in the Urals’ (2006), I was anticipating its release with as much Pavlov’s saliva as the Hound of the Baskervilles . And I can now breathe with the pleasure of having got the answer to the obvious question: can a new group starting with something as monumental, as nearly perfect as their freshman album, manage to score at least as many points, if not more than the first time ? Can the miracle repeat itself ? I left no doubt to my friends about my admiration for and awe at ‘Autumn in the Urals’. The latter featured symphonic prog that had come straight to us through some kind of time warp between the early ‘70s and today, but processed by a modern brain to make it to surpass the masters who created that unmistakable sound.

And the answer to my question is an unequivocal: Yes (I don’t mean the group, although there are many similarities) :-). Or rather: YES !!!!!!

Deluge Grander is the name of one of two bands that play similar, albeit distinct, forms of progressive symphonic music, and is the baby of Dan Britton, a brilliant musician from the Baltimore area. My initial reaction when I first listened to ‘The Form of the Good’ was one of surprise: the introduction announces something radically different in style, and a darker state of affairs. Whereas ‘The Form of the Good’ starts more slowly, solemnly, at the august pace of choirs chanting some ritual, ‘Autumn in the Urals’ was opening immediately with a rapidly moving flow of multilayered music made of mellotrons (LOTS of it), groovy guitars and a background melody that sort of gelled the sound, which is of monstrous proportions. That managed to define the Deluge Grander’sound on the first album. ‘The Form of the Good’ does also include that type of sound later on, so that their typical sound is still easily recognizable, as we will see below. The first impression left by this ‘typical’ Deluge Grander sound can be best described as listening to Genesis circa ‘Foxtrot’ or ‘Nursery Cryme’: a somewhat murky, or muddy mental sundae that is the equivalent of sitting amidst a symphonic orchestra playing a full scale version of the Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Note that I used ‘amidst’, not ‘in front of’.... That large-scale-orchestral murkiness so typical of early Genesis is strikingly duplicated by Deluge Grander, which contributes a lot in recreating that uncanny impression of listening to symphonic prog from early ‘70s. Many modern groups have tried to more or less reproduce the style of early symphonic progressive sound through the use of similar instrumentation and song structures, but more often than not, the result remains decidedly modern or closer to neo progressive.

But what is definitively the most interesting achievement of Deluge Grander is not a nostalgic reproduction of a Golden Age sorely missed perhaps by a few Gnosis progosaurs. No, the most remarkable aspect of the music we hear from Deluge Grander is that it manages to distil the best of multiple currents that were flourishing during that Golden Age, to convey the unique, pure, naive poetic spirit that was often the main force supporting the musical endeavours of these groups, and yet incorporating novel elements to finally come up with their very special brew. Dan Britton’s genius lies in his ability to add multiple layers of complexity and various counterpoints to the basic ’70-ish sound thanks to his musical genius and to the almost infinite possibilities of digital technology. One of the very distinctive elements of symphonic prog is its unpredictability factor, its constantly metamorphosizing flow of musical ideas that departed so much from classic rock and that made progressive symphonic something more akin to rock classical. With the exception of minimalism, the essence of most ‘serious’ or classical Western music is its development of themes along unique lines that never exactly repeat themselves, unlike the riff-based, couplet-and-refrain structure of classical rock or its blues and folk ancestors and cousins.

In summary, to listen to Deluge Grander entails preparing oneself to engage into active listening to a sometimes incredibly dense musical material, that constantly flows into new themes, different rhythms, novel patterns, with everything being carefully organized in coherent and cohesive works. Engaging and demanding music it is, and yet it leaves the listener with the same exhilarating feeling that the best symphonic prog of the early ‘70s was able to generate in us. Except that this is entirely novel music, and we have this strange impression that somehow, we can experience again some of the best moments we had 40 years ago. And I am not talking about Viagra here .....

I will not attempt to make a subjective interpretation of how the music describes the titles, nor to extrapolate on what it can possibly mean (leaving this to a later time, if I can get some clues from Dan Britton :-). No, I will rather focus on my quick assessments of each of the 5 tracks. Although I prefer to avoid such analyses, in this case it is probably the easiest way to describe such a complex program packed within 53:49 min. But before this, it is worth mentioning the fact that Dan Britton has hired several guest musicians to play on this sophomore effort: cello, violin, trombone, trumpet, oboe, clarinet, saxophone and flute have been added. These additions take our musical experience with Deluge Grander several steps higher, so that the final result is even closer to symphonic music than ‘Autumn In the Urals’. And closer than most albums belonging to the symphonic prog subgenre, period.

  1. Before the Common Era: The introductory title starts slowly and with a quite unexpected slow movement where mystery pervades everything, where we immediately feel that tantalizing tales are going to be told. And what stories ! First: you had cornucopia, now it’s: mellotroncopia!!! Lovers of the instrument: you have an item to buy today. This is the beginning, that morphs gradually into more mystery, and more drama, and more ‘ominosity’ :-) Slow, intricate, building up an ominous (yet again), nebulous, hazy atmosphere... Oh! the power of minor 9ths or minor 13ths !

  2. The Tree Factory: A monster piece and a monument! There is more going on during 14 min than during the 4 sides of ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’, which tells you something about the incredible density of ‘The Tree Factory’ (or perhaps the pervasive vacuum that manages to extend the 4 compositions of TFTO to side lengths :-)) ; countless movements, changes in tempo; never resting on a single musical pattern. In fact, the very antithesis of minimalism. Philip Glass must grind his teeth with jealousy at the extraordinary versatility of Britton’s tantalizing imagination. Even the most innocent, tiny riff on the synthesizer has a well determined place in the whole, incredibly dense and complex ensemble. The same bit of synth played in the foreground (as was too often the case in the ‘80s, for instance) would be grinding on our nerves. Britton has the true sense of orchestration, and he might be a phenomenal conductor and symphony writer in another place and at another time.

    One interesting aspect of ‘The Tree Factory’ is the reprise of melodic lines very similar, if not identical to those heard on the first track of ‘Autumn in the Urals’. This stratagem creates the type of ‘conceptual continuity’ that Zappa was so fond of, and helps to set the musical production of Dan Britton in a sort of unified suite of epic proportions.

  3. Common Era Caveman: Rock as conceived by a totally symphonic prog-oriented man; you add as many layers as the human ear can perceive before it becomes chaos, and there you go. You end up with music that truly rocks your head off (instead of your ass), and you are filled with all the intensity of the most complex piece of progressive rock while satisfying your elementary need for exercising those muscles. Yes, that song could be really danced on with sufficiently open minds, without the need to use those mushrooms or that weird weed.

  4. Aggrandizement: Another progressive brachiosaur, but what a sophisticated sauropod it is !:-) After all that rock power, we are treated with a 19:12 architectural wonder that starts with a quasi elegiac, pastoral intro with beautiful oboe in the background, the whole thing being of course so much soaked with mellotron that it crystallizes at the rim like a hypersaturated progressive solution :-) There are of course several movements in that mosaic of a beast, and the bucolic atmosphere gradually but seamlessly changes into more dramatic bits where a very nice use of violin must be noted, among many treats. Britton must be a major asset for Mellotron makers, because he uses them abundantly and in such an effective way that one cannot but be charmed by what these reluctant animals can do to music if you know how to talk to them :-)

    The saying that writing about music is dancing on architecture has hardly any better illustration than a piece such as ‘Aggrandizement’. It has all the characteristic of classical symphonic music: the constant metamorphosing of the music, the flow of musical themes never being repeated identically, the layering of instrumental parts with complex contrapuntal personalities for each; the general emphatic, bombastic character that elevates the soul. Such music is as close as rock gets to Beethoven or Mahler. This is music that has what is needed to stand the test of time, just like the best symphonic progressive rock of the ‘70s that Deluge Grander obviously endeavours to emulate with so many new ideas as premiums.

  5. The Form of the Good: How can Deluge Grander surpass itself after so much dramatic music already, and end up the album with a title piece, which would be the epitome, la crème de la crème of the album ? Britton manages to succeed somehow here with a new theme, a melody already heard on the second track played in a higher register. The music here is somewhat ’cleaner’ in that there is somewhat less multilayering than on the other tracks, so that the central themes are more clearly heard and perceived. A centerpiece in any symphony or opera must leave a durable impression on the listeners, must be the most dramatic, the most emphatic melody. And the work ends with the culmination of the theme developed in the eponymous track, magnificently and suddenly. So instead of the well-known cliché of rock, i.e. the known artifices of long, protracted finale of drums rolling, guitars strumming like there is no tomorrow, etc, ‘The Form of the God’ ends with dignity, like a creation that goes much further beyond rock as we know it.
Not that ‘Deluge Grander’ or ‘Birds and Buildings’, Britton’s babies, are entirely novel forms of progressive rock. They obviously make an almost seamless bridge between symphonic prog a la Genesis (the most immediately recognizable link to the past) and today. What is new, mostly, is the incredibly rich palette that Britton manages to add to his gigantic musical inventions using modern technology, a palette that goes into directions previously tried but left much incompletely explored, and even obscured by clouds :-) What Deluge Grander’s ‘The Form of the Good’ demonstrates clearly is that one answer to why we are so much seduced by symphonic prog of the ‘70s is that the pioneers that we love and respect so much had discovered new worlds to be visited and observed and enjoyed, but had left them mapped only in a very sketchy manner. The punk rock revolution, the timing of the oil crisis, and the general turn of fashions had engulfed these proud masters: Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator, Yes, early King Crimson, the Moody Blues, and many other followers into their dark maelstroms, transforming them into musically shier groups sometimes, of at worst, causing their extinction.

So we owe to the internet the unearthing and dissemination of information on early prog, its rediscovery by new generations of musicians such as Dan Britton who have a candid, fresher perspective on its possibilities. With results such as this fantastic second album by Deluge Grander, we can only hope that they will have sufficient provisions to map the Shangri Las that lie out there and the existence of which we can barely portrait. If there is such a thing as Shangri La, ‘The Form of the Good’ already has the stature and complexity and size expected for such a major outpost to such a monument in the infinite universe of prog lovers’ imagination.

This is a treasure that I know I can, and will listen many, many times. It contains so many layers of music, so many movements, it conceals so many little gems of genius that it belongs to a very select and subgroup of prog albums: the ones that dangerously approach perfection, or at least give us a pretty good glimpse of what it must sound like.

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