Richard Poulin 7-June-2009 Strangelet

Unlike rock and roll or blues, the American progressive rock scene has had a long standing identity problem next to its British counterpart. Led by the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Cream, and herds of other artists, the British Invasion in the late ‘60s threatened to engulf the world in its sweeping revolutionary approach to rock, blues and their various interbreedings. But, wait a minute! Memory is pathologically short in mass media and in the world of fashion, and it is far too easy to forget that the British did not invent the weapons used for their invasion. It is too easy to forget about Elvis Presley, who himself made us forget too easily about Chuck Berry and the blues roots of R&R that are predominantly black and originate from southern USA. But we all know the story ....

On the other hand, the evanescent chimera we love to call progressive rock, when taken as a whole, is the fruit of an experiment that essentially took place outside the USA (with a few important exceptions, of course, such as Zappa, who never liked to be associated with prog anyway). None of the major pioneers (the famous Big 6, for the sake of simplicity) who defined progressive rock and its attributes were from the New World. The absence of major American names from the first wave of progressive music was a little embarassing, especially given the kind of high artistic recognition that prog was receiving from music critics from circles usually indifferent, if not hostile to rock, such as jazz and classical music critics. And with good reason. Be it the mastery of counterpoint exhibited by Gentle Giant, the deep understanding of music theory found in the music of Jethro Tull, or the use of several artifices borrowed from modern classical music by Yes or King Crimson, the British wave of progressive rock that swept the world as the ‘70s began had major consequences for the perception of rock. It attracted the attention of ‘serious’ music observers in a way that was announced by the Beatles, but which had now reached the proportion of a whole new movement with thousands of pairs of ears now open to horizons that were previously beyond their reach. Prog attempted to democratize music that appealed to the intellect more than the standard rock mold.

Considering the sheer size of the pool, the reaction of the USA was relatively modest and slow to unfold. The only group that reached a threshold of visibility on par with its European counterparts was Kansas, and while their contribution to prog is clear, they leaned on the most accessible, less adventurous side of the genre. The modest (mostly local) popular success, as well as the lag period before a sizable contingent of American bands began to flourish, was going to be nearly fatal for most of progressive rock in the USA. If European prog artists managed to survive, often with blatant concessions to mainstream, radio-friendly rock, the very endemic nature of American prog made it far too vulnerable to punk and disco. Among these prog artists were some remarkable bands with solid chops and true inspiration, whose sole but serious weakness was poor historical timing. Some managed to do somewhat better and released two albums or more before their near extinction, such as Handy the Man and Yezda Urfa, whereas many others were one-shots. Some of the latter groups were tragic losses to music, judging from their single records, many of these lost single gems having become much sought after holy grails for a while. Artists such as However, Maelstrom, Cathedral, Mirthrandir, and the Viola Crayola were among the most remarkable of them, and their records are a testimony to their often amazing talent and compositional abilities.

But an even worse collateral damage of the fall into neglect of prog in the second half of the ‘70s were artists who could not even gather enough interest back then to convince a single company to publish their music. Hands was such a group. These musicians from Texas were an offshoot of Prism, itself originally called Ibis in the early ‘70s. As Prism, they had already managed to achieve a certain popular success locally, and by the time they had transformed into Hands (most likely to avoid confusion since there was already a Canadian group under the name of Prism), they had a solid following as well as serious self training as musicians. Hands were obviously dedicated prog fans themselves, and judging from the music that reached us from that period, clearly entertained great ambitions. Although they recorded several pieces of music between 1977 and 1980 (when they disbanded, probably much disheartened by the depressing musical trends of the times and a general vanishing of interest for progressive music), no record was ever released during the first period of their existence. Fortunately a small record label called Shroom led by dedicated music fans endeavoured to unearth lost gems from the Texas psych and prog scene. Luckily for them, Hands was from Texas AND had recorded substantial material in its (so to speak) heydays. Thus, Shroom was able to release two albums worth of material recorded between 1977 and 1980, i.e. an eponymous one (1996) and a second one called ‘Palm Mystery’ (1998). Even material from their years as Ibis (commercialized nonetheless under the name of Hands to avoid confusion with the well-known Italian Ibis) and Prism was published by Shroom (‘The Early Years 1974-1976’ and ‘Prism – Live 75-77’). Encouraged by the unearthing of their work by Shroom, Michael Clay and Ernie Myers, two members of the original band, re-formed Hands and started composing new material that would be first released in 2002 (‘Twenty-Five Winters’). Originally a band strongly inspired by Gentle Giant, their new style was rather at departure from their previous mosaic of medieval folk music and progressive rock.

The generally positive reception of their 3 records by the public as well as critical success was such that they kept the ship afloat and managed to release a second album of new original material, ‘Strangelet’. What immediately strikes the listener with the new Hands sound is Ernie Myers’ heavy guitar sound complemented by Warr guitar expertly played by Mark Cook. The general picture that comes to mind is that Hands likes composing in two main styles: (1) a primeval prog sound from the early ‘70s, i.e. guitar-driven style of symphonic prog similar to a blend of Red-period King Crimson and Yes circa Topographic Oceans, and (2) a keyboard-oriented style very much a la Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In their symphonic style, some riffs are strongly reminiscent of Frippian Lark Tongues licks, and at other times, of that typical Steve Howe’s grandiose soloing that made the Fragile/Close to the Edge Yes so distinctive and so smooth that it ended up generously and richly spread over 4 LP sides like peanut butter and jelly, as all prog fans know too well. When Hands switches to its ELP-ish style, the resemblance is sometimes so uncanny that it even includes the choice of song titles. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps not: ‘Entry of the Shiny Beasts’ would almost make one movement of ‘Tarkus’ : same quasi-martial beat, staccato, highly percussive keyboards, same overlayering of keyboard lines, etc. With a title like that ....

But although Hands sound very much like some of the godfathers of symphonic prog, they manage to do it with such complete mastery of their models, with such outstanding musicianship that ultimately, they make it acceptable and quite welcome. The first track, ‘Strangelet’, starts with an infectious riff that Fripp might as well have authored back in his Larks period, and develops into several sections or movements that stay very much with the same unmistakable King Crimson likeness. ‘Strangelet’ seamlessly segues into the 2nd track, ‘Dark Matter’, not unlike one woud have it in an epic suite (such as the siamese twins ‘The River’/’Down By the Sea’ of Strawbs’ fame), which is the Topographic Yes version of their symphonic prog skin. With the third track (‘Tambourin’ – see below), the ‘Strangelet/Dark Matter’ song pair is easily the best and most memorable part of the album, an epic with strong, well conceived melodies and a rock-solid structure. There are herds of prog bands out there that know their classics extremely well (probably even better than the original artists know themselves !) that they successfully introduce some differences that ultimately make their sound distinctive. For instance, when they change to their ELP skin, they do it in a less ostentatious manner, and one wouldn’t expect Michael Clay to plant a long knife in his organ at the end of the song.: ELP without the pyrotechnic extravaganzas.

The dissection above into two main styles is a bit too simple, and the concept of ‘simple’ is not soluble in progressive music. Thus, take the third track, ‘Tambourin’, where the Hands chameleon suddenly exhibits its ELP-ish skin. Although it initially evokes ELP, with an opening rapid, highly fluid melodic line on the piano, it gradually becomes hyperkinetic more a la Hiromi Uehara rather than a la Keith Emerson, with a more jazzy attack than that typically used by the latter. In fact, the Hiromi reference becomes rather uncanny after a couple of listenings. This is a welcome addition to the keyboard-driven style that results is something very much like ELP (even including the close staccato coupling between drums and piano that would have nicely figured on the eponymous ELP album). Another song that departs from the above stated dichotomy is ‘Miracle In the Mind’, easily one of the most experimental an adventurous tracks, using a good deal of dissonance and sound samples. That song stands alone and on its own and could perhaps announce a new direction for the group. Perhaps Hands might be attracted in the future by the more avant side of prog, which does not show up very much in the rest of the album.

Yet Hands hardly have any distinctive style: they are extremely chameleonic and suffer from multiple personalities. They lack a unique sound by which they could be readily identified. But once the initial surprise has vanished and that you forget about the obvious sources of inspiration, their music becomes very endearing and sustains one’s interest because of all the complexity packed in these compositions. The style cannot therefore qualified as ‘derivative’: it is rather purely and simply a collection made of the same basic frames described above with 2008 decorations. Few progressive bands manage to reproduce these styles while streamlining them at will, without blatantly copying the masters. One more thing that must be said very much in favor of Hands is the vocals department, which is quite decently managed by veteran member Ernie Myers. Often referred to as ‘nasal’ by reviewers, I personally find it rather nice and pleasant. Which is important here because for some reason even more obscure than the theory of general relativity, vocals have more often that not been a major weakness in USA prog bands. Myers’ style avoid the cheesiness that many associate with groups like Kansas, Happy the Man and Mirthrandir, and sounds surprisingly modern, very much along the current standards of alternative/prog rock by younger bands.

One useful reference might be the Japanese symphonic prog band Bi Kyo Ran. Bi Kyo Ran started virtually as a King Crimson tribute band, and by trial and error, they eventually found their niche within the ‘Red’ period Crimson, and found their voice without attempting to hide the original. With this in mind, it is therefore quite enlightening to listen to the last track on ‘Strangelet’: ‘Rotten’, the only live track on the album. Right from the opening riff, after a couple of notes, your well-programmed progressive brain cells are instantaneously firing up: ‘Lark Tongues In Aspic’ ! ‘Lark Tongues In Aspic’ ! It indeed sounds like a weird parody of the famous epic song from the no less famous album. The pattern has been conserved, and they seem to have simply changed the notes slightly for the most part while sticking to the same well known steel frame from hell. Eerie ! Of course, this does not sound serious, like any parody, but if taken simply for what it is, the exercise is really a lot of fun.

In summary, ‘Strangelet’ is the achievement of well seasoned musicians who benefit from a long experience and who know their progressive ‘classics’ extremely well, so well that they can probably do just about anything they want using them. As a result, ‘Strangelet’ sounds fresh like a well-rehearsed, well-recorded work, like a collection of music of its time, and at the same time, with crystal clear references to King Crimson, Yes and ELP (with Hiromi sitting in the corner, smiling). The chameleonic nature of the album makes it very difficult to categorize and to define the exact personality of the band, if any of its multiple skins corresponds to the actual Hands. This leaves the strange sensation that we are dealing with a band that is still searching its true personality, despite its apparently old age. But one must remember that this is only the second effort of a group that has slowly reconstituted itself literally from the bottom up (it took 6 years to complete each of their two albums of new material). Nevertheless, while one certainly hopes for a better discovery of Hands’ own self, the music is among the best classic symphonic prog available around, if one is looking for the real thing, not the new Coca-Cola. Or the real things, I should say when talking about this chameleonic beast from Texas... This is a very well conceived album, and the outstanding musicianship displayed by these musicians makes the experience of listening to ‘Strangelet’ .... strangely familiar, yet highly enjoyable.

Michael Clay / piano, keyboards, guitars and alto saxophone
Mark Cook / Warr Guitar and devices
John Fiveash / drum kit and cymbals
Ernie Myers / vocals and guitars
Martin McCall / drum kit and sundry percussions
Steve Powell / bass, guitar, background vocals, additional keyboards, noises and samples

Other albums
As Hands
Hands (1980; released in 1996)
Palm Mystery (1979; released in 1998)
Twenty-Five Winters (2002)

As Prism
Live ‘75-’77 (1977; released in 1997)

As Ibis ( = Hands for marketing)
N.B.: Although the tracks on this record are credited to Ibis (with a few to Prism), the record has been marketed under the name of Hands and has been listed under the latter name ever since, most likely to avoid confusion with the Italian and Swedish bands also using the name Ibis).

The Early Years 1974-1976 (1976; released in 2000)

Links for further information