|Duncan Glenday||9-Sep-2006||The Muse Awakens|
After a really really long break, and then after another long break, Happy The Man is finally back - and they're as fresh and as vibrant as they were at their formation in 1972.
Often compared favorably with classic-prog goliaths Gentle Giant, Happy The Man's music is complex and intricate yet it never loses sight of its strong melodic themes, and it is always either upbeat and pleasant or dreamy and reflective. Many of the songs on The Muse Awakens are pure symphonic prog a la Happy The Man of old, but others are more jazzy than before causing this record to comfortably span the intersection of classical arrangements, jazz chords and progressive music's symphonic melodies. Despite the jazzy overtones, every track is tight and composed and there isn't a hint of jamming. It is purely instrumental except for one song with relaxed mid-quality vocals - and besides the obvious guitar / bass / drums / keyboards lineup there are significant contributions from tenor and alto saxes, clarinet and flute.
The music shifts restlessly and constantly - from one time signature to the next, from key to key, from upbeat to contemplative to dramatic to spacey, and from the 1970s to the present day and all the way back again. It's hard to pick a standout track, but mini-epic “Il Quinto Mare” may be the best piece by a close margin, followed by the humorous and quirky "Barking Spiders" and "Lunch At The Psychedelicatessen". Several sax passages are reminiscent of the long, melodic Kenny G solos, but Kenny G never had the same complicated interplays between keyboards, guitars and this variety of wind instruments.
New keyboardist David Rosenthal (Ex-Berklee student, Rainbow, Billy Joel, and Cyndi Lauper, Whitesnake, Robert Palmer, and long-time Happy The Man fan) fits in wonderfully and his musicianship and compositional skills make an interesting impact. Listen to the piano and keyboard leads on "Slipstream", probably the most moving piece on the album, and his composition "Kindred Spirits".
The Muse Awakens was included in many critics' top-of-2004 lists - and that wasn’t because the writers were among the HtM cultists or the welcome-back crowd. It won those laurels purely on its musical merits.
|Rob La Duca||5-November-2001||Biography|
Happy the Man
The origins of Happy the Man date back to mid-1972, when guitarist Stan Whitaker and bassist Rick Kennell met at a US Army base in Germany. Whitaker and keyboardist David Bach moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia, ostensibly to attend James Madison University. Kennell introduced Whitaker to drummer Mike Beck and singer Cliff Fortney, who both quickly moved to Harrisonburg. Following Bach's departure, the remaining members teamed up with keyboardists Kit Watkins and Frank Wyatt. Kennell also moved to Harrisonburg in early 1974 after his discharge from the service. The band devoted an average of six to eight hours a day to nurturing and honing their sound and developing their seamless ensemble work. Two talented singers, Fortney and Dan Owen, passed through the band's ranks, but were understandably overwhelmed by HTM's intimidating instrumental prowess.
By the time the band relocated to a Washington, DC suburb in mid-1975, it was armed with an impressive array of original compositions that quickly won it a loyal local following, in large part because of consistent airplay on the Georgetown University radio station WGTB. Happy the Man was the "house" band at the noted Washington club The Cellar Door, attracting ever larger audiences. They also won the attention of Peter Gabriel, who seriously contemplated hiring them to accompany him on his first post-Genesis solo album and tour.
In 1976 the band was signed to an eight-album deal by Arista Records, which released the eponymous Happy the Man album a year later. Like the follow-up Crafty Hands, it was produced by Ken Scott, whose previous credits ranged from David Bowie to Mahavishnu Orchestra. Not surprisingly, commercial radio ignored Happy the Man's dazzling compositions, with their deviously complex time signatures, darting melodies and impeccably crafted harmonic interplay.
Beck was replaced in late 1977 by Ron Riddle, who stayed long enough to record Crafty Hands, but did not perform a single concert with the band. Riddle was in turn replaced by French drummer Coco Roussel, formerly of Heldon and Clearlight Symphony, who remained in the band until its ultimate disintegration in 1979 when Watkins decided to join the English band Camel.
After HTM's demise, Kennell, Whitaker and David Bach formed the short-lived rock band Vision. Watkins has released numerous excellent electronic music recordings during the '80s and '90s on his private Linden Music label. Wyatt has been constructing homes in Hawaii and Virginia. Kennell founded a music management company in suburban New York. Riddle composes film scores in his upstate New York studio. Whitaker has been involved in numerous musical projects, mostly recently with the LA-based progressive rock band Ten Jinn. The HTM discography was completed during the 90s with the Cuneiform Records releases 3rd...Better Late, Happy the Man Live, and the archival rock opera Death's Crown, as well as the Retrospective compilation on East Side Digital.
With the upturn in popularity in progressive rock in the late 90s, and with the Watkins-remastered One Way Records re-releases of the first two classic albums, Whitaker felt the time was finally right for a return to glory for Happy the Man. He moved back to Virginia, where he and Wyatt began composing new songs. Kennell eagerly agreed to the developing reunion project. Ron Riddle re-claimed the drummer's chair, bringing together the Crafty Hands-era lineup with one exception. Keyboardist David Rosenthal, who had transcribed all of HTM's music while a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, has replaced Watkins. Rosenthal has an impressive pedigree, having performed for years with rock luminaries Rainbow and Billy Joel. His superb compositional skills have fit seamlessly into the Happy the Man tradition, and will be evident on the forthcoming new album. He is the worthiest of successors to the Happy the Man keys position.
Note: Much of this biography was taken from George Varga's liner notes for the One-Way Records re-releases and the Retrospective compilation, with his kind permission. Varga is a music critic for the Copley News Service and the San Diego Union.
Rob La Duca
(originally published in the NEARFest 2000 Program Guide, edited for Gnosis 11/4/01)
Happy the Man (1977)
This has to be one of the most amazing albums I've heard. Happy the Man's self titled debut contains all the elements that would come to define their sound: Kit Watkins' amazing yet subtle keyboard work, great compositional skills and intricate playing. The band, while complex, was never pretentious, as evidenced by such humorous titles as: "Stumpy Meets the Firecracker in Stencil Forest" and "Knee Bitten Nymphs in Limbo". The band is comprised of some truly virtuoso musicians who can play at breakneck speeds, and change tempo on a dime.
The music usually falls into three categories: ethereal symphonic pieces, playful fusion-ish workouts, and a combination of both. This album has a somewhat wider palette of sounds than its follow-up Crafty Hands, which seems a bit more subdued to me; a slightly more ominous overtone in some songs, as well as more aggressive guitar playing from Whitaker. The pieces thrive on the layered textures created by the group, especially Watkins' and Wyatt's various keyboards and woodwinds. Bassist Rick Kennel stands out in the mix more than on Crafty Hands, adding another element to the sound.
Every piece on the album is excellent, from the beautiful "Starborne" and "Hidden Moods" to the playful Canterbury-esque "Stumpy Meets the Firecracker in Stencil Forest". There are two vocal tracks here, "Upon the Rainbow" and "On Time as a Helix of Precious Laughs". I've heard complaints about Whitaker's vocals, but I find them to be competent at the least. "Carousel" is a great ominous track, with great keyboards and more aggressive guitar. The highlight of the album is the high energy "Knee Bitten Nymphs in Limbo", which has some amazing Mini-Moog work, along with a great horn sound from Wyatt. The dueling solos between Whitaker and Watkins are some of the best I've ever heard, feeding off each other to great heights. Exquisite.
There isn't much more I can say about this album but to pick it up as soon as you can if you don't already own it. The sound quality is excellent, recently remastered by Kit Watkins.
- Mike Prete
Crafty Hands (1978)
The second piece of perfection to be produced by Happy the Man before they broke up. Crafty Hands expands upon the instrumental prowess of the first album and contains only one vocal track. The compositions here are all top-notch; Watkins, Whitaker and Wyatt are fine songwriters, and their styles compliment each other greatly, with a mixture of serene, playful and epic pieces, usually all tied together seamlessly within one song. The playing is just as masterful, the band is able to create complex pieces that are never short of melody or emotion, and play off themselves beautifully. HTM could be considered the Spinal Tap of the prog world, having a different drummer for every release. Here Ron Riddle makes an excellent addition.
The songs follow the usual HTM pattern, beautiful symphonic pieces such as "Morning Sun", "Open Book" and "The Moon I Sing" are lush, mellow pieces that provide a wonderful contrast to the more upbeat pieces on the album. "Open Book" is a great example of how the band is able to play complex pieces in odd time signatures and pull it off without it sounding forced. This is a great medieval-tinged piece, with Wyatt's harpsichord and Watkins' recorder stealing the show.
As always, there are the the upbeat playful songs, tinged with fusion that make this band truly unique. "Steaming Pipes" and "I Forgot to Push It" are instantly recognizable with Wyatt's sax honking and great drum work from Riddle, not to mention the usually flawless playing of the rest of the band. It's usually Watkins that steals the show, with the best Mini-Moog playing I've ever heard throughout the album. "Ibby It Is" and "Wind Up Doll Day Wind" are two of the standout pieces of the album, combining the mellow symphonic and frenetic to epic proportions. "Wind Up..." is the only vocal piece on the album, with Wyatt's great poetic lyrics delivered competently by Whitaker.
Just as with the first album, I discover something new to love with this album after every listen. Not owning this album is inexcusable. Go pick it up, post-haste.
Mike Prete [February 2001]
3rd...Better Late (1990)
From the liner notes: "This is the final demo tape made by Happy the Man. It was recorded in February, 1979 at the band house in Reston, Virginia, using a Teac 3340 4-track recorder. Basic tracks were recorded live by all members. Flute, sax, vocals, and some solos were overdubbed. Final mixes were made on a Revox A-77 half-track at 1 1/2 ips. Tape hiss and minor amounts of distortion were inevitable with the equipment available at the time."
This is a posthumous release from Happy the Man. Comprised of the demos for what would have been their third album, 3rd Better Late... stands as a document of the band during their last year together. As can be expected with a demo, the sound quality is not up to par with the previous albums, but the majority of the songs were remixed by Kit Watkins in 1989.
The songs here showcase the mellow, symphonic side of the band much more than on previous releases. There is also an "easy listening" vibe present in some places that tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth. There is a much larger vocal presence here, with singing on four tracks. The first six songs (with the exception of "While Chrome Yellow Shine") tend to drag along in search of ideas, and fail to reach out and grab you. "Eye of the Storm" is a very beautiful song, but doesn't have the emotion of say "Morning Sun" from Crafty Hands. The album starts to kick into gear with "Run into the Ground" which is a return to form of the more fast paced and high energy songs. "Labyrinth" is the most successful fusion of the two ideas of mellow and upbeat into one track.
This album should obviously be judged on its demo nature. By the time these songs would have seen their way to a record, there would inevitably have been changes. For those of you who enjoy the first two albums and need more HTM, this is the next logical step. Just don't expect a classic.
First off, it must be said that these tracks are basically demos, with sound quality to match. Considering what they used to record this material though, this is still a very listen able affair which gives a glimpse to the start of what would become America's greatest progressive band. The core of the band that would go on to produce the classic Happy the Man and Crafty Hands albums is intact here and it shows. The songs are well crafted and played well, but lack the same punch they would later, which is to be expected considering these are the first recordings the band made. There is a much lager reliance on vocals here, which are handled well by Cliff Fortney.
The music is much sparser and laid back, with a lot of atmospheric keyboard work. There are a lot of nice extra percussive elements, such as chimes, used to compliment the quieter pieces. The band does let loose in places, the last few minuets of "Gretchen's Garden" is one of the more successful cases. "Partly the State" is the strongest song overall, with nice shifts in dynamics, interesting vocal work and percussion.
Taken for what it is, this is a nice collection of songs that shows the roots of a sound that would be perfected on later releases. This is an interesting addition for fans of the band's other albums, but if you don't have them, there's no need for this one, yet.
Mike Prete [February 2001]
Death's Crown (1999)
Death's Crown is an archival release originally recorded by the band in 1974. The piece was the musical part of a multimedia event comprised of dancers, actors, a light show, and slides. This recording was made in the band's rehearsal room. In comparison to the songs on Beginnings, which were recorded around the same time, Death's Crown is a much more mature and experimental. Like Beginnings, this release also leaves much to be desired where sound quality is concerned, but is to be expected due to the nature of the tapes. For the most part, the instrumental parts are very clean sounding. It's the vocals that get lost and distorted, making them hard to decipher and listen to.
"Death's Crown" is a 38-minute suite made up of eleven parts that flow together nicely. The music here is very similar to what would be the band's classic sound from their first two albums, well composed and arranged, with plenty of great melodies. Like their other work, the evocative instrumental sound easily carries the music through the story. I find it amazing that such a great piece was written during the band's first year together. "Part 5" will be familiar to those you who have heard their later albums, as it re-appears as "Open Book" on Crafty Hands. The two bonus tracks feature an early recording of "New York Dreams Suite" with vocal overdubs from Owen and some differing parts from the final version which would appear on their debut album. "Merlin of the High Places" is a beautiful piece in the typical HTM vein.
Despite its raw sound, Death's Crown is a wonderful document from this great band. It has been such a treat for HTM fans that Cuneiform has released all this archive material as a companion to the two major albums. For those of you who enjoy the first two Arista albums, this one should not disappoint.
Mike Prete [February 2001]
Happy The Man - "Live" (Linden LM 2021, 1994, CD)
Although this live set would have been much more meaningful had it been released closer to when it was recorded in 1978, it stands today as evidence that this DC area quintet was as tight on-stage as their studio recordings might lead one to believe: the performance here is gripping, spirited and cohesive, drawing on material from their two Arista albums. Happy the Man's music could be described as a keyboard oriented synthesis of rock styles with a jazz sensibility leaning in the Canterbury direction, mostly instrumental (all instrumental on this set), with a penchant for the complex, highly melodic, occasionally quirky and musically humorous. With two keyboardists (Kit Watkins and Frank Wyatt, doubling on flute and Saxes respectively), they were capable of a rich sound full of dramatics and emotion, tension and release. In short, light-years ahead of their time.The material here is taken from two performances: Most were recorded at the Cellar Door, Washington DC, with the balance taken from a show at Louie's Rock City in Falls Church, Virginia - although exact dates are not given. The recording quality is quite good, I think most would be surprised, especially given the wide dynamic range and overall low noise. Opening with "Service With A Smile", here the track gets added punch from guitarist Stanley Whitaker, they move on to "Starborne" and ten more tunes, some with an almost identical arrangement to their studio counterparts ("Morning Sun", "Hidden Moods") and some that are significantly different ("Knee Bitten Nymphs..." is given a whole new feel by drummer Coco Roussel, "I Carve The Chariot On The Carousel" is the full piece which was brutally edited in order to fit on the first album). Two outstanding tunes that missed the Retrospective CD are here in glorified live versions: "Ibby It Is" and the ten-minute "Mr.Mirror's Reflection On Dreams". But by far, the standout here is the brilliant "Open Book", where all of the band's strongest instincts come together to assert their unique vision. Rarely can I say that a live album is as good an introduction to a band's music as their original studio recordings, but here it can be said without any uncertainty; For the longtime fan, this one's a must-have. (Originally published in Exposé #3, p.9, Edited for Gnosis 3/22/01)
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