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CD Review: The Underground Railroad – The Origin of Consciousness

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Progressive Rock is probably the most misunderstood genre of popular music around, with the possible exception of Polka. Progressive Music invokes images of dragon slaying costume wearing primadona singers, elaborate stage sets and lengthy songs that have no hooks or discernible pattern. Fans of Progressive Music are often looked down upon as greasy haired pimple ridden pseudo-intellectuals with little or no social skills to speak of who build detailed representations of scenes from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings using pewter miniatures.

I am here to tell you that it is all true. What you think about Progressive Music and its fans is all true. We are geeks. We like to think. We read fantasy novels, and philosophy. We don’t like to be around too many people, and people don’t generally like to be around us. But you know what? We’ve grown up. We are hiding right now in your server rooms and libraries, making sure you have access to the data you need. We fix and sometimes read your email, but never say anything about it because your lives are so different from ours that we don’t even know how to relate. We’re listening to our odd time signature music as we’re making sure your data is encrypted when you log on to your bank or Amazon. You need to thank us, and you need to pay attention to our music, at least a little bit.

I offer that tongue in cheek introduction as a means of easing you into thinking about Progressive Music, and the artist that I want to talk to you about. The Underground Railroad, Fort Worth, Texas natives, have been around the Prog scene since the mid 1990s. They broke into the national spotlight after their debut recording Through and Through, and their later performance at NEAR Fest. This four piece band is a tour de force of sound and progressive experimentation. They push the limits between jazz styling and phrasing and rock. They are an intellectually stimulating band to listen to, make no mistake. Some people, however, might be like the Emperor who said to Mozart “Too many notes!” and this is understandable. Music is taste driven. Still, for me, their taste is sweet.

The Underground Railroad’s latest offering The Origin of Consciousness (not available from Amazon.com yet, I’d get it through their website link above, or click HERE.), is nothing less than ear shattering and mind altering music of the highest order. The subject matter, Julian Jaynes groundbreaking book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is heavier reading than most people would attempt to read outside of a college assignment. Still, it seems to make for good progressive rock subject matter. The band says that only tracks 1, 2, and 8 are a part of this theme, but I think I see glimpses of it in some of the other tracks on this 8 song album also.

The core sound of The Underground Railroad is found in the keyboard talents of Kurt Rongey, and the guitar stylings of Bill Pohl. However, the supporting talents of Matt Hembree (bass) and John Livingston (drums) cannot be discounted, for Bill and Kurt would not have anywhere to stand were it not for the solid foundation laid down by these two talented individuals. John Livingston’s stellar ability to keep up with Kurt’s odd time signature demands, is to be commended. In addition, anyone who can keep time with Livingston, Rongey and Pohl, and maintain a solid bass line, deserves a medal, or at least a drink.

I have yet to find a weak track on this album. Track one, Julian Ur, starts out strong, but slow, in the first track, where we are introduced to our subject matter via the minimalistic lyrical feelings set down by Kurt (who also doubles as the primary vocalist for the band). This track moves effortlessly into the next track, Julian I, where we are bombarded by Keith Emerson-like keyboard strains, a killer bass line, and some nice crunchy guitar licks. The over arching vocals seem to imbue us with a sense of mystery with their descant-like cadence.

Next we are treated to a lengthy instrumental, Love is a Vagabond King, where Bill Pohl spreads his guitar strings and flies through measure after measure of incredibly wonderful and technically accurate playing. His unique guitar sound is something that I find myself often craving like some sort of gourmet delicacy. It’s a rare and rich treat. During the whole instrumental, he is backed by his band mates with more energy than anyone should have at their age.

With shades of Yes, the next track, Halo, opens slowly and delivers one of the most beautify sung songs on the entire album. Kurt’s voice has grown, and this album has a better sound overall than their previous album. This song, particular, is a testament to the upgrade to their studio equipment, and the growth of their talents.

The album then moves quickly through the intricately played tune The Canal at Sunset which is about as close as I’ve ever heard this band come to writing a love song. They still do have their place in prog, you know, even if they mention singularities in space-time. After this we are treated to Metaphor, which will likely be heralded as The Underground Railroad’s Yyz or Ytsejam. You know what I mean; that song that is mostly an instrumental, but comes to define the sound of the band. It has all the elements that this band is known for, or will be known for. Next up is Creeper, the lengthy continuation of the story and concept behind the song The Doorman on their first album, Through and Through. This song has some great moments in it blended together with some very odd and absurdist sounding lyrics. Finally, we wrap up the album by going back to our Julian Jaynes theme in the final track, Julian II. This final track almost becomes a time for each of the band members to take a solo riff, much like a jazz band will lay down a beat, and several instrumentalists will stand up and deliver a solo over the rest of the band. But it isn’t quite as blatant as this, ending up with John Livingston delivering some of the finest drumming on the entire album as the song winds down.

This album is a treat to listen to, and it intellectually stimulating all around. I would recommend this album to people who were fans of old school prog like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or even fans of new prog like 5uu’s or Marillion. Of, better yet, buy this album for that prog head in your family who already has all the Lord of the Rings pewter miniatures he needs. It’ll rock their world.

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  • http://jeliel3.blogspot.com JELIEL

    Tim, move to Montreal. The Progressive HUB of North America. Here the local bands feel something is missing unless he sound of a B3 is heard somewhere in the song.

  • http://www.penguinhosting.net/~toadman/blog toadman(TimWillis)

    Really? I’ve been missing hearing Underground Railroad live, and indeed, other local prog, since moving to Spokane, WA two and a half years ago. There’s not much of a prog scene here in the Northwest, from what I’ve been able to tell so far…

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