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Music Review: Various Artists – The Prog Collective and The Fusion Syndicate

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Released within three months of each other, The Prog Collective and The Fusion Syndicate are essentially sister projects. Former Yes guitarist Billy Sherwood composed all the music for both albums, produced them, and assembled the “dream teams” of seasoned all-star players who performed on individual tracks. Collective, of course, emphasizes music with a prog rock bent; Syndicate is a collection of jazz/rock fusion instrumentals. Both albums employ many musicians who can straddle both genres like Sherwood’s fellow Yes alumnus Rick Wakeman, Jerry Goodman (Mahavishnu Orchestra), and David Sancious (E Street Band.) On both albums, other alumni from Yes and Mahavishnu Orchestra also make appearances as well as members of Porcupine Tree, Asia, King Crimson, and Soft Machine, among other legendary bands. (As it happens, many of the same musicians appear on Sherwood’s Songs of the Century: An All-Star Tribute to Supertramp which is similar in style but based on the songs of the original group.)

Apparently, the creation of The Prog Collective established the template for all Sherwood’s 2012 conceptions. Sherwood wrote and recorded the seven songs for The Prog Collective and sent them around to fellow musicians he hoped would contribute. He gathered a number of overdubs from the performers, which he mixed in his L.A. studio. The resulting tracks include the likes of “The Technical Divide” featuring Alan Parsons, Chris Squire (of Yes fame), & Gary Green (Gentle Giant). Renaissance’s Annie Haslam sings “Social Circles,” and “The Laws of Nature” features Asia’s John Wetton, King Crimson’s Tony Levin, & violinist Goodman. For the record, other featured players include Geoff Downes (Yes/Asia), Colin Moulding (XTC), John Wesley (Porcupine Tree), and Richard Page (Mr. Mister).

Sherwood claims that, despite the fact most of the parts were dialed in from studios from all over the world, the album has a feeling and sense of unity. That’s true enough. But that unity can also be described as sameness, as none of the songs really break out on their own. The compositions end up not really being the point but rather the opportunity to hear some of the best in the business playing together, if not exactly working together.

The same is true for The Fusion Syndicate. But this time, the compositions are crafted to focus on musical virtuosity, and the seven tracks on Syndicate permit a batch of “super groups” to show off their respective chops. All a listener needs to do is look at the list of performers and know whatever they expect, they’ll get.

Take, for example, the opening track, “Random Acts Of Science.” It’s performed by Wakeman, Goodman, Nik Turner (Hawkwind), and Jimmy Haslip (Yellowjackets / Alan Holdsworth). Or “At the Edge of the Middle” with Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs / Deep Purple), Jim Beard (Mahavishnu Orchestra), Randy Brecker (Blood, Sweat & Tears) and Percy Jones (Soft Machine / Brand X).

On each track, there’s someone with a leaning toward the rock side of things, another with a more jazz background. With the exception of Goodman’s solos, the structure of each group is roughly the same: an electric guitarist, bass player, drummer, keyboardist, and often one horn player, especially a saxophonist. This is true for “Stone Cold Infusion,” which features Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater / Liquid Tension Experiment), Mel Collins (King Crimson), Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree), and Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra). The remaining four tracks showcase Jay Eckenstein (Spyro Gyra), Billy Sheehan (Steve Vai), Larry Coryell, Chester Thompson (Genesis / Brand X), John Etheridge (Soft Machine), Tony Kaye (Yes), and Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa).

In publicity for The Fusion Syndicate, Sherwood again claimed the album is consistently unified. He’s correct again. But this time around, while there are again no real high points or glaring disappointments, The Fusion Syndicate should please any listener who appreciates the past work of the various players. It’s not an album with any flying sparks or extended improvised solos, but it also avoids the excesses that have made many fusion releases exercises in self-indulgence.

So The Prog Collective should please fans of the performers involved if they know in advance the collection is competent but nothing special. The Fusion Syndicate offers seven tight compositions that make fusion accessible for a wide audience. One wonders what would happen if you could get these folks together on one stage on the same night. That would be my dream team …

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