(All Album Reviews by Burgess Penguin)
Every once in a while, an unexpected gem, a diamond in the rough will surface. The sole album by Refugee is most certainly one of those "diamonds in the rough" and a bloody spectacular one at that!
Refugee came together for a wonderful moment in time in 1974, with two ex-members of Keith Emerson's old band The Nice (Brian Davidson on drums and percussion, Lee Jackson on bass and occasional growling, raspy vocals) teaming up with a then unknown Patrick Moraz on numerous keyboards. Patrick had been previously doing film scores, music for dance companies and a whole ton of other ventures (including a prog band called Mainhorse). Super-Groupitis or ELP knockoff you might be saying? Here, thankfully the answer was NO on both counts!!
All the right ingredients were in place, strong colorful compositions, forceful powerful musicianship, a vast sonic palette and even a bit of humor not normally associated with this type of music.
"Papillon" starts things off in genuinely frantic fashion conjuring up images of a chase scene in a movie. I could be wrong, but I'm assuming this was inspired by the story of a man who escaped from the notorious Devil's Island prison. Especially cool is that creepy mellotron figure just in the background and Brian's insistent drumming pushes the piece along to a rousing conclusion, along with Patrick's wonderful outbursts on Hammond organ and mini-moog (sounding almost guitar-like).
"Someday" is a spiteful little ditty about an ended relationship with lots of colorful Moraz musings! This could've easily lapsed into a cheesy pop tune in lesser hands, but here, it turns into a masterpiece of spite. The only quibble I have here (and on a couple other cuts) is Lee Jackson's vocalizing, which for me just doesn't cut it. Thankfully, vocals are not a dominant feature of the album, otherwise it would be rough going.
"Grand Canyon Suite" (not to be confused with the Grofé orchestral piece) is the first of two epics on this disc. Here, Patrick's extensive film scoring experience really pays off, as he and the band conjure up such vivid musical images of this wonderful American landmark. Patrick's mastery and awareness of orchestral sounds and textures is jaw-dropping, pulling sounds out of his vast keyboard arsenal that are positively hypnotic! One of symphonic progs finest moments I dare say!
"Gatecrasher/Ritt Mickley" shows off the bands funky and strangely humorous side. Beginning with studio chatter and heavily processed clavinet (this would've done Herbie Hancock's Headhunters proud) and a bizarre musique concrete' segment, Refugee charges in to a funky romp with gleeful abandon, Patrick and Brian especially sounding like they're having the time of their lives. How often is it you hear Hancock-esque funkiness drenched with mellotron and John Cage like interjections with slinkys and other unknown metallic objects?
And then, the epic to end all epics: "Credo". This piece goes all over the map, making references to Bach (the mad pipe organ section) Franz Lizst (the orchestral beginning with rippling piano) and even a Chick Corea-esque Rhodes solo towards the end, among other things. The only thing that mars this piece for me is the vocals, just so obnoxiously raspy and out of place in the music. Thankfully though, the rest is pure instrumental brilliance as the piece comes to a firey conclusion.
All throughout, Patrick Moraz really shines without being overbearing. His command and awareness of musical idioms and tonal colors is unbelievably vast. He has chops to match anyone's but unlike some of his contemporaries, chose instead to concentrate on melody and color, also making great use of open space in the music, as opposed to showing off how fast he could play. Brian and Lee provided tight support and I must say that Brian Davidson was really in top form here!
Sadly, the Refugee story came to an abrupt end when Patrick decided to join Yes when Rick Wakeman left. Brian and Lee, having been through a similar scenario with Keith Emerson dumping them for ELP, completely quit music altogether in disillusionment.
For anyone looking for a great example of how to do the keyboard trio thing right, Refugee is definitely your authoritative textbook, not to mention an exhilarating listen!!