Style : 1970s prog meets AOR meets modern-day hard-edged symphonic rock
Rating : 4.25 / 5
Summary : One of the better albums of 2005 - a nice surprise
In the 1970s and '80s, Jaugernaut was a little-known 'pomp-rock' band in Washington state that gained a big regional following and a small but enthusiastic following in Europe. Today the original pressing of their Take Em There album can occasionally be found among the rarities section of the most avid of prog collectors - but since the mid '80s the band has been relegated to the distant memories of a small legion of die-hard fans. Band member Jim Johnson recently decided to resuscitate the band on his own, and Contra-Mantra is the product of a 2-year almost-solo project.
And what a surprise it is. Contra-Mantra is one of the stronger sounding, most melodic, and all-round pleasing albums to come by in a long time. Caveat: It isn't perfect - production could benefit from more attention, and the performances are more enthusiastic than polished - but those quibbles don't rob this record from being a damned good listen.
The style is 1970s prog meets AOR - and who knows who labeled Jaugernaut as 'pomp-rock' over 20 years ago, but the tag still seems reasonably appropriate because there's a confident boldness that manifests itself in wonderful soaring melodies of the kind that eludes so much of today's progressive rock. The music is well layered and the song structures shift and flow comfortably - never losing your attention, but never challenging you either. There's a nice use of various classical-prog styled keyboards from Johnson, and there's some wonderful guitar work from collaborator Jim Brammer.
One of Contra-Mantra's strongest points is Johnson's singing. So many one-man-bands are severely lacking in this area, but Johnson's delivery is in a strong, upper-range with very good pitch control and excellent range. This guy could successfully audition for almost any metal band, yet in the lower ranges his vocal timbre is very nicely suited to '70s-influenced prog. The occasional addition of multi-part backing vocals works remarkably well too. Listen to the excellent, introspective "All I See Is Gray", in which the earlier parts are an appealing ballad, yet the energy builds up, and Johnson effortlessly ratchets up his delivery to match. Sort of Billy Joel morphs into Geddy Lee. An interesting note: Some writers have called Contra-Mantra metal. With respect - they are wrong, and they're probably being misled by that singing style. There are some hard-rock / hard Kansas-like AOR tendencies, but make no error - this is rock-solid, old fashioned progressive music - and not prog-metal.
Contra-Mantra relates a story of the origins of evil, although the lyrics are somewhat esoteric. It's a themed piece rather than a concept album, and the songs flow into one another - although each song stands on its own there's a seamless transition among all of them, leading to a continuous yet constantly changing flow of music. The most 'proggy' of the songs is the imaginative 15-minute "The Hard Way", but the standout track is probably the 12-minute opener "Anthem" in which a little piano motif floats along constantly, as the song goes through shift after shift - now soft, now hard rock, now vocal, now instrumental - that little theme remains in place almost all the way through. Very nice.
On first listening to this music, a relatively unknown German band called Flying Circus sprung immediately to mind. Hmm - most people haven't heard of them either. Let's hope Contra-Mantra does well for Jaugernaut. It's a very pleasing listen, and with a bit of success under their collective belts, perhaps their next CD will have the same great sense of melody, but with a bit more attention paid to production. And the good news - a Contra-Mantra II is in the works.
If I'd managed to get to this one when I first received it, it would probably have found a place in my best-of-2005 list. Recommended:
The Silent Man
(All Album Reviews by The Silent Man)
I must confess straight away that I'm not familiar with the original Jaugernaut, but I gather they were something of a cult item around the turn of the eighties. This album is basically a solo project by sole original band member Jim Johnston, and a quite solid effort it is.
Opening track “Anthem” is the defining cut here, and a splendid piece. A lengthy track, it goes from epic keyboard pomp through splendid minor-key vocal melodies before wrapping up in an energetically upbeat climax. This is excellent music, with stirring keyboard flurries and soaring vocal harmonies reminiscent of Capability Brown or Starcastle. A marvelous statement of intent.
Elsewhere, however, it's the more straightforward, shorter pieces, which come off best. “The Damage Is Done”, “Better Living Thru Anarchy” and “Vanity” are all excellent songs, in a sort of mid-period Rush semi-commercial way.
Unfortunately, the one point on the album where the wheels come off somewhat is the other lengthy 15-minute track “The Hard Way”, which rather collapses under the weight of its own ambition. A multi-part track, it feels cobbled together from separate parts bearing seemingly no relation to one another (ambient opening, rambling acoustic instrumental, rocky section etc), and it falls into every pitfall that the earlier “Anthem” just as successfully avoids.
This is definitely an album which in my view would have been better in the days of space-restricted vinyl, as an album containing just tracks 1,2,3,5,7 would have been an absolute corker, but the filler material disrupts the flow somewhat. Mind you, I believe there is a concept of sorts here, but without a lyric sheet or any explanatory notes, I couldn't discern it.
A very enjoyable, if flawed, release then in my book. I can't comment on the comparison with original Jaugernaut releases, but I would be quite keen to check them out on the basis of the best stuff on here.