(All Album Reviews by ffroyd)
Although there was an abundance of excellent rock bands in Australia in the early 70s, I havenít heard of that many of them who could fit in with progressive rock movement that was going on in Europe. Sure, there were some incredibly talented psych, heavy blues and even jazzy rock bands on the scene but there are very few that could be classified under the ďsymphonicĒ banner. One of these was the Melbourne group Rainbow Theatre. Earlier this year the Aztec label released their second album Fantasy Of Horses and now they have added the bands first album The Armada to their ever-growing catalog of fantastic Australian reissues.
The leader of Rainbow Theatre was guitarist/composer Julian Browning who assembled a huge 15-piece band including choir to help him tackle his musical visions. An admirer of Robert Fripp, Julian also played the mellotron. This shoots down my theory that the instrument had been banned in Australia! Seriously, I donít think Iíve ever heard another Aussie record that had even close to this much mellotron on it. Very well done too, I might add. Julian was also the composer, arranger and producer of the album so he definitely had his hands full with this project.
The Armada is a concept album inspired by the historical events of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Julianís father, George Browing, designed and painted the cover art. Musically, there are a few similarities to the first few King Crimson albums but just on minor points; this is a very unique album. One thing that makes the music so distinctive is the operatic vocals of Keith Hoban. I never thought Iíd be using the expression ďoperatic vocalsĒ in a review about an Oz prog band but Keith is an excellent tenor that puts on a very dramatic performance here. Thereís also an excellent choir that backs him up most of the time. And I canít forget about the brass section of Steven Nash, Frank Graham and Don Santin. The horns remind me slightly of Ian Carrís jazz-rock band Nucleus, and it gives Rainbow Theatre a cool Ďbig bandí feel in spots.
Thereís so much on here that after several listens I still donít have a complete grasp of the music. This seems like one of those albums that it will take years to be able to fully appreciate. Itís different from just about everything out there. Probably the closest Australian music out there that I could compare it to would be the Mephistopheles album, but this is much more advanced. Like I mentioned before, there is a similarity to the early King Crimson and because of the theme, I would mention the Islands album or maybe the Lizard suite. Thereís a bonus track at the end of this CD reissue composed by Julian and performed by the Melbourne Grammar Symphony Orchestra in 1996. While it was composed years later, it has a mood that fits the album perfectly and serves as a wonderful coda to this beautiful work.
Tremendous praise needs to be given to the folks at Aztec Music for an absolutely breathtaking presentation of this on CD. The design layout is phenomenal with tons of pictures and information in the booklet. The biography is by Ian McFarlane who wrote the Encyclopedia of Australian Rock And Pop and contains tons of detailed information about Julian Browning and Rainbow Theatre. Even if this is a little on the expensive side, itís definitely worth picking up. While I still really like the works of Aussie bands like Spectrum and Madderlake, this album opened up a whole new world for me. Now I really need to pick up Fantasy Of Horses. Iíve heard that one is even better than this!