(All Album Reviews by ffroyd)
A band with this much class and quality can’t come from New Jersey, can they? Well, having lived in The Garden State my whole life and being very proud of it, even I’m surprised that these guys are from here! Advent has been around since 1989 and I had heard a few samples of them before but unfairly wrote them off as somewhat of a clone band. As usual my assessment was quite a bit premature. Their newest CD offering, Cantus Firmus is an absolute masterwork of pastoral prog, the likes of which I haven’t heard in quite a while.
The band was formed by Henry and Mark Ptak. Both of them play keyboards and sing, Henry does most of the leads but they harmonize quite frequently. Alan Benjamin provides all sorts of excellent string work including acoustic and electric guitars, basses, Stick® and mandolin. He also plays a little recorder on the album too. The rhythmic end is held down quite nicely by their newest member, Drew Siciliano on percussion.
It’s very evident that the music owes much to the influence of classic bands like Gentle Giant, Procol Harum and Gryphon. They don’t try to duplicate these bands in any way, though. They simply take these influences and run with them. I had thought at one point there would be a bit of a neo prog in this band but that is not the case at all here. Advent is very strong with some very amazing original material.
Cantus Firmus starts with a fun little Renaissance-styled a capella piece with GG-ish harmonies. It’s a fun tongue-in-cheek piece to introduce the record. Without a pause, we are propelled headlong into the instrumental “Awaiting The Call…” This is a soaring piece with wonderfully strong keyboards and at times sounds almost like fusion. The bridge contains some beautiful mandolin playing.
Next on the list is “Parenting Parents”, a nice mellow track dealing with the troubles of growing older. The keyboards on this one are absolutely gorgeous, evoking a dream-like atmosphere. The tolling bells near the end send chills up my spine. A very moving piece that leads right into “Utter Once Her Name” which also starts out rather pensively but has some very nice moments of majestic power. There’s lots of cool mellotron and other symphonic sounds on this one.
Alan Benjamin penned the track “Remembering When” and I swear that it could have come from an Anthony Phillips or Steve Hackett album. This is wonderful little acoustic guitar-based interlude with some nice electric lead parts.
“Ramblin’ Sailor” is the centerpiece of the disc, a gorgeous 18-minute epic. It reminds me a little of ELP’s “Pirates” with all the embarrassing parts removed. The lyrics were adapted by Henry from an old sea shanty. Everyone puts on an excellent performance on this. The band is joined here Shunji Saegusa of the Japanese band Kenso. I found this to be a pleasant surprise since I didn’t realize this until I was writing the review. It was already my favorite on the album but that just sealed the deal.
Although it could be hard to follow such a track as that, Advent does it very nicely with the eerily weird “Your Healing Hand”. Some of the elements that I really enjoy here the nebulous lyrics supplied by Arthur Hoffman. It’s tough to pinpoint what some of these songs are really about and that combined with the excellent vocals gives this material a true depth that’s hard to find anywhere in the music world these days.
The album ends nicely with the “Firmus Finale” which revisits many of the themes from the previous songs in a nice regal instrumental. This song has moments that remind me a little of “Los Endos” from Genesis for some reason.
The two bonus songs at the end are from 1992 24-track recording intended for the first Advent album. These are nice but not in the same quality range as the other group of songs. I am glad they were included but the album would have been just as strong without them. They both seem to have a little early-mid Genesis feel. The longer track “Alison Waits (A Ghost Story)” is the better of the two and contains some added drum work from Ken Serio.
I can’t finish this review without mentioning the cover artwork from Michael Phipps. Many of you will know some of his work quite well. He designed the current look of the Progressive Ears site. On more than one occasion I was approached by people asking about this Advent cover, it has a very similar color scheme to the Kansas Leftoverture album. For more of Michael’s great artwork, I’d definitely recommend checking out his website: http://www.michaelphipps.net
I admit that I was very pleasantly surprised by the warmth and originality of this album. Not very often does a more modern prog band impress me like this. This isn’t the typical sugary fluff put out by most of today’s self-proclaimed progressive rock artists but a well thought out and original work that could stand on it’s own with the classics of the 70s. Just goes to show that you should never underestimate the power of New Jersey!
(All Album Reviews by AdmKirk)
Taking Gentle Giant as a starting point, New Jersey's Advent is, essentially, a symphonic prog band and completely unrepentant about it. Led by the keyboards of the brothers Ptak, Mark & Henry, and assisted by guitarist/bassist Alan Benjamin, drummer Drew Sicifiano along with lyrics by Arthur Hoffman, Advent combines touches of Emerson, Lake & Palmer & Anthony Phillips along with Gentle Giant to create an album that sounds like it was recorded in Europe during prog's heyday rather than New Jersey in 90's and the first decade of the 21st century. The Gentle Giant influence is most obvious on the opening cut, “GK Contramundrum”, but threatens at several points throughout the record. However, these guys should not be mistaken for Gentle Giant clones. They definitely have their own thing happening. And make no mistake about it, this isn't pseudo prog, or quasi-prog or neo-prog. It's a straight up prog rock album. From the striking cover art by Michael Phipps to the glorious 18 minutes of the albums centerpiece "Ramblin' Sailor", Advent flies their prog flag proudly.
Many of the cuts on Cantus Firmus are of a slow tempo, rather pastoral, and, on occasion, strikingly poignant. "Parenting Parents" immediately brought to mind the recent death of a much beloved Aunt. Anyone who has or is dealing with an elderly relative will find much to absorb from this song. This is also a record that takes time to fully appreciate. Rewards come with repeated listenings.
The record is not perfect. I'm not fond of the drum sound on much of the album. I like for drums to sound like they would if you were in the room with the drummer playing. I want to hear the air in the kick drum, the room and how the drummer tunes his kit. I don't really hear that on Cantus Firmus. The playing of Siciliano isn't in question, it's just the way the drums sound. I'm somewhat surprised at this drum sound since I have no problems at all with the way the other instruments & vocals are recorded. Indeed, they are recorded beautifully. For instance there's the lovely acoustic guitar that opens "Remembering When". This is one of the tunes that brings to mind the work of Anthony Phillips. The track also features some solid electric guitar work and delightful bass.
From a performance standpoint, this is a great record all the way through. I might have sequenced the album a bit differently or, perhaps, added another up-tempo cut, but that aside, this is a solid album. If you like your prog that's a little on the quiet side and a bit ornate then Advent's Cantus Firmus is for you, it's certainly for me.