Stripping glamor and glimmer from progressive rock panoramas, three masters of the genre veer away from the obvious to serve delicious surprises for aficionados.
The latter-day art-rock seems to be obsessed with amplification and drill down to essentials only when textural needs arise – such are the results of fear that there’s no authenticity in what the well-trodden style’s representatives do, the existential dread they often try to conceal behind loudness, which is why it takes audacity to disrobe one’s tunes for the audience to recognize and love anew. But Steve Unruh and Phideaux Xavier are used to taking creative risks – perhaps, to a lesser extent than this – so, given a chance to play for a small group of choice watchers in Chicago in July 2019, they didn’t think twice and, inviting Valerie Gracious to help them out, transformed prog into folk and, as if to completely part with their usual genre’s serious slant, peppered their works with stories and jokes. The outcome, preserved on two discs now, one per the artist’s showcase, couldn’t sound more sensational.
First off, Unruh is dead set on taking the punters on a trip through his solo catalogue from the start, briefly inserting “Focus” in all its spoken-word brilliance between other cuts, to the then-end, finishing his half with the polyphony-flaunting epic fantasy “Luxury Denial” from the “Precipice” album that would be released on the day of the concert. But there’s no better beginning to Steve’s set than “Learn To Love Rain” whose tinkling intimacy won’t fail to get to the listener’s psyche. And if this wasn’t enough, the violin which pierces the intense strum of “Twilight In India” and evolves into a chamber-like raga before “Something In Heaven Bleeds” brings on dramatic intoning and frantic six-string attack, and idyllic pop of “The Lawn Chair Song” folds out to form an improvised flute flight. Yet the sprawling tapestry wrapped around “Two Little Awakenings” should require Xavier’s bass and Gracious’ emotional vocals.
Still, while there’s nothing surprising about Steve’s extremely warm acoustic performances, Phideaux’s electric numbers, also spanning almost two decades and reshaped for the unplugged trio here, hold a lot of unexpected turns, the solemnity behind the piano-propelled “The Error Lives On” signaling a wondrous decline in histrionics in favor of a feeling, and three voices heating up the atmosphere until the exquisite instrumental weave cools it down to a rustic spectacle. That’s when the village magic of “Candybrain” – segueing into “The Sleepers Wake” and passing the majestic “Darkness At Noon” to Valerie to deliver – is evoked, just to get shattered to bits by “One Star”: a propulsive piece which will change the ensemble’s mood. So, although “You And Me Against A World Of Pain” seems to find guilty pleasure in sorrow, “A Curse Of Miracles” revels in a riff-sprinkled merriment, and “The Doctrine Of Eternal Ice (Two)” offers a symphonic grandeur.
It’s no mean feat to achieve this beauty with a deliberately limited means of expression, which is why “71319” – that’s the event’s date, by the way – must become a thing to savor and cherish.