Once again our friends at Progressive Promotions Records have delivered us another prog/rock masterpiece ... this time from the amazing German group Argos. And unlike the metal-prog band Retrospective, which I reviewed a week earlier (also on the Progressive Promotions label), the music of Argos comes from an altogether different place, residing in a prog/rock sub-genre somewhere between neo/prog and Canterbury.
But first a brief history for those unfamiliar with the band.
The roots of Argos can be traced back to multi-instrumentalist Thomas Klarmann who was assembling material for a solo project when a chance meeting with fellow musician Robert Gorzon sidetracked his plan, leading instead to the formation of the four man group Superdrama. Although still active in that group, Klarmann's musical aspirations were somewhat constricted within the framework of Superdrama. So in 2005 he re-channeled his priorities back to establishing a solo career where he could explore an unrestricted musical pallet. Undaunted by his friend's desire to pursue a solo career, and finding a musical soul mate in Klarmann, Robert Gorzon eventually worked his way into Klarmann's solo project. The pair used MySpace as a sounding board for the music they produced; and as a result sparked the interest of drummer Ulf Jacobs who became the final piece of the puzzle.
So Klarmann's proposed solo project was once again thwarted and by 2008 the band Argos had signed on to the French label Musea Records. Their self-titled debut album was released in January of 2009. In 2010 Argos added a fourth member, guitarist Enrico Florczak. This new expanded four-piece unit then released their second album for Musea entitled, "Circles". Argos appeared on the Musea Flower Kings tribute album before finally switching labels and joining the Progressive Promotions.
Bringing us to the 2012 release "Cruel Symmetry".
Argos lists such diverse influences as: Genesis, Yes, Caravan, Camel, Fruupp, Stackridge, Hatfield and the North, XTC, Klaatu, Soft Machine, England, Eberhard Weber, Kraan, Helmut Hattler, Richard Sinclair, Pekka Pohjola, Jaga Jazzist, Joni Mitchel, Steely Dan, Kit Watkins & Happy The Man, Patrick Moraz & Refugee, Dave Stewart, Dave Sinclair, Bill Bruford, Robert Wyatt, Ian McDonald, King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator, Pulsar, Gentle Giant, UK , Bo Hansson, Renaissance, The Beatles, Uzeb, Focus, E.S.T. , Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Sun Ra , Return to Forever, and Eric Dolphy.
To my ears the major influences heard on the recording are Peter Hammill and Van Der Graaf Generator, Gentle Giant, Camel, Tangent, Kino, PFM, Zappa, and National Health. Vocalist Robert Gorzon could flawlessly front a Van Der Graaf Generator tribute band and does a damn fine imitation of David Bowie and Richard Sinclair.
"Cruel Symmetry" might well be the product of H.G. Well's 'Time Machine, since nothing about this album is of the New Millennium. "Cruel Symmetry" is a nostalgic look back at the mid-70s'; when pushing the boundaries and bucking the music establishment was considered a badge of honor. Upstart musicians undaunted by the three-minute time constraints required for a 'Top Ten' hit single set their sites on college and fledgling FM stations that featured new and obscure artists, broadcasting deep and extended LP cuts across the airwaves. The music was sophisticated, challenging, yet melodic. Mellotrons reigned supreme. Harpsichords, flutes, Hammond organs, Wurlitzer and Fender Rhodes electric pianos, Moog synthesizers, acoustic and electric guitars, exotic stringed instruments, woodwinds, and all manner of percussion transported the listener to pastoral medieval other-worlds where vocalist weaved tall tales of wonder with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
This is the music of Argos; combining elements of pop, folk, psychedelic, jazz fusion, symphonic, and medieval and baroque sensibilities to create a whimsical neo-Canterbury category within the ever-expanding progressive rock family tree.
Wikipedia describes the Canterbury Sound as follows: "The real essence of the 'Canterbury Sound' is the tension between complicated harmonies, extended improvisations, and the sincere desire to write catchy pop songs. In the very best Canterbury music...the musically silly and the musically serious are juxtaposed in an amusing and endearing way. Canterbury music is laced with light-hearted whimsy, psychedelic roots, touches of psychedelia, rather abstruse lyrics, and a use of improvisation derived from jazz are common elements in their work."
Argos may be a German band but the tunes on "Cruel Symmetry" have a decidedly British 'Monty Pythonesque' feel to them. The keyboard work has more in common with artists like Alan Gowen (Gilgamesh, National Health, Soft Heap), Dave Stewart (National Health, Hatfield And The North, Egg), Pete Bardens (Camel), Hugh Barton (Van Der Graaf Generator), and Derek Shulman and Kerry Minnear (Gentle Giant) than flashy rock keyboardists like Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, or Tony Banks.
Since Argos don't fit quite comfortably in the neo-prog category I'll christen them with a label of my own choosing ... 'Neo-Canterbury Vintage Prog' - analog anarchists born in the digital age.
"Cruel Symmetry" is comprised of seven tracks of varying lengths including the epic opening title clocking in at 20+ minutes, which sounds like a lost track from the "Pawn Hearts" recording sessions. Robert Gozon's opening vocal lines transported me back to the very first time I experienced Van Der Graaf Generator.
"Paper Ships Dreams" has a great jazzy Soft Machine/Caravan flavor with the soothing vocals reminiscent of Richard Sinclair.
"Chance Encounters" opens with crunching guitars then transforms into an uptempo jazzy number with shades of the Bill Bruford album "Gradually Going Tornado", or something from Pierre Moerlen's Gong.
"The Story Of Flying Robert" is a light-hearted tale for fans of Caravan, Hatfield And The North, or the obscure Robert Fripp album "The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles And Fripp".
And heavier tracks like "Caught Within The Light" and "Open Book" share the symphonic art rock elements of bands like Arena, Kino, IQ, It Bites, and early Crimson - as well as Van Der Graaf Generator for quite an interesting combination.
No filler or wasted tacks anywhere on the album.
The Argos line-up includes: Thomas Klarmann (basses, flute, synthesizers, Mellotron, Hammond organ, acoustic guitars, programming, soundscapes, lead/harmony vocals), Robert Gozon (lead/harmony vocals , acoustic & electric pianos, Hammond organ, acoustic guitars, strings), Ulf Jacobs (drums , percussion , Roland Drum Machine , backing vocals), Enrico Florczak (electric and acoustic guitars and effects), and guest musician Dieter Gunterman (Alto Saxophone).
And in this age of harsh audio dynamics as producers jack up the digital compression range to a mind numbing 10:1 ratio for that popular 'louder is better' mindset, it's a joy to these tired old ears to experience an album with the kind of warm production values one associates with vinyl LPs and analog recording.
"Cruel Symmetry" should appeal to Canterbury fans, as well as Gentle Giant, Van Der Graaf Generator, Yezda Urfa, Camel, Klaatu, and Tangent. Actually this album should appeal to anyone with a good set of ears and a love of progressive music.
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on March 30th, 2013