The latest project from the multimedia collective Squonk Opera is the highly energetic CD and road show entitled PNEUMATICA.
And for anyone familiar with the band, which includes: Jackie Dempsey (keyboards and accordion), Steve O'Hearn (electronic bagpipes and flute), David Wallace (guitar), Nathan Wilson (bass), and Kevin Kornicki (drums), you know the music on this CD is just one facet of the Squonk Opera PNEUMATICA experience.
For the uninitiated I suggest you refer to the Prognaut archives for my 8/12/09 review of their concert DVD "Astro-Rama: Live Under The Stars", filmed as part of a two night outdoor performance in October 2008 at Pittsburgh's Schenley Plaza; describing in great detail an amazing concert event complete with a UFO crash site, 40 foot radio telescope, giant robot, and some of the most adventurous music this side of the Milky Way.
So it's safe to assume you can expect more of the same from the PNEUMATICA concert experience - another feast for the ears and eyes.
As explained on their website the central theme for PNEUMATICA is AIR:
"Pneumatica is an event about air, made of air, and powered by air. The Squonkers pump up the volume with live original music that permeates the air, while inflatables pump up and immerse the audience. Figures and tentacles grow, powered by blowers and vortex fans, and culminate in the 40-foot high Lady Pneumatica who incorporates a wind turbine on her head. She blossoms with sails, breathing steam and raising her inflated arms to the sky. Squonk's music incorporates the swoops and eddies of the air with electronic bagpipes and a vertical accordion that is Lady Pneumatica's lungs, played like a piano while it rises and falls with her breath. Playing with visual puns, air is used to activate costumes Squonkers inflate like blowfish and musically activate head tubes with guitar and bass riffs."
So after reading all that I felt a bit cheated with only a musical representation of the PNEUMATICA multimedia experience to review - but that disappointment was momentary once the music roared from the speakers with a flourish. Fantastic!
The compositions for the Astro-Rama project were a bit more lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek whereas the 8 instrumental tracks on PNEUMATICA are a flat-out example of awesome eclectic progressive rock.
Comparisons can be drawn between Squonk Opera and artists like Chip Davis and his Mannheim Steamroller projects, as well as SKY, the incredible instrumental group lead by guitarist John Williams (not the soundtrack composer) which produced a discography of stellar works throughout the 70s' and 80s' such as SKY, SKY 2, SKY 3, SKY 4: Forthcoming, Cadmium, The Great Balloon Race, and Mozart.
Guitarist David Wallace eschews the flashy light speed arpeggios for the economical yet ethereal sustaining leads of someone like Hackett, yet with the hard-edged harmonic distortion of Robert Fripp.
Steve O'Hearn's flute work alone on "Head Of Steam" should delight fans of Jethro Tull. And when he's not playing the flute his mesmerizing electronic bagpipes on "Whirlwinding" and "Breathe" infuse the tracks with the type of Celtic heavy metal edge one might associate with the Scottish band Wolfstone - a group combining traditional Highland music with hard-edged rock and roll.
Jackie Dempsey is a stellar and versatile keyboardist. The opening moments of the track "Floating" brings to mind the popular 80s' new age artists like Suzanne Ciani, Michael Stearns, Patric O'Hearn, David Arkenstone, and Vangelis before her faux-Mellotron erupts into a grandiose prog/rock climax. Echoes of early King Crimson and Ian McDonald's haunting Mellotron drenched epics like "In The Court Of The Crimson King" and "Epitaph" washed over me.
And only Squonk Opera could compose a quirky song like "Skitter And Blast" - an unlikely amalgamation of Zydeco, metal, and art/rock, sounding like chase music in a Coen Brothers movie.
"A Cloud Of Gray" is a real tour de force blending elements of traditional Celtic and symphonic rock. Throughout the composition are echoes of 90s' era YES, Gentle Giant, The Enid, Mike Oldfield, and the French group Edhels. Making for a memorable listening experience.
If there is a complaint to be made about PNEUMATICA ... it's that's the album is too short ... just under 30 minutes. Which in retrospect is probably a good thing - because it leaves you wanting more.
Highly recommended for fans of eclectic, symphonic, instrumental art/rock.
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on December 24th, 2014