Inspired by the life of naturalist Charles Darwin, the French progressive group XII Alfonso set out on a monumental three year task to set his fascinating life to music. The end result is a massive 3-CD collection by members Francois and Phillippe Claerhout, Thierry Moreno, and Stephane Ducasse; with a guest list of 50 fellow musicians performing on 70 assorted instruments; creating 22 songs and 30 instrumental tracks totaling 180 minutes of finely crafted music, all packaged in an impressive 76 page color booklet.
The word 'epic' is often used when describing progressive rock concept albums ... but in the case of XII Alfonso's project "Charles Darwin", it's a bit of an understatement.
Lets begin with the list of contributing artists - among them are alumni who have performed with the likes of Pink Floyd, Supertramp, Mike Oldfield, Camel, America, Earth Wind And Fire, Herbie Handcock, Bonnie Tyler, Renaissance, Robert Plant, Brand X, Rick Wakeman, Alan Parsons Project, It Bites, Fish, Kate Bush, and members of Genesis - included are: John Helliwell (saxophonist of Supertramp), Maggie Reilly (vocals - appeared on several Mike Oldfield albums as well as a succession of excellent solo albums), Tim Renwick (guitarist - on stage with Pink Floyd), Mickey Simmonds (keyboards - appeared with Mike Oldfield, Camel, Renaissance and Fish), Terry Oldfield (flute - appeared with both his brother Mike and sister Sally as well as over 30 albums), John Hackett (flute - appeared with his brother Steve Hackett on over 20 albums, Nick Magnus, Anthony Phillips, Symbiosis, and five solo albums), RaphaŽl Ravenscroft (saxophone - appeared with Pink Floyd, Gerry Raferty on the tune "Baker Street", Brand X, America, Mike Oldfield, Robert Plant, and Bonnie Tyler), Robin Boult (guitar - guitarist for Fish), Ian Bairnson (guitar - performing with Alan Parsons Project and Kate Bush), David Paton (bass player - Alan Parsons Project, Pilot, Camel, Fish, Rick Wakeman, and Kate Bush), Francis Dunnery (guitar - guitarist of It Bites), Ronnie Caryl (vocals - guitarist for Phil Collins), Amy Keys (vocals - chorus singer for Phil Collins, Herbie Hancock, and Earth Wind And Fire), Alistair Gordon and Jayney Klimek (vocals - both appearing on the Tony Banks's album "Bankstatement "), Ton Scherpenzeel (keyboards - Camel, Kayak, Earth And Fire, Ayreon, and film and television composer), Elliott Murphy (vocals - renown singer/songwriter with over 30 albums to his credit), Huong Thanh (vocals - acclaimed Vietnamese jazz vocalist) and her husband Hong Nguyen (Indian cythar) to name-drop a few.
Now lets touch on the musical instruments used on the album, including both traditional rock instrumentation as well as exotic woodwinds, stringed, and percussion instruments from around the world - and some truly bizarre organic tribal percussion from Yemen, Ethiopia, and Argentina that probably won't make the P.E.T.A. crowd too enthusiastic ... such as the dolphinophone (consisting of dolphin bones), pithecophone (a monkey skull), goat nails and the rattling teeth of various animals such as a warthog, crocodile, and hippo.
The 76 page booklet is a beautifully illustrated presentation detailing the life of Charles Darwin divided into three volumes. "Vol. I: 1809 - 1835" focuses on the early years which helped shape his life leading up to his adventures of discovery aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. "Vol. II: 1836 - 1858" presents Darwin the author, beginning with his publication of "The Zoology Of The Voyage Of The H.M.S. Beagle" and his continued study of the many samples he brought back from the voyage. And "Vol. III: 1859 - 1882" which begins with his publication of "The Origin Of Species" and the reaction and backlash to his controversial theory of evolution which continues to this day between Christian Fundamental Creationists and Evolutionists.
The booklet also serves as a chronicle on the making of the album, with six pages featuring the exotic instruments used on the album, a five page photo collage of the participants in the project, and a breakdown of each song with performers and instrumentation.
The band XII Alfonso have been creating sprawling self-produced concept albums for about 15 years in their home studio in Bordeaux, France. The group is spear-headed by brothers Francois Claerhout (keyboards, percussion, programming) and Phillippe (guitar and assorted stringed instruments) along with Staphane Ducasse (flute/wind instruments) and Thierry Moreno (drums/percussion).
(Note: The band members dedicated the album to Thierry Moreno who unexpectedly passed away in September of 2011 before the release of the album)
Over the years the group has produced 7 albums which include: "The Lost Frontier" (1996), "Odyssees" (2000), "Claude Monet Vol. I: 1883 - 1889 (2002), "This Is" (2003), "Claude Monet Vol. II: 1889 - 1904" (2005), Under (2009"), and now "Charles Darwin" Vol. I - III" (2012).
The cinematic compositions on "Charles Darwin" are so varied that it's impossible to pigeon-hole the music of XII Alfonso into one specific category, even in a genre known for it's many off-shoots and sub-categories. The 50+ tracks can alternate from beautiful melodic ballads to percussive tribal rhythms, classically orchestral film-scores to jazz fusion, dissonant avant garde and electronic chamber music to traditional Middle Eastern ethnic motifs, and from spacey age new age ambiance to mainstream rock and flamboyant art rock. It all plays like a cerebral travelogue complete with sea shanties and south sea island music, hot blooded Spanish Flamenco, violin driven nomadic Gypsy music, modern Celtic, medieval baroque, and the mystical music of the Orient; capturing the Bohemian ambiance of a jazz trio performing in a coffeehouse or indiscreet smoke filled nightclub, or a solitary Parisian accordionist strolling outside a French cafe.
And because of this musical diversity the album should find favor to a wide range of adventurous listeners. It's like purchasing the ultimate IPOD pre-loaded with a complete library of progressive rock, jazz fusion, new age, World music, and orchestral film-scores - then hitting shuffle and play.
As a point of reference elements of the following bands are discernible on the song orientated vocal tracks like: Mandalaband IV, Alan Parsons Project, Mike And The Mechanics, Manfred Mann's Earth Band, Barclay James Harvest, Renaissance, Peter Gabriel, and various Rick Wakeman projects and the Clive Noland and Oliver Wakeman collaborations like "Hound Of The Baskervilles" and "Jabberwocky" - while the orchestral and jazz fusion instrumentals bring to mind the compositions of Ilildurs Bane, Jean Pascal Boffo, Halloween, Minimum Vital, Karda Estra, Frank Zappa, Carmen, Trans Siberian Orchestra, King Of Agogik, The Enid, Ankedoken, Mannheim Steamroller, Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Gong, Jade Warrior, Passport, as well as film-score composers Hans Zimmer, Phillip Glass, Bill Conti, Peter Rugolo, and Mark Isham, and the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
My hat is off to the band for the hard work and dedication that went into undertaking this mind-boggling three year endeavor - which must have been a logistical production nightmare to bring to fruition.
Everything about this album is epic - from the work that went into it's creation - to the music on the finished product. Quite impressive and highly recommended.
Reviewed by Joseph Singler on May 30th, 2012