Now that we are in the new year, I am compelled to catch up with some reviews and activities that unjustly fell off the plate during a very busy period leading up to 2017, right when my new book was released. To begin, one of the best new albums I heard last year was the excellent second release from prog rock band Circuline, titled Counterpoint.
Circuline was founded three years ago and released Return in 2015. That debut garnered positive reviews and the group moved forward to produce this spectacular follow up. Counterpoint features Andrew Colyer (keyboards, sound design, vocals), Darin Brannon (drums, percussion, keyboards), Natalie Brown (lead vocals), William “Billy” Spillane (lead vocals, rhythm guitars), Paul Ranieri (basses) and new guitarist Beledo. What’s really unique about the sophomore outing is that there are no less than seven guest guitarists contributing to the album, including Randy McStine (The Fringe, Lo-Fi Resistance) who also contributed lyrics and vocal melodies, Doug Ott (Enchant), Alek Darson (Fright Pig), Ryche Chlanda (Fireballet, Renaissance), Alan Shikoh (Glass Hammer), Matt Dorsey (Sound of Contact, Dave Kerzner) and Stanley Whitaker (Happy the Man, Oblivion Sun).
Occasionally I find modern prog music a bit wearing as so many new bands employ the ‘wall of sound’ approach that grates as the years go by. Yet on Counterpoint while there is epic prog intensity it is all balanced out with a deft use of dynamics. There is a separation in the field of sound, lots of space for us to hear bass or drum led passages, and meaningful lyrics delivered by beautiful vocal leads and multi-part harmonies; the warm vibrato of Brown/Spillane shines throughout. Critically, Colyer’s default keys are played on real grand piano (courtesy of Yamaha) layered with warm synth patches atop Brannon’s well-tuned toms. It’s not by accident that the music is so listenable – Brannon/Colyer write most of it and you can hear the result of how much thought and effort they put into their choices. It leads to a set list that is melodic and rhythmic in the way that a focused pairing of keys and percussion can achieve. Yet expert frets abound both at the low and high end – there is ample room for Ranieri/Beledo along with everyone that contributes.
Highlights abound across these ten songs – lush harmonies on “Who I Am,” Colyer’s gorgeous piano intro leading into long form suite “Hollow,” Darson’s searing guitar solo during “Forbidden Planet.” “Erosion” builds tension before “Nautilus” kicks in with more major tones, and great solos on frets and keys. “Stay (Peter Frankenstan)” is a favorite of the set – jazz-infused chord progressions, rumbling toms, impactful lyrics, and a smooth, winding lead from ace-guitarist Whitaker – a cycle of vocal harmonies to finish it off. “Inception” and “Summit” finish the set in a way that will please fans of prog and all-round creative music. The latter opens with a slow build and jazzy riff that pins down each verse, the chorus is set to dramatic phrasing as the band comes together, building on the themes rather than overwhelming them. The instrumental conclusion includes a section with intricate grand piano atop more tuned toms, building a theme that grows in intensity before easing it all back down to end the album. Lyrics reflect the ascent:
I left my life there And laid my soul bare Scaling the summit for truth
The song is a powerful coda to this excellent album – if you missed it, now is a good time to remedy that and add it to your playlist.
While working on my upcoming book on rock concerts and films of the 1970’s, I’m thinking about how to organize the chapters. A recent idea is to break down the list of bands into categories, like “Rock Gods,” “Entertainers,” “Shaman,” and a few others. I left a chapter open for Happy The Man, and am thinking that of all the types of bands we loved in that decade, they belong most firmly in the category of “Virtuosos.” I discovered Happy The Man quite by accident, as an epic composition from their debut album “Mr. Mirror’s Reflections On Dreams” was played on a local radio station in San Luis Obispo just before a feature on the band Camel. My college roommates and I had just become fans of Camel, and planned a trip to the Roxy theater in Los Angeles to see them for the first time supporting the album Breathless (1978). Little did we know we would not be hearing their amazingly talented keyboardist Pete Bardens at that show, as he sadly left the band prior to the tour. Even more surprising was when Camel’s follow-up I Can See Your House From Here (1979) included compositions and keyboards from Happy The Man alumni, Kit Watkins, the “slow-hand” of the bending synth lead (yes, that’s a Clapton reference!). With all this kismet, my friends and I became avid fans of these guys and their brand of complex polyrhythmic progressive rock.
What we soon learned is that Happy The Man was the most ambitious American progressive rock band on record. Founded by guitarist Stanley Whitaker and bassist Rick Kennell in the early 70s, the band worked in studio and on stage for five years, eventually gelling as an ensemble by the mid 70s with Kit Watkins (keyboards, flute), Frank Wyatt (vocals, keyboards, saxophone, flute) and drummer Mike Beck. This lineup was signed to the Arista label after they arranged a showcase in New York to see the band – including label president Clive Davis – in the summer of 1976. At that point, the group went into the studio to record their first self-titled album Happy The Man, released in August 1977.
The band was enamored with the engineering and production on Birds of Fire (1973) by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and when Arista asked them to submit a three producer “wish list” it read: 1. Ken Scott, 2. Ken Scott, and 3. Ken Scott. Ken was known for work with artists such as Jeff Beck, Supertramp, Elton John, David Bowie and the Beatles. In a mix-up that benefited the band, their demos were sent to the west coast Arista office in the east-to-west coast “pouch.” Ken went over to Arista expecting to pick up another project he was considering, but the HTM Demos were handed to him instead. He loved the band and came to Washington D.C. for a showcase at the Cellar Door a week or two later. As he already had time on hold at A&M Studios for another project, everything came together very quickly. The result is a debut album that is striking in its beauty and complexity – bridging jazz, classic and symphonic rock to produce a unique sonic experience. It’s been justly hailed by critics over the years, most recently making the top 50 list of “The Greatest Progressive Rock Albums of all Time” at Rolling Stone magazine. The band toured around the east coast of the U.S. with their largest show supporting Hot Tuna for more than 10,000 festival goers in Long Island, New York.
Their second album Crafty Hands (1978) was similarly enthralling and featured new drummer Ron Riddle. It kicks off with the vaguely sinister “Service With A Smile,” and features arguably the best concise introduction to the band. Ron was an early original member of The Cars and this tune was written in tandem with their keyboard player Greg Hawkes. Another standout track “I Forgot To Push It,” features staccato interplay, hand claps, and an enticing example of smoking-hot dual leads on guitar and synth. Bassist Rick Kennell recalls, “The name came when the band was attempting to record an early demo of the song, and when the playing ended, Kit proclaimed I forgot to push it! meaning he did not push the record button. It went on to become a tongue-in-cheek rallying cry for the band when Arista couldn’t really figure out how to market, promote or push the band.”
It’s tragic and short sighted that Arista declined to release and distribute their 3rd effort, which was recorded with the fantastic French drummer Coco Roussel, leading to their breakup. The group never had the label’s support to tour west of the Mississippi; much less the U.K. and Europe. Kennell added, “In 1979, with the advent of the disco and punk movements, and bands like Talking Heads becoming popular, the suits at Arista had a three martini lunch – and decided to drop every progressive act on the label – including our band, Phil Collin’s Brand X, Aldo Nova and Stomu Yamashta’s Go.”
Listening through their entire catalog, which was augmented in the 1980’s with releases of their earlier work, their 3rd effort, and a live concert recording, it’s hard to describe the emotional impact this band’s adventurous music can have on attentive listeners. Passages of dreamy atmospheric beauty mix with challenging, assertive, serpentine adventures. For the uninitiated, take a listen to the opener on their debut “Starborne,” which invokes a sonic trip to the stars. Brace yourself then for the amazing interlocking leads on “Stumpy Meets The Firecracker in Stencil Forest.”
Now try to compare these sounds to any band you’ve ever heard – very difficult indeed. I’ve heard a few tracks from the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa that could be referenced, but this band was clearly onto something utterly unique and exceptional. The interplay between Watkin’s keys, Whitaker’s guitars, and Wyatt’s keys and winds backed by Kennell’s exquisite bass leads and Beck/Riddle’s percussion – demonstrate a level of musical competence that places this rare band above most of their contemporaries.
The group reunited in the year 2000 with new keyboardist David Rosenthal replacing Kit Watkins for a show at Nearfest followed later by release of The Muse Awakens (2004). Though this was a very worthy new start for the band, no additional work has been released since under this original moniker. However band members are always busy, working together on albums under the names Oblivion Sun and Pedal Giant Animals. Stan Whitaker also lent his chops to the short-lived ensemble Ten Jinn. Anyone captured by their work would be well served by picking up any of these more recent albums.
Also notable is the long solo career of keyboard and winds player Kit Watkins. After working with Camel, his solo recordings ranged from songs that invoke the allegro jams of his former band, to lighter jazz-influenced collections like the fabulous album In Time, on which he worked again with drummer Coco Roussel. In addition, Kit has recorded and released more than two-dozen peaceful, ambient albums and occasionally darker works beginning with Azure (1989). Hard to pick favorites from so many wonderful albums, but interested listeners might start with Sunstruck (1990) and Beauty Drifting (1996). Check for these recordings on CD Baby.
Though Happy The Man eventually released an exciting, at times sonically startling live album on CD, Live (1978), and performed more than four-dozen concerts during the 70s in New England, there is almost no known film of the band playing in concert. Dedicated fans can access a short documentary from the 1970s and two songs performed live at their Nearfest reunion show here.
In addition, Kit can be seen playing live on the film The Gathering (2005) in his most contemplative mode, ala Beauty Drifting, performing solo works during a rare one-man concert. All of these releases are recommended for any fan or interested collector.