CD Reviews

HORSEFEATHERS: Symphony for a Million Mice

There were a lot of us back then, the ones who forked over the big bucks for AR speakers, Marantz amplifiers, and turntables that ensured that every sawtooth wave produced by those Moog synthesizers came through as clearly as they had been in the sacrosanct studios of the major recording labels.

And after converting bedrooms, spare rooms, basements, and garages into “listening dens,” these devotees bought the LPs of Yes; Gentle Giant; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; King Crimson; Fripp; and Eno. They shelled out more for the imports from Kraan and Kraftwerk.

There were those of us who spent hours listening to our records and almost as long cleaning them with the super-microfiber record dusters and making sure to handle the vinyl gems only by their edges. We probably spent more time arguing over whether Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson was the better musician or whether Led Zeppelin could be classified as progressive rock. (Sure, they produced one of the greatest prog (progressive) rock songs of all time, “Kashmir,” but what prog rock band lowers themselves to making something so plebian as the song “Rock ‘n’ Roll”?) And should you classify Zappa as prog rock? Was he jazz fusion? Or was Zappa just Zappa?

But as life went on and we grew up to have families and get jobs writing code, the listening dens went back to being bedrooms or garages, and the crates of albums wound up in the basement or earned us a few bucks at the used record stores. We still enjoyed music, but a lot of what wound up in our CD players were bands like REM or Crowded House. Very neat music, but certainly nothing like the ethereal otherworldliness of the Mahvishnu Orchestra.

In the transition there was a lot of reevaluation and some navel gazing over our previous record purchases. It became a common narrative that our enjoyment of prog was some embarrassing childish indulgence. And over the last several years critics, musicians, and a lot of other folks have jumped on the Prog-Rock-Was-Crap campaign. In September of 2017 in The Atlantic’s James Parker described prog rock as obtuse, crushing, and unbearable (Prog Rock is the Whitest Music Ever). Early on, Radiohead publicly disdained and disavowed their prog rock roots. “All of us HATE progressive rock,” they were heard to say.

Admittedly, some of this criticism is deserved. For some bands ambition devolved quickly into pretension. A lot of prog rockers started to believe that their abstract lyrics and almost functional Mellotrons were going to change music for the better and forever. One of the hallmarks of the genre, changes in time signatures and abrupt changes of motifs and riffs, rather than being enlightening could merely be disjointed. There could be little emotional appeal to a tune that goes from 11/8 to 5/4 then back again, all at the prog rock speed of 268 beats per minute. Worst of all, fans could be the most obnoxious prigs to ever exist on any planet. “What? You say you don’t like this music? Well, it just shows that you don’t understand it,” they could sneer over their LPs of Hawkwind and Mahogany Rush.

Those who are quick to attack prog sidestep the reality that all musical genres can have their instances of overindulgence, self-importance, and snobbery. Take Berlioz—is his Symphonie Fantastique really all that fantastic? Wagner’s Ring Cycle takes three days to perform. Is that really necessary? And jazz snobs are insufferable.

And, really, everybody loves some prog. The most played song in British jukeboxes and the most requested song ever in Britain? Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” a prog rock song if ever there ever was one. And your girlfriend who wouldn’t let you play Utopia went crazy when you played the Moody Blues Days of Future Past. Even one of the most hyper-indulgent of the prog rock bands, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, created swooning ballads that even your parents liked.

All that being said, the San Diego prog rock band Horsefeathers played a fair amount around town during the 1970s. Though they received a generous amount of acclaim, they never committed themselves to vinyl, or CD for that matter. After over 40 years, this musical discrepancy has been corrected with the release, earlier this year, of Symphony for a Million Mice, a CD that contains an enormous amount of music. The final selection on the disk is an In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida-esque 19-plus minutes long.

The band has a lot of talent. Lead singer Mick Garris has a great voice, and the vocal harmonies of the band are spot on. The rest of the musicianship, particularly the guitar work of Mark Wittenberg is tops. The recordings are over 40 years old, but, somehow, and quite possibly through the intervention of Saint Cecilia, the Patron Saint of Music (and by extension, the Patron Saint of Recording Studios), the engineering and mastering the CD is totally pro. And no matter—whether I played the disk on my big-speaker stereo or my rinky-dink CD player with its 4½-inch speaker in my kitchen—everything in the recording came across, a real achievement of mastering, which was done by (former Troubadour columnist) Paul Abbott of San Diego’s ZenMastering.

“Another Winter” sounds as though it could have been lifted from any Alan Parsons Project album. “Midnight Grin” reminds us that the rockers of the sixties and seventies loved to throw themselves into swing, jug band music, and other sounds from 30 or 40 years earlier.

Those who are familiar with dulcimerist, percussionist, and general musician Andy Robinson, who played drums in Horsefeathers, know that a great sense of fun imbues his music. So, it is no surprise that Robinson found a cohort of musicians 40 years ago similar to himself. If there is anything that makes this recording stand out it is that: a great sense of playfulness and fun.

So, if anyone, anytime begins to deride prog rock and starts to tell you that the genre is overly male and overly adolescent; if someone tries to troll you when you post a video of Dixie Dregs on Facebook; if anyone makes fun of you for clinging to your cutouts of Grobschnitt and Focus; if you hear “turn that down!” when you put In the Wake of Poseidon on the platter, you can simply tell all these people, “Horsefeathers!”

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