Roger Powell,
Fossil Poets
(Inner Knot, 2006)

Having spent a virtually complete career in the progressive rock scene, keyboardist Roger Powell has returned to the show with a mind- and genre-blowing solo release. On Fossil Poets, Powell teams up with veteran guitar player and technician Greg Koch and multi-WAMI Award-winning producer, engineer and musician Gary Tanin to create some of the freshest electronica of the 21st century. It is difficult to even call this album electronica; it is difficult to call it merely rock. It stands on some frontier as something akin to acid new-age fusion, though perhaps it suffices to say it's not easily pigeon-holed at all. All of which makes complete sense because sometimes the most innovative albums transcend and traverse multiple genre classifications.

Powell puts to use a wide variety of instruments and fancy gadgets on this project. The list includes some of the following: synthesizers, guitars, mandolin, accordion, flugelhorn, organ, piano, tin whistle and Native American flute. Meanwhile, Koch played numerous guitars, played bass and assisted with effects and composition; and Tanin (who co-produced the album) helped with arrangements and composition in addition to some synthesizer work and the more technical jobs of recording, mixing and mastering the disc. What they created is an album of high-tech intricacies and delicacies that begs to be played on a great speaker system or, at the very least, some quality headphones.

Each track is packed with Moogs and Korgs, and all of them (save two pieces of piano solos) are high-powered with catchy rhythms. You could hear it playing on the radio on the lower and higher ends of the dial. Or you could hear it being spun by disc jockeys across the country in a variety of dance halls. You could drive with it through mountain passes packed with snow or listen to it on headphones while navigating the subway amidst hordes of people. I doubt you could read to it, but it could definitely be great background music in any lounge or living room, and the disc certainly offers a nice soundtrack to creative moments.

Though, all this depends on how loudly you play it. It contains quite a few liquid, chill-out jazzy rock tracks. Take, for example, "Osmosis" and "Test Drive," which are certainly the loungier songs on this album. I could easily play them side by side with any number of Thievery Corporation tracks. However, if you wish to coax on your tinnitus, turning up the volume will not only make your ears ring a bit more, but you'll find the high-power grooves to be mind candy. This is evident right away in the opening track, "Lone Gunman," whose synthesizers will immediately let you know that, for the next 50 minutes, you're in for quite a trip.

There are elements of Moby in songs like "Creme Fraiche," which you would expect to hear on his album Play. Don't be surprised, either, if you encounter some moments of sentimental Pink Floyd. The Moogs and other synth work on "Underwater City" and "Serpentine" are vaguely reminiscent of elements of Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall; though, I imagine it was only with the help of 35 extra years of technological innovation that Powell and his cohorts have accomplished to stretch sound that much further than Floyd did.

On first listen, I was vaguely aware of, and distracted by, an occasional distinct whining of an electric guitar. Whereas these Fender Stratacasters (specially designed by the Fender Musical Instruments clinician, Koch, himself) are forefront on virtually every track, the voices they make in a few tracks were cause for alarm. They were getting too close to sounding like that ubiquitous, easy-listening, new age guitar, indulging itself in an ivory-tower, smooth solo while the rest of the accompaniment fades into a light inoffensive drone. These were the couple of times I wished I was within reach of the "skip track" button. Upon further listens, though, these moments didn't pronounce themselves so pompously, and, instead, I found the tracks themselves to be quite seamless. What I heard was one cohesive album packed with a variety of agreeable ideas.

The one outstanding exception -- and this isn't a bad thing -- is the track "Peaceful Uprising." Almost momentarily jarring, it feels like a different CD found its way into the player, as if I'd stumbled across a Mos Eisely/Putumayo collection. Its Middle Eastern groove, accentuated with tabla (or synthesized tabla, at least -- for none are mentioned in the liner notes) serves as an oasis of sorts with its refrain using the arresting courtois flugelhorn. Despite all the high-tech hijinx and synthy goodness present on this album, the flugelhorn has to be the most poignant instrument therein. Something in its vibratory nature brings to mind the singular duduk-playing of Djivan Gasparyan. The haunting flugelhorn appears again in the somewhat ridiculously titled "Zentegrity." (Can we get over this whole zen thing already and not come up with pretentious titles? If a mandolin falls in the studio and it isn't being recorded, does it make a sound?) Despite the title, "Zentegrity" is just one track on the album you'll wish to revisit again and again.

Unfortunately, Fossil Poets ends on a relatively mellow note with the album's second short piano solo, "Astrae." Though it is a sweet and simple song, it would have been more appropriate to end the album with something closer to a bang, as opposed to a whimper. Though, lucky for us, the good people at Sony or Magnavox or JVC (or whomever it was that manufactured your CD player) equipped it with a repeat button. Or if you don't have one for some reason, you can always just hit play again, which is probably what you'll want to do anyway so you can enjoy the best poetry around, that is, the best poetry without any words.

by Kevin Shlosberg
12 May 2007

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