Even these days, the term “prog” is likely to elicit at least as many groans as perked eyebrows. But, since its heyday in the 1970s, progressive rock has maintained its own little subculture. If it weren’t for old Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer bootlegs, record conventions probably wouldn’t exist. And, let’s face it, it’s a certain type of crowd that you’re speaking to when, in your press release, you view the fact that one band member also “performed in a Rush tribute band called Power Windows” as a talking point.
As easy as it is to poke fun at prog rock (who can forget This is Spinal Tap‘s Stonehenge scene?), it has made a real impact on today’s musical landscape: If you’re going to do away with Tales of Topographic Oceans, you’ll have to live without The Soft Bulletin, too. But is this enough to warrant the return of Happy the Man, prog lesser-knowns who released two albums on Arista in the late 1970s? For most people outside the band’s cult following, no.
For one thing, Happy the Man’s music is almost entirely instrumental. Imagine the rhythmic and chordal whirlwind of Rush or Yes without Geddy Lee’s or Jon Anderson’s distinctive belting. Relief, you say? Wrong you are. Without vocals, Happy the Man sounds too much like a bunch of talented musicians trying to impress one another by all soloing at the same time. Of course, songs like “Contemporary Insanity” and “Stepping Through Time” are actually highly orchestrated and carefully constructed. It’s just that, unless you have a PhD in music theory, you’re not going to be able to follow them—or enjoy them.
The Muse Awakens does settle down as it goes on, offering some more atmospheric tracks like “Maui Sunset”, which does a good job at painting a musical picture of its title, and the ambient “Adrift”, Kenny G-style sax solo notwithstanding. “Barking Spiders” is fun, a playful, squawking electric guitar riff giving your ears something to hold onto. And the sole vocal track, “Shadowlites”, gives a sense of what The Muse Awakens could have been. The difference is not so much Stanley Whitaker’s voice or generically soul-searching lyrics. It’s the fact that the verse-chorus arrangement actually gives the song some structure, and the brooding guitar figure adds a depth that the rest of the album doesn’t attain.
In addition to Whitaker, original multi-instrumentalist Frank Wyatt and bassist Rick Kennell are joined by a couple newer recruits. The production features a few modern touches: the more resonant, contemporary drum sound, crisp recording, and occasional digital synthesizer washes. Overall, though, The Muse Awakens sounds like it was recorded in a time warp, complete with analog synthesizers that seem to be permanently set on Silly.
Based on a quick scan of message board postings, the small company of devoted Happy the Man fans are thrilled at the reunion. For anyone else who wants a dose of prog nostalgia . . . well, there’s always that Rush tribute band.