Tony Cummings reports on the various artists CD 'CPR Vol 3' and spoke to the producers and some of the musicians involved.
When Anthony Longville reviewed the 2004 various artists album 'CPR 2' he began by summarising the stereotypes that many rock fans still indulge in when the phrase "progressive rock" comes up. Anthony wrote, "Progressive rock is a musical genre that is unfairly maligned. The associations with lead singers who wear dresses, weird concept albums, and keyboard players who have time to eat curry on stage during a particularly long guitar solo are just some of the reasons." In view of these prejudices it's heartening that another volume of impressive Christian progressive rock has now been released. The men behind 'CPR Vol 3' are musicians and record producers Randy George (of the highly regarded group Ajalon) and Gene Crout, whose band is America Gomorrah.
I asked Randy George for his definition of what constitutes a
progressive rock band. He responded, "This is certainly a much
discussed and debated subject. I think on one group we created a
prog-o-meter. But I think you have to decide what best represents prog
music to begin to make comparisons that begin to define a structure.
Since that is a subjective thing I don't know that you can pigeonhole
it as such. But I would usually tell people who ask me that question
that it's longer songs with a lot going on musically as well as
vocally. Songs that have a symphonic element to it. It's usually
keyboard driven for the most part and it generally has lyrics that are
deep and prolific and aggressive instrumentation. Particularly in the
bass guitar and drums. Songs can be anywhere from five minutes to 50
minutes. It's the musical equivalent of the Lord Of The Rings or The
Chronicles Of Narnia. Fans can go into the subject in more depth by
www.progarchives.com/Progressive-rock.asp#definition. As I said, it's a big topic."
'CPR Vol 3''s co-producer Gene Crout explained how the CPR albums evolved. "Back in 1999 Randy and I were the first two CPROG discussion group members to actually represent their own Christian prog bands on that list. PROG is an email discussion group started by a fellow named Bill Hammell with the stated purpose being 'the discussion of progressive rock from a Christian's perspective, and for discussing progressive music made by Christians.' When I released my album, 'Exchanging Truth For A Lie' with AG, Randy George, being the consummate networker, immediately contacted me and we have been friends and colleagues ever since. Bart Boge's 'Divine In Sight' quickly followed, but it remained just we three artists on CPROG until about the end of 2002. By mid 2003 there were suddenly several artists represented on CPROG and Mike Tenenbaum of the band Akacia suggested we start an offshoot group called CProg Advancement to foster unity between the artists and try to collectively find ways to promote our bands and our 'new' genre of Christian progressive rock, or CPR for short. (I put 'new' in quotes because obviously Kerry Livgren of Kansas and AD, who contributed to 'CPR Vol 1', had been doing it since the '80s and Phil Keaggy arguably longer than that.) Anyway we in CProgA began discussing ideas like collective magazine advertisements and such, but very quickly the idea turned to producing a compilation CD representing all our bands' music. Randy George, being the most 'connected' in the industry, and I having my own professional studio, Audio Digital, volunteered our services to produce the album. Thus CPR has been a shared project by Randy's Threshing Floor Records and my Righteous Sinner Records. Volume 1 was so well received that it led to Volume 2. I think Volume 3 is the best offering we have delivered so far."
Randy George added his voice. "The purpose of the CPR series is two-fold: to expand knowledge of progressive rock into the Christian community and to increase Christian themes within the prog rock community. Many people who grew up in the mainstream of progressive rock music during the '70s still have a desire for music that reflects an age when musicians were about music and creativity was colourful and abundant. Having said that, the CPR albums are collector's items with only 1000 pressed of each volume. This is mainly because each one is intended to attract people to the individual bands so they will buy their CDs."
So what does the Christian faith bring to progressive rock music? Said Gene, "I think the answer to that is really twofold. First, progressive rock has always been the playground of fantasy, new age philosophy and sometimes downright gibberish when it comes to lyrical content. That might have been fine during the early days in which the genre was born, the '60s and '70s. But I believe that eventually people get tired of meaningless drivel that just fills the space that the vocalist takes in the mix. I believe that in our troubled world people are looking for more meaning and purpose in their lives. They long for direction, meaning, substance both in the things that they do and in the music that they listen to. The Christian world view is an obvious way to bring that substance to the lyrics.
"The other side of that coin is that progressive rock is an equally obvious platform to support the depth of a Christian world view. We all know that Christian rock has had a long journey from the incredibly cheesy, poorly produced beginnings from whence it came. But today we are overwhelmed with the sickeningly sweet, homogenously produced, stereotypical Christian drivel poured out of Gnashville. Turn on your average Christian rock radio station and it's hard to tell if you are listening to different artists or one continuous day-long song. Most CCM sounds exactly the same. Like it was all produced by the same producer, in the same studio, with the same studio musicians, over and over and over again. Before anyone jumps to take my head off for that comment, I will definitely state that not everyone falls into that category. There are artists out today who break that mould consistently and with true artistry. But they are unfortunately the exception, not the rule. So progressive rock, with its focus on real musicianship and artistry, becomes the perfect vehicle for musicians to stay away from that Christian rock music machine. So it is not only what the Christian faith brings to progressive rock, but what progressive rock can bring to musicians of the Christian faith!"
'CPR Vol 3' has a fascinating selection of artists. Undoubtedly the most famous is guitar maestro Phil Keaggy. I asked Phil how he became involved in the project. "I've known Randy George for some time now and he asked me about doing a re-make of one of my old songs. That's when the idea of doing 'Passport' came up. He thought the song could have a fuller and more expandable expression lyrically and musically as well as bringing it into the new millennium for a new audience. 'Passport' seemed like a perfect song to try this out on. I wrote it in 1984 and probably rather quickly for my 'Getting Closer' LP (we still put out records in those days)! The new version just prog-rocks my world. I couldn't be happier. It has retained the youthfulness of the original song but with greater urgency and greater scope lyrically. When I imported Randy's tracks in my session, I also imported the original song so as to come close to the style of singing I did in those days, even to the details of the BGVs. I appreciate Randy's bass tone and keyboard work and the wonderful drumming provided by Dan Lile. I also like that the song is nearly eight minutes long - twice the length with greater dynamics. I used vintage gear like my Vox AC30, old Strat as well as my Zion guitar (which is becoming more vintage every year). I was also very pleased with Gene Crout's wonderful mix."
Another of the well known names on 'CPR Vol 3' is Ted Leonard, best known for fronting the band Enchant. As it turns out, the solo contribution by Ted, "The Name Of God", is a track which particularly caught Phil Keaggy's ear, along with Unitopia's Peter Gabriel-influenced "Lives Go Round". Unitopia come not from the USA but Australia. The band's Sean Timms, whose impressive credits are keyboards, acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, lap steel guitar, backing vocals, producer, songwriter and engineer, gave Cross Rhythms a potted biography of the band. "Unitopia began in 1996 when a mutual friend who ran a CD store introduced me to [guitarist and vocalist] Mark Trueack after realising we had similar musical tastes. We caught up over a meal and a few beers and discovered many similarities, not only in music, but in our sense of humour, our movie and TV tastes and our concern for the environment. As soon as I heard Mark sing, I knew that we had to start working together. A date was made for Mark to come over to my studio and immediately we began working on the track which was to become 'Take Good Care'. This [collaboration] formulated into a creative partnership that culminated in the completion of Unitopia's debut album 'More Than A Dream'. We would get together sporadically over the next few years, due to other commitments. That is why 'More Than A Dream' took eight years to complete!"
Since 'More Than A Dream', originally released in Australia in October 2005, Unitopia have gone on from strength to strength and now there is a new album, 'The Garden', receiving critical plaudits. About the band's spiritual direction Sean explained, "Unitopia are not a 'Christian progressive rock band' per se, but my Christian faith tends to work itself into the lyrics in a subtle way. We are all very positive people and this reflects in our music and our attitude to the genre. I would say that the most distinctive quality that my faith brings to our music is hope coming from despair. Things are not always as bad as they might seem. This attitude of redemption and salvation is something that is, of course, peculiar to the Christian faith. Christian faith brings positivity to our style. It lets the listener know that there is a future, that there is a better way, that all things do work together for good to those that love him. This is not only reflected in the lyrics, but also the musicianship. A high standard of musicianship was a requirement for prophets and the priesthood in the Old Testament. We hope to bring that high quality of musicianship into a New Testament setting."
'CPR Vol 3' has a bit of an international flavour. As well as Australia's Unitopia, the album contains the intriguing track "Solution" by Apple Pie who, despite what their name might suggest, hail from Russia. The band's manager, Mike Lanin, told Cross Rhythms about the band's history. "Apple Pie were founded in Autumn 2000 in Kursk, Russia by Vartan Mkhitaryan. We've had a few line-up changes during the years. Today Apple Pie are Vartan Mkhitaryan on vocals, guitars and keyboards, Max Zhdanov (Bigg Maxx) on bass and vocals, and Andrey Golodukhin on drums. Vartan is Armenian, and Max and Andrey are Russians."
Mike admitted that the audience for progressive rock is not large in Russia. "There are not a lot of concerts. The biggest thing we have is an annual progressive rock festival. But progressive rock music means wide thinking, it's opening a huge world. And religion and belief are huge and global too. Therefore progressive rock, in our opinion, is a great vehicle for bringing out Christian themes more powerfully than any other style of music."
With the success of the first three CPR volumes, 'CPR Volume 4' is now on the blocks. Said Randy George, "We are actively seeking participants for 'CPR Vol 4'. We have a half dozen bands lined up so far. We feel that as long as CPR is growing legs we want to help it walk and eventually run as far as possible. The Christian music world, or at least the Nashville part of it, is pretty blind to what we do cause it really doesn't fit into the very small box they have created for it. So we are free to do what we want in this. God certainly has blessed our efforts and has opened the door for a continuation at this point. So as long as there are musicians that play this music we will certainly showcase what they do."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.