THE PROG COLLECTIVE – Songs We Were Taught

Although often billed as the world’s biggest prog rock supergroup, The Prog Collective is actually more of a revolving gang of musicians. Working with an incredibly fluid line up, it’s merely an umbrella name that allows multi-instrumentalist Billy Sherwood to call on various friends according to their appropriate talents. If this sounds like a similar set up to one of Sherwood’s many tribute albums, it’s with very good reason. The Prog Collective’s main difference – at least on their first two albums – came from the idea that the gathering of talent would record original material. It’s also clear that Sherwood believed, perhaps correctly, that the mystique of a “prog supergroup” would attract more listeners than one of his many solo projects.

Things changed a little with the third Prog Collective release, ‘Worlds On Hold’ when a selection of cover tunes was brought to the table to pad things out. Nevertheless, as with some of Sherwood’s tribute albums, a certain amount of entertainment could be guaranteed from the musical pairings themselves. For example, listeners could experience collaborations between Rainbow’s Joe Lynn Turner & Tull legend Martin Barre, or Graham Bonnet & ex-Dream Theater/Black Country Communion man Derek Sherinian – which, for better or worse, gave some idea of how wide Sherwood’s circle of friends could be.

The Prog Collective’s fourth release ‘Songs We Were Taught’ picks up where its predecessor left off and presents a set of covers that pull together a whole range of famous – and not so famous – names, most of whom survive the experience with a great amount of dignity.

Among the album’s strongest cuts, a version of the Al Stewart classic ‘Year of The Cat’ helmed by Sherwood and E Sreeet Band man David Sancious gives a slightly busier take on the familiar tune. The vocals aren’t as smooth as Stewart’s own, and musically it isn’t quite as rich, but the addition of a backing vocal arrangement that’s unmistakably from the school of World Trade and a busy jazz-prog keyboard filling space provides enough variation to make it worthwhile. The World Trade-isms appear to grow as the performance gains traction – and this is certainly no bad thing – and lovers of Sherwood’s filtered and smooth vocal presence will certainly find lots to love. A little more left field, ex-Guns N’ Roses guitarist Bumblefoot takes charge of Caravan’s ‘In The Land of Grey & Pink’ which, at first, feels as if it’ll be rockier than the original take, but Bumblefoot and assorted backing musicians soon settle into a very familiar melody. Mr. Bumble doesn’t do much to make the main hooks and melodies his own, but the arrival of a particularly smart guitar solo injects a few Vai-esque flourishes and showcases some of his finest fretboard mangling techniques, taking everything suitably far from Caravan’s 70s vision. Despite moments where he could be in danger of taking things a little too far into showboating, the core of the track is very strong, clinging on to the kind of hazy, prog-fuelled and soft drugs atmosphere that makes the original cut so appealing.

No stranger to Sherwood’s all star gatherings, Curved Air legend Sonja Kristina steps in for a vocal on a recording of James Taylor’s ‘Fire & Rain’. It’s genuinely horrible. Her voice suffers from the ravages of age, ans she warbles through the melody like a half-focused septuagenarian at karaoke, augmented by the kind of squirling keyboard sound that Tony Banks used in the middle of the Genesis track ‘The Lady Lies’. Given how subtle and reflective Taylor’s track is, it seems almost sacrilegious to subject it to such wanton ugliness. A few tasteful acoustic lines from Martin Barre bravely try to save face, but it’s not enough. This is very much the kind of cover tune you’ll listen to once, wish you’d never been made aware of it and then quickly move on. Carole King’s timeless ‘It’s Too Late’ might have suffered a similar fate in the hands of Candace Night and Dweezil Zappa (yes, really), but thanks to the Blackmore’s Night singer still retaining something of a voice, it works on its own merits. Night’s floating vocal is quintessentially English, and set against a wall of shimmering guitars, it actually sounds better than her work with husband Blackmore. A lot of liberties are taken with the music along the way but, thankfully, the changes seem interesting, rather than indulgent. King’s 70s smoothness is replaced by a busy jazz-prog rhythm, which works the assembled band hard without ever sounding too grandiose, and Zappa’s featured solo – a mix of 80s rock, 70s prog and odd jazzy inflections – is very distinctive. Distinctive enough for him to warrant two lead breaks in a track that previously never lent itself to big solos, and as you might well expect, his playing is absolutely staggering. The juxtaposition of Night’s easy charm and Zappa’s flashiness is exactly what these kind of collaborations should throw up more often; it’s so much more interesting than the “Sherwood Boys Club” going about business as usual…

You might think you never need to hear ‘House of The Rising Sun’ again. Great as it is, it’s been done to death, but somehow, the legendary Steve Hillage brings something new to the familiar melody with his unique approach. Right from the intro, where Steve throws out clean toned, prog-ish new age guitar sounds to weave a slow melody, it’s obvious things aren’t necessarily going to take the tried and tested route and even though David Clayton-Thomas (of Blood Sweat & Tears fame) adds a vocal melody that sticks firmly to the familiar, Hillage does his best to continue along a wandering musical path. By the mid point, the rhythms have shifted from the new age to the dance-oriented in tribute to Steve’s work with System 7, and a subsequent solo really brings out the best in his much-loved glissando guitar. The two styles are constantly playing against each other and, as such, it really shouldn’t work, but it’s testament to Sherwood’s vision and Hillage’s talent that it actually does. The unimaginative vocals are the weak link, but even so, it needs that recognisable melodic hook to hang upon. Love it or hate it, its a brave stab at doing something different with something quite tired.

After Disturbed’s (overrated) cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ became a hit in 2016, the song became rather over-exposed, but that doesn’t stop it sounding rather nice in the hands of Yes-men Jon Davison and Geoff Downes. As you’d probably expect, by holding onto the original melody and adding a high tenor vocal, it sounds like something from the Yes canon (circa ‘Heaven & Earth’) and while this doesn’t challenge the listener in any way, it’s further evidence of Davison’s natural style as a singer, and of Paul Simon’s timeless melody. It’ll be something that the more open minded Yes fan will love, whilst Rod Argent and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s treatment of The Band’s ‘The Weight’ is a little more interesting. It isn’t necessarily a classic – it certainly isn’t a patch on the original, or The Badloves’ recording from 1993 – but somewhere between its phasered vocal moments, keyboards that sound like childrens’ TV theme tunes from 1986 and a slightly rootsy vocal, there’s the heart of something timeless. It shows how you can’t keep a good song down. The same goes for ‘Summer Breeze’, as reinterpreted by The Flower Kings’ Roine Stolt and Deep Purple man Steve Morse. Between them, the guitarists add a world of floaty notes over a filtered vocal from Sherwood, before Stolt steps up to the mic and takes everything off into the realms of a Flower Kings interlude. The main riff sounds great when played back in a really effected way by Morse, and Stolt’s approach to the melody shows more restraint than his own material, but taking everything into consideration, it’s a lovely cover.

‘Wild World’ – a hit for Cat Stevens, subsequently covered by Maxi Priest and Mr. Big – is a superb vehicle for Rosalie Cunningham’s deeper, chocolatey vocal tones, and the way she applies a deep croon to a melody that’s been dressed in a very 70s outfit results in something nearly perfect. Her vocals take centre stage throughout, but closer listening reveals some great keyboard flourishes from ex-Yes man Patrick Moraz, who plays a solid riff that falls somewhere between a descending melody created from 70s prog remnants and something vaguely Celtic, as if borrowed from The Adventures’ ‘Sea of Love’ LP. ‘Songs We Were Taught’ isn’t short on enjoyable material, but this track is the one that’ll likely make it a keeper. In closing, Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A Changin’ stands up well against a floaty keyboard, some terrific soaring guitar work and another light Celtic melody. With contributions from Wishbone Ash man Martin Turner and Jerry Goodman (The Flock), it has a pleasingly “classic rock” root, but Sherwood’s prog-ish flourishes are just as welcome in showing how a great piece of song writing can stand up to being re-moulded.

For what this album represents, it’s often enjoyable. Never essential, and certainly not groundbreaking – even for Sherwood – but enjoyable, all the same. Whether a bunch of largely predictable 60s and 70s covers from (often) ageing rock stars is what the more discerning prog fan would want from something as grandly billed as “The Prog Collective”, on the other hand, is debatable. It’s the listeners who are happy to hear some of their heroes cutting loose on familiar material without holding high expectations who’ll have the most to gain here. And for those listeners, some enjoyment will be guaranteed.

June 2022