THE PROG COLLECTIVE – Seeking Peace

Formed in 2012, The Prog Collective purports to be the world’s biggest prog rock supergroup. The idea of “supergroup” suggests musicians taking a permanent role; for this band, the reality is somewhat different. Yes, there are a lot of different musicians involved, but many of the famous faces signed up for the Collective only ever play on one or two tracks each. In that respect, as has previously been pointed out, this is just another vehicle for the multi-talented Billy Sherwood to present material that doesn’t necessarily fit his day job as Yes bassist/arranger. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course – the likelihood of Steve Hillage, Richard Page and Dweezil Zappa ever being invited to a Yes recording session is less than zero, so Sherwood’s extra-curricular project is more than valid.

As you’d expect, such a varied selection of musicians can lead to a varied output. Not all of the Collective’s musical combinations or ideas work flawlessly, but there are always great moments to be found on their albums; even ‘Songs We Were Taught’, the fairly safe covers album from 2022, has its own charm. This quickly released follow up – released digitally just five months later, and making its physical debut in January 2023 – is a typically mixed bag, but as always, when the material works, it works brilliantly.

It doesn’t get off to the best start, however. ‘Electric World’, featuring Jordan Rudess and Chester Thompson, is little more than an empty, clanking tune that sounds like the bones of a World Trade demo. Nothing about the music flows; in terms of presenting the mechanical, there’s nothing too interesting here either. A mid tempo four-four groove presents itself behind vocals that either sound like a cheap knock off of the Yes classic ‘Leave It’, or sourced from an old Buggles demo. This becomes a little irritating in record time. It’s almost impossible to care what the lyrics actually are. Everything seems like Sherwood on autopilot, and as for the special guests, neither are put to good use. Rudess throws in a couple of tuneless solos that sound as if a cat has strode across his instrument in a directionless manner, and Thompson – a gifted jazz rock drummer – thuds away with no flair or finesse. The drum part could have just as easily been programmed, or played by Mick Pointer. It’s almost astounding when you realise that this track is little more than three and a half minutes long; it honestly feels like it goes on forever. This could be the worst Prog Collective track ever. This album certainly didn’t need a second, five minute “full length” version appended to its main body of work…

Moving on rather swiftly, thankfully, the material takes a (mostly) upwards turn from herein. The title track opens with a melody that’s easily recognisable as another of Sherwood’s when floating guitar lines soar against a punchy bass. Moving further into the melody, various filtered vocals and 80s mechanics draw a heavy influence from the World Trade debut and the sharper edges of the underrated Yes LP ‘Talk’. None of this will be remotely surprising or new for even the more casual Sherwood follower, but it retains an ethereal magic that sounds lovely. With various filtered vocals and a strong AOR melody weaving in and out of the steady funk-prog groove, it plays very much like a musical comfort blanket; even the presence of Dream Theater’s James Labrie on guest vocal fails to spoil the superb music, when Jimmy offers a rather untypical melodic performance. His voice is pleasingly low-key, clearly understanding that a mirroring of Sherwood’s other worldly sound is what’s required here. Ex-Yes man Patrick Moraz also adds a sterling performance on keys, moving effortlessly from bell-like melodic flourishes to a full scale jazz fusion solo or two. His lead work sounds more in keeping with a David Sanborn or Brecker Brothers record than the expected Yes-isms, but it’s all rather tasteful, and quite lovely in its own way. One of the Collective’s near-perfect tracks, this alone very much makes the album worth picking up.

Venturing deeper into prog territory, ‘In An Instant’ conveys even more of a latter day Yes mood (circa 2003) with its obvious nods to Chris Squire within the bass work and a rhythmic melody that’s kept buoyant via some really bright keys. Those who’ve continued to follow Yes, through good and bad, will certainly get a kick from the way the vocals weave in and out of each other, and from how – somewhere around the mid point – Sherwood’s bass adopts an even more strident tone between a whole world of squirly keys. What this isn’t is an easily recognisable song, and as for the featured guest, he’s barely present until three minutes in. When you’ve called upon such a distinctive talent as guitarist Steve Stevens, this is a mistake. Nevertheless, Stevens fills his allotted slot with a quirky lead break that draws equally from rock, jazz and prog, dropping the kind of solo you could also have expected Dweezil Zappa to bring to the table, and this provides a very welcome, very dramatic shift from the album’s more pedestrian and predictable elements. Placed in tandem with a slightly disjointed, Roine Stolt-esque vocal part, it gives the album the kind of workout that’ll certainly become a favourite over time.

Making his return to the Collective, David Sancious is joined by the brilliant Steve Morse on ‘Finally Over’, a finely crafted AOR tune that allows the listener time for reflection. The smooth pop/rock melody at the number’s core suits Sherwood’s vocal style, and also allows him to drop in a couple of World Trade influenced moments without taking the tune too far off course. David’s keys supply a brilliant contrast with the poppier moments here when he drops in some very 70s, very proggy fills – guaranteed to please fans of Curved Air and the like – but he often takes a back seat to Morse, whose guitar work is just lovely. Choosing a bluesy tone for his more audible melodies, the ex-Deep Purple man drops in a few exquisitely played runs, bringing more of a classic rock edge to the piece, but always in a way that seems mindful that he’s merely one of many great players on the recording. It’s not quite on a par with the Labrie track – and, again, regarding James, who’d ever have thought that the king of the tuneless wailers would supply the true highlight on a record such as this? – but it certainly goes a long way to making ‘Seeking Peace’ a genuinely worthwhile purchase.

Also flying the flag for the “classic rock” team, ex-Rainbow legend Graham Bonnet steps up to the mic on ‘Take The Path’, a track that immediately supplies a bigger punch. It transpires that the big rock intro is merely a ruse, however, since the arrangement quickly veers off into a world of disjointed jazz prog oddity, where keys widdle about whilst Sherwood’s ever distinctive voice fills space. After time to adjust, there’s a strange fascination in hearing Bonnet booming alternately with Sherwood, even though he sounds a little out of place. For all of this numbers weirdness, though, there’s the heart of something great: a staccato vocal (shared between Graham and Billy) supplies an odd but satisfying hook, and a full compliment of jazz rock shredding from a louder guitar helps to give the track some proper muscle. That would be enough to make it stand, but there’s a little extra interest from a soundtrack-like saxophone, which supplies a strong melody when the rock core subsides. It’s fair to say that this number is a proper oddity, but those who’ve followed Bonnet over the years will love it.

Following several interesting tracks, ‘All Is Meant To Be’ (featuring Angel’s Frank DiMino and Yes man Geoff Downes) is predictable at best. Without the aid of a jazz sax or any unexpected musical colourant, the Yes contingent take over and the number sounds like a leftover from their 2021 album ‘The Quest’, but shorn of any interesting guitar parts. If you like Billy’s work with Arc of Infinity, of course, that still means there’s a strong slab of prog to get your ears around, and the vocals are often great, but this album has already proven that the Collective are capable of so much more. Also edging towards safer territory – but perhaps the instigator that’s needed to attract the merely curious – ‘A Matter of Time’ features a strong, high tenor vocal from Jon Davison which, obviously, gives a mood that isn’t far removed from Yes circa 2022. In terms of melodic prog, the song is more than fine, and Davison’s abilities with a melody are without question, there’s just very little here you won’t have heard from him and Sherwood previously. The real interest throughout this number comes from a prominent guitar which flows effortlessly between proggy cries and hard rock chops. It’s so high in the mix, there’s no mistaking the presence of Steve Hillage in full glissando mode, and his wondrous sound is actually a great companion for Davison. Steve goes a long way in elevating a fairly ordinary prog melody, taking everything further towards the stratosphere, and by the time the last bars are reached this once ordinary number becomes another of the album’s highlights. By the time you’ve heard this a couple of times, it feels like an old musical friend, and thankfully makes ‘Electric World’ even more of a distant memory.

As before, once you get your head around the fact that The Prog Collective isn’t exactly the supergroup it claims to be, but merely a vehicle for Billy Sherwood and a revolving cast of whoever happens to be available, ‘Seeking Peace’ is a (mostly) fine record. The opening number does some massive damage in terms of overall quality, but the rest of it is good to great; for lovers of the featured musicians, at least four of the seven tracks will have more than enough charm. It’s always nice to hear Graham Bonnet trying out something different, too, and this is no exception; likewise, anything new from Steve Hillage is always welcome. With a couple of other interesting gems to be found along the way, this fifth instalment from the Collective makes for a fairly solid listen.

January 2023

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