For this fifth outing from Billy Sherwood’s Prog Collective, the Yes bassist has brought together an impressive array of musicians to bring his fluid all star project’s music to life. In a sidestep from previous releases, however, there are moments throughout ‘Dark Encounters’ that appear somewhat moodier than before. The bulk of the record takes an instrumental route, and a couple of the tunes go much deeper into jazz fusion. That’s not to say that fans of the veteran musicians involved won’t find anything to enjoy, or even something familiar to cling onto – a Sherwood Project will almost always include material that nods in the very definite direction of Yes and World Trade – but at least fifty percent of this record isn’t exactly what most people will be expecting.

The darker mood is at it’s most obvious during ‘Darkest Hour’ which opens with a deep, ominous riff. The bass grinds heavily against a wall of strange sounding keys, setting up an almost cinematic landscape that sounds like a prog band reworking bits of Jimmy Page’s ugly score for Death Wish II. With a steady rhythm in place, guitarist Steve Stevens steps in and lays down various bluesy leads. His work is occasionally showy, but still very much in keeping with the slow, and heavy-ish vibe that’s been laid down by the rest of the band, and by the time the melody reaches its most domineering, the wall of keys has almost taken on as much of an oppressive sound. In terms of openers, this neither thinks small or takes the predictable route, and it’s all the better for that. Even more oppressive, ‘At The Gates’ (featuring King Crimson man David Cross) opens with a really deep synth drone and slowly opens out into a dour instrumental piece that sounds like a cross between an early 80s deep cut from the Zappa universe meeting with something from Vai’s ‘Fire Garden’. The guitar tones applied throughout are superb – almost certainly from the Vai school of the oddly toned – but if anything sticks, it’s the fusion between Billy’s bass and David’s violin work. Cross only appears sporadically, but his playing shares a plaintive melody that’s the perfect compliment to the slow, heavy backdrop.

Also quite downbeat, but sharing a much stronger melody, ‘Dark Money’ (featuring Blue Oyster Cult man Joe Bouchard) sets up a slow burning groove via a pulsing bass and whirring keys, over which a very Jeff Beck-like guitar soars and swoops, again, adding something almost soundtrack worthy to the Prog Collective palate. There’s almost nothing here that can be linked closely with the Yes family tree; the epic instrumental sounds come much closer to something you might have discovered via the Relativity Records label back in the 90s, but a few plays will uncover a strong, melodious workout that has elements of an epic classic rock sound, but also has a great, if somewhat dour, musical appeal. Sharing something a little busier, ‘Ominous Signs’ applies pulsing keys beneath a solid hard rock groove, which is subsequently given a little more of a proggy flourish via Sherwood’s strident bass sound. A guesting Steve Morse (previously of Deep Purple fame) isn’t shy in using his influence to take the tune in more of a classic rock direction, and his fusion of blues and rock tones provides one of this disc’s most appealing elements, even though the melody in hand isn’t necessarily one of the album’s most memorable.

At the outset, ‘Dark Days’ sounds a little dull by comparison. Given time to warm up, however, the track – featuring ex-Yes man Patrick Moraz, ex-GN’R six stringer Bumblefoot and session drummer Omar Hakim – blossoms into a melodic rock number that sounds like a dark cousin to World Trade’s best work. The way Sherwood layers the vocals throughout the chorus shares a sound that – even though his own voice isn’t in the forefront – that’s distinctly his, and the dominant bass work throughout also shares very close links with his former band and the post-Squire Yes recordings. That will be enough to make this track a fan favourite, but Bumble’s featured solo – full of bluesy tones, overlaid with a couple of sweeps that sound ready made for a Yes tune – gives everything a vital lift at the eleventh hour. The core of this track is more than solid, especially if you came looking for something very much in the Billy Sherwood mould, but it isn’t above criticism. Moraz’s input seems very sedate; there are times when its hard to hear what he brings beneath the crushing bass, and the idea of getting a jazz drummer on board and then asking him to thump out little more than a slow rock beat seems like a wasted opportunity, not only for Hakim, but for all concerned. Nevertheless, the track gives the album a very welcome melodic centrepiece that isn’t quite as challenging as other parts of the record, and actually has the makings of a fan favourite.

One of the album’s finest pieces, ‘For All To See’ allows a funk bass to play over a middling groove, whilst a soaring guitar, once again, calls back to a couple of Zappa’s early 80s pieces with Vai. There’s an immediate muso quality here that won’t fit everyone’s tastes, but it’s hard not to be impressed by Sherwood’s massive tones, and the way he anchors a solid groove against a floating guitar sound. With the melody gradually drifting to make way for more of a jazz feel, the track is definitely one of the more interesting pieces on ‘Dark Encounters’, even with a nod to a couple of more metal oriented riffs that loosely tie in with the Steve Stevens track, and although guesting drummer Pat Mastelotto clearly doesn’t feel the need to hog the spotlight, his playing has a pleasingly solid quality throughout. Taking a similar sound into even more complex places, the John Etheridge piece ‘The 11th Hour’ showcases some fantastic and interesting guitar work which occasionally borders on the atonal, but is balanced effortlessly by another funk oriented bassline. Sounding more like a 90s take on a Zappa/Mahavishnu Orchestra piece than anything from the Yes canon, its the kind of track that will divide listeners – even the most hardened proggers will baulk at this if they’re in any way jazz averse – but in terms of pure fusion, it’s actually hard to find fault with any of the players involved.

Another stand out, ‘Between Two Worlds’ – featuring Gregg Bissonette and Steve Hillage – occasionally tips the hat to Asia with a more commercial sound, but as you might expect with everything taking a more accessible turn – there’s plenty within these three minutes that sound like a World Trade cast-off. Regrettably, Sherwood’s voice isn’t what it was; the high tenor sound is now masked by a lot of studio based filtering and shows a noticeable grit. However, there’s plenty to love here, since the slow, brooding melody fits rather nicely between his Yes and World Trade works; his bass playing is more than solid, and an on form Hillage sounds unmistakable when the time comes for a huge atmospheric solo. In fact, Steve is on such good form, that at the point where he takes centre stage, it’s almost possible to believe that you’ve stumbled across an old out-take from his ‘Green’ days. Elsewhere, Angel’s Frank DiMio props up some less impressive prog/AOR on ‘The Long Night’ where he’s upstaged by another World Trade-esque vocal from Sherwood and a Floydian guitar solo, and ex-Zappa man Chad Wackerman underscores another jazz fusion workout where a fuzzy guitar part teases with something Hillage-esque but doesn’t feel as focused as the Etheridge piece. Whilst neither of these tunes are top tier, both should still provide some interest to the more committed fan, particularly the latter which, obviously, allows Sherwood another opportunity to stretch beyond his typical remit.

Even for those already familiar with Sherwood’s Prog Collective, this record will seem very different in places, but it still offers some enjoyable music. ‘Dark Encounters’ might not be as much all round fun as 2022’s covers project ‘Songs We Were Taught’, or even be home to a couple of the best guests as per ‘Seeking Peace’ – Jon Davison and Graham Bonnet are conspicuously absent – but there’s a real joy in cherry picking and revisiting the best tracks. Its largely instrumental approach and more of a scattershot nature means it isn’t an essential purchase in the truest sense, but Sherwood’s fans will still consider this more than worthy of a little shelf space.

March 2024