The Nova Collective
The Further Side
Metal Blade Records
What, exactly, is prog and why might you like it? Prog, or progressive, is a subgenre of rock known for long, soaring tunes, stellar musicianship, tight production and experimentation. Furthermore, prog’s classical, jazz and rock soup attracts fans from all three genres; many prog chord progressions in prog are firmly rooted in classical music, songs exhibit long and technically superb experiments akin to jazz, and electric guitar sounds scream, such as those found in rock. While prog as popular music collapsed under its own weight sometime around 1975, there remain under the radar bands who still fly the prog flag.
To delve deeper into the sound of prog, one can say that it has its roots in the psychedelic music of the 1960’s. While nobody can pinpoint exactly who “invented” prog, it would be almost safe to say that the prog that we know, and that was so popular in the early 1970’s, began in 1969 with King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King. A masterpiece of an album, it kicks off with The Court of the Crimson King, a song that you may have heard on the radio as it got sporadic airplay in the ’70s and ’80s. You won’t hear it on popular radio stations anymore but it is played on satellite and you can also hear it on YouTube. I suggest that you check it out. Songs such as the ethereal I Talk to the Wind or the hard rock monster 21st Century Schizoid Man should delight. Also in the running for the “first” prog band has to be the Moody Blues with Days of Future Passed, released a full two years before the King Crimson record, although I think of it as highly experimental rock, as opposed to prog. The Moodies joined the prog party later on though and released some very fine examples of the genre. Also released in 1967 was Procol Harum’s fine self titled release. While the album is an underappreciated masterpiece, again I would not label it prog. It was King Crimson who first incorporated the three elements of prog; classical, jazz and rock. Other prog bands include Yes, ELP, later Procol Harum and Moody Blues and the lesser known but hugely influential Gentle Giant. Marillion is another fine example of British prog. As mentioned earlier, prog eventually collapsed under its own weight, with songs getting lengthier and lengthier leading up to a double disc vanity project from Yes, 1973’s Tales from Topographic Oceans. A concept album, it is based on vocalist Jon Anderson’s interpretation of a footnote in Paramahansa Yogananda’s 1946 book Autobiography of a Yogi, which itself is based on Hindu texts that consist of four bodies called the shastras. It is egomaniacal and bloated, excessive and self-serving; its general prog overkill made Tales… a byword for everything wrong with prog music and kickstarted the genre’s eventual decline and subsequent disappearance from popular music.
North Carolina’s Nova Collective is one of the bands flying the prog flag in 2017, with their latest release The Further Side firmly rooted in prog, The Further Side features long, experimental songs that morph and evolve into something very different from how they started. Typical is the opening track, the instrumental Dancing Machines, which finds a group of highly skilled musicians having a jam that evolves and changes, twists and turns and generally confuses, in a good way. You don’t know what will happen next. These guys are monster players. The level of musicianship is through the roof. That these guys can play so tightly on songs that require the ultimate in technical ability is amazing. I have not heard playing quite like this since I first heard Yes’ The Yes Album. I especially like the phasing effect that repeats in several other songs. I always love a good phase… Also present and accounted for is a chorus effect. In fact I dig the effects that go beyond phasing and chorus, and I imagine that such a skilled group, willing to experiment, would take advantage of a computer to lay on some sounds that would otherwise be hard to replicate with analog gear. Speaking of gear, the synthesizers used on Dancing Machines and other songs are wonderful; I cannot tell for sure what sort of synth they are using but I will go out on a limb and say Moog – but a Moog played high instead of the usual bass that the Moog sound is famous for. A lot of players do not go beyond bass on a Moog, which is a shame because they are capable of great sounds all over the keyboard. I know this because I own one. Or it may be an ARP 2600, which is completely different from a Moog but very versatile and certainly capable of producing the sounds heard on The Further Side.
Following Dancing Machines are five more cuts culminating with the eponymous closing track. I suppose one could say that all of the songs on The Further Side sound the same, and that is an inherent component in prog as well as jazz, but the release begs further listens as there is a lot going on here. When you put together a band of monster musicians such as the Nova Collective there are bound to be journeys beyond, and deeper than, one may have thought upon first listen. The lead guitar snakes in and around the super tight rhythm section; as do the keyboards. There is a lot to discover here and I feel like I just scratched the surface. I could see sitting down with a single song and exploring its streets and avenues; it would take a good amount of time to figure it all out.
Therein is the Nova Collective at its finest. If the listener takes the time to explore they will surely be rewarded.
While the musicianship on The Further Side is evident in every minute of every song, I was disappointed by the lack of hooks. One of the reasons that I like 70’s prog so much is that the best of it had hooks. Albums such as The Yes Album from Yes demonstrate a very high level of playing but incorporate traditional structures with verse and chorus, although they definitely did stretch the format as far as it could be stretched; the songs evolve and morph and go way beyond the typical song structure but always return to a base of verse and chorus, whereas The Nova Collective’s instrumentals take their cues from jazz, with extended instrumentals and demonstrations of technical ability but without much to hang your hat on. This is certainly not a detriment though, it is simply a matter of taste. I can see many a prog fan loving this album, and I would like to see The Nova Collective live; as a player myself I always love to see virtuosos spank the heck out of their instruments.
Not only do I play but I produce, and I can find no fault with the production here. It is tight, crisp and thankfully not overcompressed, which can and does ruin many a song or complete album. The production here reminds me of that on Steely Dan records and it will make your stereo sound great!
The Further Side is bound to delight fans of prog. It exhibits the musicianship, experimentation and tight production that characterize the genre. It will surely reward the listener who takes the time to explore.