I’ve been on a real modern prog kick lately. Back in ’04 when I was getting into all the classic 70’s bands, I wondered where the newer analogues of all those groups were. After all, outside of ELP, most of these bands were just a bunch of school friends getting together, practicing until they were really good, and getting a big record deal. Certainly those sorts of bands must still be out there somewhere, minus the big record deals of course. Luckily there are websites dedicated to all things prog which frequently mention newer bands, and though this genre can be sort of a minefield, I did discover several groups that struck me as being just about as good as the classics. Certainly they are not quite as original but they do benefit greatly from hindsight and modern recording techniques.
Deluge Grander are one such band. The group was originally an offshoot of Cerebus Effect, a Baltimore jazz-fusion sort of outfit whose music was relatively straightforward until Dan Britton joined up with them. Britton is one of those guys with an overactive musical imagination, playing and writing nearly all the music for three bands at once despite having a full time job. Cerebus Effect split after their 2005 album Acts of Deception – Britton took along drummer Patrick Gaffney for Deluge Grander, filling out the rest with whatever other musically inclined folk he had around him at the time. DG has had a rather stable lineup throughout the years, but you do get the sense that Britton is doing most of the work.
Anyway, August in the Urals is the first Deluge Grander disc, and it’s a bona fide Album of the Week here. I seem to be reaching for it a lot lately, sometimes listening to the whole thing at once, sometimes just listening to pieces. It is 71 minutes long after all, spanning five tracks, one of which is nearly a half-hour long. Lest you get the impression that this is another prog outfit that lacks the ability to self-edit, let me point out that this is all very carefully composed and doesn’t leave room for a lot of soloing. It’s the sort of music that goes from section to section, with musical themes appearing in many different guises; somewhere in Britton’s house there must be a notebook where this is all worked out. They don’t really sound like other bands in their genre; I’d say it’s some kind of symphonic Zeuhl, with maybe a little bit of jazz-rock thrown in. Really there aren’t a whole lot of specific reference points to this music the way there are with bands like Glass Hammer or The Tangent. Even on the Zeuhl spectrum it’s somewhere between the dadaisms of Magma and the doom-laden minor-chord riffing of Univers Zero.
So what does this stuff actually sound like? Well, I think the word symphonic is important here; all the music is intricate and requires multiple listens to really untangle. Britton seems to be the kind of guy with a background in classical music and it shows in pretty much everything he does. His keyboard bits are great; there are a lot of flourishing piano runs and swelling mellotron sounds all over the album. But the whole band is really good, particularly Gaffney who handles a lot of really tricky bits with ease. The mix is interesting; I don’t know how much of it was by design and how much is just Britton making a record for the first time, but the way the instruments are layered here is rather unique. It has kind of a muddy sound, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make the record sound like it was ripped straight from the early 70’s. It allows some room for subtlety, as there are parts mixed so low that you can’t really pick ’em out unless you’re wearing headphones. He certainly has an odd way of mixing the vocals in – they’re used infrequently, but they often come in underneath the music, in a way that obscures most of the actual words. Throw in the fact that Britton’s a baritone in the Mike Patton vein and you get a rather interesting effect. I can’t think of any other group that does vocals like this and I suppose for DG the vocals can afford to be a bit of an afterthought, as the instrumental components are so complex. But I do really like how they sound on this album, as it really adds to the overall pensive or “haunted” mood that a lot of the music embodies.
Thus, if you really wanted to classify things, I would say Deluge Grander really go back to the early days of prog, back when it was more about exploring what can happen within the context of a rock song. A lot of this goes out on a limb and it’s difficult to predict what direction any of these compositions will go in. That’s not to say there isn’t any internal logic here but the songs do take a while to work out. “August in the Urals” is the most impressive along these lines, a 16-minute epic that can roughly be divided into three parts. The first and third are more dense and song-like and the second is rather freeform, giving the guitars room to stretch out. If you listen closely to the beginning you can hear bits of what’s going to happen in the end, and the middle section seems to riff on a few of the themes present elsewhere. The last part (right from when the grand piano enters, about 11 minutes in) is my favorite bit of the whole album; I liked it a lot on the first go-round, but it’s even better once you get a sense of how the entire composition is put together.
“Inaugural Bash” is the big turkey, probably the best track here simply by virtue of being the longest. Pretty much everything the band can do gets shown off here – the opening and closing themes have that awesome “evil” Fender Rhodes sound, with the final bit sounding like something off Kohntarkosz. I count seven distinct sections here, each with its own set of instrumentation; Frank D’Anon (the bassist’s uncle?) contributes a lot of various instruments throughout, and in addition there’s a bunch of big, out-of-tune mellotron parts (the best kind!). Like every other piece here there are parts that seem to be based on improvisation and parts that are tightly controlled, but they merge those two sides together well. Sometimes it lurches off into weird directions (really, any time the vocals come in) but that’s the nature of the beast.
Anyway, I think I’ve prattled on a bit much so let’s rush through the rest. “Abandoned Mansion Afternoon” is more straightforward than the preceding pieces and is driven more by the vocals; there are swelling piano bits that are absolutely gorgeous (another favorite bit of mine). “A Squirrel” has a sort of baroque feel to it; it’s tough to get a handle on this piece as it switches up every 20 seconds or so; play it at 2x speed and it would sound like Ruins. The finale is “The Solitude of Miranda” and it’s the most cathartic moment on the album, a fun Spanish guitar piece that gets all progged up like everything else. For once the rhythm mostly stays the same; there’s a bit of a rave-up in the middle (complete with barrelhouse piano!) but otherwise it’s fairly easy to follow.
Sadly, Deluge Grander are the sort of band you have to discover through chance. They’re nowhere near popular enough to become a full-time touring act and their music isn’t found in a lot of stores, but thankfully Bandcamp carry nearly all of Britton’s projects at a very reasonable price (“a buck a song” is a real bargain when it comes to bands like this). This is a microcosm of where progressive rock is at right now; it seems to be mostly made by people with full-time jobs (or professional musicians with hands in a lot of projects), supported by small or self-run labels, with bands that play somewhere between zero and four shows a year. Although August in the Urals is up to the quality of many of those “golden age” releases, there’s no chance it could’ve been released as-is with label support (“more guitar riffs, less 27-minute songs, and for God’s sake get another singer”, you can imagine them saying). If indeed this had been released in the early 70’s, it would probably would have wound up an obscure gem along the lines of Yezda Urfa.
Thus, I’m imploring you, dear reader/fan of adventurous music, to check out some of the guy’s work on YouTube or whatever, and if it appeals to you spend the five bucks or whatever to download it. For me this album has weathered the first dozen or so listens and I’m still itching to put it on again. That’s the great thing about prog – you get your money’s worth.