Revivalism can be a tricky thing. If your goal in life is to be a second-rate Kraftwerk, then that’s all you’ll be remembered as, if in fact you are remembered at all. Prog revivalism is even trickier; while the expensive Moogs and custom synths of the 70’s may be reduced to a preset on your Casio today, instrumentalists like Keith Emerson or Robert Fripp do not exactly grow on trees. And even if you’ve got one, it has to be hard to assemble a full band of virtuosos the way you could in 1970, as record companies are not exactly lining up to finance them.
I first heard Echolyn by way of their second disc, Suffocating the Bloom, released in 1992. My first impression was that they seemed to be capable of doing anything, and thus was surprised to find out that these guys were barely in their 20’s when it was recorded. At the very least they must have been the star pupils in their middle school music classes. There was nothing mindblowing about it – just solid tunes with good arrangements and great playing, and surprisingly high quality control given how long the disc was. There’s an entire LP’s worth of music on there before it jumps into the 28-minute “Suite for the Everyman”. Most neo-prog bands love to knock off a 20+ minute suite right away (otherwise, why even bother with the genre?), but most of them amount to two or three songs connected by long instrumental sections. Echolyn’s was different; an actual interconnected song suite with almost no meandering or jamming. It occurred to me that already these guys may be as good as Genesis were at their peak.
They knew it, too. I don’t want to say these guys have big egos – for all I know, they could be the five nicest guys in Pennsylvania (sort of a backhanded compliment, but you get the point). But they knew they could’ve been the figureheads of a major prog revival, if only they’d gotten the chance. Most of the lyrics on “Suite for the Everyman” are about trying (and failing) to get a record deal without giving up creative control. If Echolyn were going down, they’d at least go down on their own terms. On the suite’s climax, “Those That Want to Buy”, Ray Weston sings “The thing, I think, that scares me the most, is that talent is seldom considered”. That sums it up quite nicely; these guys could really play, but did it matter?
Apparently it did – in 1993, a rep from Epic Records called up and offered the band a multi-album deal. The band’s persistence paid off – they’d be out there, on the road, building a fanbase, and maybe later could parlay that into something bigger. But first, they’d need to prove themselves. To do this, they were set up with a professional producer (Glenn Rosenstein) and the resources to do things like hire an 11-piece string section. It was the chance of a lifetime for the band, and they made damn sure to seize it for all it was worth – who knew when an opportunity like this would rear its head again?
If there’s one thing that sticks out about Echolyn, it’s that they’ve always been honest with their audiences and with themselves. There is no rock star posturing, no long solo spots, and nothing that the band couldn’t replicate live (well, minus the string sections). Despite being on a major label, there is virtually no attention paid to commercial concerns; the most radio-friendly songs here are the wild, multi-sectioned “The Cheese Stands Alone” and the 8-minute torch song “Never the Same”. But they were relatable; rather than write cryptic fantasy lyrics, the subjects on As the World are easy to identify with. When they write a song like “Uncle”, about getting bullied on the way home from school for being a “goofy geek choir boy”, it feels autobiographical, especially given their current status as goofy geek choir men. “The Cheese Stands Alone” is about their own struggles in securing a record deal, contains the line “(I’ve been) flogged and progged, revivaled to death” (hey..wait a minute). Most of the other songs concern subjects befitting of a bunch of 20-somethings who just landed a record deal – figuring out how to stand out, accepting the consequences of one’s actions, and wondering what the future could hold.
Still, what’s important here is the music. Far different from the endless string of Genesis clones that formed in the mid-80’s, Echolyn instead resembled Gentle Giant more than anything. This alone is quite admirable; Gentle Giant always seemed to be the band that did the most work for the least amount of album sales. Most notably, this comes through in the vocals – there is not exactly a Jon Anderson or Peter Hammill type in this band, but they could nail a three-part harmony like no one else. Instrumentally, everything comes back to the service of the song; even bits that you initially think will be solo showcases (such as the brief “Wiblet”) bring the full band in to great effect. There are a lot of instrumental sections, but it’s pretty much all ensemble playing. Echolyn is a band you can admire without knowing who any of the band members are (and indeed, while I have an encyclopedic knowledge of the yearly lineup changes of Yes or King Crimson, I couldn’t match the names to the faces of these guys, with the exception of keyboardist Chris Buzby, who is starting to resemble Gilbert Gottfried a little).
Of course, this would all be for nothing if they didn’t write great songs, which is the thing that really puts them ahead of the other revivalist groups. When prog really works, the experience should be something like a rollercoaster, in that you quickly go through many twists and turns but you never quite fall off the track. You don’t hear this kind of music being written every day – you couldn’t exactly just bang this stuff out on the piano, because often the interplay between the instruments or vocals are key to the song, and all of the members of the band are occupied most of the time. Perhaps at one time these were all songs that could be played solo, but it seems like this is a band that can expand the potential of a song until it’s ten minutes long, then condense all the best parts into five. The first song here is the title track, which would be a straightforward rocker, but they see fit to include a breakneck instrumental section and a dizzying three-part harmony (with three different vocal lines!) Taking the simple and making it complex – this is just what Echolyn does.
There’s an awful lot to digest here, but you can roughly divide this into a beginning, middle, and end, with the middle being taken up by the 5-part “Letters”. I find it difficult to point to a favorite; this is the sort of album that you start to appreciate little by little, as some ideas whirl by at such a fast pace that it’s impossible to really get it all at once. But the brilliance of “Letters” was my entryway into this album; while it’s hard to deny the grooves of “My Dear Wormwood” and “One for the Show”, the slower songs here really tie everything together. “A Short Essay” was initially my favorite track here – the wordless chorus is absolutely gorgeous, reminiscent of the breathtaking middle section of Yes’s “South Side of the Sky”. But man, “Entry 11.19.93” is a total show-stopper, and features everything the band does well, with an 11-piece string section and a soaring instrumental ending. That said, it’s the lyrics that kill me here; this is the tale of a man in a nursing home, reflecting upon his life, just “waiting for the mail or someone to call”. With references to Errol Flynn and Fred Astaire, you must figure this guy is pretty old. The singing really drives it home; not just in the harmonies, but also the way Weston belts out “the mail was late again today”. In my opinion, that’s the album’s money shot.
As for the rest of it, there are too many highlights to mention, so I’ll just say that “Best Regards” is wickedly catchy, “Audio Verite” has one of the best choruses I’ve ever heard, “Settled Land” is one of those rare songs that manages to be a brilliant ballad and an awesome rocker, and “Never the Same” is both devastating and uplifting at the same time. I’ll also say that I had no idea what to make of this album the first time I heard it; I wasn’t sure if I’d come to like it as much as Suffocating the Bloom, as there was just so much to digest.
I wasn’t the only one. Sony, perhaps unsure how to market an album that was 70 minutes long and featured no singles, sat on it for an entire year. I can only imagine how agonizing that was for the band, given how hard they’d worked on it, and how excited they must have felt when they finally completed it. When it finally released, it did alright, but only really picked up steam when they did a few shows with Dream Theater. But then, just like that, they pulled the plug. The band was already feeling some internal tension, but this was the final straw, and Echolyn was no more.
Still, pieces of the group remained. They released the appropriately titled When the Sweet Turns Sour (complete with horrible cover art, much like As the World had), which was a collection of demos from their would-be fourth album, plus a couple live tracks and a rather great cover of a very early Genesis tune. The band fractured into two – Buzby formed Finneus Gauge with his brother (which released two albums), while Ray Weston, Brett Kull, and Paul Ramsey formed Still, which released an album called Always Almost, then changed their name to Always Almost and released an album called God Pounds His Nails (not only is Still a bad name for a band, it’s been taken several times over. They couldn’t have made this more confusing if they tried). There are worthy songs on all of them, but none of these albums are great – the songwriting is good on the demos and both Finneus Gauge albums, but the sound quality suffers on both. The Weston/Kull/Ramsey band is probably the best of it, and God Pounds His Nails is as close to an Echolyn album as you can get. But the songs tended to be looser and more straightforward; the insane attention to detail that Echolyn displayed wasn’t quite there. Can you blame them?
As it turns out, Echolyn patched things up and made another go of it. In 2000, they released Cowboy Poems Free, and have been going ever since, albeit at a much slower pace. They’ve all got day jobs now – Buzby teaches music, and the rest became refrigerator repairmen (or something). But the spirit of the band continued on; their post-reformation albums (particularly 2002’s Mei, which was exactly one song long, and 2012’s self-titled double album) are arguably their finest. Still, this one is perhaps their most fascinating; after contemplating whether or not having talent was enough to be successful on Suffocating the Bloom, they went out and proved that it wasn’t. Suffice to say, I think Sony really screwed up on this one, but credit the band for sticking through anyway. When you’re capable of writing and arranging songs like these, you’re pretty much resigned to be a musician for life.