Monday, 28 October 2013

Old Man Wizard - Unfavorable (album review)

Cover artwork by Valin Mattheis.
When I get up on that old pale horse and ride to my final showdown with the grim reaper at high noon, Old Man Wizard's debut album, 'Unfavorable' would make an appropriate soundtrack to play 'on screen'.  Why?  Because the prog meets cowboy sounds in this here six gun LP blast just the right feel to sum up a life that has been both on the range (read: on the fringes of society) and frazzled in endlessly, overly-complex thought to chew through sleep with a voracious appetite (ie: progginess).  That, and there's a renaissance fair feel that creeps in to add a dash of whimsy which would make for as good a soundtrack to the final showdown as is possible.

That also seems like a good starting point to summarize the sounds on 'Unfavorable'.  Imagine the Man-With-No-Name riding through a heat shimmered desert ... and emerging out the other side of it to come upon a misty-shrouded castle in a lake.  Old Man Wizard strikes a balance between six shooters and sorcery, cacti and moats, saloons and dungeons.  Now imagine that 'film' set to a seventies prog rock score and you ought to get the picture.  Only, let's remove Clint Eastwood from the role of hero, and go with Sean Connery a la Zardoz and we're right where we want to be.  Yeah, that's the ticket.

The album starts out with a pair of cowboy tunes.  "The Highwayman" kicks things off with a spaghetti western march before spilling into a mess of punk tempos.  The remarkable thing here is the way main man Francis Roberts and co. can bring things back around to a cowboy feel for the chorus.  Next up, later that night, the campfire still aglow, the imaginary cowboy sits against a flat rock eating his can of beans as the slow ballad "If Only" plays.  This is also the place where the 'Wizard' part of the band name begins to take form with it's Old English ballad melody.

"Nightmare Rider" takes the peaceful feelings of "If Only" and trots all over them like so many dead leaves.  It actually reminds me of that scene in the animated version of Lord of the Rings where they have to hide in the roots of the old tree from the Black Rider.  Anyone remember that one?  Classic.  "Nightmare Rider" captures that feel with thick, heavy and dark tones punctuated by exuberant melody.  It's a study in storytelling, the music evoking the strong imagery told in the lyrics like ectoplasmic vapor arising from a tombstone.

"The Bearded Fool" has long been a favorite at Paranoid Hitsophrenic as it was released some months ago on bandcamp backed with "Traveler's Lament".  The explosive riffs of "Bearded Fool" are embellished with eerie synth-work.  The whole thing's got a Yes feel, only with deeper vocals and about a tenth of the song length.  It's a great song that rewards endlessly on repeat plays.  It's b-side companion is the folkiest number among the bunch.  It also has a classic Brit pop psych otherwordliness to the performances and lyrics.  This is the moment when our wizard-hat cowboy rides into the misty moor and finds the damsel fair captive in the castle tower.  Or maybe a cave near the entrance of mist-shrouded Olympus.  Either way, this is mythological music.

I had the great pleasure of premiering the last track on this album, "Forevermore" at the beginning of the month (find it right here), so I was able to discuss it briefly then.  As an album closer, it leaves the listener bruised and hungry for more.  Groovy as hell.  I love it.  And this is right when the Grim Reaper and I are standing back to back, about to take our ten paces.  And as you're watching the scene play out, you just know that your wizard-hatted hero (okay not Sean Connery after all, but me with a mustache and no beard and in the Zardozian bandolier [now try not to imagine it, haha!]) will not survive this duel.  No one does.  And yet, it's hard to imagine a more heroic stance to take, a more fitting final scene or a better, more suitable soundtrack playing.

This is 'desert rock' in the truest sense of the term (well, except for an actual stone from the desert), spaghetti western sounds braided with the mirage-induced imagery of fantasy by way of classic ballad like melodies and proggy punctuations.  The horseback riders in this story substitute crescent moon-speckled wizard hats in place of stetsons, the wizards substitute pistols for wands but there is no substitute for a great tune.  'Unfavorable' has six of them.

The full six track album will be released on vinyl and as a digital download on November 1 on bandcamp, but you can pre-order the album right now and walk away with "The Bearded Fool" and "Traveler's Lament".  There's also other goodies on the bandcamp page as well, like t-shirts and things.  Just click the links on the player below to have a look.

Highlights include: "The Bearded Fool" and "The Highwayman"

Rating: 4/5

Total Run Time: 31:27

From: San Diego, California

Genre: Prog, Stoner, Folk, Hard Rock

Reminds me of: Corsair, Ennio Morricone, Excalibur, The Gunslinger, The Holy Grail, Montenegro, Tumbleweed Dealer, Yes, Zardoz

Release Date: November 1, 2013

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