Artist: The Forgotten Prophets
Album: The End (2016)
I can think of few better ways to musically kick off 2016 than The End, the debut album from The Forgotten Prophets. The End is pure rock and roll, the songcraft and stylings of which are a tasteful and fun mix of rock, blues, and country, with strong elements of roots music and improvisation.
Bassist, vocalist, and songwriter Pat Harris may, at least on paper, serve as the group’s de facto leader, but the album is very much a group effort. This virtuosic sextet brings together top-notch musicians into a whole that is greater than the sum of its formidable parts. Guitarist Chris Bell is a first-rate gunslinger. Together with James Anderson, who deftly moves between melodic violin playing and gritty fiddling, they handle much of the album’s lead soloing. Keyboardist Jonathan Geer flexibly rounds out the melodic and harmonic fabric with everything from barroom swagger on acoustic piano to funky electric textures. Aaron Lack and Steve Schwelling do a particularly great job of forming one full-bodied but cohesive percussive unit. Harris sandwiches the sound with his rock-solid and often melodic basslines and his strong vocals.
At the risk of being hyperbolic, The End is timeless. Pristine production quality* aside, the songs and performances sound simultaneously fresh and decades old (though not a bit dated). As stated at the outset, this is rock and roll (i.e., before it was just “rock”), a genre borne out of rhythm & blues and country and meant for an intimate stage and dance floor. The End doesn’t at all come off as a stylistic homage (a la Billy Joel). It’s the genuine artifact, and the songs’ styles and moods are diverse but cohesive. Harris’s compositions are artful yet accessible pieces that demonstrate a deep and broad well of musical influences. Songwriting has long been one of his many strengths — for example, see 2013’s Hour Before the Mourning and 2011’s Traveling by Moonlight (reviewed here) — but here he reaches another level of lyrical and formal maturity. The songs are but a framework, however, realized only by the ensemble’s collective talent and intuition.
Recorded over four days in and around Austin, TX, the group’s home base, The End has a very “live” presence. What you hear are live single takes (performances), save the vocals. It’s quickly apparent that the musicians are all technical masters of their respective crafts. What’s more is that these are six nuanced, empathetic practitioners who always know when to play, how to play, and when to lay back. The violin and second drum set seamlessly meld into this standard rock instrumentation, and never does the band sound too cluttered nor any instrument out of place. The orchestration changes slightly throughout, offering constant variety.
“Always a Road” opens the album. The rhythm section chugs along, buoying Harris’s singing of driving down life’s highway, accompanied by expansive piano fills and, later, sweeping violin melodies. Moving from contemplative to carefree, “Mountain Town Blues” — an ode to Mt. Pleasant, MI (once home to Harris, Lack, and even yours truly) — is a honky tonk saloon stomp that is pure fun. Harris shares lead vocals here, trading alternate verses with Bell and Lack. The dirty, bluesy guitar and violin soloing, the gritty vocals, and the percussive beat (and tambourine) make you want to storm the bar’s dance floor, peanut shells and all. Changing gears once again, the next three songs form a nice triptych. “Dance with the Lightning” is a melancholic mid-tempo anthem that is easily the 21st-century heir apparent to Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.” The band here is a big wall of sound without being too busy. A rather spacey instrumental breakdown follows the second chorus, with the drums, electric keys, and violin nearly taking a fusion-esque turn. It may seem like an odd pairing, but it works, naturally building into the final chorus. The closing chord leads directly into the guitar intro of “Magnolia Hill,” a nostalgic number that, in terms of songcraft, is easily one of the album’s crown jewels. It’s a touching tale reminiscent of the heartland, both in story and sound. A sparse, brief group improvisation follows the close of the song proper, fading away into the ether. Emerging from the final notes is a light percussive pattern leading into “The Canyon,” an outlaw number with soaring vocals, electric keys, wailing violin, and shredding guitar.
The second half of the album is a bit lighter in character overall. “Alright, I Love You, Be Good” is a playful up-tempo dance number with a charming twang. It’s a joyous chaser that’s welcome after the previous three songs, setting the stage for the rest of the album. For my money, the ballad-esque “Run from the Ocean” is a great display of this band’s live sound on record. (Arguably, the same could be said for the other songs as well.) From the soft, approachable verses to the anthemic, wall-of-sound choruses, and the full-bodied but melodic guitar solo, you feel like you’re feet from the stage. “Raise the Gate,” The End‘s rocker, is a surefire prescription to get you on your feet and dancing (if you can keep up with the off-kilter, but not forced, mixed-meter intro and segues, that is). “Gate” is infectious and will stay in your mind’s ear long after the album’s finished.
The penultimate, mixed-meter “Only from Afar” is a mournful country-tinged ballad. One of my favorite things about Harris’s compositional approach is that his use of odd meters sound natural, not shoe-horned in. The music certainly doesn’t impede the message here. The appropriately-titled “The End” closes the album. I dare say that it’s the title track because it showcases much of the band’s, and the album’s, strengths: technical command and tasteful interplay, songcraft, a powerful live presence, and stylistic diversity. Clocking in at over twelve minutes, it’s by far the longest song on the record, over double the length of “Magnolia Hill,” The End‘s second-longest entry. Also like “Magnolia Hill,” “The End” features an extended instrumental jam, only this one lasts over eight minutes. Musically throwing caution to the wind, the sextet take a lyrical cue and let the Devil out of his cage, covering a wide musical berth that’d attract the ears of any nearby Deadhead. The jam gives everyone room to breathe and shine, moving from the freely mysterious to the frenetic and culminating in a cacophonous blues that leads back into one last romp through the chorus.
While the title track may be about throwing caution to the wind at the End of All Things, I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s an allegory for The End‘s place in the current state of the music business, an institution that, in many respects, is crumbling before our eyes. (At least for the 99% who don’t wake up each morning with corporate endorsements and six- and seven-figure royalty payments.) In the face of this, The Forgotten Prophets release a self-financed album with little fanfare, recorded and produced — at a very high level, might I add — simply for the sake of doing it. The attitude (having nothing to lose and letting it all hang out), the content (top-shelf songwriting), and the execution (expert performances) are a recipe for much artistic success. I can’t recommend The End enough, and I hope it’s only the beginning for this group and catalogue.
The End is out now. Purchase via:
*The End was engineered, edited, and mixed by Charlie Kramsky at Blue Rock Studios and Phase In Studios (TX), and mastered by Daniel Gonko at The Sounding Board (NC).
Album art (atop) by Kait Harris Cleanthes.