A PASSAGE TO CLEAR (track by track)
A PASSAGE TO CLEAR
Review / Fred Trafton
(Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock)
If your thing is symphonic prog, ambient, electro-prog, or anything associated with keyboards, you might as well stop here. That's not what John Miner and the Art Rock Circus is all about. This is ostensibly Rock-n-Roll in the most visceral sense, guitar bass and drums. A casual listening might cause you to toss this in the "standard music" pile. But there's a catch ... the Art Rock Circus steps out of the mold with some strange twists which put this music squarely into Art Rock genre, and with many parts which can only be described as Progressive.
The Art Rock Circus are a group of performers who first gathered to perform the rock opera Heaven's Café as a theatrical production in Las Vegas. I'm not sure if the name refers to just the band or also includes the dancers and other performers. But the members are fluid, John says it's like a real circus where performers come and go. The ringmaster of this circus is guitarist John Miner, who composes the songs and the lyrics on this new release "A Passage to Clear".
There's hardly a song on A Passage to Clear that's in 4/4 time, John prefers 5's, 7's, 11's and more intricate structures. In addition, John is tired of the standard guitar tunings, and has invented several alternates of his own. He uses a doubleneck guitar which allows him to switch back and forth between alternate tunings and standard when playing live, or between two different alternate tunings. The impression this gives is sometimes like the guitar is a bit out of tune, but he can also play chords virtually impossible to finger with a standard-tuned guitar.
A Passage to Clear is subtitled (a story album). Not a rock opera in the sense of individual characters singing their parts, but a story told partially in lyrics and partially in the sleeve liner notes. Oddly, this album is arguably even more progressive than the Heaven's Café albums and will probably be more rejected by the "progressive rock community" simply because it doesn't fit comfortably into any of the traditional "prog rock" genres. Miner is once again going his own way and not trying to be symphonic at all. The pieces all feature guitar as their main instrument (acoustic, some distorted electric and lots of clean electric), and Miner's oddball chord progressions and odd meters (he seems to like 13's for this album, one song organized in phrases of 7 followed by 6 beats per measure, and another 8 and 5). The other main "instrument" for this album are the two female vocalists Karyn Anderson and Karen Rene'e who sing very professionally, but not in a terribly progressive sort of way.
The closest analogy I can draw for you to visualize (audialize?) what this music is like is to say it's what you might hear in a coffee bar where everyone is drinking expresso, smoking cigarettes and wearing berets, listening intently to the band and occasionally commenting, "that's really deep, man" to each other. I can also once again draw comparisons to Continental Circus or Camembert Electrique-era Gong, which I am frequently reminded of when I listen to this. The combination of the guitar sounds, the sax playing and the ethereal female singers somehow create this effect. I also must say, however, that Pip Pyle sounded very comfortable playing in these odd meters with Gong, but Miner's drummer Devon Lesback sounds like he would rather be playing in 4/4.
My advice: Try out Heaven's Café Live first. If this is to your liking, then you should enjoy A Passage to Clear as well. If you just loved Heaven's Café Live and want to see how it evolved, then check out Heaven's Café (Studio Album) last. -- Fred Trafton