“What is ‘Prog’?” This question is one that has a tendency to lead me to a certain existential angst. Could it be that the term ultimately has no meaning? I have struggled to answer this question countless times, usually in discussing bands that would generally be considered on the fringe of the progressive rock genre. Is Iron Maiden prog? Is Devo prog? Is Styx prog? Is Kino prog? My answers to these is usually “yes, no, sometimes, and yes” but when asked to justify my response, I usually end up justifying myself by how much I like a given band. I have even been known to state, with a certain exasperation, that the ultimate definition of Prog is ‘music that I like’ – hardly a basis for establishing common reference points.
I find myself again struggling with this question as I listen to Slow Burn 1, the most recent release from Fractal Mirror. Is it a Prog release? I’m not sure. I detect more than a little mellotron (perhaps the quintessential Prog instrument); the album is produced and mixed by Brett Kull of Echolyn; their band name is undoubtedly Prog; the album has a thematic consistency, being “a reflection of the disruption that technology is triggering in all phases of life”; and it’s the type of music that doesn’t lend itself to top-40 lists or dance clubs. But on the other hand, there is never a moment on the album that gives the listener an unequivocal moment of progginess, whatever that is.
In describing themselves, Fractal Mirror states that they are a pop/rock band that uses influences from progressive rock. They cite bands such as IQ, Gazpacho and Big Big Train as favorites and argue that at the heart of the great Prog bands are great songs built off of a basic verse-chorus-bridge structure. This argument is well taken, and provides an argument that bands such as Fractal Mirror should be welcomed in the Prog tent. But enough rambling.
Slow Burn 1 is an album that is fundamentally about melodic lines and lyrics that are accessible, interesting, and even catchy. The album opens with “Prelude,” a brief piece with lovely melodies on guitar, mellotron and Leo Koperdraat’s vocals. From there the album segues into the very pop-ish “Miracle.” During this track, the album adopts the late 60’s psychedelic/folk feel that will remain through most of the album.
“Numbers” is the third, and my favorite, track of the album. The song moves forward at its own pace, which feels very comfortable, and Leo’s vocals are nicely supported by well-arranged backing vocals. Frank Urbaniak’s drums and Ed van Haagen’s bass and keyboard lines aren’t complex, again functioning primarily as support for the primary melodic line, but remain interesting enough to make sure the song never feels boring. “V838” moves at a medium rock tempo, and both bass and guitar duties are taken over by guest musicians, Patric Farrell and Peter Swart, respectively. The song isn’t objectionable, but to this listener it’s the weakest on the album, as I think the band feels more comfortable letting either mellotron or acoustic guitar setting the mood for their songs as opposed to the more usual bass/drums of most rock music. The track after “V838,” “Floods,” bolsters this argument. “Floods” opens with nice acoustic guitar that sets a lovely melancholy tone for the rest of the song, which also features nice backing vocals by Charlotte Koperdraat and Kitty Diepstraten. The mood of the music fits nicely the lyric, which contains my favorite refrain on the album: “Follow the traces-stones in the stream. The Bridge that has fallen, like pieces of dreams, wash away.” Maybe I’m just a sucker for the melancholy, but I think that Fractal Mirror is at their best when they embrace a bit of the melancholy in their songs.
Track 6, “Mist,” opens up with that same melancholy before moving into a more up-tempo number with considerable hook. While the number has a certain pep, there remains an underlying somberness that is very attractive. Tracks such as “Enemies,” “Embers” and “Fading” demonstrate Fractal Mirror’s fondness for melodic hooks and intriguing lyrics (“We slowly burn, just embers; no flames”). And while the songs aren’t the strongest on the album, they demonstrate that even the weaker moments of the album are enjoyable.
The album ends with its longest and best-constructed track, “Universal.” Many longer songs (“Universal” clocks at 8:47) rely upon a certain amount of instrumental pyrotechnics to engage the listener throughout the song, indeed it’s not uncommon in the Prog world for a song to warm up with a 3 minute or so intro. Fractal Mirror never does this, which means that a longer track requires very good songwriting to keep the song from over staying its welcome. “Universal,” is just such an excellent display of songwriting, with the mood shifting smoothly from section to section of the song and with the number climaxing on an almost Sgt. Pepper-esque layered vocal line before ending the song with a lovely lyrical reflection upon the main themes of the song with only acoustic guitar as accompaniment.
It could be debated just how ‘Prog’ Slow Burn 1 is, but the songwriting talents are above dispute.