Progressive Rock fans seem to spend a considerable amount of time contemplating and/or debating the elements of the genre and which bands fit the description. Songs from the Haunted South, by Old Fire (released on KScope), is an album that will engender such debate. There are unmistakable elements of New Age, Indie Folk and synth-based Impressionism. Is this enough to call the album, as a whole, prog? Sure.
The visionary for this concept album is John Mark Lapham who spent ten years working to complete this project, with 22 vocalists and musicians contributing their talents.
Each of the thirteen tracks is about a person, some living some dead, inspired by memorabilia such as family portraits or diaries. The album is somber and dreamy in tone with notes of discord very carefully and deliberately placed. Long slow synth tones transition the listener from one track to the next, only allowing a rare opportunity to come up for air. If any of these tracks made you smile, you’re not listening carefully.
While none of the individual tracks top five minutes in length, the first three pieces act as a suite. The first track, “Old Fire 3”, is an instrumental that flows seamlessly into the second track, which in turn segues into “Helix”, a gentle and melancholy song which features the first melodic vocals. This song is the first of six covers on this album. Most of the originals were extremely minimalist, giving Lapham scope for expanding on both instrumental and vocal arrangements.
“Know How” is the first song to bring a percussive element into the mix. The synth takes the background for most of the track, and a heavy bass and snare give more of a living feel than is heard in most of the album. “Know How” is another cover that was given new life by Old Fire. It could conceivably get some radio play, which might encourage some to argue that Songs from the Haunted South cannot be considered legitimate prog.
“It’s Easier Now” is the last cover in this grouping, with atmospheric spookiness, giving way to Stranger in the Family, which essentially acts as a bridge from the set of cover songs to the original “Bloodchild”. “Bloodchild” is “the first single” from the album, and is at once the most listener-friendly yet features the strongest contrasts of the project. The verses, set as a simple old-fashioned waltz, are separated by increasingly discordant instrumental breaks, with atmospheric synth color and an out of tune piano. There is never a moment on this album where one is blown away by instrumental or technical brilliance, but this track shows very clearly what careful composition looks like. There is no doubt that each sound, each chord, each effect, is placed exactly where it was intended to be. This is composition and production as art.
The next two tracks once more seem to act as a bridge to the next set of covers, “A Slight Grip A Gentle Hold”, “Laserbeam”, and “The Orchids”. “Laserbeam” and “The Orchids”, along with the final track, “Deadhouse Dreams”, appear to be a set of pieces that mirror the first three tracks, although they are, if anything, more melancholy and more discordant.
As a whole, this album reflects the care that Mr. Lapham has expended on his baby over the last decade. It will be fun to see what Old Fire offers next, trusting that we will not have to wait ten years for the pleasure.