Advent – Cantus Firmus

My first contact with Advent’s music dates back from a couple of years ago, when I reviewed Dante’s Inferno, the first instalment of the monumental The Divine Comedy project released by Musea Records. The band’s contribution, a song called “Canto XXVI – The Evil Counselors”, impressed me as one of the most interesting tracks on that 4-CD set; therefore, I eagerly grasped at the opportunity to review their second album, Cantus Firmus – which, even if released exactly five years ago, is still recent enough not to qualify as a ‘vault’ review.

While quite a few North American bands have taken the classic English progressive rock sound of the Seventies as their blueprint, no one, when listening to this album for the first time,  would ever associate Advent with the bustling, overcrowded and down-to-earth East Coast of the US. Though hailing from New Jersey (home of a number of fine prog outfits, such as Shadow Circus, The Tea Club and 3rd Degree), here is a band that sounds more English than most contemporary English bands. Their love for the Old Country is evident right from cover artwork and logo (by artist and illustrator Michael Phipps), inspired by the stunning illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

Formed in 1989 by two highly accomplished multi-instrumentalists with a wide range of musical interests, Alan Benjamin and Henry Ptak (whose brother Mark joined the band some time later), Advent released their self-titled debut album in 1997, and then dropped off the radar for nine years. After the inevitable line-up changes (notably the addition of drummer Drew Siciliano), in 2006 Cantus Firmus finally appeared, to a very warm reception. The album’s title, meaning ‘fixed song’ in Latin, refers to a pre-existing melody that forms the base of a polyphonic composition – another nod to medieval and Renaissance musical tradition.

Like most acts, modern or otherwise, Advent have their own strong set of references, and are refreshingly honest about it. Though modern bands that openly pay homage to one or more of the prog greats of the Seventies are neither new nor surprising, Advent distinguish themselves from the myriad of Genesis or Yes-inspired outfits by having a rather unlikely pair of bands like Gentle Giant and Procol Harum as their main source of inspiration. Indeed, the band’s name brings to mind one of Gentle Giant’s most iconic songs, “The Advent of Panurge”. With such influences, it is not surprising that the music on Cantus Firmus is sophisticated, understated and devoid of hard edges – as well as admirably tight in compositional terms. Indeed, while not a concept, the album projects a sense of cohesiveness, with the first eight tracks acting much like the movements of a symphony. On the other hand, the two bonus tracks (both originally featured on the band’s debut album), though bringing the album’s running time close to a rather hefty 70 minutes, are not unwelcome additions, as they bear witness to Advent’s gradual but steady development of their own artistic personality.

Advent’s love for everything Gentle Giant immediately surfaces in the opening track, the short but sweet “GK Contramundum”, dedicated to English 20th-century author Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and sung entirely a cappella. The song flows directly into “Awaiting the Call”, a lovely instrumental number with hints of Genesis and Camel in Alan Benjamin’s stately, melodic guitar solo and the lush, elegant sweep of the Ptak brothers’ keyboards. “Parenting Parents” and its companion piece “Your Healing Hand”, both dealing with the topic of the relationship between parents and their children, share the same keenly sentimental quality (which thankfully never descends into mawkishness): while the latter is very sparse, almost hymn-like in tone with its whispered vocal harmonies, the former couples lilting, madrigal-like passages of touching sensitivity with instrumental surges led by Benjamin’s fluid, crystal-clear guitar.

“Utter Once Her Name”, a sparse, meditative number with a strong Gentle Giant vibe, and the hauntingly beautiful instrumental “Remembering When”, featuring some really inspired acoustic and electric guitar work, introduce the album’s centrepiece, the 18-minute “Ramblin’ Sailor”. Featuring the participation of Japanese band Kenso’s bassist, Shunji Saegusa, it is based on a traditional English folk song called “The Rambling Sailor”; the stunning complexity of its instrumental parts is relieved by the sprightly, cheerful nature of  the contrapuntal vocal parts, including a chorus of ‘carousing sailors’. The magnificent central section is occasionally reminiscent of the stately yet riveting pace of Genesis’ instrumental compositions, while the titular sailor’s farewell to the sea is conveyed by a slower, more sedate passage enhanced by the distinctive sound of the recorder. The core of the album is then brought to a close by the upbeat, fanfare-like “Firmus Finale”, in which hints of Gryphon’s quirky take on medieval music join the Genesis and Gentle Giant influences.

Though some might complain that Cantus Firmus is not a truly original proposition, and wave the dreaded ‘retro’ word around, the album – far from being a mere tribute-like effort – simply oozes class and dedication. In spite of the individual band members’ impressive chops, in this case technical skill is put at the service of the music, and not the other way round. Moreover, the emotional content is conveyed with grace and delicacy rather with the self-indulgent angst typical of may higher-profile bands. Gentler and more meditative than the output of bands in a similar vein such as Änglagård or Wobbler, Cantus Firmus will definitely appeal to fans of vintage prog of an eclectic bent – though some listeners might be turned off by its unabashed sentimentality and occasional church-like gravity. At the time of writing, Advent are working on their third album, which will hopefully be released within the year.

Tracklist:

1. GK Contramundum (2:00)
2. Awaiting the Call. (5:10)
3. Parenting Parents (6:45)
4. Utter Once Her Name (5:30)
5. Remembering When (4:00)
6. Ramblin’ Sailor (18:14)
7. Your Healing Hand (8:18)
8. Firmus Finale (4:40)

Bonus tracks (previously unreleased 24-track recordings):
9. Rear View Mirror (3:34)
10. Alison Waits (A Ghost Story) (10:40)

Line-up:

* Alan Benjamin – guitars, basses, stick, mandolin, recorder
* Henry Ptak – keyboards, lead vocals, backing vocals, percussion
* Mark Ptak – keyboards, backing vocals, percussion
* Drew Siciliano – drums

With:
* Shunji Saegusa –  bass (6)
* Ken Serio – drums (10)

Links:

http://www.adventmusic.net

http://www.michaelphipps.net/

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