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Rare Blend - 2006 - "Stops Along the Way"

(60 min, 'TSM')

TRACK LIST:                    

1.  Illegal Aliens 4:55
2.  Wuhan Incident 5:21
3.  Mystic Jam 5:30
4.  Cole Train 6:05
5.  Feats of the Warrior Kings 5:28
6.  Splat 4:27
7.  Miles to Go 5:01
8.  Intermission 3:07
9.  Off to Arizona 4:51
10. Grand Central Station 2:53
11. Dinner at Koko's 4:34
12. Destiny's Eyes 4:09
13. Heading Home 3:17


Vic Samalot - electric & acoustic guitars
Bobbi Holt - keyboards; vocals; recorder
Jeffrey Scott - bass & acoustic guitar
Vince Broncaccio - drums
Paul Stranahan - percussion 
Gabe O'Brien - percussion 

Prolusion. Originally a duo of Vic Samalot and Bobbi Holt, RARE BLEND from Ohio have already been around for 13 years. In 1995 the duo issued their first CD "Cuneifusion". Bassist Jeff Scott and drummer Paul Stranahan joined them in 1998, and this lineup released two next albums, "Infinity" and "Evolution Theory", in 2000 and 2002 respectively. The group's fourth offering "Stops Along the Way" was brought out a few months ago and features a new drummer, Vince Broncaccio. Rare Blend aren't a studio project and play live each time they have the opportunity to do so. In particular, they are perennial participants at the Cleveland Progressive Rock Fusion festival.

Analysis. I haven't heard "Evolution Theory", but I can assert that the new Rare Blend recording marks a strong progress in comparison with their first two releases, the matter strikingly revealing itself in composition, arrangement and performance all alike. Well, their musical thinking was always exceptionally unique, and their creative horizon was always amazingly wide, all of which is brightly evinced here as well, just adding more virtues to the material. From a pan-musical view, I could name some outfits that this ensemble has common ground with (Brand X for instance), but it would work only occasionally, regarding two or three tracks. The point is that none of Rare Blend's creations is confined within the framework of any single genre, but embraces several different styles instead, "Stops Along the Way" being another bright example of such a remarkable approach. All the eleven instrumentals and two songs that are presented on this 60-minute CD are remarkable, but inasmuch as they vary not only stylistically, but also in many other respects, I find some of them to be a bit (really just a bit) less interesting than the others, my personal style preferences being of no importance, save for those attributes directly affecting the progressiveness of compositions. Feats of the Warrior Kings, Splat, Grand Central Station and Dinner at Koko's are smashing, fruitful, rich-sounding impromptus dancing in a totally coherent ring of swinging, yet decidedly unusual and complex rhythmic patterns. However, they didn't succeed in avoiding such jazz tricks as syncopation and joint motion with exclusively unison / in 4th or 5th solos, which, although spectacular, are too traditional, though they're maybe just inevitable in such compositions. The relative monotony of the themes and frameworks set up for improvisation would complement the picture of flaws. Nevertheless, there are plenty of wonderful moments on each, the musicians shining with mastery and technical precision as brightly as everywhere on the CD, and although I find the piano work to be especially memorable, it's probably just because the piano is widely used only on these four, while on the other pieces Bobbi Holt handles mainly organ and synthesizer, doing this with equal mastery. Illegal Aliens, Wuhan Incident and Cole Train are the most intense and dynamic, and yet exactly these turn out to be the richest in transitions. All three display a continuous progression on both the musical and stylistic levels: now following a symphonic harmony, now maintaining improvisations, now touching heavy progressive music, often blending all three directions into one cohesive whole, namely Rare Blend's very own quasi Jazz-Fusion. The longer song, Miles to Go, suits the last definition overall, although both the primary constituents of the group's style are here rarely intermixed with each other. It begins in a typically swinging manner, the vocals being delivered in a jazz fashion as well, but already the first instrumental movement is done in the symphonic key. Later on, both the tempo and direction shift very often, but Art-Rock structures remain predominant, reaching the perfection of their form in the second third of the piece. Vic Samalot is undoubtedly one of the most many-sided guitar players working in the field of Jazz-Fusion, and his command of both electric and acoustic guitars is astonishing. He works wonders while playing an acoustic guitar solo (in a genuinely Spanish rather than a Latin American style) throughout Off to Arizona. Generally, this piece is imbued with Spanish colorations, often delivered in combination with lush passages of a string synthesizer. There are only classical guitar (courtesy of Jeffrey Scott this time out), bass and synth woodwinds on Destiny's Eyes, which is a real feast of symphonic harmony, if briefly. The very aptly titled Mystic Jam concludes the long list of highlights. This is beautiful atmospheric Space Fusion and is pure magic despite the absence of intricate arrangements. As to the remaining two pieces, both are pleasing without being anything groundbreaking. Intermission is in the same style as Mystic Jam, but consists of more solid textures. The last track, Heading Home, is a kind of acoustic rocker, finding Bobbi singing to the hard rhythms of acoustic guitar. This is the only track on the CD that reminds me of something. What exactly? Early Led Zeppelin.

Conclusion. To my way of thinking, "Stops Along the Way" is very close to the status of masterpiece. Overall, this is a wonderfully impressive album that may change the minds of any who still don't believe a truly progressive confluence of composed and improvised music is possible. Highly recommended.

VM: September 5, 2006

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