Roolaart Anton - The Plight of Lady Oona Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothThe Plight of Lady Oona is unique and ambitious, and ultimately an impressive album – easily one of my favorite releases of 2014.

The Plight of Lady Oona
Artist: Roolaart, Anton
Label: independent
Time: 6 tracks / 45:00 minutes

Anton Roolaart is a solo artist and a lifelong patron of both classical music and progressive rock.  Originally hailing from Noord-Holland in the Netherlands, Anton has been active in the New Jersey/NYC area, working as composer, musician, and senior web developer.  He is also the program director and founder of ProgRockRadio, founded in 2004 and dedicated primarily to contemporary melodic prog.  The Plight of Lady Oona is Anton’s sophomore release, the followup to 2007’s Dreamer, and his first independent record.  For this new record, he was joined by some additional musicians, including Vinnie Puryear (bass) and co-producer Rave Tesar (keys, vocals, spoken voice), both of whom also appeared on Dreamer, as well as Kendal Scott (piano, keys, synth), Michael Frasche (drums), Pieter van Hoorn (drums), and special guest vocalist Annie Haslam of Renaissance fame.

Plight covers a lot of musical territory.  It tends toward the more reflective side of music, but doesn’t sacrifice technical proficiency simply for the sake of maintaining an ambience.  The album appropriately contains all the psychedelic folk and pastoral qualities of Renaissance and Jefferson Airplane, guitar work akin to Steve Howe’s, as well as all the symphonic depth of a Flower Kings epic.  There’s also plenty of Pink Floyd/David Gilmour influence and even some orchestral metal flavors at times – especially on “Standing in the Rain” and “The Revealing Light.”  Anton’s diverse tastes find equal representation in his compositions, all of which together form the basis of his work as a musician.

Plight’s opening track, “Gravity,” is a slow and atmospheric swirl of ambient sounds and synth patches.  Ethereal electric guitar and piano provide undergirding support, as does Puryear’s warbling bass.  The mix is further deepened by the addition of piercing string patches.  At the 2:20-minute mark, the first refrain rises on the swell of electric guitar, and Anton laments that “Gravity denies” him the desire to “drift above a crystal laced city,” a dreamlike place of memory and imagination.  Kendall Scott’s synth takes the helm thereafter for an extended lead before a second verse and final refrain bring the song to its conclusion.

“Stars Fall Down,” the next track, borrows some of the same imagery as its forerunner, especially the ongoing metaphor of precious stones: “pearls in a field of rye,” the “stars fall[en] down;” the “crystal sky;” and “gems plucked from a vine.”  All of this together lends to the dreamlike, fantastical scene.  Overall, “Stars Fall Down” is a simple but lush track with verse/chorus pairing and little deviation from the central chord progression.

Swirling wind and the ominous voice of a gong entrance “The Plight of Lady Oona,” the album’s title track and central piece.  This 13+ minute epic is full of bright mandolin and acoustic guitar work, and I particularly enjoy Puryear’s economical yet front-line bass work throughout the duration of this number.  The track’s first break occurs at the 2:30-minute mark, transitioning away from the melancholic verse and into a cyclical, syncopated passage that loops in 9/8, before deconstructing into an ethereal, bass-led segment.  At the 5:50-minute mark, Annie Haslam’s lilting and unmistakeable voice enters, accompanied by Michael Frasche’s soft percussion, restless bass movement, and distant organ patches.  She weaves Lady Oona’s tale from a first-person perspective, embodying the persona wandering through the “labyrinth of life,” and gorgeously doubles her own voice at “And for my love, I promise thee.”  The band immediately return to the verse, this time with Annie joining Anton for vocals.  “Plight’s” next segment is perhaps my favorite musical passage on the entire album: what begins as a gorgeous piano interlude transitions to a tight unison run shared between the keys and guitar, then becomes a mandolin-led section before what sounds like a hammer dulcimer enters the mix, and finally concludes with Anton’s last lyric: “And if her kingdom had a key, she’d put it in my pocket just for me.”  The track concludes its final minutes with a pastoral outro: gently plucked nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, weaving a gorgeous melody through a number of key changes and tight flourishes.

“Standing in the Rain” is perhaps the darkest track on the album, further steeped in a formidable metal air via the infusion of growling electric guitar chords every 10th measure.  With the exception of the opening percussion, Pieter van Hoorn’s drum work throughout this 5:00-minute track is almost entirely on the toms.  Isolated piano takes brief yet prominent roles at several junctions, rising crystal-clear above the string and synth pads to take the lead instrumental voice.  The heaviest segment of this song begins at the 2:30-minute mark: heavy, panning toms and grinding electric guitar, rendered symphonic by the unison of cutting violin patches.  An electric guitar lead concludes this track, wandering through a loose melody before the mix dissolves into silence.

After the oppressive nature of “Standing in the Rain,” the return of the warm classical guitar at the beginning of the pastoral and reflective “Memoires” is lush and welcome – like nostalgia, or the sun peeking through the clouds.  At just under 5:00 minutes, “Memoires” is the album’s only completely instrumental track.  It isn’t until a minute-and-a-half into the song that another instrument joins Anton’s acoustic guitar: gentle piano and ambient pads.  Voices too find room around the 2:00-minute mark, but only in “oohs” and “ahhs,” before ambient synth, cyclical electric guitars, and gentle mandolin resume the melodic helm.  Anton takes a brief solo on the acoustic guitar at the track’s conclusion, a lead that is simplistic but carefully tied to the thematic sentiment of the track, and perfectly suited to its sparse instrumentation.

Plight’s final track, “The Revealing Light,” is second only to “Plight” itself in terms of length, being 8:00+ minutes in duration.  Pre-programmed rhythmic synth opens the track, mixed with the sound of birds and the brief monologue of a child (Isabella Vitale), expressing awe at the beauty of the sky.  Puryear’s bass follows Anton’s voice for the first verse, pairing this close unison with quick runs and harmonic deviation.  The 4:00-minute mark begins the heaviest section of the entire album: double-tracked electric guitars, bass in tight unison, drums accenting with cymbal crashes.  Anton’s guitar solo, following on the heels of a final acoustic verse, is a wah-infused and funky lick, arching with barely restrained feedback.  “Light’s” concluding passage returns to ambient synth and plucked acoustic guitar, overlaid with Rave Tesar’s spoken word analysis of sun worship, a practice dating back millennia, linking this ancient phenomena to contemporary stardust philosophy.  The innocent wonderment of a child staring up at the sky, according to this school of thought, is the lingering connection between man and the sun – an adoration for the cosmos that is also an unrealized worship of self.

The Plight of Lady Oona is unique and ambitious, and ultimately an impressive album.  The complaints I have are minor but worth mentioning.  First, there are several places throughout the album (but namely on “Gravity”) where the lyrics feel forced, and Anton can definitely err on the side of wordiness when it comes to lyric writing, though I do admire the complex imagery he is capable of weaving into his songs.  Second, the string parts throughout the album are performed by synth patches.  Although this is virtually unnoticeable without paying extraordinarily close attention, I will be a purist and say that I prefer real violins to pre-programmed keyboard patches.  However, I also understand the budget of releasing independently, and the album’s final result is more than satisfactory.

Overall, this is an excellent release.  I’ve seen a lot of reviewers call Plight “easy listening prog,” and while it might lack some of the intensity of more contemporary releases, it certainly isn’t in any way a dumbed-down or simplified piece of orchestration.  To the contrary, Anton Roolart’s The Plight of Lady Oona is a complex album with considerable musicianship behind it.  This is easily one of my favorite releases of 2014, and an excellent addition to any library – especially if you happen to enjoy melodic music that blends modern prog with the traditions of acts like Renaissance, Gryphon, and Aphrodite’s Child.

Justin Carlton