Corvus Stone II Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothCorvus Stone II is an eclectic collection of songs from an eclectic combination of musicians, a varying journey through elements of funk, jazz, psychedelic rock, and Canterbury prog.

Corvus Stone II
Artist: Corvus Stone
Label: Melodic Revolution Records (MRR)
Time: 16 tracks / 79:00 minutes

Though they are inevitably lumped into the amorphous category of progressive rock, Corvus Stone is perhaps best described as an avant garde studio band.   If that sounds eclectic, it’s probably because the personalities that make up the band are just that, and they find ample representation in their unusual compositions.  Boasting a staggered release late last year (digitally in September, physically in October), Corvus Stone II contains a little bit of everything.  I’d call the album a mosaic – if a mosaic could have harsh edges and a roguish sense of humor.  Nevertheless, CS II feels like something assembled from something else – bits and pieces of unrelated things molded together into something that somehow makes a lot of sense.  Individual songs themselves tend to be a bit like Frankenstein’s monster: spliced musical ideas with visible stitches and a jolt of electricity.  As a whole, CS II is a varying journey through elements of funk, jazz, psychedelic rock, and Canterbury prog, and it also possesses a very comical and theatrical element – not unlike a radio drama.

Corvus Stone’s core members are scattered across the globe and involved in numerous other projects, which is why the band rarely performs their work live.  Colin Tench (guitars), Petri Lindström (bass), Pasi Koivu (keys), and Robert Wolff (drums & percussion) form the core musical unit.  However, as on 2012’s eponymous debut, CS II also features a significant number of additional names in its liner credits.  Special guest artists (all of whom provide vocals) include Phil Naro (Druckfarben, Backhand), Sean Filkins, (ex-Big Big Train), Stef Flaming (Murky Red, Transmission Rails), Blake Carpenter, (The Minstrel's Ghost, Voice of the Enslaved), Timo Rautiainen (Trio Niskalaukaus), Andres Guazzelli (CTP), German Vergara (Aisles), and Matti Kervinen (Pax Romana).  Additionally, Victor Tassone (Unified Past, Andy John Bradford’s Oceans 5) also provided supplemental percussion work.

Like I said, a little bit of everything.

Corvus Stone II’s 2:00-minute opening track, “The Simple Life,” establishes a dark ambiance via a harpsichord patch on the keys, ominous guitar and bass chugging, and the flitting caw of a crow (an emblem that has appeared on both of the band’s releases).  After several bars of this swelling tension, the song dramatically shifts to a major tonality and Phil Naro begins to sing warm, morning salutations.  The night-and-day difference in tone is as much thematic as it is musical.

Fading in from the previous track, “Early Morning Call” is the first of many instrumental compositions on CS II.  This piece has all the trappings of an ambient, psychedelic waltz.  Drums and string patches carry the rhythm while Tench provides lead melody on the guitar, demonstrating his technical versatility: harmonics, sweep-picking, whammy bar manipulation.  Sean Filikins provides some distant “ahhs” in the background.

CS II’s first full-fledged song is its third track, “Boots for Hire.”  This isn’t quite an epic in a prog sense, as the song clocks in just under 9:00 minutes, but its plodding pace and extended instrumental sections seem to have an elongating effect.  Tench opens the piece with some spastic guitar parts, utilizing a whammy bar (or pedal) to create harsh, detuned, dive-bomb effects.  The music and lyrics were both composed by guest artist Stef Flaming, who also leant his robust stage voice to the recording.  After a pair of verses, the composition breaks into a double-timed, instrumental romp, employing unison across guitars and keys before dissolving into a cacophony of sound and gradually returning to its former structure.  The slowing trill, and then steady flatline, of a heart monitor announces the eerie conclusion of the song and the beginning of “Sneaky Entrance in to Lisa” – a loose, 30-second staple between “Boots” and the next track, “Purple Stone.”  The latter tune kicks off in high gear – kind of literally: the first thing we hear is the revving of an engine and the squeal of tires before the up-tempo composition kicks off.  Blake Carpenter and Andres Gauzzelli provide vocals, commemorating the purchase of a brand new (purple!) sports car.  It’s difficult not to compare this song to Rush’s “Red Barchetta” or Queen’s “I’m in Love With My Car,” even if none of these songs sound remotely similar.  “Purple Stone” features plenty of Tench’s fancy guitar work throughout its 3:21-minute duration.

The next tune, “A Stoned Crow Meets the Rusty Wolff Rat,” begins with acoustic guitar lead and ambient string pads, before bass, drums, and electric guitars enter in dirty 4/4 rock-and-roll.  I like this instrumental piece a lot as it’s one of the more versatile tunes on the album – moments for keys, guitars, and bass alike to shine; meter and tempo changes; and good overall use of the band’s instrumentation.  The track clocks in at 7:37 and is a quality example of what Corvus Stone do best: extended, instrumental frenzies of wild sounds, unpredictable variation, and supreme technicality.

“Lisa Has a Cigar” is another interlude, a lush piano composition by Koivu, which precedes “Mr Cha Cha.”  Another strong instrumental, this tune is bass-fronted in the vein of Iron Maiden or Rush.  There are a number of internal variations on the central theme, and each instrument is afforded a strong presence – most noticeably Lindström’s bass lead and Tench’s expressive guitar parts.  Immediately thereafter, “Dark Tower” (a nod to Stephen King?) is a short composition that is largely instrumental, comprised of piano and strings with guitar lead and another lyrical/vocal offering from Blake Carpenter.

“Scandinavians in Mexico” is a tongue-in-cheek, self-referential title for a piece with an amusing back-story.  In the band’s own words, guest vocalist Sean Filikins “started shaking and hitting things in a Mexican fashion, sung weird words, recorded it all and sent us the files, demanding to be in our new Stoned Sultana band.”  “Scandinavians in Mexico” is therefore a hypothetical pseudonym for “Corvus Stone ft. Sean Filikins,” which is moniker for a hypothetical tour that will never happen (hypothetically).  Working in the parameters of a samba, carried rhythmically by kettle drum and hand percussion, Tench and Koivu weave a sensual, Santana-esque jam.  The song is mostly instrumental for its 5:00-minute duration, though Sean Filkins does provide “weird words” to more fully flesh out this strange piece.

Beginning with thematic ambience, “Mystery Man” features another strong performance by Blake Carpenter.  This song’s introduction is appropriately eerie, structured on shimmering 12-string acoustic guitar and synth pads, though the verses are grungy, trudging, and even bluesy at times.  A stretch of melodic, acoustic guitar lead separates the organ-led refrains.

“Camelus Bactrianus (Tuolla Tuonnempana)” is a huge composition, almost stretching to 9:00 minutes, and features vocals performed by Timo Rautiainen, who sings lyrics entirely in Finnish.  At its outset, the song builds rhythmic tension, overlaid with organ leads that channel Peter Bardens (Camel) and Kerry Livgren (Kansas).  Plenty of other instruments find room on this composition to shine – amongst them flute, various guitars, and multiple synth patches.

“Uncle Schunkle” is another funky, instrumental composition with plenty of meter changes.  Wolff’s drums are sharp in this track’s overall mix, stark against the fuzz of Tench’s overdubbed guitars and the warble of Koivu’s mellotron.  I particularly appreciate Lindström’s busy work on the bass throughout this piece, as well as the back-and-forth spotlight-trading between instruments.

“Eternal Universe” features another performance by Phil Naro.  This song feels like a gentle lullaby (perhaps a response to Naro’s earlier wake-up call), and thematically focuses on staggering perspectives and proportions – the earth as a “grain of sand,” the universe as an eternity of empty space.  Nylon-stringed guitars, chimes, flute, and loose rhythm create an appropriate dreamlike ambience throughout.

Sean Filikins and German Vergara provide vocals for “Moaning Lisa,” CS II’s true epic, which clocks in at 14:00 minutes.  This mournful composition, primarily structured on strings, piano, and acoustic guitar, is the tragic tale of a woman’s wandering spirit – a woman who, in life, lost her father, her integrity, and her ability to feel love.  “Moaning Lisa” is a sorrowful, pastoral ballad, boasting a gentle progression.  The song gains instrumental layers as it ages, and then transitions into something vengeful at its halfway point: something rhythmic, dark, and restless, with ironic harmonica overlaid for effect.  After the instrumental break, gentler guitars and vocals return to conclude the tale.  During its final minutes, the epic transitions one more time, weaving through a minor, Latin-influenced, 6/8 shuffle to its conclusion.

The album’s final track is “Campfire (Tulen Luona).”  A brief song, it features layers of guitars (primarily acoustic), flute, and gentle synth, as well as more Finnish lyrics again sung by Timo Rautiainen.  With this warm, lighthearted piece serving as its final offering, CS II creates the impression that, in its entirety, it is a collection of musical tales traded back and forth in such a setting – the kind of campfire stories that are an indecipherable mixture of all human sentiments: joy, sorrow, loss, and fear.

I’ll say it again.  Corvus Stone II is an eclectic collection of songs from an eclectic combination of musicians.  At times, it feels disjointed because there are so many different ideas represented.  However, my favorite parts of this album – its strongest parts – are its instrumental tracks.  Tench, Lindström, Koivu, and Wolff are musicians who play well together, knowing both the ins and outs of their craft as well as one another’s tendencies, and they have the ability to write compositions that emphasize their strengths.  In that regard, I think the plethora guest vocalists often impedes the stronger elements of Corvus Stone’s writing.  I say that in no way to downplay the notable virtuosity of the artists who leant their abilities to this ambitious project.  However, I like the zany music Corvus Stone’s members create well enough by itself: there’s enough character and storytelling ability in the band’s instrumentation to render the album’s vocals something of an afterthought.

All taken into consideration, CS II is a tough album to digest.  At first listen, there’s a lot to like, and there’s a lot that will raise the eyebrows.  The music, not unlike its thematic concepts, can be difficult to truly appreciate.  But subsequent listens reveal more and more intricate layers, more and more pieces of the mosaic…

And then the thing begins to make a lot of sense after all.


Justin Carlton