proggyChristmasCover copyMannheim Steamroller meets Trans-Siberian Orchestra ...on steroids. Neal Morse and friends wish you A Proggy Christmas...
A Proggy Christmas
The Prog World Orchestra
Label: Radiant Records
10 tracks / 51:14

"Joy To The World" rings out as big as all of Christmas, sounding like Mannheim Steamroller meets Trans-Siberian Orchestra on steroids. This, my friends, is the first track on A Proggy Christmas – a musical holiday treat brought to you by The Prog World Orchestra. Of course, the members of this mysterious assemblage of musicians – if you look past the red suits and white beards – are none other than progmeister Neal Morse and his semi-regular batch of players: Mike Portnoy (drums), Steve Hackett (guitar), Steve Morse (guitar), Roine Stolt (guitar), Pete Trweavas (bass), Randy George (bass), Paul Bielatowicz (guitar), Bill Hubauer (Keyboards, guitar, sax), Chris Carmichael (strings), Todd Morrell (drums), and Steve Patrick (trumpet). Of course the members of this particular orchestra don't all play at the same time – they're served up in various combinations throughout the ten tracks. They wouldn't want to blow your speakers away during the holiday season.....

There are great moments all over this project. Between Morse and Portnoy, you know that you can expect equal parts of reverence and fun from start to finish, as the international collection of prog superstars do what they do best with the music of the Christmas season. There's not a piece of coal to be found in this particular stocking, although there are certain stand-out treats that will find a permanent place on your rock 'n roll holiday play-list.

The aforementioned "Joy To The World," starts off big and stately, retaining the familiar opening notes and stating the melody on synth, then on Stolt's guitar. The middle section becomes a celebration of passion and joy with Stolt's guitar searing, singing and absolutely soaring through an extended solo before Carmichael's strings re-introduce the familiar melody once more. There's more amazing guitar work on a second bridge before a delightful return to the 'joy' theme. Morse's arrangement is full of power and passion.

In a totally different vein is "Frankincense," a musical collage of Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein," and various familiar holiday themes, all combined and 'deranged' by Bill Hubauer. Playing almost everything on the track except drums, Hubauer does an amazing job of recreating Winter's monster hit (insert your own joke here) while ingeniously inserting bits and pieces of everything into the mix, from "Deck the Halls" to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," to "Have A Holly Jolly Christmas." Fun? Oh, yes.

"Carol of the Bells" is perhaps the tour de force of the album, interpreting the familiar bell theme in a deceptively traditional opening segment before transforming into a clavinette -driven funk piece that gets progressively more... well, progressive as it goes along. The arrangement takes the familiar notes and plays them in uncharacteristic voices, dissonant structures and unusual timings. These guys ring every possibility out of this old standard, taking it places I'm sure it's never been taken before. It's a brilliant seven minutes and forty seconds and a triumph of arranging and playing. Kudos to Morse, Portnoy and Carmichael on this one

The album closes, like it began, with a highlight: the low-key, reverent, "Silent Night / We All Need Some Light." The two songs work hand-in-winter glove, with subtle, easy transitions from the classic Christmas carol to the Transatlantic standard, and back again. Of all tracks on the album, this is the most restrained and the one most likely to be played while drinking hot mulled cider in front of a fireplace on Christmas Eve....

It goes almost without saying that the musical performances are impeccable throughout the album. This is essentially an instrumental album, although Morse provides vocals on the appropriately ornamented and progged-up "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and "The Little Drummer Boy," which also boasts some fine drum breaks from Mr. Portnoy (I mean – you had to see that coming, right?).

"O Holy Night" gets a straight, beautiful instrumental rendering with Neal stating the melody on acoustic guitar against piano, synth, bass and subtle drums. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" also gets a straight, mellow interpretation with synth keyboards, melodic bass, and small-club drums giving it a romantic holiday feel.

"Home For the Holidays" is served up in a whimsical electro-country style , and "Shred Ride" combines "Sleigh Ride" and "Winter Wonderland" in a pseudo Metal/Prog mash-up with double bass drum work, furiously fast runs on guitar, drums, bass and synth, and a quick end-chord from "A Day In The Life," for good measure.

A Proggy Christmas is a the perfect blend of holiday fun, awe, and reverence, book-ended by an energizing anthem up-front and a soothing reminder of what this holiday is all about at the end.

Morse and his elves have created the perfect gift to stuff into that big old sock hanging above the CD player.


- Bert Saraco

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