Review Summary: A great debut album by this American prog-rock band led by Dan Britton
You have two options:
1. You can read this review and be bored and waste your time reading it.
2. You can save your time and go ahead and order the album right away and save yourself the trouble of reading my tedious review. because the bottom line is - This is a fantastic Symphusion (symphonic/fusion) album. Go to the summary directly if you wish.
I absolutely loved Cerebus Effect's album Acts of Deception, so when I learned that Dan Britton started a new band with CE's Patrick Gaffney I knew I had to listen to it. And I was not wrong. Britton manages to create those melodies and mélange of musical styles that I find beautiful, original and they fit my musical taste. In August in the Urals the overall music ranges from fusion to symphonic prog apart and mixed with some small surprises in each track. I thought the term Symphusion can fit some tracks here, especially Inaugural Bash. This album, while not "catchy", managed to absorb quite quickly in my brain and leave a very positive impression; one that would make this album one of my favourite albums and one of the highlights of 2006.
A word about the mood this album gets me into. I have those albums which whenever I put them on, I enter this "other dimension", a dreamlike place, which can be pleasant or scary dependent on the music heard. With this album, this is not the case with all of it, but it is certainly the case with some of the songs, especially the first three tracks. The main cause for this are the different sounding keyboards and the occasional vocals which project outward a mystical sensation that can be felt in man 70's symphonic prog albums. I can best describe it as shivers that go through a person before entering an unknown place, a forest filled with magical musical beings portrayed by the various instruments played by the band. This is the feeling I get in particular with Inaugural bash, which has this mythic journey feel to it. The atmosphere is mostly a somber one, leaning towards a darker mood but not depressing, just a tad melancholic. This album on a winter day with a warm tea, while sitting at your window can be perfect.
The songs are arranged from the longest to the shortest and the order does justice with the album and the listening experience. You start with a long journey and end with a climatic catharsis and in the middle experience different musical sensations.
I will go over the songs, but I will not go over every second like some other reviewers feel the need to do, but will focus on those parts that will help understand what the song is like and what are the main characteristics of this magnificent album.
Inaugural Bash: A mellow majestic opening, one that reminds of Cerebus Effect's sound, and then the keyboards spread the musical carpet and let you enter DG's sound world with a start that has a fusion style with a guitar in the lead and the bass giving good support. And then, wait. is that a mellotron? It sure sounds like one. The music keeps on shifting from more "optimistic" sounds to a gloomier one (reminiscent of Cerebus Effect) with effortless ease. And there is also the grey area with sounds that seem to be in between those two. This "battle" between dark, dense and heavier mood/sound and the more cheerful and uplifting side is one of the characteristics I like here. It brings in a point of interest when you listen to this. But like real life, there are the grey spots (which I hear in the more mellow parts where there is a semi-cheerful semi-sad tone). This was so far the beginning which ends at around 3:40. An interval of piano setting the pace and the guitar playing short notes and then the mellotron and the percussions come in to complete the atmosphere. It goes on slowly, calmly with some peaks which are more pronounced thanks to the keyboards and percussions. A peaceful interlude, which is then abruptly over as the piano takes a speedy ride and the drum help them accelerate the events. There are also smurf-like background vocals (as if they inhaled helium). And you would think it would not fit this, but this is where I appreciate the band's composing skills. They are open to use uncommon sounds in their music and don't hesitate to experiment.
At around 10:00 starts another part which is where the keyboards shine and the trumpets come in too. You can find some familiar sounds from CE here, but it is only remnants. Here you have DG at its splendour. This part communicates with the previous parts, making this whole track not lose its grip and get out of context. This is where you see the composing skills. Always in touch with the roots of the composition and always looking forward, progressing and moving forwards and to the "sides" with their experimental touches. It never gets boring. Another key aspect here is the regard to every instrument and its role in the whole musical picture. You should really dive into every track (and this in particular) to realize the attention to the details as every instrument does its part. Try to focus on one instrument alone and then listen to the whole "orchestra" and you will realize how well everything fits in. This can be said about many other prog albums, and it is especially right here. It may not be the most sophisticated form of composition, but it sure is rewarding and very enjoying listening to. At around 17:35 they slowly step down from the dynamic part and go into a more ponderous phase of the track. Here you hear Britton's vocals which are augmented by the keyboards.
Here is the place to raise the point of the vocals. Britton doesn't actually sing, and doesn't really narrate. It's somewhere in the middle. Some might not like it, saying that this sort of music deserves a classic symphonic prog type of singing. I don't know if this style is due to a personal decision or because of other consideration but it is not something that should make you dislike this. I find this to fit the music, eventually. Since the tracks are mainly instrumental, it is not that detrimental. Moreover, there are parts where the vocals are more in a chanting style.
I love how this part ends. It fades out and in comes again the resurrected theme form before played by the keyboards. It goes on in a slow pace and everyone joins in (bass, guitar and drums) and advances towards a high volume climax. While this is a more than 26 minutes track, there is no dull or redundant moment here, no needless part. They even prolonged it from a shorter version as they felt it needed more or could use more parts to it. I think they chose well. Let's move on as the description does not do justice to the music.
August In The Urals: The title track starts with an acoustic guitar playing a short intro and then bursts into a beautiful rhythm with the keyboards providing the backup and a lead guitar doing a small appearance. Then you have Britton's more narrative style vocals (semi-narrative, semi-chanting is the best description I can think of), but they are very well done and fit this song very well. This is more reminiscent of the symphonic prog genre. It is lush, rich in sound, dynamic and majestic; all you can ask for in this sort of song. Very good keyboards work here, I was blown away. You might find here some Genesis influence. Of all the tracks on the album, this is the most similar to 70's symphonic prog. Yet, it does not sound at all dated. It is "fresh" sounding, and takes advantage of all those old prog sounds to create the modern equivalent.
Abandoned Mansion Afternoon: This song continues at first somewhat the previous song's symphonic prog approach but here I hear what I refer to as the Symphusion part. The rhythm " is fusion" (as is the keyboard's sound) and the overall sound and structure "are symphonic prog". And thus it drifts between those two platforms and creates a common ground made of both and the merging of the two sounds great.
A Squirrel: This song marks the return to more a dynamic path and a while starting with a sound similar to previous tracks, it will "abandon" this during the song. At 3:00 begins a very cool part with keyboards sounding like a clavinova along with the guitar sounding a bit similar to them playing a rather amusing tune that keeps on wearing more instrumental layers upon it and more musical ideas as it goes on.
The Solitude of Miranda: This is the shortest track here and has the most captivating tune on the album. It starts off with the acoustic guitar with a Spanish flavour accompanied by 60's sounding keyboards (sound, not quality) and then the acoustic guitar goes to make play the rhythm section with the electric guitar doing the lead and all instruments join in occasionally. I can only say I find this fantastic music, brilliant, very well done and quite emotional as well at times. I hardly feel this is over 7 minute long. They seem to be enjoying themselves here, as there are some parts which seem to "tease" the main theme; i.e. take the main theme and play it humorously, while never losing the thread of the track. All this goes on and develops and arrives to the climax which starts building up at around 5:33 where the acoustic guitar introduces again the theme and goes on until the sweet peak at 6:08. One word - Brilliant! Only I fear no one will share this enthusiasm I have with this piece. Try to dive into it. Listen to it alone on headphones, with a dim light and focus on the music; follow it with your brain and let it diffuse. Listen to how the music develops, intertwine, goes around and about. It's a shame you can't hear it the way I listen to it. Only due to this part, which lasts a few seconds, I enjoy repeated listening of this track. This has to be heard a high volume to be well appreciated.
Summary: It is one brilliant album, and I am delighted that this kind of music is still done today. It has fresh and modern interpretation of "old" and original ideas of "new". This is an excellent album which I highly recommend. They create a theme/basis and build on it more layers or in other songs, shift away but eventually return to the source but what a ride was it.