Reviews of ZC albums: Inheritance, Bardo, and Lucid Dreamer
Jon Neudorf, Sea of Tranquility, August 2015 (http://www.seaoftranquility.org)
Zen Carnival formed in Boston, Massachusetts in 1997 and released their debut Inheritance in 1999. Their second release Bardo came out in 2006. In 2010 the band started recording Lucid Dreamer and after five years we have the finished product.
The band is Bill Denison (guitars, pedal steel, vocals), Michael James (keyboards, grand piano), Ken Pfeifer (lead vocals, keyboards), Carl Puglisi (drums and percussion) and newest member Chris Paglia (electric and upright bass).
The band has quite a unique sound overall, a sort of amalgamation of alternative rock, prog and jazz. The first track "Elemental" has a bit of a psychedelic leaning, very melodic with percolating keyboards and shard-like lead guitar. The title track is much more subdued and majestic with pretty guitar and keyboards. The heavier "Born Again" is a retro sounding tune with ripping bass, excellent lead guitar and scintillating organ flourishes. I was reminded a little of early Jethro Tull. Floating keyboards, ala Gary Wright, lovely acoustic guitar and sweet background harmonies highlight the gentle "When She Cries" while the instrumental "Medieval Suite" heads into fusion territory. The prettiest song has to be the gently flowing "Lullaby" before ending with "Love Is The New Way", a melodic jaunt through progressive pop with the lead vocals reminding me of Steve Hogarth of Marillion.
I am very impressed with Lucid Dreamer, a melodic slice of alternative prog that I will be returning to again and again.
Kinesis, July 2015 (www.kinesiscd.com)
Hailing from the northeastern U.S., Zen Carnival debuted in 1999 with Inheritance, instantly-likeable 1970s-style prog in a Genesis/Camel direction. Zen Carnival’s second CD Bardo (67-minutes) is a much more mature and original work, and one of the best modern prog albums of 2006. While Inheritance was a more traditional progressive rock album, Bardo took a step in the direction of Porcupine Tree, and sounds quite contemporary. There is a suggestion of later Marillion, which has a lot to do with singer Ken Pfeifer’s voice, but there is also that sensuousness. There is also a jazzy ambience at times, overall a greater breadth than on their debut, with fewer stylistic limits. The constants are the excellent songwriting, the rich sound palette, and the exciting instrumental excursions. Read the Sea of Tranquility and Prog Archives reviews.
Writing for Lucid Dreamer (2015, digipack) commenced shortly after Bardo was released, and recording began in 2010. So though a long time has passed, Lucid Dreamer picks up where Bardo left off, carving out territory not too far from IZZ. The fusion-y instrumental work that appears in many songs is one of Zen Carnival’s trademarks, as they deftly incorporate it into a set of art-rock songs. A proggier Sting or Steely Dan may come to mind. The great instrumental Medieval Suite could be Dixie Dregs (minus the bluegrass), while Lullaby is the song that comes closest to later Marillion, with Ken Pfeifer sounding similar to Steve Hogarth here. If there is such a thing as adult contemporary prog, Lucid Dreamer should reach the top of that chart.
John 'Bo Bo' Bollenberg, On The Rocks, December 2006 (http://www.boborocks.be)
The American quartet Zen Carnival has been working on this album on and off since 1999. In fact several of the tracks on the new “Bardo” album were written long before the band’s debut album “Inheritance” was released yet they didn’t feel right to fit on the band’s first album. Contrary to a lot of upcoming bands in this genre of music, the band has a very strong and competent singer whilst the music contains a fair amount of strong melodies and accessible hooks. On the other hand certain passages and solo’s do remind me of the skills of Happy the Man and some of the originality of the Canterbury scene as championed by the likes of Hatfield and the North. Each single composition and arrangement is brilliantly composed. The acoustic opening of ‘Blindness’ simply is stunning with piano and voice guiding each other towards a fragile result which near the end gets close to the power of Yes during ‘Yours is no disgrace’ not in the least because of the strong Steve Howe sound on guitar whilst also incorporating a great choir. Meanwhile the vocal melody also reminds me of New Musik and their ‘Painting by numbers’.
With ‘Coax’ the band delivers the kind of atmosphere one would associate with bands such as Blackfield and No Man with Ken Pfeifer settling for a comfortable vocal range. In fact Ken’s voice can be seen in the same league as Peter Nicholls, Tim Bowness and Steve Hogarth, in other words : a dying breed of originality and quality ! I also hear echoes of the seventies band Khan and their “Space shanty” album. Also from a productional point of view these twelve tracks sound ace as if they were recorded with one of the genre’s top producers behind the mixing desk. It’s a pleasure to read that the album has been produced by the band’s main man Bill Denison as he has done an excellent job. A song like ‘Shadows speak’ simply sounds stunning and is a great example of how contemporary progrock should sound like. This fresh approach is the kind of music which helps the genre from it’s negative label which it received by the media ever since it’s heydays in the seventies.
The material still lacks that extra push, that extra dimension of instant recognizable melodies which puts Zen Carnival in the same league as Liquid Scarlet and Brother Ape. That’s if these guys can pull it off live like they do on record. Maybe this is their next challenge apart from recording that all important third album for which they can’t wait another seven years. Meanwhile “Bardo” surely can be rated as one of the top ten best albums of 2006. I’m a fan !
Pete Pardo, Sea of Tranquility, December 2006 (http://www.seaoftranquility.org)
Some may remember the debut album Inheritance from Massachusetts' Zen Carnival back in 1999. This contemporary progressive rock band are finally back with their follow-up release, titled Bardo. The music of Zen Carnival has a certain British prog flair to it, somewhat along the lines of IQ, Marillion, Pendragon, and Genesis, but with a strong American jazz influence as well. The line-up for Bardo is Ken Pfeifer (vocals, keyboards), Bill Denison (guitar, bass, production), Michael James (keyboards), and Carl Puglisi (drums, percussion), and the end result created by this four-piece is a pleasant progressive rock experience.
The first thing you notice is the exceptional vocals of Pfeifer, who sounds quite a bit like IQ's Peter Nichols and even Marillion's Steve Hogarth at times, and the lush, symphonic keyboards of Michael James. Tunes like "In This World" and "Blindness" are epic in scope, very melodic, with plenty of room for musical interplay, which the band participates in quite well. Guitarist Denison throws in the occasional crunchy riff, but mostly contributes some searing, legato solos as well as intricate bass lines. His wonderful tone comes through on the emotional "Half Awake", as he drifts through the mix with a gutsy sound that has bits of jazz, Steve Hackett, and Eric Johnson. If you like your prog a little more aggressive, check out "Shadows Speak", the Return to Forever-ish instrumental "The Gate" (featuring some nimble drumming from Puglisi and soaring guitar & keyboard interplay), and the bombastic "Zeitgeist", another fusion oriented instrumental. One of my favorites though is the symphonic epic "Pins and
Needles", a real prog rock gem with no shortage of vintage sounding keys, tasty guitar passages, and Pfeifer's strong vocals.Through many twists and turns this one takes the listener, and it's an adventurous ride all the way.
American prog is still alive and well folks, and if you don't believe it, check out this latest from Zen Carnival. It took a while for them to get Bardo out, but it was worth the wait.
Progressive Waves, December 2006 (http://www.progressivewaves.com)
Ragazzi Music, December 2006 (?) (http://www.ragazzi-music.de)
Progressive Land, November 2006 (http://www.dvdivas.net/ProgVoices/)
This one was a hard review to write and a hard album to learn. This album is... different... and a mixed bag of styles. Zen Carnival's first release from 1999 was a neo-prog affair that had a lot to like about it, despite its bad production. The band then disappeared from the face of the earth. Now, 7 years later, we finally have a follow up. Let me warn any who are expecting the same type of music - the band has changed their sound. This is not necessarily a bad thing - but do not expect the same Marillion-influenced work as before (although some of that does remain).
"Bardo" sounds to me as if it was recorded in two different time phases: some of it sounds similar to the past, as if it was recorded around the time the first album was released, and some has a new, jazzy feel to it. Indeed, in looking at the sleeve - it states the album was recorded over a 5 year period, so perhaps I am right. There is also a distinct "poppy-prog" influence that definitely brings to mind some of the newer post rock bands from time to time (think Porcupine Tree, Kino, etc). The jazz influence would have to be the biggest difference here, however, as it influences the majority of the tracks to some degree. There is still a healthy dose of prog to go around, however - and the band's vocalist, Ken Pfeifer, sounds great as ever. For those unfamiliar - he sounds very similar to Steve Hogarth.
So we have some jazzy pieces (Solar Circles, In This World), some neo-prog influenced pieces (Pins and Needles, Blindness, Evening of Our Days - any of these 3 could have easily been on the first release) and some weird ones that grow on you (Shadows Speak, Coax, Half Awake). This is one of those albums that will not immediately impress you, but after repeated listenings you realize that it is very different from anything else out there and begin to admire it. Sometimes change is good - I like what these guys are doing and think they are on to something. All they need at this point is some better production and a record deal and they are on their way! I think they are perfect for Inside Out....
Check out this release for something different than your standard prog outfit. Lets hope their next release comes out before 2013!
Rating: 3.5 stars
Daniel Eggenberger, proggies.ch, October 2006 (www.proggies.ch)
Vampster.com, October 2006 (www.vampster.com)
Dirk Reuter, BabyBlaue-Seiten Prog-Reviews, August 2006 (www.babyblaue-seiten.de)
"Sometimes it´s quite strange with reviews: I did not know Zen Carnival´s Debut but became quite curious about the band when reading the reviews on "Inheritance" by co-reviewers Selm and Schüßler, so I decided to buy their new album.
As my musical taste has a lot in common with the two reviewers I mentioned before, I thought what kind of music would wait for me on the cd. Pah ! My impression of Zen Carnival´s music was totally different. After listening to "Bardo" I see the reviews on "Inheritance in a different light and I have to say they discribe the Boston Group´s music correctly but definitely not in it´s whole range.
I never was that aware of the limitations of words to describe music as I was after listening to this cd.
"You can best describe "Inheritance" in the Band´s own words: "God steps down for a day and really lives to regret it!" One gigantic apocalypse with everything that makes a prog-listener´s heart beat faster" is what Thomas (Schüßler) wrote. That fits exactly with this whole album.
Besides the musical inspiration that was mentioned in the reviews to "Inheritance", I find hints of the Canterbury style, like "Hatfield & the North" or albums by Richard Sinclair or Rick Biddulph. And I am certain, that every regular Prog-listener will be able to find pieces that remind him of his own favorite band.
Considering the releases of the last two or three years "Bardo"´s intensity and stylistic variety might only be equaled by Fission Trip´s album "Volume One".
It makes no sense at all to talk about single songs of this album, so I won´t do it even though I usually do so in my other reviews.
"Bardo" is a mad mosaic of sound and contains every kind of good musical inspiration. My personal favorite for the "album of the year" in 2006."
Thomas Schüßler, BabyBlaue-Seiten Prog-Reviews, August 2006 (www.babyblaue-seiten.de)
Artur Chachlowski, MLWZ.PL, August 2006 (www.mlwz.pl)
This is a very good cd containing 12 tracks, each one unique. Throughout the album, Zen Carnival retains a consistent artistic style for a cohesive and one-of-a-kind style. All songs are at least good or better. This reviewer likes best the 3 epics (Blindness, Pins and Needles, and Evening of Our Days), which combine styles in a way that is similar to the shorter songs. These songs very much show artistic prog rock, which may seem difficult at first, but you need to hear them more than once. After a closer listen, they are fun and delightful. Something in this music intrigues me. It makes me stop for a while and think as a I carefully listen to all of the magical sounds on the album. There are so many to discover that it needs to be listened to many times to really get to know the music well. Even after finishing in silence, I can still hear these magical sounds dancing around in my head.
This music should be liked by all – those who look for new ideas in art rock and those who support those new productions that are not yet popular. Although Zen Carnival is unique, they stand tall next to a band like Marillion. But it should be pointed out that Marillion has taken 25 years and 15 albums to achieve their current sound, while Zen Carnival has achieved something of the same high level on just their second cd.
Home of Rock, August 2006 (http://www.home-of-rock.com)
Idioglossia.de, August (?) 2006 (http://www.idioglossia.de)
Bruce Alger, Progression Magazine Summer/Fall 1999
Zen Carnival is a Boston based-unit that delivers melodic progressive rock with a touch of recent Marillion influence. Soaring guitar with ever-changing keys, as well as singer Ken Pfeifer’s Hogarth-like (but darker) delivery, establishes that neo-prog aura on first impression. Fortunately, they have their own ideas and manage to produce one melodically rippling passage after another with tasty dynamic changes-they seem to flow effortlessly from one section to another. The band members are extremely in sync with one another, with an unhurried rhythmic sensibility that works under the material. High points: The neat dynamic changes into the string section of "Big Sky." And the water effects, keyboard orchestrations and melodically tasty guitar leads/tone changes from Bill Denison on the beautiful "Water’s Edge." Also of note: the heavy organ and synth samples on "The Meek," from the engaging four-part "Inheritance" suite that closes the album. Eminently listenable, and it grows on you on each time you hear it. You’re bound to find a few rides to your liking at (Zen’s) Carnival.
Renald Mienert, durp.com
"One of the best prog rock debuts of the year."
"Zen Carnival plays typical progressive rock, with a lot of Genesis influences but also with a lot more. The main focus of the music is melodic, symphonic and complex, sometimes heavy, but never strange. They have a good singer and all the other musicians are doing a great job too. A must for progressive rock purists. "