Udo Gerhard’s Prog Reviews
(Internet), February 2000
German readers can find the original (German) review at
Ed Macan is an American music educator and musician, who in prog circles mainly is known as author of the (enduringly successful and very interesting) book “Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture.” After he was active first principally as a musician in classical and jazz ensembles, he decided to put his insights as a Prog scholar into practice and to place the instruments he is a specialist in playing (vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, etc.), which in Prog have led rather a borderline existence, into a leading role. For that purpose he has sought out master students from the music school at which he teaches, in order to realize his own compositions.
What is one to expect of this attempt? Now, from a purely musicological/theoretical perspective, Macan delivers a very interesting disc. The structurally very interesting pieces use many of the techniques (variation, fugue-like polyphony, etc.) that he, as a learned musician, is naturally fluent in from the go. The influences in his compositions are manifold, with his combination of modern classical-tinged passages and jazzy improvisations as well as interesting rhythms that call to mind perhaps ELP, of course only in their substance. Moreover he gives two cover versions, namely Curved Air’s “Cheetah” (from Phantasmagoria) as well as ELP’s “Infinite Space” (Tarkus), which through the unusual arrangement naturally become entirely original pieces. Likewise the cover of Holst’s orchestral piece “Mars” (from The Planets suite), which indeed also already has been attempted by King Crimson and ELP.
The main problem with this disc is its arrangements: Macan plays almost entirely vibraphone and marimba, instruments which admittedly he is a master of, in addition adding a little background piano for variety, while his students (two different lineups) support on bass and drums. Therefore the foundational sound of the entire disc remains more or less constant, too constant for my taste. Now the vibraphone is neither an instrument that one can develop great intensity with (grossly evident in “Mars,” which naturally in its original form is very menacing and energetic but here is presented somewhat too fast and without the necessary buildup), nor can one construct hard-rocking passages with it. Therefore the sound most obviously is subdued and in any event the potential contained in the music unfortunately is not fully realized. Macan himself has described in his book the direct contrast of soft, acoustic passages and electric eruptions as one of the leading characteristics of classic prog, yet he does not allow his ensemble to draw on that simple expedient. In addition it is the case that his accompanying musicians, while indeed playing solidly, contribute no highlights of their own.
I think that one can consider this disc as a very interesting, but only conditionally successful experiment, and I would be very interested to hear what one of Macan’s pieces could sound like with a fuller instrumentation (in which the mallet instruments could indeed still play a major role). On his upcoming CD he has in fact broadened his instrumental palette to include organ and string ensemble. (Udo Gerhard)