Best known as charter member of Todd Rundgren's sometimes progressive/sometimes New Wave pop band Utopia, Roger Powell has also worked with David Bowie and Meat Loaf. Keith Emerson may have made a bigger splash with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but it was Powell who, with Cosmic Furnace
(Atlantic, 1973), released the first all-synthesizer rock record. Tangerine Dream had already been around for a few years, but its synth-laden work always featured other instruments, including guitar, bass, flute and violin. Fossil Poets
is Powell's first solo record in a quarter century and, for fans of synth-heavy progressive rock, it's a welcome return.
In addition to assorted keyboards, Powell also plays guitars, mandolin, flugelhorn and other instruments on this multi-layered collaboration with guitarist/bassist Greg Koch and synthesizer player/compositional collaborator Gary Tanin. Koch may not be a known entity to most listeners, but he's built a solid career as a Fender clinician and a studio gun-for-hire. Tanin has been more focused on producing, engineering and mastering, but here he proves that studio technicians still require a strong set of ears and musical instincts.
What differentiates Powell from some of the more bloated progressive rock keyboardists of the 1970s is his utter lack of bombast. Closer in aesthetic to the similarly disposed Tangerine Dream, this music more about texture, groove and melody. Fossil Poets rocks harder than anything Tangerine Dream has put out, and while there are plenty of drum programs throughout, Powell isn't interested in the more techno-centric direction that has occupied TD in recent years. In fact, from the opening track, "Lone Gunmen, the rhythms that drive Powell's vast array of sonics often not only sound natural, they also feel that way. Even the tablas on the urgent "Peaceful Uprising feel organic beside the more mechanistic drum sequence that drives most of the track.
The majority of Fossil Poets revolves around strong grooves and dense layers of sound, which serve as foundations for integrated soloing from Powell and Koch. Koch is generally in hard rock territory here, although he trades in his overdriven tone for a cleaner, bluesy approach on the soft "Too Much Rain and trades off between the two tones on the darker, atmospheric "Underwater City. On "Miles per Gallon Koch's hard-edged tone alternates with Powell's warm flugelhorn.
There's a cinematic vibe at work on this album, although the imagery it evokes works best in the privacy of the listener's imagination. Powell and Tanin draw from a variety of musical sources, but most revealing, perhaps, are two solo piano miniatures that demonstrate a surprising affinity for the language of jazz.
Fossil Poets is the kind of studio concoction that takes considerable time to conceive and execute. But partnered with the supportive Inner Knot label, hopefully Powell will find an audience big enough to support more frequent projects.
Personnel: Roger Powell: composition, synthesizers, guitars, mandolin, tin whistle, Native American flute accordion, flugelhorn, piano, organ, production, arrangements; Greg Koch: guitars, basses, effects, composition; Gary Tanin: composition, synthesizers, arrangements, production, recording, mixing, mastering.