While it never received the acknowledgement it deserved when it existed in the '70s, the reputation of American progressive rock outfit Happy the Man seems to have taken on a life of its own. Like another great American progressive band, the Muffins, which also broke up in frustration at the end of that decade, the fervent prompting of a surprisingly large fan base for progressive music over the past decade has seen it reform. And it's not about nostalgia. Looking at the Muffins' recent release, Double Negative, it's clear that these bands are back with a sound that recalls their past yet remains firmly rooted in the present.
But whereas the Muffins represents a more challenging American outgrowth of the Canterbury Scene and Rock in Opposition groups like Henry Cow, Happy the Man always had a more immediately accessible sound. Influenced in its early days by more pop-oriented progressive bands like Genesis, it avoided the overbearing pomposity and self-indulgence of bands like Yes. Its two releasesHappy the Man and Crafty Handswere engaging albums that garnered enough notice to keep the group busy on the road, and to be considered as a backup band by singer Peter Gabriel after he left Genesis. Always an instrumental band, it caved in to record label pressure and recorded a couple of vocal tracks on Crafty Hands to try and get more airplay.
But that was not to be, and so, after a few years of slugging it out, the members of Happy the Man parted company. Until at a progressive rock festival in '99, where guitarist/vocalist Stanley Whitaker was swamped by scores of fans and discovered how Happy the Man's celebrity had grown in the ensuing years. And so a seed was sown that would ultimately see three of the original members regroup, along with two newcomers, to record the appropriately titled The Muse Awakens. While the absence of original keyboardist Kit Watkins is noticeable, there's no question that the spirit of Happy the Man remains and has moved into a new century.
What always made Happy the Man stand out was its complete avoidance of musical grandstanding. Like Gabriel-era Genesis, it was more about the song, although Happy the Man goes places Genesis never would; and with a broader instrumental palette to draw from, specifically Frank Wyatt's various woodwinds, the group's riff and arpeggio-based pieces have an entirely different complexion. Irregular meters abound, as do anthem-like themes, evocative lyricism and an approach that, with no piece exceeding seven minutes, leans towards the creation of mini-suites.
The Muse Awakens is a fine comeback for a group that, like many others from its time, could not have continued to exist until recently. With little place for it in the '80s and early '90s, progressive rock has become viable again, thanks to a new and younger fan base for progressive music that augments the old watch, as well as the outreach of the internet. Unassumingly unpretentious, The Muse Awakens is approachable progressive rock stripped of the bombast that so often gives it a bad name.
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