What’s wrong with a little prog rock? Sure, Rush was once the butt of many music lovers’ nerd-rock jokes, and yes, Genesis eventually ditched Peter Gabriel (or, well, Gabriel ditched them) in favor of the Adult Contemporary-centric sounds of Phil Collins and his blend of schmooze pop that your impossibly bland second aunt insists she loves. But Rush has since become the type of band that cult-favorite personalities continuously defend, and Genesis’ “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” remains one of the great masterpieces in the history of the niche. Besides — Pink Floyd still matters, and there are many who still consider David Gilmour and friends (sorry, Roger Waters) progressive enough to fall into the genre, too. And that’s got to count for something, right?
Enter Frederick/Baltimore’s Time Columns. Attempting to update the traditional prog rock formula, the band’s latest set, “Mana,” is a refreshing take on the type of music that used to be reserved only for people who had a high IQ and loved to play Dungeons & Dragons. These days, the approach is hip and respected, with the help of such modern-day progressives as The Mars Volta or even At The Drive-In (the remnants of which make up The Mars Volta, of course). Twelve-minute songs and odd time changes are in style, geeky-rocker jokes be damned.
Plenty of such can be found on “Mana,” an ambitious record that crosses paths with everyone from Omar Rodriguez Lopez to Dream Theater to Les Claypool and all the way back to King Crimson. Heavy names, sure, but even when the set falters (which, at times, it does), it still echoes those influences louder and more succinct than most other prog wannabes (what’s up, Coheed and Cambria!). The end product caters to rock music experts with its atmospheric layering and multi-faceted attack while pandering to fringe fans with hints of pop and easily navigated rhythms.
The latter elements are utilized most whenever the trio breaks out an acoustic guitar. The short “Lole’s Song” is unnecessary and forced, yet not once does the two-minute track feel improper. Instead, all the song does is apply another element to an already eclectic collection of tunes. “Halcyon Days,” meanwhile, waits more than 5 1/2 minutes to reintroduce the instrument, and for every reason “Lole’s” feels self-indulgent, the acoustic strums on “Halcyon” feel imperative. It’s the most accessible Time Columns get, and maybe even more poignantly, it also becomes proof that these three guys have, at the very least, a surface ability to tap into some funk to produce a fluid type of songwriting.
As for the rest of the songs? Well, grab your Neil Peart instructional video, adjust your thick-framed glasses, call your closest long-haired friends, and hold yourself a prog rock party. “Produce Communicate Transport Destroy” recalls the 1980s era of King Crimson if Robert Fripp had first met Adrian Belew in 2009 and they both happened to love Incubus for some inexplicable reason. “Salvo,” the album’s opener, clocks in at just over 7 1/2 minutes and sets the tone perfectly for the remainder of the collection as it bounces back and forth between a heavy variation of a 6/8 time signature and a repetitive, wandering journey of a groove within the track’s makeshift verses.
“Tetralemma” marks the only time the set suffers as the notion of dumbing things down doesn’t serve this group well. When considered alongside the rest of the tracks that appear here, the song not only serves as a black eye, but it also profiles exactly how generic these guys can sound if they veer away from their progressive roots. Conversely, “Luma” is without question the most glaring example of how well it can all sound when it comes together properly. The only track with words, it could have been a B-side on Primus’ “Sailing the Seas of Cheese,” with its boppy bass line and quirky, Claypool-like vocal track. The electronics that surface by the end of the song cap off what proves to be a refreshingly catchy piece of prog art.
And that’s not easy to do. In fact, prog art, as a whole, isn’t typically the simplest form of art to tackle, especially if your plan is to be a progressive rock band. But Time Columns nearly pull it off with “Mana.” Is it perfect? No. But it does get the point across that these guys have the ability to craft some fairly interesting prog tunes. And considering how much thought, talent, preparation and imagination it takes to create this type of music, this trio has nothing to be ashamed of when listening back to their latest release.
So again, what’s wrong with a little prog rock every now and then? The answer, of course, is nothing. And for anyone who needed proof that those Rush jokes are sooooo 1995, Time Columns make a pretty good case for how unfunny those cracks appear in 2012. Now, put down that wizard figurine and say it aloud: Prog rock is alive and well!
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **