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Leonardo-The Absolute Man
Image © 2001 Magna Carta Records

Featured Artist: Michelle Young
Image © 2001 M Young

Featured Artist: Lisa Bouchelle
Image © 1999 Linda Shulman

(29 July 2001) An "original cast recording," perhaps due to the plan to stage it sometime in the future, the latest project from Trent Gardner is an account of the life of Leonardo DaVinci entitled Leonardo-The Absolute Man (Magna Carta (USA) MA-9029-2). Leonardo sounds like no other progressive rock construct you have ever heard. An 18-track recording with a running length of over an hour, Leonardo is a mix of cinematic progressive rock, symphonic rock, progressive pop and progressive metal, graced and articulated by true classical music and the theatrical scope of state-of-the-art soundtrack or dramatic stage music. With an opening that could have been written by Basil Polodouris, the album features stunning vocal work from two Musical Discoveries featured artists: Michelle Young and Lisa Bouchelle.

Leonardo will delight a broad variety of progressive rock enthusiasts and it can be most favourably compared to Clive Nolan's Jabberwocky project (review) and Arjen Anthony Lucassen's Ayreon albums (reviews and more reviews). The story has been heavily researched and this extensive project is the culmination of years of work by the Magna Carta label.

As an album, the instantly impressionable characteristic is the variety of talented vocalists who are given roles that advance, take centre stage, fade, and incredibly, engage in dialogues and full-on choral arrangement as the story dictates. "There's something like 21 performers on this," notes Gardner. "The main charcater, Leonardo, is played by Dream Theater's James LaBrie. James has pulled off, in my opinion, the vocal performance of his life. James has not only operatic training, he's got some theatrical study as well. Bringing him into this is probably the single best decision we made in the process. I gave him some challenging stuff to do. He's covering two areas, the real dramatic, piano, vocal-based themes, to the hard, heavy edged stuff, he's do solos, duets ... the range throughout the album."

Gardner continued, "Instead of one singer singing a song, you have different people coming in and out within one song. And the accumulation of all this vocal activity creates a lot of excitement." In addition to Michelle Young and Lisa Bouchelle, the album's other vocalists include Davey Pattison, Josh Pincus, Mike Baker, Trent Gardner, Robert Berry, Steve Walsh, Chris Shryack and Bret Douglas.

The album opens with an orchestrally arranged theme reminscent of a motion picture or West End show opening sequence entitled "Apparition"; the horn arrangements are incredible. A second shorter, and more modern keyboard and guitar-laced instrumental, entitled "Aria For Italy" follows immediately. The story opens with the gentle ballad "With Father," perfectly and immediately illustrating James LaBrie's vocal prowess and classical training. The heavier progressive rock side of the album takes hold in the rocking tune "Reins Of Tuscan" sung by LaBrie in various combinations with the chorus, Michelle Young and others. A rapid fire piano solo during the instrumental bridge is quite notable.

A lovely orchestral arrangement with crisp percussion entitled "Reproach" serves as an instrumental bridge between tracks and introduces LaBrie's extended West End theatre-style number "Mona Lisa," sung with the chorus, Michelle Young and others, building with instrumental and vocal intensity while changing melodies and musical textures; the choruses may remind some listeners of Queen's mid-career work. "Il Divino" is a dynamic keyboard- and metal-edged guitar progressive instrumental while "Inundation" is short and somewhat gentler, with harpsichord- and orchestral-style keyboards carrying the melody, serving to bridge to the vocal number that follows.

"Apprentice" is certainly the heaviest number on the album with bold electric guitar and bass driving the theme. The 'students' adds to the metal texture of the track which is contrasted by symphonic style keyboards and the chorus. Michelle Young (as Catarina) and Steve Walsh are featured on the "First Commission" duet. Michelle's sweet multi-tracked vocals effectively blend with orchestral and acoustic arrangements and quite notably contrasts Steve's part.

A choral-backed instrumental recants the Leonardo theme in "Mother Of God" which precedes Lisa Bouchelle (as Mona Lisa) and James LaBrie's West End progressive pop-style duet "This Time This Way." Lisa's part is bold and powerful, recorded with minimal effects. Her fans will be delighted with her solo verse, a multi-tracked chorus and soaring excursions during the track's final movement. Interested visitors should note that Lisa is also featured in Robert Berry's Wheel Of Time reviewed below.

"Inventions" is another heavy rock number dominated by thick guitar and keyboard arrangements, but the vocals are never drowned out—sung primarily by James LaBrie, every workd is perfectly understandable. Accompanied initially by piano and light keyboard, "Shaping The Invincible" is and emotionally sung ballad with LaBrie's vocals soaring as the piece builds to a crescendo with progressive rock instrumentation.

The regal and orchestral arrangement of "Introduction to Francois I" precedes the extended theatrical number "Heart of France" perfectly blending progressive rock with a West End sound serving as an initial conclusion to the project with Leonardo's death. Labrie's vocals, the chorus, guitars and keyboards are blended perfectly with themes introduced earlier in the album reappearing within the arrangement. The final two tracks of the album are the dark and percussion-intensive instrumental "Sacrament" and brighter keyboard and operatic "End Of A World" that concludes the album.

Musical Discoveries editors have anxiously awaited the arrival of Leonardo-The Absolute Man for quite a long time and by all means the album was worth the wait. Well written and perfectly produced, the artists' individual contributions have been brought together into a cohesive progressive rock masterwork. Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from amazon.com here. Certainly worth a trans-Atlantic journey, Leonardo-The Absolute Man is by every account a must listen!

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