Image © Harlequin Mass 1978
Photos by Sherry Steele
Images © Harlequin Mass 1978
(24 June 2006) Have you ever come across an album by an artist you've never heard of recorded way back when, and upon listening to it find yourself pleasantly surprised at how good it is and wondering why the band never came to your attention when they were around? Well, the self-titled Harlequin Mass album (Mellow Records (Italy) MMP 236, 1994) by this remarkable progressive band hailing from Portland, Oregon, is just such an album. It was originally released in 1978 on Mass Productions Records on LP as MAS 333. The material is available online from John Reagan's Big Balloon Music here.
Suffice to say that those of you who, like this reviewer, have a penchant for progressive rock bands with female lead singers, the album should be right up your alley. The self-titled Harlequin Mass CD is actually the work of two bands with more or less the same personnel. The first seven tracks are from the late 70s band Harlequin Mass, and the final four were recorded in the early 80s by Stubborn Puppet.
Harlequin Mass admits in the CD liner notes that they were heavily influenced by Yes' Close to the Edge, and this is apparent in most of the first seven tracks. The really wonderful thing is, however, that although they copied Yes' epic, multi-dimensional, upbeat style, they managed to forge a sound that is all their own.
Lush acoustic instrumentation alternating and in tandem with electric arrangements and tinged with synthesizers abound. It's worth noting that the band somehow always seems to come off sounding energetic, even in the more acoustic-oriented moments. The often intricate songs are never boring and hold up very well under repeated listening.
Also, you prog fans who, like this writer, grow tired of the current wave of prog rock bands emulating the dark, nihilistic, despairing outlooks of the great seventies prog bands (ELP, Genesis, Pink Floyd, etc.) should be delighted with Harlequin Mass' optimist, upbeat approach. In the words of the great progster Neil Morse (Spock's Beard, Transatlantic), "Beware of Darkness."
Singer Nancy Kaye is simply marvelous, and her alto voice is in exactly the right range for progressive music. She particularly shines in the beautiful, mostly acoustic "Loss of a Friend" with its haunting melody and Yes-like background vocal chants. Further, although this reviewer has heard a lot of female prog rock singers, no comparisons between Nancy Kaye and other singers comes readily to mind. Ms. Kaye was perfect for the band's style, both in the 70s and 80s material, and it's hard to imagine another singer doing the material better.
Prog fans will adore the Harlequin Mass epics "Love and Death" and "Skycaller". In fact, the latter piece is quite possibly the purest Yes tribute ever. It is very dynamic, melodic, contemplative, and serious, but like Yes always manages to stay positive and upbeat. The band's arrangements and Nancy's singing in "Skycaller" are superb. This piece is the Yes style done right.
The short "Space Cats" is an interesting interlude and harks back to King Crimson in their less serious moments. "One Step Home" is also very enjoyable in spite of the fact that it is not sung by Ms. Kaye. The song is reminiscent of some of the better works of the Moody Blues; another band that Harlequin Mass lists among its influences.
If the album has any weak points, it would be that the 70s Harlequin Mass songs are on the whole better than the 80s Stubborn Puppet material. The 80s songs remind this writer of the prog band Renaissance's attempt to go punk in the early 80s, and like Renaissance, some of the songs work better than others.
Stubborn Puppet's "Fabulous Angel," however, is, well, fabulous; a nice, warm melody, beautifully sung by Nancy and backed by a sensitive electric arrangement. "Meantime" also stands out as one of those songs that, though the listener may not like at first, grows on you after repeated listenings. It's a rather catchy tune, and hearing it now in the context of the early 21st Century it comes off sounding like a humorous send up of the 80's punk and yuppie scenes.
Harlequin Mass is one of those curious footnotes in prog rock history; sort of a magnificent might-have-been. If they didn't do better when they were together and recording, it was most likely due to a timing issue. When they came on the scene in the late-70s, progressive rock was definitely on the wane with the record buying public in general and the music critics in particular. Still in all, the one CD we do have from Harlequin Mass is an absolute gem.--John Rodda in Tampa Bay, Florida, USA