Album Reviews and
Alchemy VII is a song based progressive rock band blending sensibilities of accessible tunes and theatrical vocals with dynamic instrumental arrangements. Together for six years, their music is about empowerment, freedom from limiting thinking as well as self- and world-responsibility. Fronted by lead singer Gina Citoli, the six piece group began with cover material before writing their own songs. This review incorporates the results of an interview with the artists and discusses our impressions of their first album and an EP with four new songs currently being sold at the group's gigs.
"Alchemy VII recalls everyting that made rock great in the 70s and 80s: a sense of hope and optimism and plain old good times, buoyed by a great beat, solid musicianship and soaring vocals. Fans of Rush, Kansas and other progressive rock of that era will certainly be comfortable with the band's mood-shifting song structures; those with more a pop leanind will get into the vocal and instrumental hooks." (Scott Martin, 2000)
Based in Wisconsin, the group gigs in the Minneapolis with some frequency. Gina Citoli is the lead vocalist and is originally from Seattle. The group is further comprised of Sue Birch (bass, fiddle, keyboards and harmony vocals), Carl Wergyn (drums and percussion), Steve Lundberg (lead guitar), theatre veteran Sarah Montgomery (harmony vocals) and Marshall Davis (keyboards).
We asked Gina about her background and she told us, "I spent the early part of my life as a dancer and in gymnastics. I injured my knee in my junior year and that is when I began pursuing singing and acting. I did several productions in the Seattle area, studied dance with Ivan Novikoff, and studied dance and voice at Cornish." Gina's musical foundation further developed through practical and formal training. She continued, "I met a man who played guitar and wrote music, we did coffee houses in Seattle and then went to Los Angeles. He did all of the writing, which was mostly folk- and ballad-oriented. I was more interested in performing than writing at this point of my life. I continued in dance at The American School of Dance and took acting from Johnny Silver and Frances Lederer in LA and eventually went back to Seattle and did a show at ACT Theater and then went to New York to pursue theatre." Gina's theatrical experiences certainly do come through in her singing.
Gina's strong point was dance but being vertically challenged, reaching a height of one quarter inch shy of five feet even, she was turned down for Cabaret. She took a job singing in a floorshow that was going to tour in Dallas. Gina told us, "I met my first husband in Dallas while performing at The Marriott Dinner Theatre and we put together a night club act which we toured the country with for the next seven years." She continued, "I tried my hand at writing but was not confident enough to really pursue it. The few things I tried my ex kind of passed off as not to be taken seriously. So it wasn't till we split that I started writing lyrics. It was at this point I went into rock music and toured the Midwest with various rock bands. I was angry and so was the music at that time so it was a perfect fit."
Gina's musical career continued to develop initially singing cover material but then branching outward. She told us, "I was still doing cover material until my sister came to live with me. She had been doing a lot of writing and while I began to learn writing from her she learned about performance from me. We played some of her material in one of the bands I was with. But it wasn't till I teamed up with her that I began recording." Gina told us about her early experiences, "We wrote a Christmas song called "Someday when Christmas Never Ends" that we got some airplay with. However there are differences of style between us; my sister leans more toward pop and I wanted to go heavier rock." The differences, coupled with some business deals that fell through destroyed the momentum and led to a temporary hiatus in Gina's musical career."
Determined to get back into music, Gina bought a keyboard and began to write her own music. She told us, "While I'm not a musician, I know enough chords to get by. During this period, I wrote "Dancer" and "Eyes of a Child," which are on our albumThe Magick. She continued, "I recorded a demo with some studio musicians and James Walsh produced it for me. I ended up with a decent demo and at this point my brother got involved and encouraged me put another band together. This was a mixed blessing as it was the beginning of Alchemy VII, but we had a long road ahead of us."
We asked Gina about her vocal and musical influences. She told us that they have been, "Barbara Steisand, Janis Joplin, Ann Wilson (Heart), Grace Slick, Freddy Mercury (Queen), John Anderson (Yes), and Steve Perry (Journey). Musically there are influences by the entire group that range from Zeppelin, Rush, Pink Floyd, Yes and probabably every other 70s and 80s band. You can hear variations of many groups in each of our songs. We are presently working on some new sounds, these influences have been good, but we want to create more of our own unique sound."
The Magick Vol. 1. Originally released under the monniker Gina's Alchemy, the band's debut album (Sisyphus Records (USA) 1004, 1998), is comprised of eleven tracks and runs for a little over 42 minutes. Despite the relatively short length of each of the individual songs, the progressive texture of the album is evident both within the tracks and as the album moves from track to track seamlessly. Lead vocals are very theatrical, in a Tracy Hitchings-style, and there are sensible layers of backing vocal harmonies. The lead often soars and is mixed way above the instrumentals, never being overshadowed by the band's powerful arrangements. The song-based style of the individual pieces makes them highly accessible in their own right with memorable melodies evident in each one. Guitar, keyboard and drum parts during the instrumental bridge demonstrate the virtuosity of the individual performers. Produced by the group themselves, the technical recording quality is top notch in every respect.
The album opens with "The Magick," a catchy rocking tune with stunning lead vocals and memorable song structures. The concluding percussion part blends neatly into the orchestral keyboard and calling vocals that introduce "The Alchemist." Vocal harmonies underscore Gina's lead in another dynamic and well structured song in which instrumental arrangements are most reminiscent of the two progressive classic albums by Mandalaband (Mandalaband, Eyes Of Wendor). The lead guitar solo within the bridge is most notable.
The dramatic theatrical-style ballad "Eyes Of A Child" is beautifully sung by Gina with lovely backing harmonies by Sue and Sarah most reminscent of a West End or Broadway musical production. Instrumentals are subdued but sufficient to add all of the necessary textures to make the song most accessible. There is actually a break in the album before "Magick in the Mirror" begins. This lovely track is a blend between the band's rockier and ballad styles. Crisp percussion and a great guitar solo characterise the instrumentals. Instrumental dynamics support the soaring vocal lead in "The Moon Tune." Electronic effects, guitar riffs and percussive elements support layers of vocals and jazz-style piano accompanies a modern interpretation of the "Hey Diddle Diddle" nursery rhyme buried within the track.
The worldly sounds of the four-part "Earth Song" comes from a variety of instrumentals beginning with thick base, light keyboard effects, acoustic percussion and a powerful lead vocal part. Sung slowly, the lyrics are sung with heartfelt and powerful emotion. As the song develops further, it is driven by percussion, perfectly illustrating Carl's virtuosity, and layers of evocative vocals by the band's women. The band's rocking style returns in the final part of the track.
"A Thousand Years Of Peace" is a lovely ballad sung sweetly primarily over light acoustic guitar and acoustic percussion. Production depth is added as the song develops. The band adopts a popular rocking style in "Dancer." Highly accessible and memorable with its melodies lead and backing vocals are most notable. The album closes with another rocker entitled "Celebration" which is an instrumental and vocal free-for-all. Thick instrumental arrangements make their way through various thematic progressions while lead vocals soar above them and harmonies, including the men, underscore and add texture.
We asked about the making of the album and the path to Alchemy VII. It was a trying experience with lots of ups and downs. Gina told us, "We recorded a CD and I shall just say that I have not had the best luck going into business with my family and this did not turn out well. Steve Lundberg and Sue Birch, our guitar and bass player, were the best thing that came out of this attempt. We stuck together through the loss of the master tapes from this project and the eventual splitting with our first drummer." She continued, "We did not have the money to redo the project so we were pretty down, but we kept going and then Carl Wergyn, our drummer, came into the picture and brought a breath of life and a sense of humor in. We changed our name from Nighttspell to Storm Runner and then spent the next two years back in the bars and out running every snowstorm, ice storm, tornado and rainstorm that came our way, and it really seemed that every time we played it was something."
Gina continued to tell us about the band's progress in those earlier days, "We kept writing but had no way to record so eventually the drummer and I gave up as we could not handle the cover band scene any more. Again I thought that was it. Then I ran into James Walsh again and filled him in on what had happened to us and he was willing to help us finish an album." Gina continued, "I called Sue, Steve and Carl and they were into trying it again. We began recordingThe Magick which took about three months and then our next obstacle, which had been a problem in the past, was the lack of a keyboard player. James Walsh played in the studio, but had his own projects and could not play live. We solved some of the problems of emptiness by adding more vocals."
Gina told us about how the group expanded, "I met Sarah Montgomery while we were doing a production ofNunsense; we did a duet in the show and our voices blended well so we asked her to do some backing vocals in the studio. Sarah's background had been in church and choral work in addition to extensive community theatre, she worked out so well that we kept her on a permanent basis. This still did not solve the problem of no keyboards so we decided to ask a friend of ours to play bass and put Sue, our bass player, on keys as she is a multi-talented musician and plays a variety of instruments."
The search for a keyboard player continued. Gina told us, "We did our first live performance in several years in June of 1999 and that is where we met Marshall Davis our current keyboard player. I had met him via the internet through a friend and things never quite connected between his schedule and ours but things had freed him up and he was available so we put Sue back on bass and began performing live, as well as recording a four song EP." The EP is selling well at the band's gigs and includes the tracks "In Your Name," "Shape Shifter," "Need More" and "Forever."
Alchemy VII has had a good year of live performances. Gina told us, "Over the last year we have performed at The Whole Life Expo in Minneapolis, several outside concerts in the parks for the City of Minneapolis, some of our local clubs and we also have put together some of our own shows. We are now looking to expand our performances into festivals and concerts."
We asked Gina to elaborate about how the band's material is written. She told us, "Our writing is done in various ways. Sometimes one person might write the entire song and bring it to the group, other times it is a collaboration of sounds and ideas. I write most of the lyrics, but Marshall and Carl have also been contributing to the lyrics. The group is a good working unit striving for the best outcome of a song rather than feeding individual egos."
We were most interested to learn about how the vocal parts are written and arranged. Gina told us, "In coming up with the lead vocal lines I would say I go entirely on feel as I do not read music and only know enough chords to get the basics of the music and then the band takes it from there. I think my writing is mostly influenced by a strong passion for the things I feel strongly about, our environment, freedom from limited thinking, and the belief that we can create a better world and treat ourselves, each other and our planet in a much kinder fashion." She concluded, "I truly believe inThe Magick in all of us and that is what our CD of the same name is about. This influences me more than any one artist or group and probably what has kept me going in this business for so many years."
Sue told us about the band's backing vocals, "I've been working with female vocal groups on and off for about 15 years, doing everything from folk to bluegrass and country, to covers of old Everly Brothers rock, done a capella." She continued "When we first formed Alchemy VII, I was the only backup singer. When we did theMagick CD we added a couple other female vocalists for the studio work. Since neither of them had any experience in this kind of thing, I started out doing the arrangements. Sarah stuck with us and has been incredible. Within a couple months she was working like pro." Sue continued, "Now we just decide where the backups should go, and we just jump in and do them. It works out almost without us thinking about it. About the only arranging that I really do by myself now is telling Sarah when she can't sing. She is so energized that she would be singing backup parts on absolutely everything. She loves coming up with harmonies."
Sarah added, "It is easy to sing what you feel and what moves you at the time."
Sue then concluded, "The hardest part for me is when we are singing a backup line that is real contrary to the bass line. It sometimes takes me a little practice to get my mouth and my fingers to go in the right directions."
The Four-Song EP. Alchemy VII's four song EP is currently being sold at the band's live performances and website. It is produced on CD-R media at this time. Recorded at OarFin Studios, the tracks are written by various members of the band; lyrics are by Gina Citoli except on "Need More" where they are by Marshall Davis.
The EP opens with a jazz-rock crossover track entitled "In Your Name" again supported by soaring lead vocals and underscored with lovely vocal harmonies. The chorus has a lovely hook and the backing vocals are just tremendous; the keyboard work in the instrumental bridge has a jazzy texture. A dynamic progressive rocker follows in "Shape Shifter" and we were reminded of Lisa Bouchelle's work with Mastermind in the construction of the song. With equally stunning vocal and guitar work, it is certainly one of our favourites by the band. Marshall Davis' song "Need More" features a thick rhythm section, screaming guitars and a calling, soaring lead vocal part reminscent of Jefferson Starship in some ways. The EP concludes with a West End- or Broadway-like theatrical ballad entitled "Forever" similar in construction to "Eyes Of A Child" with chorus-style backing vocals. It is a tremendous song. Gina told us, "My Mom died about a year and a half ago and I wrote this song for her, so I always dedicate it to her."
Like many of today's independent artists, Gina has a career outside of the music and entertainment industry. She told us, "I am A Tarot card reader and Nutritional Herbalist, studying to be a master herbalist."
Sue told us, "I am a computer and electronics geek. I'm a sound tech, I keep the sound equipment going, fix computers, do computer graphics and I'm easing into website development." Sue told us about the band's website, "So far we have had a really good response to our website. I don't have it quite the way I want it, but I'm learning. I am trying to make the artwork and design as interesting and entertaining as possible, so I sure hope it helps to bring people to our music."
When asked about the web, Gina told us, "The Internet has opened us up to airplay on some Internet stations as well as some radio airplay. We are also getting some good reviews on our CD and good response on our website. As well as being picked up by Serpentine Music, an independent distributor. So we are now hopeful that with some exposure we can attract a manager, agent or promoter to help us and of course keep writing and recording."
As we concluded the interview, Gina told us "I have to put in a word for our guys, as they are the best. Carl Wergyn, drummer extordinare, percussionist, arranger and writer as well as a photographer and healer. Steve Lundberg, killer guitarist, writer and arranger, and Marshall Davis, outstanding keyboardist, percussionist, drummer, writer and arranger." She concluded, "I emphasise this group because for years the biggest comment I got was that the musicians I worked with were not as powerful and of the same caliber as I was. So I can really appreciate the abilities of the entire group. It is much more fun having a group of people to work with that can create, laugh and support each other rather than to try to do it alone."
All of Gina Citoli's work has paid off. Alchemy VII has found their calling in song-based progressive music. Stunning theatrical-style lead and backing vocals with tremendous instrumental arrangements characterise their work, and we can only guess that a live performance is a wonderful experience. You can hear samples of their work, order their CDs and find out further information at their official website and also hear soundbites and find biographical summary information at their mp3.com website. Certainly worth a long distance journey, their music is amust listen!
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