2012-02-01 – Progmistress.com (Review)

Originally published at:
http://progmistress.com/2012/02/01/ben-craven-great-terrible-potions-2011/

 

TRACKLISTING:
1. Diabolique (2:27)
2. Nobody Dies Forever Part 1 (2:37)
3. Aquamarine (5:07)
4. Ready to Lose (6:02)
5. The Conjurer (4:13)
6. No Specific Harm (10:58)
7. Solace (2:43)
8. Nobody Dies Forever Part 2 (1:51)
9. Great & Terrible Potions (9:06)

Bonus tracks:
10. Ready to Lose (Single Edit) (3:39)
11. Nobody Dies Forever (Single Edit) (2:59)
12. No Specific Harm (Single Edit) (3:29)

LINEUP:
Ben Craven – vocals, all instruments

Prior to the release of this CD, Ben Craven may not have been a household name for progressive rock fans; however, an album whose cover bears the unmistakable style of legendary artist Roger Dean is bound not to fly under the radar for too long. A self-taught “cinematic progressive rock singer-songwriter” from Brisbane (Australia), in 2005 he released his debut album, Two False Idols, under the handle of Tunisia. Great & Terrible Potions, Craven’s first full-length CD under his own name (preceded in 2007 by a digital-only EP, Under Deconstruction), was released in the late summer of 2011 after Dean had put the finishing touches to the artwork.

Modern technology offers artists the opportunity to release and record their own music without having to rely on outside assistance – be it the backing of a record label or  simply the presence of other musicians – and, as a result, the market has been flooded with “solo-pilot” projects that, more often than not, have little to recommend them. However, this is not the case with Great & Terrible Potions, as the album – though obviously targeted to the “mainstream” prog crowd – is not only very accomplished in a technical sense, but even manages to display some measure of originality. While the overall sound does reference classic symphonic/neo acts such as Genesis and Marillion (with occasional nods to Pink Floyd), Craven’s warm, engaging vocals hint at a singer-songwriter matrix rather than conventional prog. Catchy, almost hummable tunes abound, but at the same time the music often possesses a broad, cinematic sweep that is not overdone to the point of cheesiness.

Running at around 55 minutes, Great & Terrible Potions offers a nice balance of shorter and longer tracks, both instrumental and featuring vocals. While Craven has chosen to dispense with the ever-popular multi-part epics, the presence of two songs hovering around the 10-minute mark will keep the more traditionally-minded set happy. On the other hand, the three bonus tracks appended to the album, though emphasizing the accessibility of the material, do not really add anything of particular interest to the equation.

The cinematic bent of Craven’s compositional approach immediately shows up in the short but punchy instrumental opener “Diabolique”, complete with ominous sound effects, leading to an intense Hammond organ coda in pure Jon Lord style. The first part of “Nobody Dies Forever” is introduced by atmospheric noises in true spy-movie fashion, then develops into a slow, measured number in which Craven’s slightly breathy, yet well-modulated voice is complemented by guitar and keyboards. “Aquamarine”, the longest of the instrumentals at 5 minutes, gradually builds a sense of tension through keyboard washes and faint choral effects, then softens into a clear, melodic guitar solo in the classic Hackett/Gilmour mould. The remaining two instrumentals, “The Conjurer” (dedicated to the late Richard Wright) and “Solace” are quite similar in mood and structure, the harmonious interplay of piano and guitar highlighting the emotional content.

While the catchy mid-tempo “Ready to Lose” shows some serious airplay potential, blending neo-prog stylings with almost Beatlesian suggestions, “No Specific Harm” and the title-track, the two longest numbers on the CD, head for more ambitious territory, though avoiding the excesses that often plague prog epics. The Middle-Eastern flavour of the former parallels the Biblical references of the lyrics, with a dramatic, eerie keyboard-driven middle section bookended by gently haunting vocal-led passages offset by piano and acoustic guitar. Similarly, the title-track develops from a subdued, piano-and-voice opening into a  lilting, waltz-like pace enhanced by strings and majestic keyboard sweeps, then climaxes in a soaring slide guitar solo.

While not breaking any new ground, and probably a bit too “traditional” to attract the interest of those looking for more cutting-edge fare, Great & Terrible Potions is definitely above the average of the many rather derivative releases that flood the market on an almost daily basis. Offering a well-balanced mix of instrumental complexity and catchy melodies interpreted by a strong, confident voice, it references past glories while not aiming for an unabashedly retro sound. Coupled with the striking visuals of Roger Dean’s cover and overall stylish packaging (including a foldout booklet that doubles as a mini-poster), the music will not fail to satisfy fans of classic symphonic prog, as well as those who appreciate good-quality movie soundtracks.