Long Island's Frogg Cafe have come a long way since their days as a Frank Zappa tribute band. Their self-titled debut released back in 2001 was a very strong fusion-meets-Zappa-meets-Dregs-meets-Mahavishnu-meets-Gentle Giant platter. On 2003's Creature, the band proved they could go the symphonic prog route, as well as mix in some neat avant-garde sounds. Now with their latest, Fortunate Observer of Time, the Froggster's have created a hefty brew of prog rock, jazz, and pop, mostly written by keyboard player/trumpeter/lead vocalist Nick Lieto. Lieto's lyrics tell many tales of people going through life just passing time, as if in a world of their own, and the music is as adventurous as it is soaring and melodic.
"Eternal Optimist" kicks things off in grand fashion, with Lieto's catchy vocal melodies drifting through the mix with pop grace as the meaty guitar licks of new axe man Steve Uh rip with plenty of fire. As always, the floating violin lines of Bill Ayasse are just wonderful here, as well as on the instrumental title track. His majestic lines permeate the jazz-prog of "Reluctant Observer", a great piece that also sees loads of intricate piano/guitar/violin tradeoffs while the sinewy bass lines of Andy Sussman and the intricate drum work of James Guarnieri provide plenty of fusiony groove. Lieto shows on this one how much he has grown as a lead vocalist, as his voice is dripping with melody and pop sensibilities, with Ayasse's violin work giving the track just the slightest touch of vintage Kansas. Add in a tasty guitar solo from Uh and you have a truly wonderful piece!
Kansas again comes to mind on the compelling "No Regrets", a true slice of classy American prog, with graceful violin and intricate synths. Lieto adds in a searing jazz flugelhorn solo on this one. After the brief and pastoral "Resign", the band launches into the Gentle Giant-meets-Echolyn of "You're Still Sleeping", complete with some neat vocal harmonies and plenty of violin & guitar passages, including a fierce violin/keys/guitar section that will instantly remind you of vintage Return to Forever, before a mellow horn solo breaks up the mania.
The highlight though (and there are many) is the near 15-minute funk/prog/jazz of "Abyss of Dissension", this one written by bassist Andy Sussman, and also a tune that features former Frank Zappa vibes/marimba player Ed Mann. Dreamy wah-wah guitars from Uh meets a thick horn section and vibes, giving parts of this piece an instant Zappa feel circa Zoot Allures, but then a multi-part vocal fugue brings to mind classic Gentle Giant. "Down the abyss, I'm breaking down, breaking down, Fight the dark and curse the rain, Breaking down, breaking down, Underground, you're shut down!" Cool stuff! Guitarist Uh unleashes a fiery yet tasty solo on this tune that will make fans of Larry Carlton happy. The ending instrumental is a moody and atmospheric piece with flutes (courtesy of Bill's sister Sharon), Sussman's cello, and violin. It ends this wonderful CD on a rather somber and avant-garde tone, which is a nice contrast to the mostly symphonic and jazzy material that comes before it.
Fortunate Observer of Time is a real winner from this New York band. Not everyone can create progressive rock that is melodic, tasty, with memorable hooks, in addition to being complex and adventurous with plenty of groove. Frogg Cafe has done that here, so check this one out, and catch the band live as well if you have the opportunity.
1) Eternal Optimist (6:31)
2) Fortunate Observer of Time (7:04)
3) Reluctant Observer (9:27)
4) No Regrets (8:13)
5) Resign (1:05)
6) You're Still Sleeping (10:43)
7) Abyss of Dissension (14:38)
8) Release (3:56)