In the 1970s and '80s, Jaugernaut was a little-known 'pomp-rock' band in Washington state that gained a big regional following and a small but enthusiastic following in Europe. Today the original pressing of their Take Em There album can occasionally be found among the rarities section of the most avid of prog collectors - but since the mid '80s the band has been relegated to the distant memories of a small legion of die-hard fans. Band member Jim Johnson recently decided to resuscitate the band on his own, and Contra-Mantra is the product of a 2-year almost-solo project
which has now been included in the prestigious lineup of music distributed by
Prog Rock Records.
And what a surprise it is. Contra-Mantra is one of the stronger sounding, most melodic, and all-round pleasing albums to come by in a long time.
Caveat: It isn't perfect - production could benefit from more attention, and the performances are more enthusiastic than polished - but those quibbles don't rob this record from being a damned good listen.
The style is 1970s prog meets AOR - and who knows who labeled Jaugernaut as 'pomp-rock' over 20 years ago, but the tag still seems reasonably appropriate because there's a confident boldness that manifests itself in wonderful soaring melodies of the kind that eludes so much of today's progressive rock. The music is well layered and the song structures shift and flow comfortably - never losing your attention, but never challenging you either. There's a nice use of various classical-prog styled keyboards from Johnson, and there's some wonderful guitar work from collaborator Jim Brammer.
One of Contra-Mantra's strongest points is Johnson's singing. So many one-man-bands are severely lacking in this area, but Johnson's delivery is in a strong upper-range with good pitch control and excellent range. This guy could successfully audition for almost any metal band, yet in the lower ranges his vocal timbre is very nicely suited to '70s-influenced prog. The occasional addition of multi-part backing vocals works remarkably well too. Listen to the excellent, introspective "All I See Is Gray", in which the earlier parts are an appealing ballad, yet the energy builds up, and Johnson effortlessly ratchets up his delivery to match. Sort of Billy Joel morphs into Geddy Lee. An interesting note: Some writers have called Contra-Mantra metal. With respect - they are wrong, and they're probably being misled by that singing style. There are some hard-rock / hard Kansas-like AOR tendencies, but make no error - this is rock-solid, old fashioned progressive music - and not prog-metal.
Contra-Mantra relates a story of the origins of evil, although the lyrics are somewhat esoteric. It's a themed piece rather than a concept album, and the songs flow into one another - although each song stands on its own there's a seamless transition among all of them, leading to a continuous yet constantly changing flow of music. The most 'proggy' of the songs is the imaginative 15-minute "The Hard Way", but the standout track is probably the 12-minute opener "Anthem" in which a little piano motif floats along constantly, as the song goes through shift after shift - now soft, now hard rock, now vocal, now instrumental - that little theme remains in place almost all the way through. Very nice.
Let's hope Contra-Mantra does well for Jaugernaut. It's a very pleasing listen, and with a bit of success under their collective belts, perhaps their next CD will have the same great sense of melody, but with a bit more attention paid to production. And the good news - a Contra-Mantra II is in the works.
If I'd managed to get to this one when I first received it, it would probably have found a place in my best-of-2005 list. Recommended:
2). The Damage Is Done
3). Better Living Thru Anarchy
4). The Hard Way
6). A Different World
7). All I See Is Gray