Perhaps one of the most underrated guitarists in progressive rock history is none other than the late Peter Banks. As a founding member of Yes, he helped create one of the legendary bands of the genre, and his subsequent band Flash is one of those acts that just doesn't get mentioned enough when people talk about the more obscure prog groups from the '70s. Add in Empire to that list as well, the band that grew out of the ashes of the demise of Flash, which included Sydney Foxx (vocals), Mark Murdock (drums), Brad Stephenson (bass), and Paul Delph (keyboards). Releasing three albums in their short career (Mark I, II, and III) with limited distribution, Empire are another one of those '70s casualties who sadly faded into obscurity without enough fans hearing their music. The Mars Tapes features unreleased recordings taken from the band's 1979 rehearsals for their Mark III album at Mars Studio in Los Angeles. Thanks to the folks at Gonzo Multimedia, this material is now available for all Peter Banks fans to enjoy.
Once again, I have to reiterate, if all you know about Peter Banks is his playing on those first couple of Yes albums, you really haven't heard Peter Banks. All three of the Flash albums and these Empire recordings contain some incredible guitar work by a player who really had a unique sound & style. The music on The Mars Tapes encompasses many different genres, and actually includes not only material from the bands eventual third album, but also renditions of songs from their first two. "Out of Our Hands" is a blazing prog-pop tune from their debut, performed splendidly here with quirky vocal harmonies and scorching guitar & synth solos. Any Yes fan would love this song, and it's very close to the style of Flash. The 18-minute "Medley" culls three songs from their second album, and it's a mix of pop, blues, and prog, with great R&B styled vocals from Foxx. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow Bar and Grill" is a daring prog/jazz-fusion instrumental featuring complex arrangements, while "Do What You Want" again veers off into daring prog rock in the style of Yes. "Dancing Man" is pure disco, and you have to wonder why this song wasn't a huge hit back in the day. "Where Yes Means No" combines both disco rhythms with Banks' sizzling prog guitar licks for a wild combination.
Over on disc two, you get the atmospheric "Off With the Kings Head", a somewhat jazzy rocker littered with Banks' stellar guitar lines and muscular bass work courtesy of Stephenson. A lengthy take on "Something's Coming" kicks off with a blazing drum solo from Murdock before the guitarist walks in with his wild histrionics. "The Fall of the Empire" offers up crisper guitar riffs and exploratory synths, one of the tracks here that is more in a hard rock style, while both "When the Banks Overflow" and "Ascending to the Planet Mars" almost sound like vintage Camel with beautiful, soaring melodies from the guitar and keyboards. The bonus track "Sky at Night" is from the bands first album, and features Genesis/Brand X legend Phil Collins on drums. It's a lovely piece, not unlike vintage Renaissance with its classical leanings and gorgeous vocal from Sydney.
It's really incredible just how good this material is, and all the more disheartening that Empire never became more than a cult band at best. Featuring sensational instrumental tracks as well as memorable vocal oriented fare, The Mars Tapes is a must for any prog rock fan as well as guitar aficionado.
See more about this release on our recent YouTube show!
1. Out of Our Hands
2. Medley: (a) Foundation (b) Destiny (c) Far Away
3. Somewhere Over The Rainbow Bar and Grill
4. Do What You Want
5. Dancing Man
6. Where Yes Means No
1. Off With The King's Head
2. Something's Coming (West Side Story)
3. The Fall of The Empire
4. When The Banks Overflow
5. Ascending To The Planet Mars
6. Bonus Track - Sky at Night (featuring Phil Collins)