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Man on Fire: Habitat

Conceptually, Habitat details a variety of different lives existing within the confines of a single urban city block, Each of the tracks paints a musical portrait of one or more of the individuals living with this block, allowing for the CD as a whole to reflect many varied emotions and dynamics.

So states the press sheet for the latest CD from Man on Fire, Habitat. Being that this release is somewhat of a concept album, the listener will need to give the CD many more chances for it all to sink in, which is the complete opposite of the bands previous release The Undefined Design, which grabbed you right from the outset with its catchy melodies and lush & vibrant instrumentation. Not that these characteristics are missing from Habitat, on the contrary, there's enough hooks and nifty playing here to fill up a baseball stadium. It's just that the songs are crafted in a way that you need to really pay attention to each second of each piece, and only after repeated listens do all the pleasures of these 12 tracks really start to appear. Guest guitarist Adrian Belew (OK, maybe SUPERSTAR guest guitarist!) rampages across the musical terrain on the opening ripper "The Block", while the poppy and bouncy "Mr. Lie" sees former Kansas violinist David Ragsdale soaring with some perfect lines while keyboard player/vocalist Jeff Hodges roars the statement "He's the Devil you know!" with fierce emotion. Bassist Eric Sands lends his slippery fretless bass leads to the symphonic "Majestic", a song that hints a little at vintage Kansas, while the band gets to an almost U2 intensity on the catchy "Beast Inside", complete with chunky guitars and plenty of bubbling synths.

"Street Game" is another futuristic rocker with more synths and Belew's whammy bar theatrics. Ragsdale lays down some heart-tugging violin passages on the atmospheric "What the Canvas Hides", a tune that also features a great lead vocal from Hodges as well as some neat synth leads. If you like heavier material, look no further than the crushing "Might is Right", which features all sorts of crunchy guitar riffs, meaty bass lines, and the crashing drums of Rob Sindon. Lyricist Steve Carroll pens a tale we have all heard about many times on "Curtain Call", a song about a former star who is now all but forgotten and trying to find his way through a new and lonely world. Hodges adds plenty of keyboard textures and colors on the endearing title track, an addicting piece thanks to the catchy melodies, wild synths and gentle piano.

Man on Fire have crafted another winner here, a recording that has all sorts of hidden treasures that makes for a rewarding listen. Not only that, but it's expertly produced and just flat out sounds great. Again, as with most concept albums, you'll need to give it more than a few spins for it to fully grab you, then there's no letting go. Having Adrian Belew and David Ragsdale on board certainly doesn't hurt either! This band is starting to rack up one solid release after another that should eventually lead them to the upper echelon of the prog universe.

Track Listing
1. The Block
2. Mr. Lie
3. Majestic
4. Beast Inside
5. Street Game
6. What The Canvas Hides
7. Might is Right
8. Curtain Call
9. Shelter
10. Never Lost
11. Broken
12. Habitat

Added: June 5th 2005
Reviewer: Pete Pardo
Related Link: Man on Fire
Hits: 7577
Language: english

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» SoT Staff Roundtable Reviews:

Man on Fire: Habitat
Posted by Michael Popke, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-06-05 21:27:26
My Score:

Habitat is the album Spock's Beard should have made instead of Octane — a solid record but one that strays from the Beard's signature sound and has decidedly divided fans. Man on Fire, on the other, with this brilliant concept disc exploring the radically diverse lives of several characters existing within the confines of a single big-city block, should attract plenty of new fans. In fact, the band appears poised to capture Spock's Beard's throne with its smart, quirky and friendly progressive pop-rock.

Short on obvious influences and long on unbridled talent, Man on Fire is built around the keyboards and vocals of studio producer Jeff Hodges, whose samples and loops lend the band a contemporary vibe while giving nods to a bygone progressive-rock era. The band also includes Eric Sands on fretless bass and seven-string guitar, and Rob Sindon on drums. King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew plays most of the lead guitar on Habitat, and former Kansas violinist David Ragsdale adds imaginative textures. Worth noting is that lyricist Steve Carroll, who creates a memorable and colorful cast of characters that includes a priest, a gang member, an artist and a washed-up actor, doesn't sing or play a single instrument.

Some critics contend that it takes at least three spins for Habitat to sink in, but after reading the CD booklet that explains the concept and hearing the huge potential of tracks like "The Block," "Majestic," "What the Canvas Hides" and "Curtain Call" for the first time, I admit I was already hooked. Then there's the manic, addictive repetition of "He's the devil you know" in "Mr. Lie" (which tells the tale of the block's corporate CEO), and the tinny, back-alley drums that signal the beginning of "Beast Inside" (about the local junkie's need for another fix). On "Shelter," which depicts a pimp and a runaway, Man on Fire echoes the ethnically-mixed late-Eighties band Dan Reed Network -- which, incidentally, was way ahead of its time.

I still like the songs on this 12-track CD that initially jumped out at me best. But over time, the whole album worked its way into my consciousness with such persuasion that its stories and melodies have remained with me long after I started listening to other music again.

Man on Fire: Habitat
Posted by Brad Pingèl, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-05-28 00:22:20
My Score:

It is odd, but the remarks for the need for subsequent Habitat listens (above by Peter Pardo, and below by Steve Ambrosius and Duncan Glenday) could not be more on the mark. The first pass through, I marked a few notables on my copy of the press release--"The Block", Mr. Lie", "What the Canvas Hides", and "Might is Right"--to list as highlights. These seemed to grab me most. This was supposed to be a concept album, where is the concept? Oh yea, by the second listen, it is coming together. Or at least my interpretation of what the concept is is coming together. Music as art is for the discerning ear of the listener. Behold, I can walk out my front door on any day of any year and be witness to the sensations captured in this wonderful work, and never fully acknowledge or appreciate them to the degree that Steve Carroll, Jeff Hodges, and Eric Sands do. There is depth to the music and in the message that becomes clearer with each FULL listen. I have had the disc 2 days, and have listened to the whole thing 5 times. More amazed (and a tad jealous) muttering "man I wish I would have written this" with each play, I now have some new favorites: "Habitat", "Broken", and "Majestic".

The musicianship on all of the tracks is excellent. Outstanding job in the production efforts as well. In any piece where known entities are added to the mix (Belew and Ragsdale in this example), there can be temptation to overyly feature them. This was just not the case, and each piece of the quintet was interlaced expertly.

On the beautifully solid foundation of the Carroll lyrics, Hodges and Sands have created for themselves a place to hang their collective hats with Habitat. Jeff's unique and very memorable voice is just the beginning. Many of the 12 tunes could easily be heard on (dare I say) popular radio. Way to pump new life into often times too stuffy prog rock. Although we would probably agree that the eighty-percenters would most likely turn the dial after the first Ragsdale scale run, there is true marketablility in this collection. "Bless me Father, for I have sinned", but I swear that I heard Savage Garden doing "Love Never Lost". I see fame and fortune in the future for Jeff/Eric and Man On Fire. The production work alone should keep them contented for years to come. Steve, when does the book come out, and can I get my hands on an advance copy?

Man on Fire: Habitat
Posted by Steve Ambrosius, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-05-27 08:53:20
My Score:

Man On Fire reminds me of the late Warren Zevon in the way they always seem to get the most respected musicians to play on their CDs. Habitat features Adrian Belew on guitar and the amazing David Ragsdale on violin.

The music on Habitat is very accessible and on first listen seems like Man On Fire took the easy path. But subsequent listens shows the subtlety of the songwriting. Belew and Ragsdale are simply amazing throughout and add the progressive elements to Jeff Hodges' techno sound.

There are sections of this CD where I simply have to rewind and listen once again to the unbelievable bass riff of Eric Sands. I bet watching this guy live would be worth the price of any ticket. He sneaks up on you in songs, filling in the rhythm section nicely and then all of a sudden there is a Marcus Miller type fill that just blows my mind.

This CD is highly recommended for fans of melodic-progressive rock. Fans of Guy Manning, Salem Hill, Ray Wilson and RPWL will all appreciate this CD and its intelligent songwriting. Highlights for me are Ragsdale's solos on "What The Canvas Hides" and the knock your socks off "Mr. Lie".

Man on Fire: Habitat
Posted by Duncan Glenday, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-05-25 00:00:00
My Score:

Several reviewers Have listened to Habitat and immediately pronounced it to be a mediocre effort. Yet after repeated spins, those same reviewers are now lavishing high praise on the album. So if you take nothing else from this review, take this message: You really have to listen to this many times over before formulating an opinion.

Habitat is a concept album with a difference: It describes the lives and events of the people living within one city block. And a diverse block it must be, with penthouses and offices and tenements. As the band puts it, 'Twelve tracks, ten lives, one block'. Point is - within that context, there's plenty of scope for a diverse set of songs depicting a huge range of emotions, events and lifestyles - and it all hangs together under both musically and thematically. Kudos to Man On Fire for the imaginative idea and the unconventional music, and to Steve Carroll's rich lyrics that describe it all so effectively.

Musically, Habitat is somewhat different from the band's previous CD. It is far more assertive, yet there are subtleties and complexities throughout. It's been described as power-pop - but that's unfair. Yes, it has incredible melodic hooks, and yes, some songs are fairly approachable, but keep listening. There are all the time signature and tempo shifts, recurring themes, varied instrumentation and thematic complexities you'll find in the best of the genre. Adrian Belew (King Crimson, David Bowie, Talking Heads) and Davis Ragsdale (Kansas, Smashing Pumpkins) add guitar and violin lines respectively that add important textures to the music, and rather than simply putting on the occasional cameo performance of a guest artist, their contributions are woven into almost every component of the record.

Founding member Eric Sands's fretless bass is less prominent than it was onThe Undefined Design, but it is still features strongly and students of that instrument would do well to study Sands. Frontman and keyboardist Jeff Hodges is clearly in control here, and his vocals are strong and confident, and somewhat unusual. He sings in a relatively high-pitched voice delivered with a belligerence that suits the cynicism called for by many of the lyrics. Several choral pieces and the varied instrumentation keep your interest throughout, and the piece is punctuated with sound samples that advance the concept of each song. These snippets are tastefully short, though, and consequently do not get in the way of multiple listens.

"What The Canvas Hides" is a favorite - not only because of the liberal doses of Ragsdale's violin, but also for the incredible catchy, lilting theme that takes over about halfway through. This piece alone will have you nodding your head and reaching for the replay button. Listen to Belew's guitarwork in "Street Game". No soaring gymnastics a la the guitar gods of today. It's a subtle, melodic piece that could easily fit onto an early '70s Cantebury piece, yet his solos are so tightly integrated into the music here that it's hard to believe he hasn't been playing with the band for years. The sign of a master. "Never Lost" is a soft, appealing ballad driven by a prominent bass and that Ragsdale violin line permeating every passage.

So listen to Habitat, and listen again - and again. And when one of these tunes runs through your head consistently while you're walking through an airport or driving your car or simply sitting around idly, you'll know you've been hooked.

Oh - and if you get a chance to see Man On Fire live, do so. They're as tight as a drum, and their live show is a rewarding experience.

» Reader Comments:

Man on Fire: Habitat
Posted by Reptilicus Maximus on 2005-06-30 21:46:14
My Score:

I've got to admit, I considered the idea of Man on Fire surpassing their previous release, "The Undefined Design", to be an almost impossible goal. When I ordered "Habitat" I expected it to be good, but never expected to be blown away like I have been. Unlike the reviews posted here, I was hooked instantly!! One listen was all it took for me to see that MOF has matured into a top tier band to be reckoned with!

Michael Popke nailed it when he said this is the CD that Spock's Beard's "Octane" should have been. In fact, I'll go one further and proclaim that this is the CD Spock's Beard WISHES they had released! All of the classic elements are here: sweeping melodic hooks, complex and unexpected twists and turns, dramatic tension and release, virtusoso musical performances and crystal clear state of the art studio production. Add to that the incredible fretwork of Adrian Belew and the jaw-dropping violin work of David Ragsdale and you have my vote for the best release of 2005. And having seen these guys onstage at ROSFest this year, I don't think there's a more forbiable band on today's current prog scene!

Highest recommendations on all fronts!!

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