Southern California is known for some excellent independent acts: Djam Karet. Tarantula Hawk. Chris Poland's Ohm. Big Elf. Lana Lane, Erik Norlander and Rocket Scientists. And, of course, Spock’s Beard, as their founder and now-former lead vocalist & songwriter Neal Morse resides in Nashville, Tennessee. Atlantis is another Los Angeles County band, and their eponymous debut roughly five or six years ago showed a budding group—then a trio of Ken Jaquess (bass/vocals), Teknobudd (real name: Jorge Vasquez, keyboards) and Matt Hedrick (drums)—searching for their niche among the tiers of symphonic-progressive bands and pouring their creative energies and spending their hard-earned dollars on CD mastering and pressing. Atlantis borrowed heavily from UK, ELP and Yes without plagiarizing. Whereas other reviews marked the vocals as the album’s weak point, I felt the keyboard playing was a bit lacking. Atlantis was listenable but didn't sneak onto many prospective buyers’ short lists in the big picture; scores of new groups worldwide were emerging quickly from anonymity, thanks to the Net. Yet every musician, every band, has to have an origin point, do they not?
An erratic gigging schedule allowed Atlantis to work on their sophomore release for quite some time; some early cassette demos were distributed at ProgFest 2000 in La Mirada. Pray For Rain should begin appearing in prog vendors’ online catalogs, shortly. Time to shed light on some personnel changes: Hedrick is gone, and in his wake are two drummers, Hank Wicke and Bob Craft, who each play on half of the album. Jaquess and Teknobudd (who now has a curious X after his alias) enlisted new guitarist Karl Johnson and fulltime vocalist David Bodnar. Jaquess and Teknobudd are the songwriters and melody men, while the entire band receives production credit. The listener can count on a democratic-sounding mix, in a bid to afford each player equal presence. Assigning (if not isolating) roles allows for more elbow room, more ideas; consequently, Pray For Rain sounds fuller, richer, and broader than its predecessor. Accessibility does not detract from the overall product.
David Bodnar has a pleasant voice of moderately high pitch—nothing of the Jon Anderson sort, think Damian Wilson without his extensive range—and he uses it effectively, so thankfully we’re spared any sort of note-reaching, growling or squealing that other singers love to resort to (which often ruins a nice tune). PFR sprints solidly from beginning-to-end; at thirteen minutes, the title track-opener is the longest and immediately reveals improved songcraftsmanship. Teknobudd X has been honing his technique, vacillating between lush ornamentation and decidedly economical phrasing—tasteful in this age of cram-as-many-notes-as-possible-into-a-bar shredders. Jaquess' bass-playing is as competetent as ever, coming off as a Chris Squire/Jim Crichton hybrid. And do lyrics get any more prog-rock than this: Petraglyphs will show, Our testament to pass/Tales of long ago, The memories now we know/Lightning strikes the ground, Dark clouds to the west/Tears come pouring down. Perhaps, perhaps not.
A concise rundown of the songs: “Magnificent Desolation” is a straightaway rocker steadied by Teknobudd’s orchestral keyboard parts, and credit is due to Bodnar for appropriating the vocal melody to his style (quite a catchy chorus, if one given over to formula). “Lelune” mimes in IQ’s wardrobe—those arpeggiations sound straight out of Mike Holmes’ tabs, while Bodnar turns in one of his most passionate performances and Johnson ably breaks out into some very expressive soloing (read: wailing) toward song’s end. Bodnar sits out "Again,” a brief instrumental excursion into Rush territories—excuse the bad pun. “The One” is the likeliest candidate for a radio single, with its rock-solid hook. “Hills Of Time” is the resident ballad, with a nongratuitous piano break two minutes in. The Buddman spices up his wonderfully minimalistic Korgsynth solo on “Secret Realm” via judicious use of modulation & pitch-bending.
Surprise! Guitar phenom Allan Holdsworth guests on "Oceans To Cross," turning in a typically liquidy-split solo. Allan Holdsworth is also a resident of Southern California, so he didn't have to mail in his performance, either. Vocal-free for the first 3-½ minutes, album-closer “Forest Cathedral” is the second-longest cut, light on lyrics (four verses only) and vaunting appropriately dense layers for a finale. Johnson’s deft, airlight picking & Jaquess’ conformably apt bass line are succeeded by a long, most Banksian keyboard solo following Bodnar’s initial part. Superb.
Make no mistake: Pray For Rain covers no new ground, and what does not blaze new trails is not generally deemed progressive. The fine line between pedestrian and imaginative is easily missed, but in this case, the band in question is no culprit. This album won’t appeal to fans of zeuhl and avant-progressive music (I like those styles, too); nevertheless, the players in Atlantis constitute a quality act that makes quality music. They play from the heart, and the resulting sixty-minutes of music is an hour of the best melodic symphonic rock I’ve heard in a while. No soundalike act, here—examples merely serve as references, and make the best pointers. This is original music. Atlantis’ new web site is now up and running.