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Jaugernaut: Contra Mantra

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:

Track Listing:
1). Anthem
2). The Damage Is Done
3). Better Living Thru Anarchy
4). The Hard Way
5). Vanity
6). A Different World
7). All I See Is Gray

Added: November 3rd 2008
Reviewer: Duncan Glenday
Related Link: The Band's Website
Hits: 2689
Language: english

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» SoT Staff Roundtable Reviews:

Jaugernaut: Contra Mantra
Posted by Richard Barnes, SoT Staff Writer on 2008-11-03 18:33:15
My Score:

Originally formed in the late 70s, the Washington State band Jaugernaut produced two albums at the back end of prog's heyday. This reissue on ProgRock Records was prompted by the news that those long-deleted titles were selling for as much as $150 dollars on e-bay. The album opens with an epic pure symphonic rock piece complete with Hammond and chunky keyboards and a fine vocal performance. There is also some tasty guitar work from either Jim Brammer or Marty Prue here. 72 era Deep Purple and Uriah Heep spring most readily to mind.

The following piece of Survivor-style stadium rock has a hook to die for, again splendidly backed up by a powerful vocal performance by Jim Johnston, who was largely responsible for bringing the team back together. The third track is more modern sounding, similar in style to fellow Americans, Cryptic Vision. Continuing the modern theme, the 14 minute long "The Hard Way" has a popping and swirling synth intro alongside sound effects and a scraping guitar. After this rather avant-garde beginning the piece segues nicely into a Wishbone Ash or Rush-like acoustic guitar warm-up section. The electric section kicks in at the end of this somehow I'm reminded of Farewell to Kings as I'm listening to the acoustic/electric mix. Midway we are treated to a sweet little piano and synth solo which helps to add atmospherics back into the song as it develops a menacing theme, in keeping with the album concept which is the first of an intended 2 album work on the origins of evil.

After this meandering beast, "Vanity" is a simpler basic rock and roll song whilst in "A Different World" an edgy grungier approach is encountered where the dominant melodic ethic gives way slightly to a more discordant and angry groove. The final track however is a melancholic ode to tedium with more of the twin acoustic guitar arrangements so reminiscent of Wishbone Ash. I keep expecting Sometime World to break out.

Overall this is a quality release with a good variety of tempos, worthy of any AOR/prog fan's collection.

» Reader Comments:

Jaugernaut: Contra Mantra
Posted by Ry on 2008-09-02 15:46:28
My Score:

Jaugernaut: Contra Mantra
Posted by anon on 2008-07-30 17:39:04
My Score:

Jaugernaut: Contra Mantra
Posted by Anonymous on 2008-04-04 08:32:38
My Score:

Nice review, but is this different from, your other review of Jaugernaut?

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