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Little Atlas: Surface Serene

It's always a pleasure to make a new musical discovery and Little Atlas is one such case in point. Hailing from Florida, Little Atlas is a quintet that remind me of groups like Echolyn, Spock's Beard and Izz, but they add a real twist: some vital "power pop" guitar playing that seems so underutilized these days, certainly in progressive rock. Hell, it's wonderful to hear some good solid guitar playing that doesn't emulate Steve Hackett or for that matter Yngwie Malmsteen. To that end, Roy Strattman is a crucial element to the sounds of Surface Serene.

So what do I mean by power pop? Check out the introduction of "Faceless", a track which bears as much resemblance to Nirvana as it does to Echolyn. You'd swear the band was about to launch into "Smells Like Teen Spirit"! "Surface Serene", the title track, is a relatively simple and straightforward song with a catchy chorus; again, catchy chorus isn't something one tends to find much of in progressive rock so this is definitely a good thing! Probably my favorite piece is "Can I Find It". At seven and a half minutes, it's the only epic on the CD. However Little Atlas are able to pack more punch into seven minutes than many groups try to do in twenty. Band leader and keyboardist Steve Katsikas shows that he has much to offer in the arrangements department: how else to explain a piece of music that marries funky verses with Genesis like refrains and even ties in a danceable Latin bit that recalls No Doubt?! Really!! Oh and progheads are gonna love the male choir Mellotron samples on the outro! "Changeover" is another favorite of mine. It has an excellent percussive arrangement over an Eastern tinged melody. The instrumental bits are great too, including symphonic keyboards and guitars. "Momentary Thread" is a melancholy ballad that actually recalls "Afterglow" from Genesis' Wind and Wuthering album. But it is far more aggressive and features a sweet unforgettably tragic piano melody. "Shine" ends the CD on an uplifting and moving note.

Little Atlas are extremely talented and full of surprises. I like the fact that many of these songs can change so much, even though most are only in the four to five minute range. I'd love to see the band tackle a serious epic on the next CD or perhaps even feature backing vocalist Joanna Katsikas more prominently. Also, printed lyrics would be appreciated. They are only on the "Enhanced CD" feature which doesn't help much if you're not listening at a PC! However, these are minor reservations as the band exhibits much potential. I am most definitely looking forward to the next CD. Recommended!

Added: March 22nd 2005
Reviewer: Steve Pettengill
Related Link: Official Little Atlas Website
Hits: 6418
Language: english

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Little Atlas: Surface Serene
Posted by Duncan Glenday, SoT Staff Writer on 2005-03-21 20:32:49
My Score:

Miami-based quartet Little Atlas is known for its aggressive schedule of playing local venues, effectively delivering its prog message to an intelligent public that has never heard the words progressive and music used in the same sentence.  As band leader Steve Katsikas describes it "...we sell CDs at our shows, and most of the people who enjoy it don't know what progressive music is. But they know what they like."

At first blush this record may sound like rather good pop-prog. Well it's rather good and it's rather prog, but although Surface Serene is somewhat approachable the 'pop' references quickly disappear after the first spin and you realize that it's unfortunate the opening track starts off sounding like power pop, with its lilting rhythm and the very tight drum / bass work and the straightforward vocals and melody. But about half way in you move quickly into progressive territory with interesting vocal harmonies and a killer synth solo, and that bass cranks it up into high gear with high register jazzy flourishes that drive the piece to its very 'progressive' conclusion.

And we're left with the conclusion that this is modern progressive music in the same vein as label-stablemates IZZ, Salem Hill, Man On Fire, Eyestrings and Guy Manning; in the sense that is palatable modern progressive rock that spans the void between the symphonic and neo sub-genres. Little Atlas has been compared with Yes, Kansas, and early Genesis, and the Miami Herald described it as "Music for Musicians" - so it's no surprise that with this sophomore release Little Atlas was the the first act signed to Prog Rock Records - a label that has since grown into one of the more important in the genre.

With its catchy chorus, the title track is a standout piece. It starts with a soft keyboard introduction, then enter the bass and drums and a guitar hammering heavy power chords, and just as suddenly, it pulls back. The vocals are ballad-soft and the simple melody is barbed with hooks, and accompanied by elegant keyboard and guitar led instrumentation. The piece swells and recedes and swells again in a slow, tantric rhythm, subtly different each time, but always returning to that theme introduced in the first 10 seconds. Listen for the wailing guitar solo in the closing minute before the song fades gently away. It may not be the most progressive piece on the album, but you can easily understand how that intelligent Miami public is being drawn into the world of intelligent music. The most complex piece is probably "Can I Find It". It revolves around the theme introduced in the first moments, but its sophisticated arrangements and subtle shifts meander through so many places that you'll be surprised the piece lasts less than 8 minutes.

The keyboard / guitar interplay are important components of every track. Singer, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Katsikas is at his best on the piano, and his keyboard lines are tightly coupled with Roy Strattman's elegant guitars that go through chameleon-like changes in tone from soaring leads to Steve Howe inspired sections to muted accompaniment.

Those Miami audiences aren't easily fooled - they know what they like and they like this stuff. Surface Serene is approachable, yet it's neither pop-prog nor neo. Prog-lite, perhaps, but this is an album you can play again and again and again.

Track Listing:

  1. Faceless (5:49)
  2. Surface Serene (4:50)
  3. Can I Find It (7:34)
  4. Changeover (6:42)
  5. Dance (6:08)
  6. Honesty (5:36)
  7. Salmon Song (4:22)
  8. Momentary Thread (5:26)
  9. Collapsing (4:19)
  10. Glacier (3:57)
  11. Shine (Bonus Track) (4:57)

2004 Sea Of Tranquility
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