High Wheel: There (1997)
There ? Never heard of it. How can this be considered a Past Present Classic. Simple; our boss here at SOT has never set up an "Overlooked Gem" section on this site. I realized just how obscure and ignored this disc (and band) were when Mr Pardo himself , in his review of Back From The Void ,admitted that High Wheel's 4th release was his first exposure to the band. This told me two things: 1- He never read the wonderful reviews I wrote for all the High Wheel releases on the now defunct ProgNet. 2- This band's back-catalogue is just screaming for attention. Rest assured though, this disc truly is a classic of modern progressive rock. Let us see if I can convince you to rush to the band's website and pick it up along with the first two High Wheel releases, 1993's debut 1910 and 1994's stellar outpouring Remember The Colors. However, for today, we are only addressing 1997's superlative There.
Like the previous two outings, There is a concept piece. 20 tracks divided into 9 parts clocking in at just under 76 minutes. It relates the journey of a troubled soul who commits suicide. He does not end up in Heaven or Hell but in a purgatory, parallel world. He is met there by his peers and condemned for squandering the precious gift of Life. He must now roam this alternate reality forever, or figure a way to escape. We're taken with him on a journey across this harsh, heartless plane of existence (which eerily parallels our own reality). He encounters many lost souls in various forms of metamorphosis . Staying in this place for too long turns these lost souls into mindless, heartless barbarians. He is given the option of being reborn on Earth in the 21st century and is given a glimpse of life in a war-torn future. Although terrified of this prospect, he choose to this alternative to learn how to live properly.
Phew ! That's quite a heavy concept. It's a lot to take in during one sitting. This is not the type of disc to play while doing chores, or being otherwise engaged. It's an even more daunting task to try to break this one down in a track-by-track analysis. Instead, I will try( keyword here being 'try') to stick to the 9 main sections of the concept.
Let us begin by introducing you to the band members. High Wheel is a quartet made up of:
Wolfgang Hierl- Electric and acoustic guitars, flute, keyboards, vocals (also main songwriter and undisputed band leader); Uli Jenne- Drums and percussion; Erich Kogler- Electric and acoustic basses, piano, vocals; Andreas Lobinger- Keyboards, accordion, vocals.
Part I- track 1- "Into Voyage"-8:09. A killer instrumental opener and a perfect vessel to showcase the many moods of High Wheel. The band's main influences permeate the track; namely Eloy (did I mention they were German?) and Pink Floyd ( the Gentle Giant influences will be apparent when the vocals kick in on subsequent tracks). The track opens with a Gilmouresque, bluesy guitar intro only to build into a monster hard/ neo progressive juggernaut. Mr Hierl shows us that he's a top-notch axeman , as well as a great songwriter.
Part II- Track 2- "Terminal Serenade"- 3:58. A bit of a breather and a buffer zone for the huge section to follow. An acoustic guitar intro paves the way for Mr Hierl's first vocal foray. Again, the Eloy influence is apparent as his voice is highly reminiscent of Frank Bornemann's. Wolgang does have less of an accent and a much better pitch and range. We also hear the first of the analog keys which will crop up now and again on the disc (a Moog or perhaps a Mellotron?). This is the point in the story where our protagonist is condemned by his peers for wasting his life .
Part III- tracks 3 to 7- "There"- 19:19. Now we start getting to the meat of the disc. Our hero is judged and condemned to exist "There". First entry of the superb backing vocals of Mr Kogler and Mr Lobinger. The track begins inauspiciously but is quickly transformed into a top-notch progressive gem. Odd time signatures are punctuated by a heavy, complex bass lines. Mr Hierl also pulls out his trusty flute in track number 4. As one would except in a 19 minute track, there are many mood swings , as the band flows from soft piano and vocal sequences to heavier, bombastic segments without missing a beat in the story line. Track number 5, "Is There Anything Left ?", illustrates this point beautifully. Fantastic church organ intro on track 7 and another brilliantly played guitar solo as the track fades out.
Part IV- tracks 8 to 10- "Two Towers"- 7:13. No, this is not an ode to Tolkien. No Saruman. No Sauron, although track 8 Light does have some baroque flavorings to it. Fantastic vocal interplay which shows us the GG portion of the band's influences. The track slowly builds momentum as the same vocal lines are repeated before going over the top with the superb voice of Mr Hierl (this guy can really do it all!). Track 9 is an instrumental interlude which leads into the folky 10th track, "The Saviour" . This one is almost like an Irish drinking song, complete with bar flies chatting in the background. It 's the story of lost souls who want something (a savior) to believe in.
Part V- tracks 11 to 13- "Metamorphosis"- 16:14. The heaviest and most discordant section of the disc. It could be argued by this train of thought that it's also the most progressive part. Here our hero is faced with the possible directions his own transformation could take. He could become a mindless brain mole (track 11), an aloof and unfeeling crystal bird (track 12) or an ignorant and angry hate hound (track 13). More odd time signatures and intricate vocal interplay throughout the 3 tracks of this part. "Crystal Bird" fully demonstrates the GG influence with it's complex bass line and top-notch vocal harmonizing. "Hate Hounds" is particularly heavy. It hits the ground running and never looks back. Wolfgang Hierl demonstrates a knack for laying down some tasty guitar fills and a monster solo in the dying minutes of the track. All members let loose in the finale, showcasing their abilities to just flat out rock.
Part VI- tracks 14 and 15- "Dystopia"- 8:39. A vision of life in our times which our protagonist must face if he his to choose a rebirth. "Warheads" (track 14) is a haunting track consisting of a military drum beat accompanied by a flute (very Yankee Doodle like) and Wolfgang's detached vocal stylings, describing a war-torn planet Earth. "Digisiren" (track 15) is yet another GG- like little gem. Drummer Uli Jenne 's drum fills dominate over a discordant, off-beat backdrop which builds momentum before pushing us over the top.
Part VII- track 16- "Intermezzo" I-1:18- Intermission . Let's all go to the lobby etc…..
Part VIII- tracks 17 and 18- "The Room Of Decision"- 4:15. This one begins with a psychedelic vibe, highly reminiscent of Pink Floyd's " On The Run". The track then becomes an acoustic guitar showpiece; featuring more great vocal interplay. Our hero has reached a point in the story where the final decision to be reborn has been taken. There is no going back now.
Part IX- tracks 19 and 20- "Birth"- 6:42. "In The Tunnel" (track 19) is dominated by heavy drums and a complex, almost cacophonic back drop. The final track "Stars "closes off the story. Our hero makes a pledge to live a better life as he sees the world through new eyes. The track is slower and more contemplative. It's not the grand finale one would expect after such an exhausting musical journey, but it is a fitting ending to a majestic disc.
I realize that this review has taken on Tolstoyian proportions but dissecting a disc of this magnitude cannot be done in 100 words or less. This disc is really a no-brainer for any fan of classic progressive rock. This band simply has every facet coveted by progheads. I think many eyes and ears will be opened by this quartet after their NearFest appearance this spring. Highest recommendations. Indulge yourselves !