(All Album Reviews by Duncan Glenday)
Style : Art Rock
Summary : Very interesting – it has deep roots in so much music you already know, and it is similar to … none of it! Expand your mind - get this album!
What would you get if you crossed prog-metal with fusion with electronica with funk with modern pop/rock, then gave it all a progressive rock complexity and a symphonic atmosphere? Why – you’d get Man On Fire!
The Undefined Design is the second album from the Atlanta-based band comprising Jeff Hodges (vocals, keys, production), and Eric Sands (guitars, basses). David Ragsdale plays violin on 3 tracks, and Steve Carroll provides lyrics and esoterics.
But what on earth are “esoterics”? From personal conversations with Steve we know that his creative collaboration included 'critical ears' throughout the production and final mix-downs, providing marketplace intelligence, and occasional input regarding arrangement and structure. But the dictionary confirms that “esoteric” is an adjective, and Carroll claims credit for esoterics – noun!
Liberal use is made of sampling and loops and ambient keyboard atmospherics and other forms of electronica. (Are those the esoterics?) It is a symphonic sound, yet song oriented, an odd mix of ambient spacey tones and metal crunch, and there are always a lot of interesting things going on at the same time.
And if you like a fretless bass guitar played in a jazzy style, you’re in for a treat. It features very prominently in most songs. Funky, melodic, usually played in the high registers. It often monopolizes your attention, and is the signature sound of the album.
There are occasional aggressive guitar licks from Eric Sands, but they’re always in small bursts, just hinting at metal. The 7-string guitar is often played through massive amounts of distortion, a distinctive sound – the first few times you hear it. Much of the music is built with complex time signatures and polyrhythms. The percussion is often prominent and the tone of the drumming varies tremendously – testament to varied compositions and the fact that three different drummers are used. In just a few portions, most notably on the first track, the vocals sound somewhat nasal and tentative and you almost wish for a more powerful voice to add punch to the production.
David Ragsdale, whose resume includes Kansas, Smashing Pumpkins, Queensrÿche, Jason Bonham, Louise Mandrell, and Salem Hill, provides excellent violin work on three tracks. Trish Howell sings wonderful backing vocals on just one song, and here’s a word in the ear of Man On Fire: Use this lady more often!
The production of this album is excellent. Besides being classically trained in piano, Jeff Hodges has been a producer, recording engineer and mixer for 20 years. His deep experience enables a full appreciation of the music’s multi-layered structure.
In almost all of the songs, Steve Carroll’s lyrics are abstract and hard to understand. (i.e. they are … esoteric!) Don’t try to understand them – just listen to the rhythm and the flow and the complex beauty of the words. As a lyricist, think of Steve as a slightly more down-to-earth, poetic version of Jon Anderson.
The standout track on The Undefined Design is “Just Out Of Reach”, and for a change, the lyrics are not at all esoteric. It concerns people adrift at sea, dreaming of rescue, and finally accepting their inevitable fate. But the song isn’t morbid. It is in fact positive and filled with hope and acceptance. Very moving.
The clichés of standard progressive music are notably absent from The Undefined Design, and open minded prog fans will want a copy in their collection – especially if you are okay with that very funkadelic fretless bass
And our apologies to Steve Carroll: We love the music and your lyrics, Steve, but we’re still searching for your missing “esoterics”!
Man On Fire: The Undefined Design album (2003). Are a rare experience and these US progsters really have something. Yes, you might argue that they are derivative. Well, who isn’t? This fine album was given to me (thanx LEO) just a few hours ago (well, Saturday more correctly) I’ve listened to them quite a few times since and I’m very pleasantly surprised. Yet another fine US prog band surfaces. Gents:Jeff Hodges: vocals/keys/samples/loops, Eric Sands:fretless bass/bass/guitars and: Steve Carroll:lyrics with special guests: David Ragsdale : violin (yes, he of Kansas) on a few tracks. And three gentlemen on drums…individually. Enough of that, the music is excellent. As mentioned earlier, you might hear some sequences that remind you of someone else but overall this is pure a brilliant: Man On Fire and this is a keyboard/vocal album as it is full of great themes with just that instrumentation but hey, there are the appendix of one great violin player, superbly giving the music a slight KANSAS effect (surprise??)
Anyhow, I love this fine prog band and I really wanna hear other albums by them. Great stuff! Just don’t expect to many soaring guitar solos! I usually give stars for rating but it might be appropriate to give prog ears? Well, here goes: 3 and a half, prog ear!