Every so often, one comes across a band that really has its own sound. Pattern-Seeking Animals is one such band. Formed from the ashes of Spock’s Beard, the band includes lead vocalist and guitarist Ted Leonard, bassist Dave Meros, drummer Jimmy Keegan, and Swiss Army keyboardist John Boegehold. A fan of Spock’s Beard will surely recognize most of those names. However, Spock’s Beard this is not.
Don’t misunderstand me; they sound similar! There are definitely similarities in their production values, and Boegehold’s keyboard style evokes vibes of Ryo Okumoto. But you can see some definite differences. For one thing, the Morse brothers love sprawling, ambitious, classical-style epics. Their debut album, The Light, is the epitome of this idea: fifty-seven minutes divided into four songs, only one of which runs under twelve minutes and two of which are divided into multiple “movements.” After becoming a Christian and founding Transatlantic with Mike Portnoy, Neal released “The Whirlwind,” which must stand as one of the longest single tracks of the rock era at a whopping seventy-seven minutes. While I think that’s fantastic, I also think what Pattern-Seeking Animals are doing is fantastic in a different way. They’re all about the song. (Rush and Kansas come to mind.) Sure, they’re neo-prog—the song is often rather long. Still, they aren’t pieces. They’re songs, and mighty good ones at that. Their length is not a result of being a progression of various musical motifs, but of allowing the same musical ideas to build and change and giving the musicians space to improvise.
The other distinction I’ve noticed is how they add novel sounds and flavors. Spock’s Beard often jazzed their music with (if I’m being honest) really cheesy, quirky noises and effects. Pattern-Seeking Animals, however, is more subtle with such things. They’ll add mandolin here or flute there, and doubtless Boegenhold has a great deal of settings on his keyboard. But it never sounds like one of Jimmy Fallon’s toy-instrument covers, which unfortunately many neo-prog (and even classic prog) groups do sometimes.
What do they sound like? The highlight of the album is unquestionably Dave Meros’ bass playing. He has that punchy tone that prog bassists from Squire and Lee to Duda and Beggs strive for, but only the best are able to really attain. However, he plays with more taste and less flash than the above. Imagine Geddy Lee’s fingers with Tony Levin’s style. Subtlety is favored by the lead players as well, choosing well-placed diamonds and easy melodies over constant licks and riffs. These players serve the song. As far as the actual tones, Yes and Jethro Tull come to mind as well as Spock’s Beard. Pattern-Seeking Animals are poppier and heavier than any of those, however.
That said, let’s discuss the music. The opening track, “Raining Hard In Heaven,” begins with an awesome bassline. It’s a really catchy and poppy song, but there’s an extended jam section at the end, followed by a slower bit with many of the same themes. (It’s long for the reason King Crimson songs are long, not the reason Genesis songs are long, if that makes sense.) “Here In My Autumn” is another fabulously written song, with a melody I’ve been humming all summer (I worked on this dang review a really long time). Boegenhold shines on this one, presenting amazing riffs and great atmospheric touches. There’s a song-within-the-song about halfway through, a mellow acoustic bridge with a melody as strong as its chorus. Leonard closes it out with an emotional solo that Alex Lifeson would have been proud of.
“Elegant Vampires” has something of a baroque feel, which is appropriate to the title. There’s sort of a Latin vibe to its chords and intervals as well. It’s hard to describe. (The Phantom Of The Opera with congas is as close as I can get.) The keyboard riff is extremely infectious, as is the chorus. Boegenhold’s mandolin shines on this one. The bridge includes a lot of really off vocal harmonies, á la Flower Kings. It’s a great, catchy pop song that would probably be a big radio hit if they were a little more famous. “Why Don’t We Run” begins with a shakuhachi (I believe), which segues into a folky guitar riff. The chorus has a more traditional rock sound, but the whole thing definitely has a different flavor to it. (I think these two remind me a bit of flamenco music, but I’m not familiar enough with that to flat-out make the comparison!) It also has a really nice guitar solo, probably my favorite on the album.
“Lifeboat” is as close as this album gets to an epic, running a whopping seventeen minutes. It begins with a really cool keyboard riff, which the band builds off and riffs on for a while before some big, orchestral splashes. The verse kind of reminds me of Porcupine Tree, with no accompaniment but really quiet background keyboards which do not distract from the vocal melody. It gradually builds, adding some of the aforementioned Flower Kings vocal tricks. It then shifts into a heavy, syncopated groove with a great melody and what appear to be horns. The slow buildup on this one is really good, and the playing is fantastic (the drumming in particular). However, my personal opinion is that it doesn’t really build up to anything. This one is a great song and definitely sounds way shorter than it is, but I was disappointed by the end.
The last track, another real whopper, is “Soon But Not Today.” It begins with a really cool guitar lick, which morphs into a pleasant piano/violin duet. This does not last long. When the song kicks in, it’s probably the fastest on the album! The bassline on the second verse is awesome. After some really great improvisation, it shifts back into the quieter gear, and this time we get the kind of buildup I wanted on “Lifeboat.” The guitar work is excellent throughout, and the rhythm section does a great job of slowly turning up the heat in preparation for the album’s climactic finale. This is a song-of-the-year candidate already. The word chills, overused as it is, is applicable.
The one quibble I have is Ted Leonard’s voice. It’s not bad, it’s just…a lot like a lot of other prog singers recently, a lot like Neal Morse and Steven Wilson and not really distinctive, which is unfortunate because Pattern-Seeking Animals is a very distinctive band. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic album with many songs that I’ll be listening to for years to come.
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