Chameleon – ‘Rising’ Album Review

chameleon--rising-2013

Recorded between 1973 and 1978, ‘Rising’ represents the entire recorded output of American progressive band Chameleon. Heavily influenced by King Crimson, Genesis and Yes you can only feel for a band who cut their teeth opening for bands like MC5 and Amboy Dukes (Ted Nugent), when their own musical influences were an ocean away. Active between 1972 and 1981, Chameleon were far from prolific in the studio, but what is presented here is a band who deserved to achieve far more than they did if only their music could have reached a wide enough audience.

Recorded in 1974, ‘Texas Cyclone’ perfectly introduces the band’s elegant sound – a patchouli-scented mix of Genesis-esque story-telling and mystical King Crimson-style ambience stretched over  nine mind-bending minutes. Aside from a strong element of tape hiss, it’s a surprisingly strong recording and also, tellingly, the only piece cut in 1974, suggesting the band’s budget did not stretch to a great deal of studio time. Strongly reminiscent of ‘Nursery Cryme’, the song moves through a variety of themes over the course of its run time and keeps the listener rooted with its deft musical changes. ‘Follow your love (paradise lost)’, recorded in 1978, represents the final track the band recorded (and the only track the band recorded that year) and it gives an idea of the musical evolution that took place within the band, with a much stronger element of Yes than on the previous track and a sharper edge to the recording. A somewhat treble-heavy recording, the vocals are higher in the mix, the music less complex and the pace somewhat quicker, a musical arc that many of the progressive bands from Genesis to Pink Floyd also felt compelled to follow. What shines out here, however, is the blistering solo from Spencer Clark, who clearly grew in confidence and stature as a guitarist over the years.

Tracks four through twelve are a mix of tracks recorded at two sessions – the first in 1976 at Rampart St. Studios (A) and the second in 1978 at Barn Studios (B). ‘Pilot thoughts’ (A) opens as pure Genesis with strong organ and more than a hint of Peter Gabriel, only for the band to segue into a verse that is more closely titled to the Beatles than to progressive rock. It’s a weird, brave, perpetually fascinating mix that keeps the listener riveted and wondering how on earth this band were never given greater coverage. For a progressive music fan, the band’s lengthy musings and instrumental artistry is manna from heaven, and we should be grateful indeed that these recordings have been unearthed and remastered now so that they can be enjoyed by a whole new audience. ‘Brave new way’ (B) sees the band making similar progressions to Genesis with a lighter sound more akin with Phil Collins’ early tenure as frontman and a greater emphasis on vocals and simplified song structures, whilst Craig Gysler’s keyboards gained greater prominence in the mix, adding an element of Procul Harum to proceedings.  Back to ’76 and  ‘Drool Away’ (A) kicks off with acoustic guitars and a funky feel that owes debts to Crimson and Hendrix in equal measure – a tactic that sounds as loopy on paper as it does in practice. One thing is clear, these Texan progressive rockers may have borrowed from the best, but they did so with a cheeky nod and a firm desire to make the sound their own, something which they frequently succeeded in doing. Another track from ’78,  ‘Pass thru the Columbian mountains’ (B) is a lazy, hazy piece of throw-away instrumental insanity that bounces quirkily through the dreamier elements of Caravan before we shoot back in time to ’76 for  the twisted rock of ‘Everyday Everyway’ (A) with its detailed guitar figures and vocals which recall (whisper it) the early machinations of Kiss. Far harder than anything else on the record it shows that Chameleon knew how to rock when the mood took them. Heading back into the jazz-infused territory of Crimson, ‘Mirkwood forest’(A) is a Tolkien-inspired  piece that offers as many twists and turns as the titular wood.

Four pieces from ’78 appear in succession as the album draws towards its end. The first of these, ‘In the heart’ (B), is a jazzy instrumental with funky overtones that is gloriously hedonistic, whilst ‘Saturate’ (B) is tough rock with nimble guitar work, excellent drumming from new boy Marty Naul and close harmony vocals drawn from CSN & Y. ‘Midnight Matinee’ (B) is bizarrely whimsical, sounding more like a soundtrack to an as-yet-unseen sci-fi movie, Gysler clearly having the time of his life with his increasingly Wakeman-esque keyboard work. The final track from the period, ‘Life positions’ (B) sees the band engaging in a similarly eclectic workout, the keyboards prominent, the drumming energetic and the musicianship of a ubiquitously high standard. To close we go back to the band’s very beginning for what appears to be the only track recorded in 1973, in my own way’, a title that surely sums up the band’s whole ethos. A quiet, acoustic-led piece, it’s the most conventional piece on offer and its remarkable to consider the change that took place between 1973, in which the band more closely resembled Supertramp than a cutting edge progressive rock outfit, and 1974 by which time the band had clearly absorbed the teachings of Genesis, Crimson and Yes.

Chameleon were clearly possessed of immense talent, but looking carefully at the running order of this beautifully restored collection it is clear that the band simply never gathered the momentum to join their peers travelling the world on a wave of herbally-enhanced hysteria. Deeply talented, but often incoherent, with better management and greater quality control, Chameleon could have been huge, but at least we have these treasures left to explore thanks to ShroomAngel Records. If you’re a fan of progressive rock, this is an essential collection of beautifully rendered pieces and well worth hunting down.

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