Ohio's Strongbow and Southern California's Emperor, despite their geographical separation and a gap of two years between their respective eponymous albums, have their feet planted in the same musical ballpark, both bands offering up a tasty concoction of vaguely proggy pomp rock.
An inexplicable synchronicity, a raft of similarities between these two groups of musicians suggests to me that in a pre-internet world where 'scenes' are generated and bandwagons boarded worldwide in an instant, there must have been other forces at work to cause this disconcerting affinity, some kind of shared, dark secret. The evidence for this synchronicity? Strongbow and Emperor each comprise five members, all of whom contribute vocals. Each band features one clean shaven face, three moustaches and one full-on beard.
And, perhaps spookiest of all, one member of each group wears a brocade-edged velvet waistcoat (or strictly speaking, a 'vest', as they're American) which suggests participation in the black arts, or at least, membership of the Magic Circle. Coincidences? I don't think so. Look closely at the Strongbow band photo. See anything strange? Look again. Do you notice the thumbs hooked nonchalantly into pockets and over waistbands? What these thumbs are actually doing is steering the eye downwards where, out of shot, each band member has his bare feet firmly planted on a zebra crossing. What are they trying to tell us? Are they all doppelgängers? Had all five original band members been wiped out in an automobile accident prior to recording their album? Emperor too may well be made up of stand-ins for the recently deceased original members. The evidence is staring us in the face. Look at the front cover: to the left a ghostly band ascends a staircase (to heaven?) and a fit as fiddles fivesome of lookalikes stands to the right ready to step into their shoes. What does it all mean? What it means is that Shelf-Stacker has got a bit carried away after reading an excellent book on the 'Paul Is Dead' rumour that pursued the Beatles in 1969, namely Turn Me On, Dead Man by Andru J. Reeve. And it also means that there are probably a couple of organ grinders in the USA whose pissed-off monkeys want their waistcoats back.
Enough of that nonsense. Let's get to the music. Strongbow's album features electric trombone, an instrument that is a new one on me. I'm guessing that this is a regular trombone with a microphone attached which is fed through various effects pedals. That's certainly what it sounds like. The first time I heard The Only One Around my ears immediately pricked up at this bizarre sound and had me scurrying to read the musicians credits in the sleevenotes. The Only One Around is a slow-burner, barely upping the languid pace of its Supertramp-like electric piano intro through an unhurried vocal and the aforementioned trombone solo until a tasteful but insistent guitar solo provides an understated climax. The musicianship throughout is superb, but special mention must go to John Durzo whose constantly evolving Fender bassline I find totally enthralling. How Can I Be Loving You comes on like a pomp rock Steely Dan with Fender Rhodes piano and that Fender bass locking into some jazz-inflected grooves. A Herbie Mann-style flute solo adds to the jazzy texture before making way for an organ-underpinned guitar solo that's accomplished without being overly histrionic. As for Emperor, they are quite typical of many bands of their era in that they can't resist bunging the occasional bit of bar-room boogie into the mix when an album of pure soaring pomp would surely have been more satisfying. I'm indulging in pure speculation here, but I expect that Emperor had played their fair share of bars and the diversity of their repertoire no doubt reflected the demands of an often hard-to-please audience. Dreamer is very reminiscent of Uriah Heep in the latter stages of David Byron's tenure with the band, full of impressive multi-part harmonies and even a Mick Box-apeing wah-wah guitar solo to give the song an even greater whiff of Heepness. I'm Alive, not the Electric Light Orchestra song of the same name, is as proggy as Emperor's album gets, clocking in at nearly eight minutes, with time changes aplenty, a vocal that brings to mind Jon Anderson and keyboard flourishes that owe something to Rick Wakeman. That's not to say that Emperor are Yes clones, far from it, but the influence certainly makes itself felt on this track.
The Face Fungus-Ometer was created for bands like Strongbow and Emperor.
A joint eight out of ten! Even if the Face Fungus-Ometer can't differentiate between them, I think Strongbow just edge it for that crop-top, chiffon scarf and 'tache combo. Very brave.