Album Review: Mars Hollow – Mars Hollow

Pity the poor reviewer; he wishes to convey the sound and style of Mars Hollow, but finds it necessary to draw a comparison that may seem (to some readers) a lazy and obvious comparison. There’s no getting around it: when guitarist John Baker sings (and sometimes when he doesn’t) Mars Hollow sounds a whole lot like Rush. Baker’s voice sounds unmistakably like a cross between Geddy Lee and Styx’s Dennis DeYoung. But oddly – and fortunately for this listener – that blend is somehow infinitely more appealing than the sum of those parts. And it suits the music of Mars Hollow perfectly.

The seven songs on the group’s self-titled release offer up a compelling mix of progressive styles and sturdy, rooted-in-tradition ear candy pop. Kerry Chicoine’s left-handed Rickenbacker bass provides that trademark beefy/trebly tone for which the instrument is known, and Chicoine’s assertive, muscular playing offers an original take on the style pioneered by Chris Squire and John Wetton.

Musically the band does travel close to Rush territory; Jerry Beller’s command of his large kit and enthusiastic use of roto-toms underscores the sonic similarities without aping that band’s style. But it’s worth noting that Mars Hollow seem to come by their similarities to Rush honestly and without artifice. If they wanted to learn the tunes (assuming they don’t know ‘em already) this quartet could make a good career as a Rush tribute act. Better yet, Steve Mauk’s nimble keyboards add tone color that’s sometimes lacking in the Canadian trio’s work. One could say that these guys out-Rush Rush.

And there’s more to them than that, after all. “Wait for Me” has shades of Discipline-era King Crimson leavened with Relayer-era Yes. Plenty of tricky time signatures (and shifts thereof) establish that a trip through Mars Hollow is going to be an adventurous ride. “Eureka” balances that prog aesthetic and an ambitious arrangement with an impossibly catchy melody line and an infectious chorus. Like all the songs on the disc, the arrangements allow space for each player to shine – listen to Mauk’s breakneck, Wakeman-like keyboard signature — yet they always do so well within the confines of song; this isn’t 9012Live: The Solos, not by a long stretch.

The group’s lyrical concerns expand beyond the I/you subject matter of pop love songs, yet avoid overly weighty and ponderous topics as well. And Mars Hollow thankfully avoids anything approaching the I-got-mine-so-screw-you philosophizing of Ayn Rand (That’s right: I’ve never forgiven Neil Peart for 2112.)

At any rate, Mars Hollow‘s pleasures lie primarily in the music. Even a song such as “If I Were You,” – built as it is primarily around a vocal melody – still serves up copious amounts of drama during its extended instrumental passages. And on “In Your Hands” Chicoine takes over lead vocals (“all four boys sing,” like it says on early Beatles albums). And when he does, the Rush similarities dissipate. Coincidentally, it’s also the album’s second strongest number.

The award for best song on Mars Hollow undoubtedly goes to the long and winding “Dawn of Creation.” And its placement as last track on the album tells a lot about the gutsy approach of this foursome. Most acts front-load their records; true, everybody tries to finish strong, but putting your best track last suggests you have confidence that the other tracks will keep the listener’s interest all the way through. And when it comes to Mars Hollow, that self-confidence is well earned. “Dawn of Creation” veers deftly between a classic late-70s arena rock approach and more ambitious territory of showy prog. To their unending credit, they pull off both styles more than credibly, and make the blend a seamless one.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to point out the production values on Mars Hollow. Quite often there’s a highly polished sheen applied to progressive rock albums. The thinking goes that the music demands it, and there’s certainly a compelling argument to be made in support of that viewpoint. But Mars Hollow has a warm, immediate and inviting vibe; while the playing is note-perfect, there’s a ineffable live-in-the-studio feel to the music, as if the listener is right there while it’s being played. For lack of a better word, this gives the entire album a “friendly” feel. There’s nothing wrong — and everything right — with that distinctive approach.

The group’s follow-up is due out in mid 2011. While I eagerly await it, Mars Hollow will keep me interested until then, at least.

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