Album Review: Prog Collective – Dark Encounters

The title of the sixth Prog Collective album telegraphs the direction in which the music goes; moody and minor-key is the order of the day. Less a group than a project, the Collective is the brainchild of Billy Sherwood, the mult-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter best known as the musician hand-picked by Yes’ Chris Squire to take over on bass when Squire succumbed to cancer.

But Sherwood’s fertile well of creativity has always extended well beyond his role in Yes. He launched Prog Collective more than a decade ago as a vehicle for his own prog excursions. Drawing from his extensive contacts within the music community, he called upon the talents of a who’s who of prog (and some notable names outside the genre) to realize his projects.

As on previous Prog Collective outings, the format is this: Sherwood writes the tunes and lays down nearly all of the instrumental parts. He’s adept on bass, guitar, keys and drums, so it’s no stretch. And then – through file sharing (a modern miracle that’s now commonplace), his roster of guest players and vocalists add their parts.

Previous releases have been a mixed bag. Some, like the self-titled 2012 debut, scored positive notices. Others have been less well-received. 2013’s curiously-titled Epilogue focused on vocals, and suffered somewhat for that choice. On Dark Encounters, all but three of the 13 tracks (not counting the dubious “bonus” tracks, but I’ll get to those later) are instrumental. That approach lends itself to the format, and gives the guests opportunities to shine.

Sherwood’s list of guests tends to center around those with some connection to the Cleopatra/Purple Pyramid label; certain guests pop up on Prog Collective releases (as well as the multiple tribute-project releases from the label). This time around we get Steve Stevens (best known as Billy Idol’s guitarist), and other ace axemen contribute as well: Steve Hillage, Steve Morse and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal and John Etheridge all turn in appealing work. Bass-playing guests include Joe Bouchard (ex-Blue Öyster Cult) and Kasim Sulton (ex-Utopia). 1970s-era King Crimson violinist David Cross plays a lead on “At the Gates.” Keyboard virtuoso Patrick Moraz contributes to one tune. Drummers Chad Wackerman and Pat Mastelotto lend their immense talents to the project as well.

The most soaring instrumentalist work on the set comes during “The 11th Hour,” the album’s rare turn toward actual prog-meets-jazz, with a skittering and complex rhythm track adorned with some out-there soloing by Soft Machine’s Etheridge. Sherwood’s bass playing on the track is knotty and muscular as well.

The music is nominally prog, but listeners expecting tricky time signatures and sweeping, ambitious arrangement might find themselves disappointed. The music is all solid stuff, heavy on minor-key atmospherics. But it’s not especially ambitious in design nor overly hooky in construction. And somewhat flying in the face of prog values, the longest tracks are but four minutes in length.

Kasim’s guest turn, “Lonely Landscape” is a somewhat unexpected standout. Though it has perhaps the highest degree of Sherwood-ness of all the tracks, it’s also arguably the best; competing for that title is “The Quasi Effect,” a track that’s all Sherwood, all the time. That fact does call into question whether all these guests are even needed, beyond their value of drawing in potential listeners.

Yet as a kind of audio busman’s holiday, Dark Encoutners is a pleasant way to spend an hour, and the occasionally virtuosic playing is never less than enjoyable. Dark Encounters won’t change your life, and it’s unlikely to show up on many best-of-2024 lists, but it’s far from an embarrassment for its participants.

But, but…

Bonus tracks are supposed to make an album better. At the very least, they’re a “little something extra” – a lagniappe, as the Cajuns say – for the faithful. But as solid an album as Dark Encounters is, the two tracks appended to it running order arguably make it worse. Sherwood really should have left well enough alone.

There’s no detailed information in the liner notes explaining what exactly is going on with this “new” version of Todd Rundgren’s classic “I Saw the Light.” All that’s noted is the participation of Rick Wakeman and Rundgren himself. So listeners might not know quite what to expect. What they likely would neither expect — nor want — is what we have here: a disjointed reworking of the song that takes Todd’s original vocal track (and his harmony vocal tracks), chops them up and re-channels them into a different sequence. This version doesn’t follow the structure of the verses and choruses; it repeats some lines, leaves out others. At first I thought my CD player was skipping, that the CD was damaged and repeating sections of the song. Nope: it’s intended to be like that. And the net effect feels like young Todd singing along to a band that doesn’t quite know where the changes are. It’s a dreadful desiccation and desecration of the original. And as superb a keyboardist as Wakeman is, the keyboard flourishes that are dotted across the arrangement are wholly inappropriate. If you’ve ever heard the abomination of Rundgren’s work that is 2000’s Reconstructed, this disaster makes that sound like a work of genius. Simply put, it’s terrible. It’s not even good for a single, cursory listen; it’s an insult to the original, and has no reason to exist.

Not quite as strange – but equally out of place – is the album’s other “bonus” track, a cover of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” featuring Wakeman again, plus Nektar. Now, Nektar is a truly great progressive/psych band that has done some terrific work. 10cc’s lush classic seems an odd fit for the band, and in fact it is. Seeing how Sherwood – man of a thousand instruments – laid down the instrumental bed for this and the other recordings on Dark Encounters, we’re left to wonder what exactly Nektar did. I can’t provide any guidance here, sorry. Wakeman’s keys are nice enough, but again, they don’t improve upon the original song. And if all this isn’t strange enough, the track is clearly listed inside, outside and in the accompanying one-sheet as an “instrumental version.” How exactly that squares with the prominent lead vocal – yes, vocal – is a mystery I find myself unable to solve. Either way, trust me on this: you don’t need this song.