Featured Music: Wednesday, August 17, 2005
The Underground Railroad
Sat with Dead Like Romance, Lockjaw, and others, at Ridglea Theater, 6025 Camp Bowie Blvd, FW. 817-738-9500.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Loco Emotion

Local prog-rockers Underground Railroad’s musical — and lyrical — lodestar dates back to 1976.

By ANTHONY MARIANI

In 1976, the publication of Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind shocked the crap out of the deep-thinking nerd community. The behavioral psychologist posits that until about 1,000 B.C., human beings believed that thoughts were messages from the gods — as a handy example, the characters in Homer’s Iliad are cited. (Don’t ask.)

The Bicameral Mind’s gumbo of ain’t-it-cool fact, accessible writing, and sci-fi tropes has kept barstool philosophizers spinning ever since. The only mystery is why it’s taken so long for Jaynes’ ka-razy theory to be parlayed into a prog-rock song.

Or songs. For the past several years, Fort Worth’s Underground Railroad has been North Texas’ most steadfast purveyor of progressive rock. Though we don’t want to get too caught up in classifying bands, UR meets most of the criteria for a prog-rock outfit as established about 35 years ago, when the genre first materialized across the pond in the forms of King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, the Nice, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Wanky musicianship? Check. Seemingly endless shifts in time signatures? Check. Lyrics that read like excerpts from Omni magazine? Oh, yeah!

The follow-up to 2000’s unexpectedly affecting Through and Through, UR’s recently released second full-length takes its title directly from Jaynes’ book, and while only three of The Origin of Consciousness’ five songs and three 10 minute-long suites are explicit paeans to Jaynes and his big idea, the entire disc is fueled by his hot air. (The artwork, a kind of primitivist take on surrealism, is notably dorky.) What UR does to temper the potentially annoying presence of “conceptual art” is make good music. Like other, uniformly lonnnng prog-rock pieces, the sometimes dissonant and often symphonic Origin of Consciousness interprets heavy-duty philosophy in a wholly guileless manner. The result is unique, heartfelt, and occasionally brilliant tuneage.

As the antithesis of Euro-snootiness, Texas doesn’t seem like the kind of place where decent prog-rock would get a fair shake, but you’d be surprised. There were a couple of North Texas bands back in the day that, while clearly derivative, were hardly outright offensive, including Dallas’ Hands and, during its slow dissolution, Fort Worth’s Bloodrock. More recent groups have served local prog fans better — if you don’t count today’s dreadful Chamber of Kings or the late-1990s equally portentous Space Opera. More arty than grandiose, the late Doug Ferguson (Vas Deferens Organization, Ohm, Yeti) was a first-rate virtuoso, and Chris Hardee of Alan manages to tap into prog’s hallmark attribute of epic grandeur while remaining emo enough to sate his inner hipster.

Since UR is cooler than the old heads but not as cool as the newbies, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Origin of Consciousness was recorded in the early 1980s. Like swing in the 1940s and doo-wop in the 1950s, prog-rock is trapped in a specific era, sometime between the late 1960s and mid-1970s. (No telling the causes for swing’s and doo-wop’s dispositions. But prog was hamstrung by its reliance on state-of-the-art instrument technology — as you know, nothing sours more quickly than yesterday’s technological breakthrough.)

The retro-cool that sticks to The Origin of Consciousness is in no way forced and accounts for a decent portion of the album’s particular appeal. Listening to the record is like playing Pac-Man on your laptop — comforting and comfortable.

The stars of the show are the band’s frontmen and co-vocalists, guitarist Bill Pohl and keyboardist Kurt Rongey. The disc captures Rongey mostly in a melodious mood on his psychedelic synth. On his piano, however, he’s prone to pound out hair-raising staccato tone poems.

Pohl, who can sculpt classical figures, rock out, and scratch his jazz itches, seems comfortable in just about any situation — hard, fast, soft, slow. The duo gets frequently inspired backing from the rhythm section of bassist Matt Hembree (also of power-poppers Goodwin) and drummer John Livingston. The breakdown at the beginning of “Metaphor” is both extremely agile and mountainous, and totally cosmic sparks fly every time Hembree and Livingston try to rein in Rongey’s deliberately disorienting schiz-outs. With Pohl during the second half of the 13 minute-long “Creeper (The Doorman, Pt. 2),” Hembree and Livingston achieve genuine jazz fusion. As Rongey looks on from the bleachers, his three bandmates lay down a gritty groove of fleet fretwork, snapping and skipping drums, and Hembree’s molten, bubbling bass.

Aside from its retro cool, The Origin of Consciousness also has going for it a sense that musicality matters more than showing off, which works specifically to Pohl’s advantage. In solos, he’s better at sprinkling arpeggios atop sturdy, modulated mini-essays than trying to make a mad dash for the horizon in a flurry of notes; when he repeats the same swift phrasings three or four times in succession, he creates the audio equivalent of a Porsche doing donuts at 80 mph. Providing texture is his tastiest skill. He can summon a mood in just a few strokes and also turn already full-bodied songs into three-dimensional panoramas of sight and sound. His first solo in “Vagabond King” creeps into view as an immense black squall of feedback before suddenly solidifying into a curvaceous, wistful, non-bluesy lament. On the album’s catchiest, most sweeping track, “The Canal at Sunset,” Pohl delivers the main riff with such personality and touch that it comes off as simply bigger than its meager DNA of three chords would suggest.

The Origin of Consciousness is undoubtedly headphones music, the kind you take into your most contemplative space and, after locking the door and dimming the lights, set gently on the hi-fi. You may also want to follow along with the lyrics (located in the sleeve). Though utterly independent of any sort of narrative logic, the disc unspools kind of like a peripatetic yarn, one that starts off leisurely enough, works up a sweat that lasts for a while, and then lands softly.

Rongey — who writes most of the lyrics and, with his delicate and unassuming voice, handles most of the singing — doesn’t make the fatal mistake of attempting to pawn off nonsensical verbal legerdemain as anything other than tinsel. But he ends up sounding a tad sophomoric by stacking impressions on top of one another rather than limning ideas somewhat straightforwardly. No need to worry whether Jaynes’ name is intoned: In the songs that he unwittingly inspired (“Julian Ur,” Julian I,” and “Julian II”), he is the anonymous super-caveman, simultaneously the “beast defeated by culture’s lattice” and the “conduit from tree to me.” Before he died in 1997, Jaynes taught for more than 20 years at Princeton University — talk about a jungle. (Yeah, right.)

Once a microscopic blip in the Milky Way-sized music industry, the Underground Railroad is no longer exactly underground. The band recently played NEARfest, the largest gathering of prog bands in the world, and is scheduled to perform at Progday 2005, at Storybrook Farm, near Raleigh, N.D. Before UR takes off, catch them this Saturday at Ridglea Theater. Half the reason to see them is that they’re supremely talented. The other is that they’re supremely singular.

Whatta ya know: The bicameral band.


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