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Monarch Trail - Skye CD (album) cover

SKYE

Monarch Trail

 

Neo-Prog

3.98 | 124 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 'Skye' - Monarch Trail (79/100)

In my not-so-recent travels to Ontario, I never got a chance to check out any of the province's parks or natural trails. I imagine they're quite beautiful however, as the Monarch Trail in the Dundas Valley was beautiful enough to be the namesake for the latest project from Ken Baird. A wittier writer than I might even make a quip associating Monarch Trail with progressive rock kings Rush, IE: A Farewell to Kings. In any case, this multi-instrumentalist impressed me in the past with a solid string of solo albums; his Martin Road stood out in particular for its blend of prog with singer-songwriter sensibilities. It only feels natural that Baird's work is given a full-band treatment here. As with any fresh project I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but Skye has started Monarch Trail's journey off on a very promising note.

Whereas Ken Baird's solo material was generally hinged on conventional songwriting and later given a progressive kick in the arrangement itself, Monarch Trail is progressive rock in its full-blooded, uncompromised form. If a twenty minute epic wasn't enough of an indicator, Monarch Trail's style feels firmly rooted and influenced by symphonic prog repertoire, most notably the pastoral vibes of Genesis. A better comparison might actually be Spock's Beard however; Ken Baird's plain 'everyman' voice might seem like its a stark contrast to the elaborate, full-fledged instrumentation but it meshes surprisingly well together. Not least, Monarch Trail betray a strong influence from their fellow Ontarians in Rush. I mean, tell me with a straight face the opening of "Luminescence" doesn't remind you of Rush's best days, circa Permanent Waves!

Not surprisingly given Ken Baird's longtime weapon-of-choice, but the keyboards take centrestage throughout the album. In fact, there isn't even a full-time guitarist listed on the band roster, although John Mamone (playing three of the four tracks with Hackett-like moderation) may as well be considered as such. The moog-tinged keyboard solos certainly sound a bit dated for the most part, but the arrangements are generally well-rounded. Baird's background as a sognwriting has served the music nicely as well; a good songwriter knows that too much of a good thing can turn it sour. Thusly, the compositions are kept on a tight rein, not so much that it stifles the fludiity of the performance, but just enough to keep it interesting and effectively paced. "Silent World" and "East of Fifty" aren't as engaging as the two longer tracks (though the latter does bring a promising fusion vibe to the music) but on the whole, Skye is remarkably consistent and well-intentioned.

While I'm ultimately in no place to say what bands did or didn't influence Monarch Trail, their sound pays little homage to the contemporary or 'modern' scene in progressive rock. They have entered the prog rock door via the long-contested backdoor of tradition. While there's a special place in my heart for the vintage 'symph prog' sound, I've very rarely found myself interested in the revivalists. Bands like The Flower Kings and Transatlantic made up my mind long ago that the past was best left in the past, that it was far better to look towards the future rather than dwell upon the so-called classic sound of prog. This view might have predisposed me against this band, but Monarch Trail have something most others of their sort do not: a sense of feeling and sincere warmth. Skye doesn't put a fresh spin on progressive rock, nor does it really mean to. It's a 'prog for proggers' album to be certain, but the composition doesn't fall into the self- referential pit of cliches that often seem to come with bands of their sound. Especially given that it's a sound that so rarely captures my ear these days, I've got to get behind Monarch Trail for this one. No boundaries have been shattered with this one, but I'm yet to hear a symphonic prog album from this year with such warmth and charm to it.

Conor Fynes | 4/5 |

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