Billy Sherwood has been one busy boy lately. Since leaving Yes in 2000, the multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter/producer/engineer/everything else-er has been the nexus for a variety of interesting projects, often involving multiple artists. In late 2012, he’s spearheaded three such projects, all now available as CDs and downloads. All three are very ambitious, multi-faceted, and best of all, very entertaining in their own way.
Songs of the Century is the only album of the three not written by Sherwood—it’s a tribute to the music of 70s pop-prog group Supertramp, and like the other two collections in this roundup, it features a who’s who of notable guest stars. John Wetton of Asia kicks off the proceedings, singing “Breakfast in America.” The voice of Renaissance, Annie Haslam, provides a lovely version of “Dreamer.” But Sherwood didn’t just tap his prog-rock Rolodex for this one; mainstream vocalists like Mickey Thomas (Starship) and Richard Page (Mr. Mister) contribute, and former Rainbow/Deep Purple singer Joe Lynn Turner leads a slamming hard-rock version of “Bloody Well Right.” Thomas’ take on “The Logical Song” comes off a bit karaoke, but Page is pure magic on “Give A Little Bit.” Probably my favorite guest vocal here is from Colin Moulding, formerly of XTC, who imbues “It’s Raining Again” with a charming mix of English whimsy and melancholy—this version may be better than the Supertramp one! The CD doesn’t just feature guest singers; Rick Wakeman lends his signature piano licks to “Crime of the Century”, and guest guitarists include Robbie Krieger (The Doors), original Yes guitarist Peter Banks, and Dixie Dregs/Deep Purple six-stringer Steve Morse. The CD even has an original song—“Let the World Revolve”, a soft, Supertramp-style track reuniting Sherwood and his Yes bass colleague Chris Squire (Sherwood and Squire also had an excellent side project, Conspiracy, so this is a welcome re-teaming). Like all tribute albums, this one is hit-or-miss, but it’s mostly hit; there are very few weak spots here. One interesting feature is the use of guitars instead of the prominent saxophone heard on Supertramp’s original tracks. It’s a cool diversion that further distinguishes these versions from the original. Throughout, Sherwood plays most of the instruments here.
Sherwood also provides most of the instrumental tracks for The Prog Collective, an album of all-new progressive rock songs that he also wrote. Many of the same guests from Songs of the Century also make appearances here. In most cases, the guests recorded their parts from their own studios and e-mailed them to Sherwood to weave into the tracks—ah, the wonders of the Internet! It’s to his credit that on all three of these CDs, the sound is seamless; it’s near-impossible to tell that these tracks were recorded all around the world in a variety of studios with different microphones, etc.
As stated above, Prog Collective has a number of guest artists in common with the Supertramp disc—Wetton, Wakeman, Haslam and Banks all make appearances here. But as the title indicates, this CD is all about the prog, so the guests are mostly from that world. Moulding is on this one as well, and while XTC was not what I’d call prog-rock, he’s totally awesome on lead vocals for album closer “Check Point Karma.” Lyrically, The Prog Collective has much in common with Sherwood’s prolific solo career and work with the band he fronts, CIRCA:—the growing role of technology in our lives is one of his common themes, and features prominently in tracks like “The Technical Divide” and “Social Circles.” This being a prog album, the tracks are long—there are only seven, and yet it runs over 55 minutes—but not without purpose or direction. In truth, The Prog Collective amounts to a Billy Sherwood solo album with lots of guest stars—he plays all the backing tracks here (drums, bass, guitars, keyboards) and does a lot of the vocals as well. But he can be proud of this one; the sound is immaculate, the compositions melodic, harmonic and well-conceived, the guest performances well-cast.
The Fusion Syndicate is a mirror image of The Prog Collective, only recast in the style of jazz fusion that clearly Sherwood values as much as his beloved prog-rock. Like its proggy counterpart, Fusion Syndicate was entirely composed by Sherwood, but there are no lyrics on this one. Not all tracks are instrumental, though—“At the Edge of the Middle” features wordless vocals (“la la, la la, la la” etc.) by Sherwood. Unlike the other two, this CD is more reliant on guest stars; while Sherwood plays whatever’s needed in the backing tracks, this one brings in guest drummers (Billy Cobham, Porcupine Tree’s Gavin Harrison, Genesis/Phil Collins’ Chester Thompson) and bassists (Yellowjackets’ Jimmy Haslip, Billy Sheehan) plus a slew of soloists (including Rick Wakeman yet again, Mahavishnu Orchestra violinist Jerry Goodman—a standout, Steve Morse, and Sherwood’s CIRCA: partner, original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye). Along with the prog-rock legends, Fusion Syndicate features a number of folks from the jazz/fusion world, such as Spyro Gyra’s Jay Beckenstein, Larry Coryell, David Sancious, Randy Brecker and Eric Marienthal. Sherwood knows a lot of great musicians, and his compositions here are loving homages to the music of Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and their contemporaries who blurred the lines between jazz, rock and funk back in the day. There’s plenty of fine, feisty playing here—it sounds like everyone involved had a great time contributing to another seamless production. The sound quality is particularly sharp and clear here, another testament to Sherwood’s impeccable engineering capabilities.
All three of these releases are very strong and worthwhile. Songs of the Century is, clearly, aimed at Supertramp fans. Prog Collective is a sure bet for Yes fans and lovers of the prog-rock genre. Fusion Syndicate is for those who prefer some jazz mixed in with their progressive music. Consider this: If these three albums were released 30 years ago, they not only would have been chart-toppers; they would have cost $1 million each to cover the travel and logistics of getting all of these artists together. Today, this kind of project is feasible and, as evidenced by these three discs, worthy of your attention.Buy Songs Of The Century – An All-Star Tribute To Supertramp on Amazon
Buy The Prog Collective on Amazon
Buy The Fusion Syndicate on Amazon