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Rocking Horse Music Club - Curcus Of Wire Dolls - Rezension

Circus of Wire Dolls (2022)

The concept album by Rocking Horse Music Club


Preface

Those impatiently waiting may forgive the reviewer for the long time it took to write these lines. The work under review has proven to be so complex that it could not be listened to and described in one go. Wise as the reviewer is, he recommends everyone to do the same and to take their time for the journey into the realm of the Circus of Wire Dolls.


Background

The Rocking Horse Music Club is a collective of musicians and songwriters that formed around the Rocking Horse Studio in New Hampshire *1. Since 2010, a total of ten musicians have been working together in various configurations. The core is formed by studio owner, producer, songwriter and keyboardist/bassist Brian Coombes *2, singer, songwriter and guitarist Justin Cohn, and singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Gochez.

Their debut album Every Change Of Season was released in 2018. However, fans of the music of Genesis may be familiar with the band through 2019's stunning Anthony Phillips tribute album Which Way The Wind Blows. The band won Best Band in New Hampshire, and their debut album was named New Hampshire's Album of the Year.

Fond memories should also be shared of their November 2019 performances at Trading Boundaries in East Sussex. Here they were joined by Noel McCalla, among others, for songs from Mike Rutherford's album Smallcreeps's Day. A connection that was to last until the current album.


Cover design

CoverThe album is released as 2CD in a jewel case with a 24-page booklet and as a 2LP limited to 300 copies. The cover is decorated with a scene from the performance of the wire puppets. The ringmaster is enthroned on a mountain of suitcases and a huge clock, tightrope walkers float in front of a sky bathed in evening light. Symbolically, the theme of the story is alluded to here. The song lyrics, liner notes and the list of musicians were depicted against the background of circus scenes. A colourful smorgasbord of images, somewhat reminiscent of Calder's art (see below) of combining movement and abstraction.


Inspiration

The ideas of the story are formed on the one hand by the novella You Can't Go Home Again by the American writer Thomas Wolfe *3. A story about suicide, in which a suicide falls at the author's feet and whose last hours of life he reels in. On the other hand, the story is linked to the life of the sculptor, graphic artist and action artist Alexander Calder *4. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he was known in art circles in the USA and Europe for mostly private performances of his Circus of Wire Puppets *5. This wire puppet circus forms the spatial framework of the plot. Calder had connections to Mondrian and Leger through his time in Paris. His mobiles were famous. These were exhibited in Germany, among other places, in June 1952. The Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin dedicated an exhibition to him from August 2021 to February 2022. Another real-life figure, the showman, politician and artist PT Barnum (founder of the circus of the same name) *6 is also quoted.

The band takes facets of his work and mixes them with writer Wolfe's own experiences and adventures and transports them to the circus.
Well then, welcome, ladies & gentlemen, to the unique show at the Circus of Wire Dolls!


Story

The author tells the story of his life. It begins the day after his funeral and ends on the day of his death. You could say that the story begins at its end. From the grave we hear the author talking. We meet different characters who symbolise stages of life. In the circus they appear as Calder's wire puppets. Dreams, experiences, places, thoughts interweave with the play of the puppets, interweave with the localities to which the circus travels. These form the real outside world in which the inside world of the circus play is embedded.

To take the confusion of mixing inner and outer worlds to the extreme, there are four levels of narration: That of the author (Thomas Wolfe), who informs the audience that before his demise, clearly, he has one more story to tell. That of the artist PT Wolfe (a symbiosis of Calder and PT Barnum), who introduces us to his circus, that of the ringmaster, who as Wolfe's alter ego introduces the many protagonists of the circus, and precisely these, as symbols of love, loss, remorse, indifference, temptation and lifetime, reflect the thoughts of the author.


Songs


Prologue: Riverside (Coombes)

The prologue begins with dreamy, floating keyboard sounds accompanied by a guitar. Are we at the grave of the author? Brian Coombes, as the author, begins to sing about the missed chances of his life. Wonderfully melancholic vocals, gorgeous guitar playing leads into the proggy part of the song, sombre drums increase the dynamics. Justin Cohn raises his voice as artist PT Wolfe and comforts him. Brian Coombes plays keyboards and dulcimer, Eric Wagley drums, Brendan Harisiades bass, Myron Kibbe and Mike McAdam guitars. This is the core of the band that accompanies us throughout the programme. Jenna Yagjian contributes the violin. A beautiful piece of music reminiscent of Smallcreep's Day, or Duke.


Circus Of Wire Dolls (Coombes, Cohn)

The location changes from the riverside to New York. The author PT Wolfe invites the audience to the circus show somewhere in Manhattan. He hands over to the ringmaster, who is sung by Noel McCalla - and how! A Marillion-heavy soundscape supported by keyboards and glorious guitar solos sets the scene for this wonderful voice. Over eight minutes of up and down playing, changing tempos, a highlight of the album. The keyboard melody sounds again and again, an insertion with acoustic guitar refers to Anthony Phillip's playing on Wise After The Event. From minute 5 we are fully into Smallcreep's Day, especially the track At The End Of The Day. Oh, how beautiful Noel's vocals are paired with a melancholic guitar solo!


Packed Up (Coombes, Cohn, Hodgkins)

The performance is over. The curtain has fallen, the suitcases are packed. The piano, clarinet (Richard Garzina), trumpet (Wesley Thurber) and drums play out. Noel sings hauntingly about playing the ringmaster but being just a little wire puppet and disappearing into the suitcase. Myron Kibbee contributes a wonderful guitar solo.


Senseless Sky - Rocking Horse Music ClubSenseless Sky (Coombes, Cohn, Gochez)

It continues with crashing rhythmic jazz-rock. Brand X are a bit of a godfather here. No wonder, because Kennwood Dennard supports Brendan Harisiades on drums. A choir accompanies PT Wolfe, who sing together about the quick transience of life. A remarkable horn section with saxophone (Aaron Gratzmiller) and trumpet (Wesley Thurber) support guitar and keyboards.


Animate In 5/8 (Coombes, Gochez)

A mixture of prog and rock, reminiscent of Marillion and similar neo-prog bands. Neo-prog bands, makes the puppets dance with a lot of pathos. The ringmaster, the prima donna (Caroline Carter), the fire-eater (also Caroline Carter) and the queen of the trapeze (Any Birks) sing with fervour about the fragility of life, love and all the emotions that make it so hard.


To Reach The Other Side (Coombes, Gochez)

Guitar arpeggios, a wonderful slide guitar and wonderful vocals by Justin Cohn characterise the dance on the high wire. Again and again the longing for the other side, which is only a reflection of our lives?


Will You Be My Downfall - Rocking Horse Music ClubWill You Be My Downfall? (Coombes, M. Coombes, Gochez, Carter)

A duet between the tightrope walker and the Prima Donna follows. A quiet, poppy piece about falling in love brings sunshine into the melancholic mood of the album. Caroline Carter's singing is to be emphasised. Here the listener is taken into the world of the musical (hello Westside Story or similar).


So Little Left (Coombes, Gochez, Bowness)

We now turn back to the melancholic mood. The whispered vocals of Tim Bowness, who of all things is the bouncer, contribute to this. A soft orchestral background underpins the piece, which could have a place of honour on any Tim Bowness album. Alongside the band, Jeremy Harman's cello is outstanding. The bouncer reflects on his life, which he has sacrificed to the circus without being in the limelight.


It's Not About You (Coombes, Gochez)

Strings open the song, leading it to an energetic, rhythmic rocker that fits the appearance of the lion (Patrick Gochez). He ponders whether it is worth breaking out of the cage and enjoying freedom. A saxophone accompanies the cello, leading to a quiet intermezzo to end in rock'n roll.


Trapeze Waltz - Rocking Horse Music ClubTrapeze Waltz (Coombes, Cohn, Coombes, Hodgcins)

In waltz time, the two high-wire artists sing about their partnership on the rope and after the performance. How do you keep the love between everyday work and private life? Rob Townsend's saxophone solo is outstanding, although John Hackett's flute playing is somewhat drowned out.


Burn (Coombes, Carter)

Piano chords, muffled drumming, solo vocals by the fire-breather. She sings heartbreakingly about her fears of failing in a male-dominated field and burning up on stage. More and more, the song builds up to a furioso finale that ends in a drum roll.


Cut From A Different Cloth (Coombes, Gochez, Gray)

This play introduces a new puppet/person, the oldest living man. He used to be a tightrope walker, now he is just a circus curiosity waiting to die. Chris Diffort sings him in a warm, expressive voice, reminiscent of old Jonny Cash, or even Leonard Cohen. A piano begins, soft guitar sounds ring out, stroked drums. Together with a pedal steel they create the atmosphere of a lonely, dark bar in a godforsaken area. Hey, another whisky!


So the first CD ends quietly, thoughtfully and melancholically.


Face Of Rain (Coombes)

A prog piece in a modern sound opens the second CD. It is a journey into the world of PT Wolfe's thoughts, who ponders the meaning of art in connection with his work. Calm, a little floydy is rehearsed. Justin Cohn sings with melancholic fervour. The beautiful guitar work of Justin Cohn is to be emphasised.


0300 (Coombes)

Gorgeous synthesizer runs, electronic soundscapes, a wonderful oboe by Kate St. John let the song slide into dreamlike worlds with another vocal solo by Justin Cohn. A harp played by Mikaela Davies rounds off the piece. PT Wolfe's restlessness leaves him unable to sleep, pondering the hustle and bustle of his life, even though he is finally home and his wife slumbers peacefully knowing of his existence.


SY22 (Coombes, Cohn, Gochez)

PT Wolfe remembers a trip to France. His hopes of finding fame and glory in the (1st) World War are not fulfilled, for peace has arrived. Sombre, staccato drumming paired with piano and trumpet lead to a melancholic vocal shared by PT Wolfe and the author. The song is reminiscent of Peter Gabriel's late work. A beautiful guitar solo ends the piece.


Lost Piece Of Me (Coombes)

A short song with wonderful guitar work (12 - String, Slide Guitar among others). PT Wolfe honours dear people he has lost.


House Party At Jack's (Coombes)

Electronic bubbling, distorted voices torture PT Wolfe's inner self. Prog meets New Wave, meets electropop. Do I hear Kraftwerk in there?


Flowers In November - Rocking Horse Music ClubFlowers In November (Coombes, Gochez)

In a warm garment of acoustic guitar arpeggios and wonderful Cor Anglais (English horn) parts by Kate St John, the tightrope walker sings about experiences with his wife last summer and laments about the rapid passing of time. Could be a piece by Ant, the Beatles also sound. The solo on the violin by Jenna Yagjian is very beautiful.


Every Show Must End (Coombes, Cohn, Kibbee)After the circus has toured the world and performed in front of thousands of people, PT Wolfe decides to end his show. After the quiet, carried short songs, the sound garb changes towards symphonic prog. The electric guitars begin to jubilate, the acoustic guitar beats arpeggios to which PT Wolfe sings. The drums beat powerfully. The ringmaster joins the singing. The circle closes and musically we are back at the beginning of the story. Wonderful how Noel McCalla sings the verses "This was my heart, you were my muse, I'll sing you a song again?" to the sound bombast. An absolute highlight of the album! The song continues seamlessly into the reprise, in which the ringmaster takes his leave to play the piano for a short while.


Al SHall Be Well - Rocking Horse Music ClubAll Shall Be Well (Coombes)

We return to the melancholic sounds. PT Wolfes remembers how his mother sings him a folk song to calm him down. With him in a duet and solo, Evelyn Cormier sings beautifully carried the mother. A song between pop, slow waltz and soft rock with chorus, bridge, refrain and short guitar solos.


Circus Waltz (Coombes)

A classic progg instrumental. Reminiscent of Tony Banks with its keyboard runs. David Cross shines here with a fine violin solo, which is congenially replaced by Rob Townsend's saxophone. These two and the guitar solos drive the piece forward until it becomes quiet from minute three and slowly fades out.


Coda Slide Down - Rocking Horde Music ClubCoda: Slide Down The Cellar Door (Coombes, Cohn)

This is where the story ends. The author, PT Wolfe and the ringmaster have reached the end of their lives. Of course it becomes sad again. All three sing heartbreakingly. The musical mood is reminiscent of Mike Rutherford's Smallcreep's Day. Gorgeous arpeggios on the guitar, a softly tinkling bell, sustained drums, gentle bass accompany the author's vocals. A beautiful guitar solo sounds and leads us to the closing verses, which all three sing:

"I'll slide down the cellar door - nevermore."


All in all

A monster of an album. Long, multi-layered, diverse, it comes across as somewhat rough. A diva that wants to be conquered slowly. If you take your time, it reveals all its beauty. Wonderful ballads (title song), mystical keyboard parts (prologue), musical duets, proggy pieces, jazz interludes, heavy songs, folk, country and pop are what she offers the patient listener. Comparisons to rock epics like The Wall, Tommy, to musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, War of the Worlds, or Tarzan cannot be denied. The reviewer can imagine a theatre performance, or even a grand show at the Friedrichstadtpalast Berlin. Is that not praise enough? Well, then the diversity due to the incredible number of guest musicians should also be emphasised. For all its length, they never let the album become boring. Yes, the RHMC doesn't rediscover music either, but the lively mix of styles has charm and makes the album stand out from the multitude of (neo-) prog releases. For Genesis fans who like the band's time around 1978 to 1980, an enrichment.


Final remarks

Oh yes, the reviewer had to take a long breath to go on the journey into the ego (wasn't the wording a comment on Genesis' Lamb album?), or rather to immerse himself in the circus show. There is an incredible amount to discover, interesting facts to learn about Thomas Wolfes, Alexander Calder and PT Barnum and a lot of good music to listen to.

Well, then, the album compares well with a glass of nice single malt with a long finish.

Let yourself be inspired, seduced and enchanted!


Author: Thomas Jesse


The album is available as 2CD and 2LP online on the band's website, Burningshed (UK) and JustForKicks (Germany)


"Welcome to the show -

I'm the king of wire and string.

In a world of little things

I'm the one who makes it go?"


Remarks:
1. see here
2. see here
3. about Thomas Wolfe
4. see here
5. see here
6. see here

The Band:

Justin Cohn: vocals, guitar
Brian Coombes: keys, vocals
Patrik Gochez: guitar, keys, vocals
Jon Finn: guitars
Juli Finn: guitars
Brenden Harisiades: bass
Myron Kibbee: guitars
Mike McAdam: guitars
Eric Wagley: drums/percussion

Additional guests:

Noel McCalla: vocals
Amy Birks: vocals
Tim Bowness: vocals
Caroline Carter: vocals
Evelyn Cormier: vocals
Chris Difford: vocals
David Cross: violin
Michaela Davis: harp
Kenwood Dennard (ex-Brand X): drums
Eric Wagley: drums
Melvin Duffy (Squeeze): pedal steel
John Hackett: flute
Greg Hawkes (The Cars): saxophone, keyboards
Rob Townsend (Steve Hackett): sopransaxophon
Kate St John (Dream Academy): oboe, english horn, akkordeon

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