Prolusion. Hailing from Oakland, USA, MIRTHKON is a sextet (plus Jarred McAdams, their conceptual collaborator). Though the idea for a band by this name had been in his mind since the late Nineties, multi-instrumentalist Wally Scharold finally managed to put a real outfit together in 2005, after his meeting with guitarist Rob Pumpelly. “Vehicle” is miRthkon’s debut album, released in May 2009; an EP titled “The Joy of Illusion” (which included four tracks all featured on “Vehicle”) had come out in 2006. Scharold and McAdams (who is a composer, writer and video artist) have also been working on an elaborate mythology on which the whole of miRthkon’s output is based.
Analysis. The Bay Area of Northern California, though for over forty years a hotbed of activity for rock music in its many incarnations, has never been noted for its wealth of Avant-prog bands. However, miRthkon and their “Vehicle” seem bent on dispelling any such preconceptions regarding the concentration (or lack thereof) of any given musical tendencies. A big-sounding, in-your-face outfit, adopting the familiar format of RIO/Avant ensembles (a core plus a number of guests and collaborators), they have immediately established themselves as a name to watch with one of the most impressive debut albums of the past two decades (and possibly longer). True, the idea of basing a band’s musical output on a mythology of sorts is not new, with Gong and Magma being the most familiar examples. Indeed, “Vehicle” packs a punch comparable at least to the debut album of Christian Vander’s legendary band. Unlike countless releases by more traditional prog outfits, it offers a sharply different twist on that old, tired warhorse of progressive rock, the concept album – one centered around the titular vintage car shown on the cover and introduced in suitably bombastic, circus-like fashion by opener Congratulations. Though the story line is not exactly clear, the quirky titles and weird artwork, as well as the infectious silliness of the strongly Zappa-influenced vocal parts, point to a clearly satirical component underlying the apparent jollity of the whole. miRthkon’s music could be effectively described as a heady cocktail made with very diverse, apparently incompatible ingredients. The usual RIO/Avant elements of experimentation and textural build-up find themselves side by side with crushing heavy metal riffs, big-band bombast, elegant jazzy passages, pneumatic funky rhythms, and even some jam-band-like improvisation – often within the same track. Unlike other bands belonging to the same genre (including some of their AltrOck label mates), there is nothing understated about miRthkon. In time-honored prog tradition, they can be as head-spinningly excessive as the likes of ELP of The Mars Volta, and I mean that as a compliment. The individual musicians push their instruments to the limit, producing thick, dense amounts of sound that can be somewhat hard to take in at one sitting. On account of the above-mentioned characteristics, describing any of the tracks in detail amounts to a next to impossible task. As already hinted, the Zappa influences are strongest in the vocal tracks like Banana and, especially, Honey Key Jamboree whose extended guitar solo could have easily fit in on an album like “Apostrophe”, but also in instrumentals like Daddylonglegz, a cheerful, funky mid-tempo with a nicely meaty bass line and expressive use of sax and clarinet. All these tracks have a higher than average melodic content, the music flowing along in an eminently listener-friendly way. At the other end of the spectrum we find textbook examples of Avant-Prog such as the darkly atmospheric The Black Fruit and the unbridled chaos of the second half of Camelopardalis, where all the instruments seem to be ‘talking’ at the same time, coming and going as they see fit. On the other hand, the metal component of miRthkon’s sound is especially evident in Flashbulb of Orgasms, a sort of statement of intent strategically placed at the beginning of the album, featuring some absolutely insane drumming and hysterical clarinet, and even more so in the grandiose, bombastic Zhagunk, where the sax bursts and the crunching guitar riffs seem to be conducting a dialogue with each other. Knowing my often critical stance towards excessively long albums, my readers will probably be surprised to see me award the top rating to an almost 70-minute disc. In fact, even if the music showcased on “Vehicle” is not always easily digestible, and some sort of weariness can set in at the end of an intensive listening session, its sheer power and undeniable quality are deserving of the highest recognition. miRthkon’s eclecticism, their creative re-elaboration of so many diverse influences, and – last but not least – the strong undercurrent of humor running through the album clearly indicate a band with an authentically progressive mindset who are serious about their music without appearing to take themselves too seriously.
Conclusion. Throwing everything but the proverbial kitchen sink into the mix, “Vehicle” is not for the faint-hearted, though it will surely turn out to be an enormously satisfying listen for those willing to brave this 70-minute rollercoaster ride of an album. Needless to say, this is highly recommended to lovers of truly progressive rock, especially those who appreciate a sizable helping of humor alongside with the obligatory technical fireworks: Definitely one of the best releases of 2009.