First things first: it’s no coincidence that the eponymous frontman of Nad Sylvan sounds remarkably similar to Peter Gabriel. Fresh from performing on Genesis Revisited II and subsequently touring with Genesis as principle vocalist, Nad Sylvan now exercises his musical talents on his own album. Some (read: me) have described him as the Ripper Owens of prog rock, but fortunately for Sylvan, he isn’t saddled with the subtitle “rank amateur.” Courting the Widow brims with vibrancy and is a remarkably fresh take on 70s prog, with great individual songs and a tongue-in-cheek approach ensuring it’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen.
Unsurprisingly, Courting the Widow is full of proggy charm and has all the trimmings you’ve become intimately familiar during your time with bands flourishing in the 70s. There are occasional strings and organs which remind me of Genesis, a frequent jazz flute which recalls Jethro Tull, and plentiful jamming guitars, elaborate solos, and diverse piano and keyboard passages to flesh out the remainder. Nad Sylvan predictably relies most heavily on Genesis and Yes but consider it a rose-tinted survey of all that made that scene great. It certainly is derivative but don’t misconstrue this as an inferior homage – the song-writing is sufficiently diverse and memorable to enable Sylvan to stand on his own two feet.
Make no mistake: there are some really great songs here. It isn’t a seamless concept album nor an album with overlapping tracks to unravel in its entirety. Nothing feels out of place, but the songs all have their own, separate, musical signatures. The opener, “Carry Me Home,” is a charming, upbeat number with a lovely melody in the chorus; the title track begins and ends as a perverse lullaby (“beside his corpse she will stay… I court the widow I make”); “Ship’s Cat” is a jaunty tune with its story strangely reminding me of “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats; “The Killing of the Calm” bears a Medieval flavor with its harpsichord; and the linear progression and marching percussion of closer, “Long Slow Crash Landing,” makes for the most epic song on the album. It may not constitute a complete and unified album, in the vein of Wish You Were Here, Closer to the Edge or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but it’s hard to deny the quality of the material here.
Another big plus for Courting the Widow is its irreverence and humor. Sylvan channels The Ghost of Gabriel Past in his lyricism and delivery, but never gets lost in the finer details of his own rectum. I’ve already referenced the lyrics and stories of a couple of tracks, and this light-heartedness and unwillingness to take himself seriously does wonders for the material.
However, there is one key way in which this release differs from its heroes: for a single album, it’s very long. The towering, progressive behemoth at the center of the album, “To Turn the Other Side,” recalls the ambitious “Supper’s Ready” by Genesis, except it’s an addition to an entire album’s worth of material already available. The technological limitations of vinyl in the 70s restricted the evident potential for vociferously wanky music, but there’s no such limit here. It’s 20-30 minutes longer than most classics (excluding double albums). I’m not saying that “To Turn the Other Side” is bad but it outlasts its welcome and its removal would have enabled Courting the Widow to hit the progressive sweet-spot for length.
I should also eulogize about how good the album sounds. Recorded at a wholesome dynamic range of 11-13, there’s crystal-clear distinction between the different instruments. The hearty thump of the drums and rumbling bass-lines are both particularly pleasing, and it’s great to hear such clarity where many instruments are layered as is often the case on this very progressive release. The subtle differences in the guitar and drum tones aren’t lost on the listener given the great depth.
There have assuredly been more innovative releases this year, but I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun listening to prog rock. It isn’t quite maintained through the entire album but the groovy, diverse highs more than make up for the lows. Ripper Sylvan needn’t fear the amateurish connotations of his new nickname.