I consider myself fairly well-versed on the subject of 70s prog. I’ve got scores of albums by dozens of bands, and what I don’t have I can usually recognize. So when something comes around that I haven’t heard of (like last year’s Sea Goat record), it’s gotta be for a good reason — like the band not recording anything, or sucking. So here we are with Dutch outfit Kayak, probably spelled backward, and their latest album Seventeen, which I have found out has nothing to do with Kip Winger strutting around partially clothed. If a band has been around since 1972, and have sixteen albums under their belts, why hasn’t the venerable Huckster heard of them? Well, in the spirit of community service, here I am listening to olde prog from an olde band, to figure out why exactly they have paddled under my radar.
A quick 30-second primer on Kayak: this five-piece has been around since 1972, although they split between 1981-1999, during which keyboard player/founding member/sole original member Ton Scherpenzeel played with Camel. Bass player Kristoffer Gildenlow spent some time with Pain of Salvation, and drummer Collin Leijenaar has worked with Neal Morse, so there’re some prog creds sprinkled in. The band describes themselves as prog with pop sensibilities, meaning shorter songs with less wankery than the genre prefers. That could be tasty like Steven Wilson’s last effort, or lousy like nearly everything Supertramp ever did. Sadly, as I found out, it’s much more of the latter.
There’s a lot of major key upbeat material here, which I don’t fundamentally have an issue with if the songs are actually engaging. But Seventeen is a twelve-song, sixty-minute disk, and eight of those songs are schmaltzy pop tunes clocking in at three minutes apiece. None of them are interesting. In fact, I could cut two fingers off my right hand and still use it to count the number of gripping moments the band provides: the two long songs, “La Peregrina” and “Walk Through Fire,” while not outstanding, have sweet arrangements that allow the band to release a bit of pent-up aggression the shorter songs do not. On the third-longest song, “Cracks,” Marcel Singor lays out a couple of guitar solos that stand up to any other band. Outside of those moments, though, the material is forgettable – even the fiddle-and-oompah of “God on our Side.”
I don’t talk a lot about lyrics in my reviews: I find most lyrics to be merely average, of course with exceptions in both directions. But on this album, Kayak’s lyrics are often painfully bland. Check out this line from “X Marks the Spot:” “X marks the spot, it could be anywhere, just not where you thought that it would be.” Um, okay. And that’s the gist of the album’s lyrical skill. Luckily, the performances and production are the exact opposite: as one would expect from a record released by InsideOut, the mix is stellar, lively, and balanced, and despite the poor songwriting the band are excellent musicians. The video below is a perfect example: a mix of vanilla songwriting and chord progressions mixed in with some teasingly good work, although this is a six-minute edit of the original twelve-minute cut.
I can safely say that, having only heard of Kayak recently, I haven’t missed out on anything. What it all boils down to is the lack of strong songs. Seventeen sounds great, the band plays fantastically, and Bart Schwermann is a solid singer, but the material he has to work with is for the most part boring. A lot more of the adventurousness of “Walk Through Fire” and a lot less of the more-tedious-than-Supertramp “Love, Sail Away” and we’d have ourselves a winner. Instead, we’ve gotten 2018 off to a progressively weak start.