Friday, June 7, 2019

Trees/Grass: Stumpy Meets The Firecracker In Stencil Forest

Happy The Man: Stumpy Meets The Firecracker In Stencil Forest

It has been a while since I’ve written about prog rock, and I initially considered writing about two songs from one of my favorite Genesis albums, Selling England By The Pound, “The Battle of Epping Forest,” based on a real gang war, because “forest,” and/or “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),” about a groundskeeper who says, “Me, I'm just a lawnmower/You can tell me by the way I walk.”

But no, let’s go deeper into the prog rock weeds.

Prog, at least back in its heyday of the early/mid 70s was really a European thing. Most of the famous bands associated with the genre are English, German, French, Italian, etc. But there were American prog bands. Back in 2015, Rolling Stone published a list of the 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time, and fittingly, most were from European bands, most of which you have probably heard of (including the aforementioned Selling England By The Pound, at No. 6. The highest ranked U.S. album was from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, One Size Fits All (Canadians Rush, though had albums ranked 3 and 11.)

Bringing up the rear, at 50, was the self-titled debut album from a band that many consider the greatest American prog band of them all, Happy The Man, maybe, the greatest band that you’ve never heard of.

Formed in and around James Madison University in Virginia in 1973, the band predictably went through lineup changes before settling down, moving to Washington, D.C., and becoming well-known enough that Arista Records signed them. And at about the same time, the newly solo Peter Gabriel met with the band and demoed a couple of songs, before Gabriel decided to go in a different direction for his first album. I kind of wish he had stuck with HTM, though, because it probably would have been great.

These guys could play, with complex songs mixing Zappa, Gentle Giant and Canterbury Scene type songs with more Genesis like ballads. What they really couldn’t do was sing, or write lyrics (often an issue with bands of this type). But if you stick to the instrumentals, you will be blown away.

“Stumpy Meets The Firecracker In Stencil Forest” is a great, knotty instrumental, featuring great guitar, sax and synth playing, and if the often excessive length of prog songs turns you off, it is a compact 4:16. (And look, just because the title references a “stencil forest,” that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have trees. The Black Forest isn’t black, and is filled with trees. Rain forests aren’t made of rain. Bighorn National Forest isn’t filled with sheep. Just saying.)

After releasing their debut, Happy The Man toured around the country, opening for bands as diverse as Renaissance and Hot Tuna, and recorded and released a second just slightly less amazing album, Crafty Hands. Neither album sold at all, and Arista dropped them. A third album was recorded in 1979, but not released until 1983 (I’ve never heard it), and keyboard player Kit Watkins left to join the somewhat more famous British band Camel. Other members of HTM formed and played in obscure bands or as solo acts over the years, and there was a brief reunion in the early 2000s.

If you like this genre of music and haven’t heard of Happy The Man, check out this song, and their first two albums (feel free to skip the three songs with vocals, but they do have some merit).

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