Conflict And Dreams
Magna Carta Records, 1998
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/12/2009
Since I discovered modern progressive rockers Cairo via the Yes tribute album Tales From Yesterday, it was, in true for better or for worse fashion, somewhat inevitable that I would compare them with Yes. Their performance of the classic prog nugget “South Side Of The Sky” on said disc was spot-on and definitely caught my attention, leading me to pick up this album.
And a solid album it is. This Northern California quintet repeatedly demonstrates that they’re a superb bunch of players, powering through complex riffs and shifting time signatures with a determined flair. I was impressed over and over again with their superb technical proficiency. Of course, I said the same thing about Dream Theater and all they got was this crummy review.
But worry not, boys, I actually enjoyed Conflict And Dreams quite a bit; it just pointed out to me in some of the ways that -- IMHO -- modern prog has both succeeded and failed at building on the foundations established by classic prog combos like Yes and ELP and Genesis.
Cairo, like many of their contemporaries, have great musical chops and are inventive arrangers; where I think they sometimes fall short is in the feel department. It’s great that Mark Robertson can play rippling, complex two-handed keyboard solos while Jeff Brockman stutter-steps his way through five time signatures in under a minute and Alec Fuhrman delivers Steve-Howe-is-my-personal-savior surgical-strike guitar solos. But classic prog was/is about more than chops. Even Yes’ most abstract songs have a poetry to them -- spoken or musical -- that’s largely missing here. Without that poetry -- or such other distinguishing characteristics as the studied artiness of Genesis or the chameleonic majesty of King Crimson or the bottomless melancholy of Pink Floyd or the brash pomposity of ELP – you’re left with a group that, for all its collective musical talent, can feel rather bland and shapeless at times.
A significant problem – and let’s be clear from the start that this is purely a matter of personal taste on my part -- is the band’s lead voice Bret Douglas, whose vocals are tonally closer to the melodramatic roar of a James LaBrie (Dream Theater) than the airy sweetness of a Jon Anderson or the confident quirkiness of a Peter Gabriel. Granted, LaBrie has won many, many fans on the modern prog scene… I’m just not one of them. As for Douglas’ lyrics, he has his moments, but too often slips into overcooked fantasy clichés.
Enough kibitzing, though; let’s get to the good stuff. On an album with four ten-minute-plus suites and two shorter numbers, the 17-minute epic “Western Dreams” is the standout. Opening with a dynamic instrumental section that serves to remind me why I love prog, the song quickly establishes big momentum as Robertson and Fuhrman trade potent solos while Brockman and session bassist Jamie Browne keep the pedal to the metal underneath. Robertson in particular pushes the others hard with an Emerson-like flair (word is Keith is a fan) and they consistently respond in kind.
Closer “Valley Of The Shadows” is quite strong as well, with dynamic changes and breakneck playing through the opening and core sections; only the rather purposeless slow-fading coda/reprise at the end diminishes its impact. “Angels And Rage” embeds some thunderous riffs, but is a little too arena-rock flavored for my tastes, while “Corridors” and “Then You Were Gone” are perfectly competent without being especially memorable. One of the band’s finest moments comes in the gentle acoustic interlude “Image,” where they play with real subtlety, restraint and beauty… for 1:25.
As a thesis statement -- it’s the consensus best album of a 15-year career in which Cairo has produced only three -- Conflict And Dreams is impressive in many ways. The musicianship is unassailable and the themes often stirring. It’s only my own personal preferences in the vocal department and the lack of any characteristic that really distinguishes the band from its peers that keeps me from grading this higher.