The feel-good prog rock of By Blood Alone

By SAM PFEIFLE  |  April 20, 2011

If there's one thing for certain, it's that no one will feel cheated by By Blood Alone. For their third record, the brand-new Thunderbirds, the five-piece prog-rock group deliver seven elegantly orchestrated tracks that come in collectively at just under an hour. There is no "single" here. Two songs edge past 10 minutes.

This album is a feast for the ears. Gorge yourself.

Maybe most impressively, frontgal Cruella sings through almost all of it, a veritable force of nature pouring her very will into every song, not simply sitting idly by while the guitar/bass/organ/drums churn. Nor is she simply one of those American Idol yellers, either. She has nuance and a pop sensibility at times and while she's certainly got a flair for the dramatic, there are definitely movements here that wouldn't sound out of place on alternative radio.

The opening "Drive All Night," actually, is inspired by Cyndi Lauper's "I Drove All Night," and you can hear that in Jenny Williamson's poppy organ part and the harmonies in what might as well serve as the chorus. Then the song breaks into arpeggio and clean piano: "I can't live my life . . . Departing's like a knife/Like I'm flaying my soul."

In a post-contemporary mastering job, Lance Vardis allows for a huge range with little compression, so that the very high frequency of Runtt's middle bell on a cymbal slices through everything else and whacks you in the eardrums late.

Coming off successful breast-cancer treatments, Cruella makes no bones about this being a personal group of compositions. "I Bleed" is probably most straight forward in that regard, as she details her struggles with the helplessness that something like cancer can inspire: "Crippled by fear and alone/Not asking for help . . . weakness I've never shown/I want to own my world/I want to feel in control."

Guitarist and band composer John Graveside (with help from Steve La Cerra) drips in a great descending strings line, lending an operatic/Broadway feel that makes the band as much Genesis as Dream Theater.

In fact, for a wearing-lots-of-black, relatively heavy band, By Blood Alone have always been particularly accessible. There are times on "Having Tea" where I'd swear Cruella was channeling Natalie Merchant. Her falsetto in the chorus is lovely, balanced by a diving organ line that's straight out of the big top.

Perhaps it's the title track where they deliver a song that's most exactly like you would expect, were you judging this album by the cover. It's energetic, ripping from the get-go on top of Jack Doran's bass line, and it's got that fantasy/sci-fi vibe that the prog genre tends to embrace: "Thunder cracks each time they fly."

But then there's that haunting organ tone that bobs and weaves like a Gorillaz tune, a playfully haunting melody that's like a heavily eye-lined wink.

Fun? Yeah, I think you could call it that, too.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached

THUNDERBIRDS | Released by By Blood Alone | with Hoboe | at Geno's, in Portland | April 22 |

  Topics: CD Reviews , Music, American Idol, Cyndi Lauper,  More more >
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