Mannheim Steamroller

Fresh Aire

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    6
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A harbinger of the new age movement, Mannheim Steamroller's debut is a unique mix of light classical piano music, progressive rock, and medieval songs. Composer Chip Davis breaks the album into 12 semi-classical structures (sonatas, interludes, even a disguised passacaglia) that match up to the seasons, rendering Fresh Aire a concept album about nature and life. Most of the music is played by Jackson Berkey, dubbing piano, harpsichord, and synthesizers atop one another with a minimal rhythm section from Davis and Eric Hansen. At its spaciest, Fresh Aire sounds like Keith Emerson or Camel; when the band's in a medieval mood, Gentle Giant (notably "Talybont") comes to mind. Audiophiles took a real shine to Mannheim Steamroller, both for the superior album packaging and the clean sound (if memory serves, American Gramaphone used to charge on the high side for their LPs). As CD technology was introduced, the Fresh Aire series was reissued and became a popular demo for its inoffensive high-mindedness as much as its dynamic range. While sections of Fresh Aire are very pretty, the frequent interludes cost the album its momentum (and are a full half of the months really sad?). When Mannheim Steamroller cuts loose -- as on "Rondo," "Chocolate Fudge," and "Saras Band" -- they're a hoot. The solo piano passages are all right, but listeners would do better to turn to budding ambient composers (Brian Eno), electronic acts (Tangerine Dream), and the original masters (Claude Debussy, Sergei Rachmaninoff) themselves. Then again, a mix of medieval prog and mawkish piano melodies might be just what you're looking for.

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