Conquest of the Pacific

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Not revolutionary perhaps, but surprisingly good, well-rounded, and all-around accomplished, Oaksenham's Conquest of the Pacific took more than a few prog rock fans by surprise. Finding such a strong debut release from such a little-known part of the world (Armenia) is always a nice treat. Oaksenham's sextet lineup is that of a rock band plus violin and flute. With this instrumentation, they play classically tinged chamber progressive rock that combines Gentle Giant's love of contrapuntal writing and Jethro Tull's Songs from the Wood-era folk leanings. Despite these well-identifiable influences, Oaksenham manage to develop a personal sound, both aerial and grounded, through instrumental tracks that range from short classical-like vignettes to ten-minute mini-epics and a full-fledged 25-minute suite. The first half of the album consists of seven unrelated pieces showcasing the various sides of the band. "Water Spark" and "Time Out" are the most interesting original compositions, both featuring complex yet subtle arrangements and a propensity to switch from classical to hard rock mode in a quarter of a second (sometimes a bit gratuitously). Also worthy of note are two Gentle Giant covers: the short medieval-esque rondo "Talybont" and a stunning instrumental reading of "On Reflection," one of Giant's most difficult -- and rewarding -- pieces. The latter shows off the virtuosity of all group members even though, here and everywhere else on the album, that virtuosity is subsumed to the writing. The ten-minute "The Way Back Home" runs short of material, without actually feeling too long to be a burden. The second half of the album is occupied by the title suite in five semi-autonomous parts. Two themes ("Jester's Pipe" and "Merlin's Jig") serve as unifying factors between these parts, with "Jester's Pipe" actually being a (credited) variation on Jethro Tull's song "Velvet Green." Each section is packed with ideas, variations, and changes in instrumentation -- with a total of six guest musicians adding colors to the group's sound palette. As a result, Conquest of the Pacific is a captivating compositional tour de force, only marred by the rather tacked-on "Pomp and Circumstance" in the last section, which sounds completely out of place and leaves the listener on a pompous note that had been skillfully eschewed up to those last few minutes. Still, Conquest of the Pacific is one of 2007's superior prog rock releases and will be of particular appeal to fans of Gentle Giant's complex and medieval-esque take on the genre.

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