Fans of the Canterbury scene should thank Planeta Imaginario, and specifically the band's keyboardist, Marc Capel, for resurrecting sounds thought lost, as they say, to the dustbin of history. Way back in the '60s and '70s, British bands like Soft Machine, Egg, and Hatfield and the North melded jazz and prog into a jazz-rock hybrid that was long on inventiveness and thankfully short on pomposity, but was nonetheless swept away along with the more grandiose aspects of prog by the advent of punk. Some old Canterbury warriors are still playing today, others have sadly passed on, and now and then a new batch of young musicians takes inspiration from the Softs et al. -- including this Spanish group appearing on its second Cuneiform album, Optical Delusions, in 2011. The Canterbury sensibility is immediately evident on the first track, "Collective Action," with Capel's electric piano voicings echoing Dave Stewart's work with the Hatfields. But there is much more: on this disc Planeta Imaginario are a sextet of keyboards (Capel), fretless bass (Dimitris Bikos), and drums (Vasco Trilla Gomes dos Santos) augmented by a three-piece horn section (trumpet, trombone, and saxophones) plus four guest musicians on assorted brass and reeds. So while Capel's keys first recall Stewart in the Hatfields, and then Stewart again in his pre-Hatfields trio Egg, and even a bit of Alan Gowen from Gilgamesh, those horns and reeds announce themselves in alternately breezy and incisive arrangements (also courtesy of Capel) that suffuse the album with a jazzy "little big band" feel. Think of Soft Machine's short-lived 1969 septet incarnation with its four-piece horn/reed section -- or even some hints of Zappa in the horn charts of the concise and funked-up "Hemangloma."
But for the most part, Optical Delusions seems firmly ensconced in the world of Canterbury and related groups. "The Garden of Happy Cows" (with strong sax solos over heated extended grooves) features some squelchy synth suggesting Gong's switch doctor Tim Blake circa You, a connection made even more clearly during the piece's spaced-out keyboard ostinato conclusion, which segues into the free-form intro of "Xarramandusca," with Alfonso Muñoz firmly in Elton Dean territory on soprano sax. Later in the track a bit of very Mike Ratledge-esque wah-wah organ appears, a seeming homage to the granddaddy of Canterbury keyboardists, although perhaps most impressive of all are the burning organ tones Capel employs on driving solos in the aforementioned "Garden" and the album-concluding "The Sea...and Later the Sun...and the Reflection," very much in the mold of Dave Sinclair's workouts on the extended jams of Caravan (and the quite nice flute and sax on the latter track sounds very much like Jimmy Hastings). If anything could be found wanting in this generous package (with a number of tracks pushing or exceeding the ten-minute mark), it might be a certain lack of tunefulness, despite the impressive arrangements and more than enough instrumental prowess to go around. Even in their longest explorations (e.g., Soft Machine's "Out-Bloody-Rageous," Caravan's "Nine Feet Underground," Hatfield and the North's ever-popular "Mumps"), the old Canterbury bands incorporated themes that would stick in the memory long after the needle left the groove, which is sometimes not the case here. Nevertheless, Optical Delusions' retro-progressive (how's that for an oxymoron?) keyboard voicings are rare in this type of jazz-rock context -- even in today's Soft Machine "legacy" groups -- and their presence here is cause for celebration.