Sunday, December 9, 2012

North Atlantic Oscillation's Shimmering Light in the Fog

For a prog rock album to surpass the status of guilty pleasure or, even worse, token in my library, it can’t rest on the laurels of the past too much. Admittedly, I have my share of favorite retro-prog projects, but they are often consumed quickly and discarded. For this reason, I generally take greater notice when an indie or alternative site calls attention to a new prog band than when a progressive rock site heaps praises on the next big thing. Every now and then, though, a group comes along that breaks the expectations of what progressive rock is, but whose proggish adventurousness can’t be ignored by the more conservative communities. The last time this happened, I discovered Mew, a band that has evolved into one of my all-time favorites. I still lurk on progressive rock sites for rare instances like this.

Several months ago, I read a review of North Atlantic Oscillation’s Fog Electric that piqued my interest. It was, by its own admission, somewhat vague, but it indicated that instrumental histrionics were downplayed in lieu of songcraft in a “modern take on progressive rock.”  These descriptors begged me to dig further, so I looked up the video for Soft Coda.

Its triumphant, expansive tone captured my attention. Indeed, North Atlantic Oscillation did not fit the classical prog paradigm. They did, however, seem to have a distinctive sound and an exploratory veneer. Still, I was wary, so I subjected Fog Electric to a somewhat uncharacteristic vetting process. I began running the entire album on low-fi Spotify during late night chores. Only after several months did it finally earn its way into rotation.

What immediately set the band apart from a lot of current progressive music I run into is the translucent vocal approach of guitarist and keyboardist Sam Healy. I readily admit that Peter Gabriel was, and is, a conceptual genius, but after 40 years of reinvention, his flamboyant approach to progressive showmanship has resulted in some embarrassing melodrama. North Atlantic Oscillation neatly sidesteps this issue with a crystalline falsetto that has more in common with Brian Wilson than Fish. When it is stacked in harmony (and it often is), comparisons with the Beach Boys are impossible to ignore.

Like a lot of progressive rock, it takes a little familiarity for the listener to gain a foothold on what is brewing beneath the surface of Fog Electric. It is, however, not so aloof and self-indulgent that it holds the listener at arm's length. On the contrary, it’s immediately quite inviting and consistent. Granted, there are bombastic Marillion-esque bridges, Hackett-inspired guitar interludes, and cleverly crafted asymmetrical time signatures that are clearly derived from the progressive rock canon. By and large, however, North Atlantic Oscillation also compares quite favorably with more subdued explorations from contemporary torchbearers like M83, Sigur Ros, and Radiohead.

In actuality, many of these comparisons are feeble at best. During the vetting process, it was not so easy to draw a straight line between Fog Electric and anything else I was listening to, which is what made it so compelling. The more I unraveled it, the more influences I seemed to add to the list, until finally I decided that perhaps North Atlantic Oscillation might be onto something a bit more unique than I was giving them credit for. Fog Electric is, I think, something special: a much-needed, genuinely fresh, creative statement in the progressive rock genre that could also serve a much broader audience.

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