August 20, 2022

This album will certainly be a joy to prog fans of a certain age, or to younger folk who admire those early ‘70s prog bands.

In 1966, Iron Butterfly – one of the seminal bands in the development of heavy rock music – came out of San Diego. But, from then onwards the city has musically been relatively quiet and has certainly played second fiddle to Californian neighbours San Francisco and Los Angeles, both of whom have produced a stream of globally massive bands. Perhaps Earthless at the turn of the century is one of San Diego’s few bright sparks since then, and it’s from the city’s strong local heavy/psychedelic rock scene that Birth have now emerged with their debut album, called rather oddly Born. OK, we got the message: this is a new band! New they might be, but their San Diego music credentials go deep. Conor Riley (keyboards, acoustic guitars, vocals) and Brian Ellis (lead guitar, electric piano, percussions) were both long-standing members of local San Diego band Astra. They hooked up with Trevor Mast (bass) and Paul Marrone (drums) and Birth were, well… born. Without wishing to labour the pun, almost immediate surgical intervention was needed on the new-born creature as Marrone was replaced by Thomas DiBenedetto (but not before recording this album).

Astra were influenced by the local stoner/psychedelic scene albeit with a much more progressive twist. Yes were a prominent influence on them. To these ears, Born takes that prog influence a step further, shedding the stoner roots and creating a pure prog album with an even stronger retro early 70’s influence reinforced by the use of analogue keyboards (Hammond, Mellotron and Moog). Its duration of 42 minutes also seems a throwback to those early days of prog. Two of the six tracks – which open each side of the vinyl release – are instrumentals. They are complex variations on a theme, showcasing the outstanding musicianship of the band. While attention will naturally be drawn to the keyboards and guitars, it’s the slightly jazzy bass and drums that underpin them and that really makes a difference, providing variation and subtlety that keeps both tracks interesting. Those two tracks are dynamic and upbeat, and that description applies also to the closing track Long Way Down. It’s based around a theme that’s slightly reminiscent of the vocal line from ELP’s Knife Edge. It’s also the one song where Ellis lets loose a bit with his guitar soloing, but overall, this track doesn’t quite hit it off and is the least convincing piece on the album to these ears.  

The remaining three tracks are those that look back longingly to the ‘70s. King Crimson is likely to be the immediate influence that will spring to mind due to the use of graceful electric guitar themes played over waves of Mellotron interchanging with quiet languid vocal sections supported by acoustic guitar. Descending Us opens in exactly that way, so much so that you almost expect Riley to sing ‘The wall on which the prophets wrote is cracking at the seams’! But hey, sounding like Epitaph is no bad thing, is it? The song picks up pace and then develops around a more urgent Hammond driven theme that has overtones of Uriah Heep in their prime (in particular, the closing section of Pilgrim). It’s probably the standout track on the album.

At nine minutes, For Yesterday is the longest track but it flies by without you realising it. It’s a slow-paced piece and the initial guitar theme triggers thoughts of King Crimson again but as the song develops, the beautiful melody and the restrained guitar solo seem closer to the sound world of early Barclay James Harvest. Another Time begins as a wistful ballad and builds up nicely before launching into something of a Yes boogie for its last minute. That sometimes wistful dreamy nature of the music seems to be at odds a little with lyrics which Riley sums up as ‘the deterioration of society, transformation, mortality and other fun and positive things’. Then again, the lyrics are somewhat vague and can be interpreted in many ways, so the musical dish isn’t spoilt by them.

This album will certainly be a joy to prog fans of a certain age, or to younger folk who admire those early ‘70s prog bands. What more could you ask in terms of early prog nostalgia? Well, how about a video that looks like it was filmed in 1970? That’s exactly what Birth have done to promote their latest single below. Watch and listen and be transported back to the birth of prog!