“The Quest For Prester John”

By Dr. Abner Mality

Pure progressive rock in the classic tradition is not an easy thing to find these days. There’s a lot of progressive metal out there and a lot of modern prog as well. But stuff like this is just not a common thing anymore, which makes this concept album more distinctive in a lot of ways.

Prester John was a mythical Christian emperor said to rule a fabulous realm somewhere in Northern Africa. Many sought his realm but could never really find it. It may have been a hugely exaggerated take on Ethiopia. People of medieval Europe were fascinated with trying to find him. It’s an interesting subject to base an album around and ScienceNV have taken a stab at it here.

Anybody expecting progressive metal ala Dream Theater or even Porcupine Tree had best look elsewhere. This is not that type of music. I admit that there are times when my attention started to wander during the quieter moments here, but the band conjures up a very wide palette of sound, ranging from the pure synth-driven ELP worship of “Fanfaire” to the peppy prog jam of “Overland” to the almost free jazz wanderings of “Across The Carpathians” to the ambient, rhythmless “An Earthly Paradise”. Surprisingly, female vocals play a large part, as the huge 9-part song “Eloise’s Tale” tells of a woman’s trek to find Prester John, told in her voice.

There’s a medieval feel to the whole album. There are times when interesting lyrics provide a momentum that the music sometimes lacks. The snide title character of “The Eunuch” disdains Eloise as a “mangy Frankish slut” and crows about how he actually controls a monarch pretending to be Prester John. The switch between various musical styles keeps the album interesting, but when the ballad “Slowly” runs up into “An Earthly Paradise”, the energy is sapped. Fortunately, “The Gates of Alexander” swings back with an energetic prog workout featuring gang vocals yelling “Heave! Ho!”.

Some of the best and most exploratory music comes on the “Above The Falls/Beyond the Falls” pairing, reminding me of classic 70’s prog with a slightly modern touch. The record ends with “The Mongols”, which as you might guess from the title, is one of the album’s most muscular and guitar oriented tracks.

This is highly recommended to fans of pure prog and keyboard-based music. Those expecting something rockier and heavier might be a little disappointed. An epic tale given an interesting treatment here.