US prog. Somewhat lagging behind their European counterparts in the seventies and eighties, during the first two waves of prog. A force to be reckoned with in the nineties and aughts, fuelled by the retro-prog and progressive metal stylings of by now legendary bands like Spock’s Beard, Echolyn, Fates Warning or Dream Theater. And, in the last decade, a hotbed for what has become known in our circles as “new prog”, with bands like The Dear Hunter, Thank You Scientist, Bent Knee or District 97 consistently raising the bar in their mixing of accessibility, virtuosity and genre-blending.
Fast forward to 2019, the “annus mirabilis” of modern prog. In a year that saw an unparalleled amount of stellar releases, I kept returning to the debut full-length album of a band from New Jersey: Cabinets of Curiosity. A band which manages, like few others, to grab you from the get-go already, by virtue of their name:
Originally, the band’s name was going to be Cabinet of Curiosities, like the old-timey collections of odd trinkets and artefacts. It was suggested by our keyboard player at the time that we adjust it to Cabinets of Curiosity, to be slightly more unique. – James Naprawa
And unique it is, evoking both the familiar and the unknown, in a way that’s consistent with their musical credo.
But, like any good story, let’s start at the beginning.
Universe Zero: Volt
The genesis of Cabinets of Curiosity can be traced back to 2015, with James Naprawa (lead guitar), Bran Blackmire (guitar) and Jared Hirst (bass) bandmates in the hard rock / power metal outfit Volt. With the three keen to branch off into new directions and James starting to write material of a more experimental nature, it was time to start thinking about a side project. With the guys starting to get more and more into the classic prog sounds of the seventies, it was clear that the lineup would need to further expand. Joining them on drums, Matthew Montagano from their college jazz band would trade his original instrument, the guitar, for sticks. And, in a fortuitous turn of events that James, to this day, still cannot fathom, Anthony Warga on saxophone, Kristina Bacich on flute, Nat Hornyak on vocals and Joseph Oliver on keyboards would soon complete the band, all of them answering the call of a Craigslist ad:
It had been months since Chris Squire had passed, and I felt this near existential urge to pick up the baton, so to speak. Imagine my shock when I found a bunch of ungodly talented 21-year-olds making legit 1972-era sounds — but with their own fresh, creative spin — in a basement in the backwoods of southern New Jersey. I think I believe in fate now. Or at least the transcendental power of Craigslist. – Nat Hornyak
With everything falling into place, it was time to write some further material and record.
Universe I: EPonymous
Released in May 2016, EPonymous was a first taste of things to come. The 23 minute, four song EP is framed by Dr. Quantum and Nobody’s Angel, which, James confesses, are from an instrumental technical death metal album he wrote in his pre-prog days. That initial skeleton is fully reworked and transformed into fresh-sounding prog pieces, complete with flute, sax, tight playing, great dynamics and powerful vocals. As for the rest of the songs, the highlight is Nowhere Near The Blade, the band’s first collaborative writing effort, a full-on prog assault, with different sections, recurring motifs, guitar and keys solos, sweet bass lines and excellent vocals. Finally, The Abducted, a slow, brooding mood piece, shows the band can do restraint as well, with everybody locked in to the atmosphere of the song.
The promise and potential of EPonymous was unfortunately followed by a few setbacks:
Between the EP and The Chaos Game was a really difficult time for the band. It felt like every time we’d build up some momentum, we’d experience a setback. We especially had a hard time finding a drummer, trying out multiple people for months at a time. Nat even had to step down for a period for health reasons. Eventually, we all just sort of got fed up with not having an album out, so we just decided to bite the bullet and record, even if it meant doing so without a drummer. – James Naprawa
Universe II: The Chaos Game
And record they did, almost 3 years later: their debut full-length, The Chaos Game, a whirlwind of an album, which packs so many things into its 61 minute run time that it leaves this reviewer breathless after each listen.
Before we dive into the music, this being prog, let’s talk about the concept first:
The concept of the album comes from a dark comedic fantasy novel I wrote. As a writer, I’m very influenced by Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, who weave humor into deep, intense themes seamlessly. – Nat Hornyak
To put it briefly, the album “follows a young paralegal as she’s called up to The Upper Realm to destroy, create, and then save the universe… by blowing up a mountain”. Summoned to the Upper Realm by Dr. Goethe, Goddess of Chaos and Order, Julia is ushered into a series of extraordinary adventures, steeped in equal parts gravitas and comedy:
For me, it’s a matter of contrasts. Too much gloom becomes melodramatic, and too much levity becomes parody. We kind of do it by feel. If things are starting to get too heavy, we lighten it up, and vice versa. Life is kind of like that, right? Moments of light and dark. – Nat Hornyak
Along the way, Julia is taking part in some genuine Prog Moments™, like Having A Cigar, meeting Perdition, complete with his signature Paul Reed Smith guitar and his assistant Miguel, as well as having to blow up a Mountain. It’s all great fun and it’s one of the rare cases where a prog record is not limiting its references to the music. This time around, there’s plenty of references in the lyrics and the accompanying Album Companion for the prog aficionados to sink their teeth into.
This isn’t just a light-hearted game of “spot the references”, though. With frequent forays into gnosticism and metaphysics, Julia’s story of creating and destroying our Universes and ultimately saving us is just the sort of escapism we get drawn to in these strange times:
The moment we’re living in feels apocalyptic, doesn’t it? We’re in a pandemic, world leaders are sleeping at the wheel, the ocean levels are rising, and it’s easy to feel powerless. Art gives us a way to escape and find meaning beyond the fear, the noise, the consumerist distractions. And I think it transforms reality. When a song can completely change your mood, or get you thinking about what the universe is made of, or how to cope with feelings of powerlessness, or what love is, it might as well be a magic spell. Song as sigil. It’s only natural that artists find themselves in metaphysical headspaces, I think. – Nat Hornyak
And we haven’t even started talking about the music…
I would describe it as Fragile-era Yes meets Kamelot. Frank Zappa meets Fiona Apple. There are so many talented Prog bands out there, but we really wanted to touch on what made the classic era of Prog so magical. Sometimes that means getting super technical, with insane time signatures, but one thing I love about bands like Yes, Rush and Genesis is that it’s always musical. It’s always hummable. That’s what we want to bring to the table, but with a fresh, 21st century twist. – James Naprawa
And you can feel that this is not your regular retro-prog affair right from the get-go. Death, She Walks On starts us off just with overlayed vocals by Nat, alternating harmony and dissonance. When was the last time you heard an album starting off with a multilayered vocals-only track? Which leads us straight into Angular Sterility, a 5 minute tour-de-force penned by sax player Anthony Warga, which sees the band going through a mix of Zappa, Tull, Crimson, operating singing, bass and piano solos plus some great interplay between the band members, all the while keeping an eye on melody. After such an intense start, the album’s longest track, the James Naprawa piece Fractals & Coastlines, continues the frenzy: Zappa-meets-musical, flute interlude, lyrical motif, fusion section, recurring motif, guitar/sax/keys jam with alternating solos and a closing section mirroring the beginning of the song.
Three songs in, it’s clear that this is a group effort, with each of the songs having a different writer:
I think it happens pretty naturally due to our influences. Having multiple songwriters on the album also makes things pretty diverse. Outside of prog, we all have unique backgrounds and tastes – I really love soul and singer-songwriter stuff, while James is into gypsy jazz, Bran and Jared are metalheads, and Anthony listens to really interesting modern classical stuff. – Nat Hornyak
20 minutes into the album and we’ve covered plenty of musical ground already. Still, the band show no signs of slowing down. Timeless Sound, a sort of Bizarro World pop/musical piece written by Nat Hornyak during her teenage years, gets the full Cabinets of Curiosity treatment, with the ever looming spectre of dissonance waiting around the corner. Our story advances, our paralegal hero finds herself swept into a story of cosmic proportions, and we the listeners find ourselves in the gentler middle section of the album, with Naprawa’s Doomsday Algorithm and Hornyak’s In A Day allowing us to catch a breath and showing us the breadth of the band.
We all cross-pollinate and influence each other – at this point, I would say my biggest songwriting influences are the people in my band! So you get a really interesting mix of sounds that way, without even trying. – Nat Hornyak
Fractometer, the second of early Hornyak pieces present on the album and her last music credit on The Chaos Game, is another case of pop/musical meets prog, and somehow the band makes it work. Via a short Renaissance Faire interlude, we arrive at The Chemist and The Engineer, a Jared Hirst-penned clap-along that fits James Naprawa’s love of manouche, organ and a great guitar solo into an extremely catchy cocktail of a song.
One of my favorite albums to listen to lately is Mélodie Des Choses by Sébastien Giniaux. It’s a collection of incredibly arranged jazz and folk tunes and the musicianship is just amazing. – James Naprawa
Once again, Nat Hornyak shines on vocals, switching between pop, rock, musical and jazz singing with the ease of a seasoned pro.
As we reach the climax of our story, individually written songs make way to group efforts:
When the band started, I already had a decent amount of material written, and was writing new material fairly regularly. Since I already had a few albums worth of material written that was solely composed by me, it was important to me that our first album showcased the writing talent of everyone in the band. That included trying out collaborating for some songs. We had previously collectively written ‘Nowhere Near The Blade’ around the time of our EP. We liked how it turned out a lot, and since the album needed a closer, we decided we should try composing together again. Although we all contributed to writing ‘The Clockwork Pheasant’, I think the largest chunk of credit goes to Jared, Bran, and Nat. They really took it from a rough outline/collection of ideas to the finished song you hear on the album. – James Naprawa
And they sound like group efforts too, seamlessly intertwining jazz, folk, pop and rock stylings into the final chapters of Julia’s quest. These final two songs, Nowhere Near The Blade, also present on the EP, and The Clockwork Pheasant, are not just a worthy conclusion to a great story, they show us the band firing on all cylinders and perfecting the balance between angular and melodic. Sax and flute blend seamlessly with traditional rock instrumentation, Nat switches between registers in a matter of seconds and everything comes to a very satisfying conclusion.
So, what’s next in store for the band?
We actually have about five albums fully written currently, each one has a different sound and feel to it. Our next album Edge of the Sky is currently in the mixing stage right now. It’s going to be our take on the more classic prog sound. It’s basically a love letter to ’70s prog acts like Yes. One of the things that really drew me into prog music, especially the classic bands, is how much the sound would vary from album to album, and even within the albums themselves. From a songwriting perspective, it’s very liberating. I more or less write whatever I feel like. As long as it has certain elements of prog, or is in the context of other songs that have said elements, then it tends to work out. – James Naprawa
Unfortunately, the music climate nowadays is not an easy one for up and coming bands, especially ones that don’t conform to current mainstream tastes:
As with every band that’s starting out, we have to basically do everything ourselves (or with close friends), including marketing, PR and merch. Both of our releases were recorded, mixed, and mastered completely in-house. We also aren’t able to do this full-time, so that means work often gets in the way. In the middle of recording the new album, James had to move across the country for work. That meant I had to build an impromptu recording setup in my basement and learn how to engineer a record on the fly. – Chris Hornyak
To make matters even more difficult, the current pandemic is putting additional emotional and financial pressures on everyone:
To be blunt, I think a lot of bands aren’t going to make it through this time, for various reasons. Financially, it’s tough. It’s also mentally tough. If you’re a musician, you’re probably also a performer – and you can’t do that anymore. You’re also separated from your bandmates. It’s all incredibly isolating. I’m sure that’ll push some people to be more creative, but I don’t see that happening for everyone. – Chris Hornyak
This is why, in times like these, it’s especially important for our community to support the artists that enrich our lives. And, with Cabinets of Curiosity, we’re featuring a band today which not only has something very interesting to say, but is also not afraid to take a path less traveled.
If you enjoyed what you read and heard, you can support the band and get one of 2019’s finest prog releases from Cabinets of Curiosity’s Bandcamp page.