Well let’s go look at Prog’s other facets besides Experimental Krautrock and have a look at jazz-fusion bands like this one, “A Helmet of Gnats“. Jazz-Fusion Prog the more artsier side of things and more instrumental aspect of the genre I find for the most part but definitely a meaty staple in the world that is Prog. Not an overly huge fan of all instrumental music but there are moments when it’s good, really good and you don’t need or want vocals and A Helmet of Gnats provides such a remedy of no vocals. No Vocals Required, Sorry Phil Collins, kind of had to rip you off there and your no hairpiece required album but still, this band pulls it off quite nicely! Ha ha!
Fusion is one of those high octane styles of music that combines virtuosity and precision skill, like everything else but with what seems to be more intensified with fusion bands. Bouncing funk flavours and bright sounding keyboard riffs, tight controlled guitar licks, precision drumming and funk/slap bass with walk downs and blistering fills permeate the air of the tracks making for glistening riffs and groove from start to finish. Not really something you just put on while reading Tolstoy but great outdoor BBQ or highway driving soundtracks if you’re not sitting in the venue digging on the ambiance of Gnat Scratch Fever right in front of you! A combination of music college students who formed the band in the early 80’s as “Left Testicle” playing only a couple of gigs, small wonder with a tawdry name like that. Changing the name to “By-Product” not long after doing Dixie Dregs and Bill Bruford covers the band gained a wider audience and popularity grew to inspirations to start writing original material. However, success comes at the cost of changing members periodically or more than that for AHoG who by the late 80’s after recording a couple of demos sans bassist and using a midi sequencer in lieu of, they disbanded in 1988.
Reformation of the band two years later but this time with a female vocalist they chose the moniker, “Doctor Curious” and tried their luck down that avenue to a dead end and fired the singer returning to the Helmet of Gnats name and going completely instrumental once more keeping that motif.
1996 saw the band release their first self-titled Lp to…… really no critical review, it blipped under and through the radar to no surprise because in 1996 North American audiences were too enthralled with Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill album, Metallica’s Load (don’t get me started) record and bands like; Oasis, No Doubt, Smashing Pumpkins, Gin Blossoms, Los Del Rio to name a few who were burning up the Billboard Top 100 charts. So a band like AHoG wasn’t even holding the door here or the bag for that matter aside from delivering a blistering first record offering to the masses who didn’t see it in the shoppes unfortunately. “Giant Picnic” is a killer-diller opening track that completely sets the pace and the mood for the record and doesn’t slow down, this is your soundtrack to that road trip you always wanted to do. The band fills their sound out with ferocious playing that is only spiced by the fact that they’re all playing at their tightest and full of blistery fun. The album is a complete progression of sound as it carries onward with it’s spiced fueled fusion and often gnarly solos that grip you in the depths of your Prog soul to pull it to the forefront and scream where is no scream as the band favours the instrumental aspect of things keeping it consistent throughout. “Nathan Deacon’s Brain“, “The Deer Hunter” and “Nitefighters” all help carry the record to a full satisfaction of fulfilled fusion mouthwatering savouriness.
Sometimes you don’t need a singer to say a lot because the music speaks for itself. Aside from classical music, a lot of jazz and soundtrack scores there have been a lot of instrumental hits over the years, most notably; “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MGs, “Walk Don’t Run” by The Ventures, “Sleepwalk” by Santo & Johnny, “YYZ” by Rush, “Beck’s Bolero” by Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” to name a few. But Connecticut just didn’t seem to be the place to turn heads for music in the 90’s yet AHoG marched on and in 2004 followed up with their next alms for the fusion hungry simply titled, “A Helmet of Gnats II“.
A discordant opening track, “Almost Babylon” leads the way with a quirky synth and guitar trade off riff it sets the precedent. The album is slightly darker that their debut record and has a slower groove vibe to it but more emotional in the song structuring and delivery which became the album’s downfall as the emotion was merely felt like they were just going through the paces than that real gut feeling of emotions that’s poured out through sweat and rehearsal. “Chinese Leftovers” and “Yesterday’s Brain” define the mood perfectly with their even paced musicianship and flow. With more ballad 70’s cruise ship feel to their sound here with the likes of, “Crumbs” this album lacks what their debut gave us. More emotion, less steam would be appropriate for the brainchild of this record’s ebb and flow. “Lesser Beings” borderlines the psychedelia effect of abstract noises and improv to pay homage to their heroes of the Prog genre and be the segue to “Misfit Toys” that follows up next but Lesser Beings falls short on this record as it doesn’t seem to really fit. Misfit Toys as a whole is rather a misfit song as it has a lot in it to offer yet doesn’t really go anywhere it just staggers along for a six minute ride where it could have been epic. The final track, “Chimps in Space” borderlines on boring and cocktail lounge music than jazz fusion and sways and dwindles all over and has a complete boat ride of lounge written all over it. Sadly their second record falls very short of their first and the music seems to be strained and ideas forced out to complete the album on time rather than the taking the time to really get your heads and asses wired together like you did on your debut.
Their third and most recent album was 2010’s “High Street” that saw a return to better rehearsed song structure but they still failed to capture the brightness and ferocity of their debut in ’96. “Tsunami” the first track saw them fall back in to that tight groove and funktified grab at the genre’s style with a more Neo-Fusion and tighter than the 70’s boat lounge act their second album presented. Though the drumming wasn’t as up to snuff here and the keyboards tones were tinny and had more of a bad 60’s TV show feel to them by the time the second song came about, “Tin Whiskers” with it’s Hendrix-esque guitar solo a la “Are You Experienced” Lp feel in spots. “Dozer” is next and has the band reverting back to early “Krautrock” days with it’s off kilter keyboard fills and stomping riffs, dirty guitar solos and a very “Eiliff” feel to the track and a highlight of the record making this song a pleasure to sit back and just enjoy. “The title track, “High Street” clocks in at just over 30 minutes with a plethora of ELP, Yes and P-Funk and Earth Wind & Fire facets in it along with some of the Krautrock free form jazz scene for added flavour creating a grand scale finale track complete with guitar and synth solos that rip through the envelope with a hunger to keep going. A modern day “Eiliff Suite” just not as crazy as Eiliff’s penchant for stretching the limits beyond recognition. A subtle ending that trails off in segments and spits till the last notes are played to a fade away of children in a schoolyard playing which sounded odd for the last sounds heard on the album but hey who are we to judge right?!
A Helmet of Gnats certainly has had their fair share of ups and downs in and outside of their music but always about their music till they finally found their niche with the newest members they gathered that they’ve managed to keep around for a few years rather a few minutes. They still have a long way to go to get in to the Halls of Prog as they have been plagued with lineup changes, albums/ideas that were forced, and songs that just didn’t make the grade at times.
They are good, don’t get me wrong and you may like what they did on their second record more than I did, who knows, but they are definitely a fusion based band and have done somewhat well for themselves over the years now that they have found their band compliment satisfactory to their sound unless that has changed since the last incarnation. Their website doesn’t offer anything in the way of origins, tour history, band bios or anything other than links to where to buy their albums which is a bit of a shame really as it would open up a more personal touch to themselves as musicians and a group. So they have either been too involved with their live act and music or someone has been working on a new site or the band has left it out entirely since the release of High Street in 2010 so the omission of the website link here is evident due to the fact that you won’t get anything out of it. One can only hope that the future brings promises of another album and return of their original spunk, energy and savagery that their debut record gave us. Play on Gnats, Play on.