Big Farm: Big Farm
Prog rock lives! Or so at least one might think while listening to the self-titled debut album from Big Farm, a NYC-based quartet featuring Pulitzer Prize finalist vocalist-lyricist Rinde Eckert, composer-guitarist Steven Mackey, electric bassist Mark Haanstra, and percussionist Jason Treuting (of So Percussion). In the band's own words, “Big Farm is a place where serious counterpoint can meet burlesque, earnestness meet abandon … This world is a big farm – lots of different crops, changing weather, livestock, and a duck pond for good measure.” Traces of classic prog outfits surface during the fifty-six-minute collection: the spidery guitar lines that introduce “Salad Days,” for example, recall the playing of Yes's Steve Howe, while the high-pitched vocals bring back memories of Gentle Giant.
The album opens with what could be described as the prog-hater's worst nightmare come to life. The math-rock guitar playing and complex time changes in “Like An Animal” hint at King Crimson as one reference, while Eckert's declamatory vocal lines feel at times like ones transplanted out of a Philip Glass or John Adams opera (much the same could be said of the later refrain “Salad days, these are wonderful days / Salad days, one of those amazing days”). Here and elsewhere, his theatrical delivery has somewhat of a ‘love it or hate it' quality to it, especially in its most over-the-top moments (e.g., “Ghosts” and “My Ship”). Mackey's playing stuns throughout, with the guitarist beefing up every song with his on-point presence, while the rhythm section is similarly impressive for the apparent ease with which it brings the material's tricky passages to life.
“Breaktime” opens with ticking clocks (a nod, perhaps, to Pink Floyd's “Time”) before Rickert enters, this time singing in a more controlled (though also at times operatic) style, while “She Steps” traffics in a proggy brand of funk-rock. Not unwelcomingly, the band dials it down during the restrained, strings-laden opening section of “Lost In Splendour” (before unleashing an uptempo attack that would do Motorhead proud), “Margaret Ballinger” (which echoes Mrs. Dalloway in its Woolf-like lyrical content), and the stirring, hymn-like closer “John Knows.”
Clearly, the album material wasn't thrown together in a session or two of improvs, and true to the prog rock tradition, the songs are complex in structure and their arrangements as Byzantine (no better example the ten-minute “Salad Days”). It's not a pastiche either, even if echoes of earlier bands emerge within Big Farm's music, as the group's own identity gradually asserts itself over the course of the album. Fence-sitters will have to sit this one out, too, as Big Farm is one band listeners will likely embrace fervently or reject just as passionately.