Saturnal, the third album by Madrid-based October Equus, may not be the most entirely original record in the avant-prog music world circa 2011, but that shouldn't dissuade fans of the style from seeking it out and grabbing it up, pronto. Their previous album, 2008's Charybdis, was an impressive effort, but in comparing the two, Saturnal arguably gets the edge. Charybdis at times sounded like a cross between the breeziness of Hatfield and the North and the darkness of Univers Zero or Present, instrumental prog with an expected array of keyboards, electric guitar, bass, and drums, with occasional saxophone adding an avant jazz flavor to the nearly thoroughly composed music. With Saturnal, some changes have been made, although not in the direction of Sun Ra, as the album title and some song titles would indicate. Guitarist Angel Ontalva, keyboardist Victor Rodriguez, bassist Amanda Pazos Cosse, and saxophonist Francisco Mangas are all back again; however, former drummer José Varela has been replaced by Vasco Trilla, and there is a second reedman here, saxophonist Alfonso Muñoz, while cellist Pablo Ortega is worked into the arrangements here and there. Notably, Muñoz and Trilla are also members of the Barcelona-based Canterbury-esque eight-piece jazz-rock outfit Planeta Imaginario, a development suggesting that both groups draw at least in part from the same British and European pre-punk wellspring. With this expanded lineup, the music of October Equus has a newfound complexity, an anathema to those who feel "real" rock must consist of a few chords hammered out in a garage, but also something that won't send avant-prog fans scrambling for the exits.
After all, October Equus have played Portugal's Gouveia Art Rock festival, not the Vans Warped Tour. Quebec avant-proggers Miriodor, champions of highly listenable but idiosyncratic Rock in Opposition-informed music for decades, have also played Gouveia, and if you enjoy any of that band's latter-day recordings -- Mekano, Parade + Live at NEARfest, Avanti!, Cobra Fakir -- then Saturnal is for you; several pieces here could slot into the track listings of those Miriodor platters and you wouldn't blink an eye. There are multi-layered, contrapuntal composing approaches, a wide array of keyboard and guitar voicings, rhythmic drive and inventiveness, and yet undeniable approachability -- this is, in a sense, "difficult" music that goes down relatively easily. Continuing the Miriodor comparison, Ontalva oftentimes sounds more akin to Bernard Falaise than to the Hatfields' Phil Miller, and keyboardist Rodriguez to Pascal Globensky than to Dave Stewart (although Rodriguez more strongly favors dark orchestral string voicings, sometimes quite high in the mix). And as for those saxophones, Canterbury/RIO fans will likely hear a bit of Italy's Picchio dal Pozzo from that Italian band's 1980 classic Abbiamo Tutti I Suo Problemi. With these influences, one could argue that Saturnal is somewhat derivative -- alternatively, comparing the album to such worthy antecedents could be taken as high praise indeed, and in fact, for avant-prog fans at this late date, a minor miracle. ~ Dave Lynch