Listeners familiar with the Italian AltrOck label shouldn't be surprised by Phoenix: two CDs of complex avant-prog with inventive multi-instrumental arrangements and stupendous musicianship. And the fact that Pocket Orchestra formed in Phoenix, Arizona shouldn't come as a jaw-dropper either; AltrOck has recently issued stellar albums proving that the U.S. can be fertile ground for avant-proggers like Dave Willey, miRthkon, and the Nerve Institute. No, the big surprise is that this music has remained largely unknown since its recording between 1978 and 1984. The Israeli MIO label released the studio-recorded first disc in 2005 (remastered by Udi Koomran here); Phoenix's second disc expands upon that album with a selection of previously unreleased live tracks. There were similar U.S. bands in the '70s and '80s (e.g., Cartoon, the Muffins), but Pocket Orchestra was arguably in a class by itself. At times on Phoenix, guitarist Tim Parr, reedman Joe Halajian, cellist Bill Johnston, drummer Bob Stearman, keyboardist Craig Bork, and bassist Tim Lyons uncannily match the compositional styles and density, technical skills, and even wildly varied textures of the era's European Rock in Opposition collective. And yet this is truly a band in its own right because -- at the very least -- who else combined these sounds in this particular way?
Disc one's first four tracks were recorded using a mobile studio in San Francisco during 1983, and leadoff "Imam Bialdi" perfectly melds Leg End-era Henry Cow (with Halajian on saxes in Geoff Leigh/Tim Hodgkinson mode), Triskaidekaphobie-era Present (with Bork nailing Alain Rochette's keyboard tone), and 1313-era Univers Zero (with Johnston's cello imparting an appropriately somber chamberesque feeling). The jaunty "RV" is a Samlas-styled tune with Bork ably capturing Lars Hollmer's Familjesprickor-era keyboard approach, while guitarist Parr, matching Fred Frith's inventiveness on the preceding track, is not dissimilar to Eino Haapala here. The 15-minute "Regiments" unfolds through a head-spinning array of compositional changes and is as impressive as anything Henry Cow ever put to wax, while the disc's next lengthy opus, "Letters," throws a hint of Canterbury-esque National Health into the blend, Parr coming off like a jaggedly fired-up Phil Miller. The remaining four studio tracks were recorded in Olympia, Washington in 1978-1979, when the band was named Knebnagäujie. This material is more Canterbury-esque than the 1983 music, a bit rougher, noisier, and electric jazz-rockish, recalling the Alan Gowen edition of National Health and the post-Soft Machine quartet Soft Heap in the 17-minute "Bagon." The live CD sometimes dips toward bootleg quality, but reveals a band capable of unleashing sometimes frantic jazz-rock, assaultive noise, and unexpected avant-prog compositional turns. In the 2005 reprinted liners, Scott Brazieal (of Cartoon) claims that the group's live version of King Crimson's "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 2" "was way better than any of the KC versions," which seems plausible. Sadly, Tim Parr, Tim Lyons, and Bob Stearman have all passed on; Phoenix is a fitting memorial that they never had the opportunity to see. ~ Dave Lynch