CD Review: Fireballet – Night On Bald Mountain

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Man, fucking…sometimes I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Every week I go to Tower Records in Shinjuku to browse the new releases. The thing about the Shinjuku Tower Records is that they have two “new release” sections. One is for honest-to-goodness new releases, while the other is for re-issues and re-releases. Even with my efforts to snag more new music than old, I probably spend most of my time in that section, as my reviews on this site demonstrate.

Recently the re-issue section has gotten pretty prog heavy. Much space was given to a recent Yes re-issue campaign, and just last week I saw a giant section dedicated to Brand X CDs. But even I didn’t think they’d dig as deep as to dedicate an honest-to-goodness section of their new release section of Fireballet, with both of the group’s albums, Night On Bald Mountain and Two Too getting released on CD for the first time ever.

That broke my fucking brain.

Fireballet, for those of you who don’t know (i.e. most people on earth) was a progressive rock band that put out two albums in the mid-70s. They set themselves apart from most prog rock acts of the era mostly by simply by being from America,  putting them alongside such vaulted acts as Kansas and, um…I guess Styx maybe?

Geographic differences aside, they did share one thing in common with the other prog bands of the time, that being an unbelievable amount of bombastic ridiculousness. There were five people in Fireballet (with a bonus Ian McDonald of King Crimson, who doubled as producer and sax/flute player); between them they played over 25 freaking instruments on this record. Singer Jim Como served as the album’s percussionist as well, and in addition to playing the drums, he also rocked out on the timpani, xylophone, gongs, vibes, glockenspiel, Chinese bell tree, finger cymbals and tubular bells.

Frank Petlo played piano for the group, he’s credited for playing both acoustic and electric piano as well as electronic strings, a sequencer, mellotron and the ARP 2600. In addition to the pianist, the group also had an organist, Brayn Howe, who played both Hammond and pipe organ, and the occasional celeste. Rounding out the group was Martyn Biglin, who rocked out on bass, 12-string guitar, bass pedals and the Moog Taurus, and Ryche Chlandra served as the group’s main guitarist, plucking away on both acoustic and electric guitar. He’s also credited as performing on various “electronic devices.”

So basically, Fireballet was the group for people who thought Emerson Lake & Palmer were too low key and subdued.

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THAT SHIRT HOLY SHIT THAT SHIRT.

Unfortunately, Fireballet’s pure musical talent was not equaled by stunning displays of songwriting ability. Almost the entirety of the album’s first half is completely forgettable. While the 10-minute opener “Les Cathedrales” is moderately entertaining, it’s actually just a blatant rip-off of the far superior “Theme One” by Van der Graaf Generator with some dorky lyrics about vikings thrown in because I’m sure someone in this band fucking loved Rick Wakeman’s shit. “Centurion (Tales Of The Fireball Kids)” holds up a bit better, thanks largely because it’s not an epic-length trip into prog wankery. Hell, it’s the only song on the album that has a proper chorus. I suspect it was the band’s attempt to record a somewhat radio-friendly single, but they still can’t find a way to reign it in; even with its short running time, nearly half of the track is prog-rock virtuosity. Not to go overboard with the ELP comparisons, but imagine if someone tried to take “Karn Evil 9” and condense all of it into five minutes – it’s somehow too overbearing and half-baked all at the same time.

It’s still better than the namesake track “The Fireballet,” which features harmonies so pained and strained the group sounds like rejects from a junior high glee club. Credit where credit is due though, it and the following track, “Atmospheres,” are probably two of the only songs I’ve ever heard that have honest-to-goodness bells solos. So, hey, good on ’em for that.

So if this album is garbage why did I buy it, let alone decide to review it?

Well, did I mention that the second half of the LP is a nearly-twenty minute take on Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain,” complete with original lyrics?

Yeah, remember when I said that these guys were for people who thought ELP were too low key?

There’s a reason why the album is named after this track. It’s a fucking monster. While the majority of the album is failed epic after failed epic, “Night On Bald Mountain” nails it, nails everything everyone loves (or loves to hate) about overblown, over-the-top 70s progressive rock, and ditches the bullshit. Manic keyboard solos? Check. Magical mystical lyrics about knights and dragons? Check. ANOTHER manic keyboard solo? Oh yeah, check. It’s ludicrous, yes, but it’s ludicrousness is well thought out. A lot of prog rock from the late-70s, (Yes included) almost sounds like acid jazz, like the musicians were more concerned about proving how fast they could play as many notes as possible that they forgot to actually write the damn songs to go with them. Hell, even most of this album sounds like that.

But “Night On Bald Mountain,” probably because the band was limiting itself to work within the confines of the original composition, never sounds like that. This is a big song, performed by dudes who knew what the hell they wanted to do and knew how to do it. Your tolerance of it may vary based on your enjoyment of wonky-sounding analog synths, but as someone who was nearly driven insane by repeated listenings of Brain Salad Surgery, even I find myself coming back to this track again and again, so I guess that’s saying something.

But even then, should you buy this? Eh…probably not, I guess. Sure, “Night On Bald Mountain” is damn incredible. But if you live in the states you can buy that on Amazon for just 99 cents. Do yourself a favor and do that. That’s an EP’s worth of music for less than a buck, you could do a lot worse. It’s a bonafide prog classic ripe for rediscovery.

Hell, you could do way (way way way) worse and buy their horrific second album. If you’re some kind of evil monster.

But seriously though, don’t buy Two Too that album is shit.

One Response to CD Review: Fireballet – Night On Bald Mountain

  • Mike Modjeski says:

    Obviously, you’re not a musician. I’m a guitar player rooted in prog. The writing on Two, Too is incredible! Perhaps a bit over produced, but amazing none-the-less. Not ONE band in America was capable of pulling that off. Not even HTM, another incredible prog giant. So, shit? Far from it dude. Oh, and I’m very old school yet open to neo-prog and prog metal. Fireballet’s two albums have made an important contribution to 70s progressive music that still kicks ass today! 🎸

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