Stencil Forest - Opening Act. 1983 USA
CD reissue: 2004 private
Small world time for me. One of the members of Stencil Forest is the older brother of a very good friend of mine who I met through my work in the software industry. When I first visited his brother (who had already relocated to Denver where we all lived), he stuck this album in my face and said "So you're into obscure rock music - bet you haven't heard of Stencil Forest?". He was right - I hadn't (this was back in 1995). They were from that unlikely hotbed of talent - Fort Wayne*, Indiana (Ethos, latter day Happy the Man). For those that are exceptionally perceptive, they did indeed get their name from the Happy The Man tune and apparently hung out with them quite a bit in the early 80's. So fast forward to 2004. They just re-mastered the tapes and privately released their sole album on CD. It sounds absolutely fantastic! Very professionally done throughout. Musically this is Midwest pomp/AOR with a prog twist. Think Styx, Kansas, later period Starcastle, REO Speedwagon, Shooting Star, etc… Oh you know, stuff that comes from this list. Given the progressive leanings, probably the Canadian group Saga would be the most apt comparison. What’s most interesting is how creative some of the instrumental breaks can be. Not in a flashy chops way, but very much like a Happy The Man or Genesis in their prime would do. There’s also the cringe inducing choruses and obvious play for radio, but they really were shooting for the big time, as was everyone else in those days. Had this come out a couple of years earlier, they might have made it too. The only song on here that plays it straight throughout is 'Looking Back', one that can be skipped over quickly. The title track is a Cliff Notes version of what Stencil Forest are all about. You’ll be fumbling for the remote after hearing the starting sequence with its 1980's AOR guitar chord rock and insipid chorus lines. Then, suddenly, the composition shifts to a complex and highly melodic mid-section. And back and forth it goes. This type of adventurism wasn't found on most 1980's arena rock albums. 'Celestial Voices', 'Just a Fantasy' and 'Crossroads' all have this yin / yang quality about them. 'The Pandemonium Shadow Show' is, not surprising with a title like that, the all-in progressive rock track that makes fans of the genre wish they'd just done a whole album of similar. It’s also the longest track clocking in near 9 minutes (again no surprise). The final two tracks, 'Indian Summer' and 'Five Studded Poker Player' are probably the best overall when considering the balance of melodic content and progressive interludes. In fact, the latter track would've been my surprise pick for a single, as it has the type of hook that lasts long after the album has ceased playing. Even the 1992 bonus cut ‘Five by Five’ is similar in construct. For vintage gear heads, it’s the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory with Mellotron, Hammond B-3, Mini-Moog, and Hohner D-6 Clavinet. Stencil Forest are a six member group so a lot of ideas and synergy can be heard. I can really appreciate the time and place aspect of this kind of music. And this is one of the finest examples I’ve heard – especially for the genre’s late date.
*Some of the band members were from Elkhart, but they set up shop in Fort Wayne.