In the story of modern progressive music, whole chapters of source material are frequently glossed over. When contemporary prog artists cite Genesis, they usually mean Selling England By The Pound, not Shapes. Rush is an influence? Probably A Farewell To Kings more so than Hold Your Fire. If Alan Parsons Project even gets mentioned, 9 times out of 10 it’s going to be Tales Of Mystery And Imagination (Edgar Allan Poe) rather than Vulture Culture. But for those progressive music fans who understand that the 80’s aren’t just a bleak stretch between The Buggles taking over Yes and Roine Stolt’s The Flower King, Steve Pilant’s Interceptor opens up those neglected chapters and gets down to the business of adding new text.
The first half of the album sets a consistent tone in the vein of the immaculately-produced progressive pop of the early 80’s. Strains of Alan Parsons Project (think Ammonia Avenue) and Asia (less “Heat of the Moment,” more “Wildest Dreams”) echo throughout this song set, particularly in the vocal melodies/timbres and the vintage keys sounds. The latter provide a musical focal point throughout the album; Interceptor is not heavy on the synth solos, but the ubiquitous textures will have you checking the date on your Delorean. “Angel Falling (An Intervention)” opens the album (and closes it with a reprise) in just this fashion as progressive pop and AOR meld seamlessly. “Got To Get To You” and “Marking Time” explore the more singer-songwriter side of APP or Trevor Rabin-led Yes, getting Interceptor off to a start both strong and satisfying. Pilant’s vocals throughout Side 1 recall post-ELO Jeff Lynne and a bit of Eric Woolfson; his approach is direct but serves the songs well. The drums are perfectly played and mixed throughout—not content to simply hold down the beat, the drums really carry each song through from start to finish.The backing vocals, too, are a feature, filling out the sonic space while maintaining a soft airiness.
Side 2 opens with the contemplative cinematography of instrumental “The Sun On Your Face.” Thematically, this is an important respite from the rest of the album’s focus on relationships lost to cheating, addiction, and neglect. Musically, the very pretty piano opening this track is joined by even prettier strings; Chris Carmichael contributes the arrangement and performance. There’s quite the prog pedigree behind that name—you may have listened to one of the dozens of Country/Americana albums he’s performed on (including work by Taylor Swift, Allison Moorer, and Over the Rhine), but Carmichael is also *the* strings guy for pretty much every single thing Neal Morse has recorded since his self-titled solo album in 1999. The thematic respite continues with the almost-saccharine “The Happy Hippie Song,” which is rescued by its complete lack of irony and subtle nod to the darker tones of the surrounding songs (“This was my happy song/I ain’t got a lot in my life right now/So it didn’t take too long”). These darker themes culminate in rocker “Thrown Away,” a deceptively upbeat diatribe that draws a clear line from consumer culture to a readiness to treat human relationships as thoroughly disposable.
The album is not without its weak points, but the limitations of vinyl give this version of the album an advantage, as considerations of groove space cut out the two weakest songs. The ballad “What Is Wrong With Us” and the bar-burner “Ride,” both included in the download/streaming/CD versions of Interceptor, would probably work well enough in a live setting, but they don’t add anything essential to the album as a complete song cycle. “Ride” even distracts with its uneven application of “heavy metal thunder” gravel-throating alongside the more successful, lipid delivery Pilant inhabits for most of the rest of the album.
The vinyl itself is well-pressed, the clean shine of the disc right out of the package followed by a clean sound on the platter. Rich, punchy bass tones rise from the grooves as the higher frequencies practically float and shimmer on top. The rhythm section are especially well-served here: the drums are live and resonant while the bass guitar is deep and dynamic. The louder moments on the record do tend to squish the middle frequencies into the occasional muddle, but on the whole there’s a pleasantly reproduced range.
The packaging is substantial: between the 28-page full-lyrics booklet, the gatefold, and the picture sleeve, the standard vinyl edition of Interceptor includes as much accompanying material as an expensive “collector’s edition” boxset. Indeed, the visuals are a key component: the bass player just happens to be the artist who just happens to be Mark Poole. In addition to tons of other stuff, Poole’s work includes fantasy art for the OG Magic: The Gathering. He brings this sense of vast, otherworldly, textured fantasy to every song, and his art is the rug that ties this album’s room together. For anyone seeking out a physical engagement with the music to begin with, the total package is very much a value-added experience.
Who’d’ve thunk that the commercially successful pop turn of progressive rock would now be underrepresented in this corner of the musical landscape? Thankfully, storytellers like Steve Pilant are opening these chapters again and pulling not only musical inspiration, but a ‘complete aesthetic’ approach to the album as an artform. Interceptor is a fine—and delightfully fancy—addition to this ongoing story.