CD Review: Squonk “Pneumatica”

There are musical acts that you follow because of their music. There are those acts that you follow because of the way they present themselves onstage. And then there are those acts who take the time to create a persona that ends up mixing the two ideas together to create a band or solo act that is pure entertainment. Bands like Trans Siberian Orchestra, Insane Clown Posse and Mushroomhead, even Katy Perry are just four examples of musical acts that give the listener more bang for their buck when it comes to seeing them live in concert. You can add Pittsburgh’s Squonk to that list! 

Squonk is five-person musical ensemble that combines several different elements into the complete concept of the band. Along with a musical style that borrows liberally from many different Prog Rock bands, there are artistic and technological sides to the band that come from the stage show that helps to add so much dimension to the band’s music. The results are something that brings to mind the experience of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. 

Twenty-five years ago, composer Jackie Dempsey teamed up with visual artist Steve O’Hearn. The two began the whole concept that would become Squonk Opera (the original name) in the middle of a junkyard. Pretty soon, an entire band would be formed. Along with keyboard player Jackie Dempsey and artist/musician Steve O’Hearn (who plays the electric bagpipes, flute and other instruments of more unusual nature), the rest of the band consists of: lead guitarist David Wallace, bassist Nathan Wilson and drummer Kevin Kornicki. Together, the entire ensemble combines to take Dempsey’s compositions and create Progressive Rock songs that will make any lover of the style very happy.  

The Progressive Rock feel in the music of Genesis would help to influence many bands that would come after them to help push the creative juices of those bands that were and still are looking to create something different form the everyday feel of current musical trends. One such band that is influenced by Genesis in a major way is Squonk. And while Genesis’ music was progressive, it was the stage show for the band during Gabriel’s stint with the band that truly helped to change the way concerts would feel. And Genesis is one of the biggest influences to Squonk’s musical outlook, helping to shape the music of Squonk as well as influencing the feel of the live shows of the band.

While the stage show is rather important to what Squonk does artistically, that stage show would be nothing without the music. But just like the stage productions that accompany the music, each show’s music is different. Each album of music contains its own sound, feel and message. The reason for the songs being so different is because each album is a reflection of a certain time period in the band’s existence, much like a time capsule. And each album comes with songs with a storyline all its own.  

But because it takes time to create not only the music as well as the album itself, but also the stage show to go along with that musical collection, Squonk goes years between release dates for new albums. In fact, band is currently on the road (which is where I first heard about them a few years ago) in support of their latest release, 2014’s Pneumatica.

Just like the previous albums from Squonk, each song that appears on Pneumatica is related to the others in a manner of concept. Each song continues a storyline that flows from one track to the next. At least, that would be the situation if the tracks on this particular album had lyrics. Without the lyrics, what brings the tracks together is a similar song title along with similar musical themes that run through the tracks. But that is what really separates Pneumatica from the band’s other albums. 

The Pneumatica release finds Squonk venturing into territory they had yet to touch. This album features songs that are strictly instrumental. In fact, with the previous albums from the band, the ensemble went by the moniker of Squonk Opera. But with this album being nothing but instrumental tracks, the band decided to drop the “Opera” from its name as there would be no need to indicate lyrical content of any kind. Hence, the use of the moniker SQUONK.  

Even though Pneumatica from Squonk contains no words and therefore cannot actually be considered a “rock opera” because of missing the “opera” part of the category, the release is still a concept album. As such, the band treated this album in much the same way they have the other releases in their discography: by creating an introductory track that acts like an overture.

The track in question that kicks off the Pneumatica release is called “Inhale”. “Inhale” begins with a strong drumbeat and keyboard combination. Eventually, the track builds to include the entire quartet. The track is rather unusual as one of the main components of the music is the inclusion of the bagpipes from Steve O’Hearn.

As soon as “Inhale” comes to a close, one of the more “progressive” of the album’s tracks begins. The song “Floating” contains a musical approach that combines a generous amount of Rock and Roll with basically the same amount of Jazz influence. The resulting combination is a track that alternates between a gentle yet driving feel to the music and much lighter and laidback approach to the music. As you listen to the track, there are passages within the song where the listener can almost feel themselves begin to lift off and float away.

On the track “Head of Steam,” a heavier feel to the music is revealed. The track takes on a stronger Rock and Roll feel as the track features a combination of Rock and Roll and a slightly laidback version of Heavy Metal. The energy from this two-minute track creates one of the heavier moments on the release. It also makes the listener wish that the track was actually longer than its two-minute playtime.

“Whrlwinding” is yet another track from Squonk that is worth checking out. With this track, Steve O’Hearn’s bagpipes make a return as the track ends up feeling like a Rock and Roll track with a very Celtic flavor or vibe to it. Part of the reason for that Celtic feel is because of the addition of the keys from Jackie Dempsey that give more emphasis to the bagpipes by actually doubling the feel of that instrument.

With the track “Breathe,” the Pneumatica album seems to hit a place where a transition is needed. That is what “Breathe” feels like: transitional music. The track begins with one of the most melodic approaches of the entire release because of the keyboards from Jackie Dempsey. The track starts off rather low-key but builds slightly throughout the four-minute playtime.  

One of the more unusual moments on the current release from Squonk comes on the track “Skitter and Blast”. While most of the music created by the band contains a Progressive Rock approach, that style of music takes on a slightly different vibe on “Skitter and Blast”. While still containing the Progressive feel, the music also seems to pick up a generous amount of Ska influence. The Progressive Rock/Ska combination on the track ends up creating one of the most unique tracks on the album.

Although a lot of the music from Squonk seems to be flavored by the influence of the music from Genesis, the band makes a rather shocking change on the track “A Cloud of Gray”. This track still contains the ever-present Progressive Rock genre of music, but now the music takes on the feel of something from the band Gentle Giant. In fact, “A Cloud of Gray” feels as if it the track would have fit right in on the British band’s Octopus album. The track finds both guitarist David Wallace and keyboard player Jackie Dempsey sharing the spotlight on this track. That might be the reason why the track feels as if it would have been a Gentle Giant track since both the guitar and the keyboards are focused on.

As Pneumatica from Squonk began with the track “Inhale,” the band brings back the music of that track for the final song on the 2014 release. But since this is now the end of the release instead of the beginning, “Inhale” has now become “Exhale”.The sandwiching of the release with the same melody really helps to make Pneumatica feel like an album with interconnected songs.

While it contains no lyrical content, Pneumatica from Squonk feels like a Rock Opera from the beginning all the way through to the end. If you like Progressive Rock or are a fan of Rock Operas, Pneumatica from Squonk is an album that won’t disappoint! And if you get the chance, go see the band in a live setting, as they are one of the best live acts out there today.

For a taste of the music side of Squonk, check out the song “Floating“. 

To purchase a copy of Pneumatica from Squonk, click on the album cover below:

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