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Palace of Ether

Although they have been around for about 20 years, Oakland-based outfit Trance Lucid have managed to keep under the radar of the majority of progressive rock fans. Formed in 1993 by guitarist Dave Halverson and drummer Terry Lee, the band released their debut album, Arise, in 1996, followed by Vigil (2000) and The Colours of Darkness (2005). Very active on the live front in the Bay Area, at the end of 2007 Trance Lucid also released a live album, Unrevisited Live, which included 11 previously unreleased compositions performed at five different shows. After a few years’ hiatus, the band regrouped with the addition of keyboardist Richard Bugbee and Halverson himself replacing Bill Noertker on bass duties, and finally released their fifth album, Palace of Ether, in the summer of 2013. Halverson is also an established solo artist, with four albums to his name released between 2003 and 2009.

Stylishly packaged, with an appealing, sepia-toned vintage photo reproduced on the cover, Palace of Ether is a 51-minute slice of instrumental, guitar-based music that reflects the breadth of Halverson’s musical interests and sources of inspiration. While it can be loosely labeled as jazz-rock, Trance Lucid’s sound features elements of other genres, such as blues, funk, world music and even post-rock. Though Halverson’s guitar might be expected to dominate the proceedings, the other instruments are given ample space, and prove equally essential to the musical development of the compositions. The music featured on Palace of Ether runs the gamut from almost straightforward bluesy rock to haunting Oriental influences, showing Halverson’s versatility as a composer. His fluid, consistently melodic style steers clear of self-indulgence, and meshes perfectly with his bandmates’ accomplished input.

Palace of Ether is clearly divided in two halves, the first comprising five stand-alone tracks, the second a 32-minute, 10-part suite that, according to the band’s website, originated 15 years ago. With the exception of the slightly longer closing number “Remembrance” none of the tracks exceed 5 minutes; the album, however, comes across as remarkably tight. In fact, while the tracks may sound somewhat alike on the first couple of listens, the use of apparently similar themes contributes to the cohesive feel of the album.

Opener “TM” gives a taste of Halverson’s compositional approach with a raw-sounding riff in pure Hawkwind style, gradually morphing into a melodic yet somewhat rarefied variation on a single theme. His mastery of quiet-loud dynamics also comes out in the funky “Spyglass” and the brisk, electric “Pocket”, in which Richard Bugbee’s keyboard textures intensify the sense of mounting tension; while “Illumination” and “The Crossing” showcase Trance Lucid’s mellower side – the latter highlighting the jazzy component of the band’s sound, Halverson’s guitar nicely underpinned by piano ripples, then gradually building up to an exhilarating finale.

As good as these tracks are, the Palace of Ether suite is the true focus of interest of the album, especially for progressive rock fans – and not merely on account of its running time. The twangy, sitar-like sound of the guitar on “Many Rooms” weaves a mystical, Eastern-tinged atmosphere, aptly conveying the “ethereal” nature of the title with the aid of surging mellotron washes – a subdued, entrancing mood that returns in “Saints in Stone”, and even more so in the lovely “Dream of Antiquity”, whose spacious yet carefully structured instrumental texture emphasizes Bugbee’s skillfully layered keyboards. The intricate guitar arpeggios in “Painted Dancer” boldly blend vintage psychedelic rock and hints of bluegrass, while “Vox of Silence” and “Horsemen at the Gates” veer towards an ambient-like direction. On the other hand, “Actors in Armor” “Before the Idols” and “Remembrance” reprise the more energetic, blues- and jazz-inflected tone of the first half of the album, occasionally reminiscent of the work of Jeff Beck and Allan Holdsworth.

Though Trance Lucid may not be exactly a household name to most of the readers of this blog, Dave Halverson and his bandmates deserve to be more widely known on account of the quality of the music showcased on Palace of Ether. Indeed, both fans and practitioners of the six strings find a lot to appreciate in this eminently listenable album – with enough original ideas not to sound like a rehash of the work of other, better-known names, and avoiding the descent into self-indulgence that has been the undoing of many a would-be ”guitar hero”. Especially recommended to fans of Moonjune Records’ classy output, and instrumental rock in general, the album may need a few spins to click, but is definitely worth the effort.

-Raffaella Berry, Fire of Unknown Origin

©2020 TL