Given that I’m such a connoisseur of the international Progressive Rock scene, I’m a bit surprised that I’d never heard of Kayak before this review. Formed in the Netherlands in 1972, they were pretty popular in their home country for their initial 10-year run. Since their reformation in 1999, founding keyboard player Ton Scherpenzeel has been the sole consistent member with a revolving door of musicians making up the rest of the band. “Seventeen”, as the name suggests, is Kayak’s seventeenth album and the first with a completely new line-up of musicians, comprising of Scherpenzeel on keyboards, Bart Schwertmann on vocals, Marcel Singor on guitar and vocals, Kristoffer Gildenlöw (Ex-Pain Of Salvation) on bass and Collin Leijenaar (Ex-Neal Morse live band) on drums. After listening through the whole record, I can say without a doubt that these guys are talented. Unfortunately, on the whole this is a pretty average Prog Rock album, with too many similarities to bands from the classic and modern eras of progressive music. That’s not to say it isn’t bad though – if you’re a fan of that kind of music, you’ll definitely find something enjoyable.
The opening track, “Somebody”, has a relatively calm feel to it, despite being in a minor key. Harpsichord and distorted guitar are the dominant instruments in the intro, while the whole song has a very European feel to it, reminiscent of bands such as Asia, Curved Air and The Flower Kings. This is followed directly by “La Peragrina”, the first of three epics on the album. Taking a more theatrical approach to prog than their modern contemporaries, Scherpenzeel’s keyboards and Leijenaar’s drums are the backbone of the arrangement for the first two verses. However, when the first bridge kicks in, the guitar takes over as the dominant instrument with a dark, heavy riff. The second half of the song features a lot more orchestral ideas, but because they’re played on synthesizer patches, they remain just that – ideas. The decision not to include actual flutes, strings and horns on the album definitely works against the album, as it doesn’t give justice to the songs. Schwertmann and Singor share vocal duties and they both have very distinct styles. Schwertmann has more of a baritone-y musical theatre voice which wouldn’t be out of place on an Ayreon album, while Singor, clearly influenced by David Bowie and Roine Stolt, has more of a nasal voice which works as a nice contrast.
Track three, “Falling”, has even more of a musical theatre vibe to it, very much written in an Andrew Lloyd Webber style. Scherpenzeel’s piano plays front and center, while Schwertmann’s vocals are almost rhythmic. “Feathers And Tar” comes next and this is where Leijenaar starts to get the whole band to play with more conviction. This is probably my favourite drum performance on the whole album, with Bonham-esque intensity through the verses in 7/4, pre-choruses in 3/4, and choruses in 4/4. When the drums aren’t playing at the start of each verse, the piano, bass and vocals all blend together to tell a hypnotic musical story. Honestly, this is such a fun song and if there was any one track I’d want to listen to or take influence from after this review, it’s this one.
The second epic, “Walk Through Fire” begins with more of a tragic theme than “La Peragrina”, which went straight into a danceable rhythm. Once again, the dominant instruments for the first verse are piano and vocals, setting up the story for the journey ahead. The whole first part of the song has a slow Yes flavour to it, but when the second part kicks in, the band speeds up and takes more influence from Kansas with an upbeat jig in 3/4. The rest of the song goes through a few different feels, including a militaristic anthem and a bit around the seven-minute mark which I swear is influenced by Neal Morse, which would make sense given Leijenaar’s pedigree but is a bit of an oxymoron since he himself was influenced by the prog bands of old. I do like this track more than “La Peragrina”, since overall it has a lot more dynamic variation, even if it is wearing its influence on its sleeve.
“Ripples On The Water” follows, and is more of a Steve Hackett/Nightwish style instrumental, with Piano, acoustic guitar and glockenspiel as the main instruments for the first half of the song. As the tune goes on, electric guitar and strings come into the picture before the whole band joins in for an epic symphonic rock ending. “All That I Want” is a simple 4/4 power ballad with clear influence from ELO and The Beatles. The vocal interplay is on point on this track, with the backing vocals perfectly complimenting Schwertmann’s freeflowing melody over the top. Following the bridge, a key change occurs and signals the start of Singor’s best solo on the album. With plenty of tremolo arm usage and shredding, this was the track that made me realise how much talent Singor has, and how the band is able to apply their writing skill best when they’re doing shorter, more concise songs. Another stand-out track.
“X Marks The Spot” is probably the most confusing track on the album, being a 2-minute acoustic tune in the vein of “Crystal Ball” by Styx. Again, Schwertmann shows off his potential as a dramatic singer, but the whole track is over after just two verses and a single chorus. It seems unfinished and I think if the band had worked on it a bit more, it could very well have been up there with “Feathers And Tar” and “All That I Want” as a good prog pop song. But that’s nothing compared to the silliness contained within “God On Our Side”. The whole thing reminds me of “Killer Queen” and “For The Benefit Of Mr Kite”, and while the Banjo is a nice addition to provide a different sound, the synth brass really sticks out as fake. This track really just shows the band’s more playful side and I think they would have had some fun recording.
“Love Sail Away” is Celtic ballad with a very calm attitude, and could very well have benefitted from real accordion, violin and Uilleann pipes. “Cracks” is the final epic, and is just as dynamic as “Walk Through Fire” but with a different approach. With another great solo from Singor and noticeably spacious but intricate bass work from Gildenlow, this is a good pentultimate track and closes the ‘main section’ of the music. The epilogue, therefore, is “To An End”, which is another piano based ballad.
Scherpenzeel has recruited some great musicians for this incarnation of Kayak and I was pleasantly surprised with a few of the shorter tracks on the record, which I’m sure will get some airplay on digital radio stations in Europe and the UK. However, sitting through the whole 12-track, 60-minute romp in a single setting was quite tedious because after a while, the musical styles start to repeat themselves. Is it a must-listen? No. Do I want to go back and listen to their more popular recordings? Not really. But I’m glad I discovered an old band who are still going today and that there are still people making 4-minute pop songs with sophisticated arrangements and odd time signatures.