ORPHEUS NINE
Transcendental Circus
(Prog Cabin Records)

 

Progressive rock continues as one of the most popular musical art forms of the early 21st century. Fans of the beloved genre looking for new and interesting prog should check out Transcendental Circus, the 2017 CD by the band Orpheus Nine. Produced and arranged by Jason Kresge (keys, lead vocals), the album also features key contributions from Matt Ullestad (guitars), Tony Renda (bass, vocals) and Mark DeGregory (drums, vocals). Unique in the sense that the CD also blends in a solid dose of metal rock, the 15-track, 75 minute Transcendental Circus also features mind-boggling album artwork complete with full lyrics. Speaking about O9 being the latest band in a long line of prog-rock icons, Jason Kresge tells mwe3.com "To be honest, we’ve mostly just tried to be ourselves and do what comes naturally. Sure, everyone in the band spent decades hearing countless other artists, prog and otherwise, so of course the brain is a crazy sponge and absorbs this infinite amalgam of music already out there. And we definitely have a wealth of influences, but the truth is that we’ve never aimed to emulate anyone directly. I’m not the least bit offended by the comparisons reviewers have made. We’ve seen a bunch: Rush, ELP, Zappa, YES, Genesis, Marillion, Gentle Giant, Spock’s Beard, King Crimson, Jellyfish, The Flower Kings, Pink Floyd, Return To Forever — hell, even Iron Maiden." With the keys and vocals of Jason Kresge driving the band forward, there’s plenty of hard driving musical interplay throughout Transcendental Circus. With their widely acclaimed debut album, Orpheus Nine should find a home among fans of timeless prog-rock legends such as Spock’s Beard, ELP and Rush. www.orpheusnine.com




mwe3.com presents an interview with
JASON KRESGE of Orpheus Nine


mwe3
: Can you tell us where you’re from originally and where you live now and what you like best about it? Do you also spend time in New York city?

Jason Kresge: We all live in New Jersey — or, as Dom Lawson of Prog magazine dubbed it in his excellent album review, “Sopranos country.” What’s not to love? We’ve got overcrowding, high property taxes, and extreme road rage, all in one glorious state! But actually there’s a nice variety of landscape here, even if some of it is disappearing. Once you step away from the turnpike and the parkway, you’ll find trees, waterways, hiking trails, and even farms, not to mention so many scenic destinations along the Jersey shore. And by that I mean the real Jersey shore, not its degenerate TV depiction.

Having easy access to both New York City and Philadelphia is also a great advantage. Orpheus Nine has hopped many a train together to catch concerts in the city. And I personally love having four seasons — fall and spring have always been my favorites. Not that I can figure out whatever bizarre excuse for a season we’ve had around here lately.

Somehow, each of us has managed to settle within an hour or two of where we grew up. I guess such a seemingly safe choice belies the fact that most of us love to travel, and that we’re all aiming to explore boundless new territory in our music.

mwe3: Who is in the current band line-up of Orpheus Nine and what is the chemistry like among the band members and how did the members of the band meet up originally?

Jason Kresge: Our current lineup is six years strong and features Matt Ullestad on guitar, Tony Renda on bass and backing vocals, Mark DeGregory on drums and backing vocals, and myself on keyboards and lead vocals. Tony and I used to play in a classic rock cover band together, so he was a natural fit given his talent and our already good relationship. Surprisingly, Matt and Mark found us through online ads — I say “surprisingly” because the four of us gelled right from the start in a very organic way.

There’s no question that I won the lottery with all of these guys. It’s almost impossible for a band to make great music without great chemistry, no matter how skilled the musicians are. I’m so fortunate to have found bandmates who are not only amazing players but also terrific people. We genuinely enjoy each other’s company, which makes the hard work of mastering difficult prog songs much more fun. Some of this fun found its way onto our album — like the tabloids in “Fetish,” or the end section of “Swimming In Our Four O’Clock Tea.”

If you were a fly on the wall at an Orpheus Nine rehearsal, I’m pretty sure you’d catch an equal mix of serious, focused intensity and totally silly laughter. To me that’s a wonderful environment for creativity. A steady supply of pizza doesn’t hurt either.

mwe3: How did your new album Transcendental Circus come together and is it the first album from Orpheus Nine? What did you set out to achieve with the CD release and how long did it take to write, produce and record the album? I saw that several other people are credited in helping make the album including Daniel Nydick and Eric Rachel.

Jason Kresge: Well, this was definitely a long-awaited debut. I realize that’s sort of like saying the ocean is damp, since we haven’t exactly earned a reputation for working fast. We first started performing some of these songs live in 2011. But we knew all along that recording was a huge priority. We wanted to carve out our own musical legacy — to create a unique, original body of work for people to enjoy long after we’re gone.

In theory, we were motivated and ready to take on the world. In reality, we lacked a clear plan of action and failed to put in enough hours outside of our full-time day jobs. So everything went in fits and starts for years. Then 2016 came. A staggering number of musicians died that year, including my greatest keyboard inspiration, Keith Emerson. And it not only saddened but terrified me. Time was passing us by — I didn’t want us to become those people Oliver Wendell Holmes talked about who “die with their music still in them.” We had so much music in us that was begging to come out. What we needed was the proverbial kick in the ass to make that happen.

So we set a deadline. We decided that O9 was destined to release its debut album on 09/09. And what better way to enforce a deadline than to advertise it to the entire world, right? Well, insanely enough, that’s exactly what we did in December of 2016. “Hey! Nine months from today, on 09/09, O9 delivers a prog baby!” or something goofy like that. In our defense, we did back it up with a pretty solid plan, and we mapped out a reasonable timeline to accomplish our goal. This even included finishing up early so that we had a nice promotional window built in.

And then, of course, the universe laughed at us — a couple months in, I fell and badly sprained my dominant piano wrist, costing myself about seven weeks of playing…

Thankfully, even though we did lose our advance promotional window, it all still came together just in time for our NJProghouse release party on September 9th. One of the most important people in getting us to the finish line was the incomparable Eric Rachel, our engineer at Trax East Studios. Mark had worked with Eric on a previous project and highly recommended him to me. Initially we were just going to record drums and vocals with him and call it a day, because I had this pie-in-the-sky notion of mixing the whole thing myself. But as soon as I witnessed Eric’s wizardry in action, I knew that I had to hand over those technical reins to the real expert if we wanted the songs to sound their best. Sure, it exploded the budget, but it was absolutely the right decision. Right from our first meeting he was deeply invested in our music, and he fostered a fun, ego-free atmosphere in the studio. The album’s structure and its underlying compositions and arrangements were solely ours, but they would never have come to life so vividly without Eric’s talent and passion. I doubt we could’ve asked for a better partner to help us realize our vision.

We can also thank Eric for connecting us with Alan Douches, who so beautifully mastered Transcendental Circus. There’s far too much music out there that’s over compressed and robbed of its character, but Alan magically brought out the power and energy of our songs while also preserving their dynamic range. He allowed the music to breathe, which was so vital on an album with so many different styles.

And yes, there’s a special shout-out in the liner notes to Daniel Nydick, our original drummer. We met back in high school, and he was the first to join when I decided to expand this misguided solo project into a collaboration. Simply put, if it weren’t for Daniel’s critical contributions during the band’s formative years, these songs might still be trapped inside my head. He left on friendly terms, so there was never any bad blood there, and his phenomenal drumming prowess raised the bar for us to land someone as awesome as Mark. The best part is that we were able to welcome Daniel back to the Orpheus Nine family as our official photographer! He’s just as talented behind the camera as behind the kit, plus his experience as a band member gives him a unique perspective in capturing us. It’s such a cool way of having things come full circle.

mwe3: On Transcendental Circus, Orpheus Nine sound greatly influenced by the progressive rock legends of the past. How do you take so many influences and distill them all into creating something new and interesting in your own right, because it sounds like there’s a wealth of great ideas that came together into something unique in its own right.

Jason Kresge: Thank you for that. To be honest, we’ve mostly just tried to be ourselves and do what comes naturally. Sure, everyone in the band spent decades hearing countless other artists, prog and otherwise, so of course the brain is a crazy sponge and absorbs this infinite amalgam of music already out there. And we definitely have a wealth of influences, but the truth is that we’ve never aimed to emulate anyone directly.

I’m probably going out on a limb here, but I suspect that even the most curious listening mind seeks out the familiar. By that I mean it’s tough for almost anyone to hear some innovative new passage and not think, “Ooh, this reminds me of such-and-such.” It’s just something people instinctively do. They draw parallels to what they know in order to help them process what they don’t.

That said… I’m not the least bit offended by the comparisons reviewers have made. We’ve seen a bunch: Rush, ELP, Zappa, YES, Genesis, Marillion, Gentle Giant, Spock’s Beard, King Crimson, Jellyfish, The Flower Kings, Pink Floyd, Return To Forever — hell, even Iron Maiden. Two bands that come up constantly are Saga and Styx, largely because so many people hear my voice as a cross between Michael Sadler and Dennis DeYoung. You know what? We could do a whole lot worse than a list like that! It’s an honor to be considered among such great company. But we’re not actively trying to sound like them — we really just want to be Orpheus Nine.

A big part of that means not shying away from unpredictability. It means not being afraid of the fact that sometimes we sound like a slightly different band on different songs. Maybe that’s turned a few listeners off, but I hope most people realize we’re very genuine in wanting to present these multiple facets of ourselves through our music. There’s nothing forced or pretentious in our desire to experiment. If something suggests itself, we’re excited to follow it and see where it leads, even if it may seem out of character. I’d like to believe that progressive rock is still open-minded and inclusive, so I see no reason for prog artists to limit themselves to one signature sound or style if other styles rise to the surface just as naturally.

One of my favorite compliments so far came from a fan’s review on the ProgArchives website. Emil Broussard said, “It is foremost through their diversity that they forge their uniqueness.” I loved reading that because it captures a lot of how we’ve come to view ourselves. Of course, I do hope we’ve pulled off some unique and interesting moments in and of themselves — but we’re also not self-obsessed enough to presume that what we’re doing is groundbreaking. At the very least, we’re thrilled that people are responding so positively to our first outing.

mwe3: On Transcendental Circus you sound influenced by both instrumental progressive rock and jazz-rock fusion as well as classic vocal-based prog-rock too. How do you balance all of those styles?

Jason Kresge: I think it has a lot to do with staying open to anything. As a little kid I grew up on classical music first, which must’ve made me the life of the kindergarten party. Playing piano at such a young age made instrumental music an integral part of my childhood, so I naturally gravitated toward complex genres like jazz, prog, and fusion once I later discovered them. But I’m glad that I also found grounding in so much other music along the way. Believe it or not, The Beatles are still my all-time favorite band. I also adore Stevie Wonder and David Bowie, and I’ve learned a lot from lyrical storytellers like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. And two probably surprising 1990s staples in my collection are Little Earthquakes by Tori Amos and The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails. It’s the raw emotion and vulnerability in those albums that keep me coming back.

One of the guiding forces I’ve tried to carry with me through the years is that all the technical prowess in the world is meaningless without emotion and passion. Obviously the notes matter, but it’s delivering those notes with passion that gives them purpose and makes them resonate with listeners. Otherwise it’s little more than a mechanical exercise.

There are certainly varying degrees of technicality on Transcendental Circus. On one end of the spectrum, you have “Sandcastles,” a delicate free verse, and “No Illusions,” a sort of bluesy, jazzy number. Some prog purists — and there’s an oxymoron if ever I’ve heard one — might scoff at the inclusion of a song like “No Illusions” on a prog album. Then again, these are bound to be the same folks frittering their lives away on those inane “Is this prog?” discussions, which I’d rather stick forks in my eyes than get involved in. Does the music speak to you? If so, then why not just enjoy it and stop trying to shove it into boxes?

On the other end you have “The Fall Of The House Of Keys,” with its orchestral overture and extended instrumental sections, and of course the title track, which is musically all over the map. Yet even in these more intricately constructed pieces, it was important for us to balance the technical with the emotional. I think that’s helped us to connect with listeners because the album feels accessible.

From a performing and songwriting perspective, I love singing and penning lyrics almost as much as I love playing keys and composing. There was a stretch of my twenties when I’m sorry to say I’d strayed away from music, but I instead poured my creative energy into writing fiction and poetry. That dual interest definitely contributed to the balance of instrumental and vocal.

It’s worth mentioning another piece of the balance puzzle, which was putting a great deal of thought into the track sequence. We knew that “The Fall of the House of Keys” had to be the closer, “Eightfold Way” should be the first full-length song, and the “Transcendental Circus” suite would form the centerpiece. The rest of the album’s shape was built carefully around this. I ended up prefacing “Eightfold Way” with “Of Zygotes and Grace Notes,” a brief piano intro that tips my hat to those classical roots. From there, it was a matter of how the running order would impact the overall listening experience. I think we’re all very happy with how the songs ultimately flow into one another from start to finish.

mwe3: Where do you get your song ideas from? Say on the track “Fetish” you have some scathing insights into the current fascination with media overkill and your lyrics accurately point out how the mass media these days often does more harm than good. Do you get a lot of ideas from the news or more the way it saturates our minds and divides us as a people? Same thing could be said, albeit on a different topic, about the track “Hand of Make-Believe”, which is also quite socially satirical.

Jason Kresge: What’s funny about “Fetish” is that I wrote a decent chunk of those lyrics many years ago. It’s all about hero worship, celebrity obsession, and media sensationalism. Regarding the news, I want to be very clear in stating that I support free press, especially during a time when it’s so dangerously under attack by an artificial demagogue. I do tend to avoid getting my news from television, but that’s primarily because it’s so sensationalized. Even online, where almost anyone can publish anything anywhere, it’s really up to readers to sift through the clickbait and determine what’s both meaningful and verifiable.

Another dimension of this, which “Fetish” doesn’t actually tackle but I’m still pretty passionate about, is that far too many people read not to learn or understand but simply to further their already established beliefs. It’s sad to see such a barrier against receiving new information, but that’s where we are, not just politically but even in our most casual human interactions. I don’t want to give away much about our next album, so I’ll just say that one of its overlapping threads will touch on this issue a bit. I suppose “Age of Rhyme and Reason” already does to a certain extent.

With “Hand of Make-Believe,” we’re poking fun at the absurdity of purely cosmetic surgery. The satirical aspect is that I’m singing from the viewpoint of someone who’s celebrating it. “Eightfold Way” has to do with particle physics. No, really! We also stuck a fun cryptogram in front of the printed lyrics for that one. “Reaper’s Carousel” addresses ongoing racism and classism. “Sandcastles” is the oldest song on the album, which is ironic because the words probably carry even more meaning for me now than when I wrote them. It’s basically this paradox of how when you’re a child, you envision adulthood as the opportunity to break free from all those childhood constraints — yet once you’re an adult, you often find yourself craving the freedoms you had as a child. “The Fall of the House of Keys” builds on that, examining how our dreams can be forced to change their shape once the eyes of the world are watching.

mwe3: Where did you get the concept ideas for the title Transcendental Circus. Can you say something about how the band and yourself constructed the 22 minute album title track as well, which is very much instrumental based. Do you like writing extended multipart tracks?

Jason Kresge: Most of the songs are freestanding and independent, so I can’t get away with calling this a concept album. You could say it’s more of an abstract painting, with certain musical and lyrical threads loosely connecting the colors without tethering them to each other.

Originally the album had a different working title, one that had to do with keyboards. It was an unfortunate carryover from my solo project mentality, so I’m glad I was able to step back and acknowledge that we needed a more appropriate title, one that all band members could get behind.

We already had the song “Reaper’s Carousel,” albeit with slightly different lyrics. There were two other songs whose titles also suggested carnival themes; one never went anywhere, and one we cut because it was just solo piano and vocal. Somehow this whole circus-related theme started to come together in my mind. But so much had already been done around a circus or carnival motif that I knew we would need something a bit different and perhaps bigger.

I think I actually woke up one morning with the phrase “Transcendental Circus” in my head. Must’ve been an interesting dream! The more I thought about it, the more I loved it. I’m a big fan of transcendentalist authors like Thoreau and Emerson, so I started to imagine how the creative, intuitive individual would connect with the chaos and wonder of the circus. There’s also a literary genre known as carnivalesque, which deals with subversion or reversal of power structures, usually in a chaotic and humorous way. From all of this, I arrived at two ideas that would work in tandem. One is that the ambitious dreamer must be brave enough to overcome or transcend the madness of society. The other is that the circus itself is an extension of the dreamer’s wild imagination.

Any explicit story told in words would’ve fallen flat, so we set out to paint these pictures mostly through music. What resulted was a nearly-22-minute suite, whose six parts can stand on their own but work even better as a whole. “Barcarolle of Bedlam” introduces both the curiosity and the chaos. It’s one of my favorites on the album. “Hallowed Playground” celebrates the purity and wonder of the innocent dreamer, and it’s a very emotional piece for me. There’s a pretty disturbing moment at its end, which I won’t give away for those who haven’t heard it, but of course that leads straight into “Intergalactic Clown Festival,” a sort of hallucinatory societal nightmare in the form of jazz-metal fusion. Then “Swimming in Our Four O’Clock Tea” allows the individual to shine again and features the only lyrics in the suite. If you read them, they’re actually a series of haiku, so in keeping with that they’re more abstract and open to interpretation. I think we succeeded in mixing beauty and humor here, and I love how our vocal harmonies came together. “Not Within the Memory of Elephants” is again instrumental, and seems to be a fan favorite. This one largely represents the dreamer’s uprising. Finally, in “Freak Tent Mausoleum,” all hell breaks loose, and chaos apparently reigns supreme. But this could also be seen as the wild imagination expanding far enough to join or even take over the madness, especially with an ending that sounds very much like a resolution.

It’s worth pointing out that “Reaper’s Carousel” could be viewed as an unofficial seventh part, or at least an apocryphal postscript. In this case the circus is decidedly negative, representing such oppressive external forces as racism and classism, as I mentioned earlier.

“Transcendental Circus” was the most challenging music on the album but also the most satisfying. I think it also does the most toward attempting to carve out our identity, so it made perfect sense to name and structure the album based on it. As with the other songs, we focused on balancing technique with passion so that it’s a meaningful listen and doesn’t just sound like a cold math equation.

Another thing all of our songs have in common is that, even though the ideas tend to originate with me, they’re never as good in my head as they become when the whole band gets involved. I’ll often put out a rough demo to get us started, but the magic that Matt, Tony, and Mark add is what brings it all to life. I have to draw special attention to Matt in this area — he has such a thoughtful ear for melody and for so many little touches, guitar and otherwise, that round out the songs and make them work. Chemistry really is everything.

mwe3: How do you stay on the cutting edge of using high-tech recording gear? Which keyboards do you use most on Transcendental Circus and how has your choice of keyboards changed over the years?

Jason Kresge: Oh, some might argue that I’m not very cutting-edge. My main axe is a Kurzweil PC3x, which I pair with a Hammond for organ parts. I’ve owned both of those for almost a decade now. Before I landed the PC3x, which is both a deeply powerful hardware synthesizer and an extraordinary live controller, I tended to get pretty caught up in comparing specs on paper. I went through different rigs — mostly featuring Roland, Korg, and Yamaha models, which were all great — but when I first got my hands on the Kurzweil, something shifted. Somehow it just seemed more organic, both in sound and feel. This was also right after a debilitating bout with tendonitis in my left hand, so discovering it right at the point when I could safely play again seemed like more than a coincidence. I immediately replaced my previous workstation keyboard and haven’t looked back since.


For years I also resisted software synths, because I stubbornly clung to this weird notion that they were soulless compared with physical instruments. Then I was introduced to Synthogy’s American Concert D, and it was the first time I actually felt a living connection with a digital piano simulation. So that opened the floodgates to exploring other virtual instruments, such as Arturia’s V Collection, KV331’s SynthMaster, and EastWest’s Quantum Leap line. I’ll confess that I still have a personal block against piloting them with “empty” controllers, though — I prefer playing them through the PC3x, which at least has its own sonic guts. I won’t pretend that this actually makes any sense.

To host the softsynths onstage, I use the Seelake AudioStation, a robust rackmount computer from Italy. But I still rely most heavily on my Kurzweil and Hammond. Just as with songwriting, when it comes to choosing sounds I look for what’s going to serve the songs best. Sometimes that also means using pedals in unusual ways, like briefly running the organ through a stereo wah in “The Fall of the House of Keys.” I’m willing to try whatever works for the song.

As for recording, the album was primarily recorded and mixed in Pro Tools. Our engineer, Eric Rachel also had plenty of great analog equipment available, so I’d like to hope that our digital production still exuded a good deal of natural warmth. It’s true that time constraints demanded some modularity in our process... so, for example, I recorded most of the keyboards on my own, and Matt did a stellar job of capturing his own guitar, again with a fantastic ear for the right sound and a knack for helping each song to feel “in the pocket.”

When it came to laying down vocal tracks, since I prefer to sing with Neumann mics onstage, I originally wanted to record using Eric’s Neumann U47. But, he also offered his vintage AKG C12 for comparison, and we both agreed that it captured my voice more faithfully. I’m proud to have recorded my vocals with what many engineers consider the ‘holy grail’ of microphones. And it’s sort of funny that half a century later, people still turn to a classic to make new music sound fresh and alive.


mwe3: What do you think of the internet and its benefits or detriments to music and musicians in the 21st century? On one hand it’s a lot easier to be heard and seen but how does that translate into selling music in your estimation? How could the internet be improved even though broadband is barely 18 years old!

Jason Kresge: That’s a great question. A huge upside of the Internet is that it did indeed level the playing field for musicians. No longer do we have to chase major labels to get our music out there. This translates to artists retaining more creative control over the work that means so much to them, as there’s less and less need to compromise for the sake of appeasing some external overlord. It also allows fans greater access to all types of music from around the world — they’re no longer limited to such narrowly controlled choices of what they can listen to. I’ll take that a step further and suggest that prog’s renaissance might not have been as comprehensive without such a radical sea change for fans and musicians alike.

The downside is that with anyone now able to make his or her music widely available, the virtual airwaves are pretty saturated. So I’d argue that it’s harder than ever to stand out in such a vast musical pool. And, of course, the fact that fans can stream songs so cheaply and easily has led, in my opinion, to an epidemic devaluing of music. Sure, artists have made substantial gains in terms of exposure, but a lot of that is offset because so many listeners will just stream instead of purchasing from the artist. Dollars from a CD sale or download are replaced by cents, or fractions of cents. Fortunately for us, we’re doing this out of love and not primarily for money. But musicians aiming to make a solid living from their craft must find ever more resourceful ways to do so.

mwe3: With the release of Transcendental Circus in 2017, what are some of your upcoming and future plans for 2018 and even ‘19 as far as getting the word out about the album and concert plans and what can you tell the readers about other musically related things coming up for Orpheus Nine?

Jason Kresge: We’re incredibly excited to perform at the ProgStock Festival in October. We hope to play other festivals soon, but in the meantime we do have some additional shows coming up, including a return to the wonderful NJProghouse Progressive Music Series in August. More radio spots are planned as well, such as an interview on the NewEARS Prog Show in June. Great album reviews continue to roll in, and for that I’m truly grateful. Naturally we’ll do our best to keep building on all of the positive press and sharing Transcendental Circus with as many welcoming ears as we can.

And yes, we are also moving beyond the proverbial victory lap to dream up new material for Orpheus Nine’s sophomore effort. It’ll take us a little while, but hey, that shouldn’t shock anyone. Let’s just say that it promises to be worth the wait. We’re blown away by the praise Transcendental Circus has received, so we look forward to pushing ourselves even further and rewarding listeners with something quite special.



 

 
   
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