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, weve 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 weve never aimed
to emulate anyone directly. Im not the least bit offended by
the comparisons reviewers have made. Weve seen a bunch: Rush,
ELP, Zappa, YES, Genesis, Marillion, Gentle Giant, Spocks 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, theres 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 Spocks Beard,
ELP and Rush. www.orpheusnine.com
mwe3.com presents an interview with
JASON KRESGE of Orpheus Nine
Can you tell us where youre from originally and where you live
now and what you like best about it? Do you also spend time in New
Jason Kresge: We all live in New Jersey or, as Dom Lawson
of Prog magazine dubbed it in his excellent album review, Sopranos
country. Whats not to love? Weve got overcrowding,
high property taxes, and extreme road rage, all in one glorious state!
But actually theres a nice variety of landscape here, even if
some of it is disappearing. Once you step away from the turnpike and
the parkway, youll 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
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 weve had around
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 were 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.
Theres no question that I won the lottery with all of these
guys. Its almost impossible for a band to make great music without
great chemistry, no matter how skilled the musicians are. Im
so fortunate to have found bandmates who are not only amazing players
but also terrific people. We genuinely enjoy each others 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 OClock Tea.
If you were a fly on the wall at an Orpheus Nine rehearsal, Im
pretty sure youd catch an equal mix of serious, focused intensity
and totally silly laughter. To me thats a wonderful environment
for creativity. A steady supply of pizza doesnt hurt either.
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
Jason Kresge: Well, this was definitely a long-awaited debut.
I realize thats sort of like saying the ocean is damp, since
we havent 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 were 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 didnt 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,
thats 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
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 Erics
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 albums
structure and its underlying compositions and arrangements were solely
ours, but they would never have come to life so vividly without Erics
talent and passion. I doubt we couldve 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. Theres far
too much music out there thats 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
And yes, theres 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 werent for Daniels
critical contributions during the bands 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! Hes 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. Its 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 theres
a wealth of great ideas that came together into something unique in
its own right.
Jason Kresge: Thank you for that. To be honest, weve
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 weve never
aimed to emulate anyone directly.
Im 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 its tough for almost anyone to hear some innovative new
passage and not think, Ooh, this reminds me of such-and-such.
Its just something people instinctively do. They draw parallels
to what they know in order to help them process what they dont.
Im not the least bit offended by the comparisons
reviewers have made. Weve seen a bunch: Rush, ELP, Zappa, YES,
Genesis, Marillion, Gentle Giant, Spocks 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! Its an honor to
be considered among such great company. But were not actively
trying to sound like them we really just want to be Orpheus
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 thats turned
a few listeners off, but I hope most people realize were very
genuine in wanting to present these multiple facets of ourselves through
our music. Theres nothing forced or pretentious in our desire
to experiment. If something suggests itself, were excited to
follow it and see where it leads, even if it may seem out of character.
Id 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 fans 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 weve come
to view ourselves. Of course, I do hope weve pulled off some
unique and interesting moments in and of themselves but were
also not self-obsessed enough to presume that what were doing
is groundbreaking. At the very least, were 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
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
mustve 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 Im 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 Ive 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. Its
the raw emotion and vulnerability in those albums that keep me coming
One of the guiding forces Ive 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 its
delivering those notes with passion that gives them purpose and makes
them resonate with listeners. Otherwise its little more than
a mechanical exercise.
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 theres an oxymoron
if ever Ive 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 Id
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 thats
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 Im sorry to say Id
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.
Its 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 albums 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 were
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: Whats funny about Fetish is
that I wrote a decent chunk of those lyrics many years ago. Its
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 its so dangerously
under attack by an artificial demagogue. I do tend to avoid getting
my news from television, but thats primarily because its
so sensationalized. Even online, where almost anyone can publish anything
anywhere, its really up to readers to sift through the clickbait
and determine whats both meaningful and verifiable.
dimension of this, which Fetish doesnt actually
tackle but Im still pretty passionate about, is that far too
many people read not to learn or understand but simply to further
their already established beliefs. Its sad to see such a barrier
against receiving new information, but thats where we are, not
just politically but even in our most casual human interactions. I
dont want to give away much about our next album, so Ill
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, were poking fun at the
absurdity of purely cosmetic surgery. The satirical aspect is that
Im singing from the viewpoint of someone whos 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. Reapers 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. Its basically this
paradox of how when youre a child, you envision adulthood as
the opportunity to break free from all those childhood constraints
yet once youre 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 cant get away with calling this a concept album. You could
say its 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 Im 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 Reapers 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.
think I actually woke up one morning with the phrase Transcendental
Circus in my head. Mustve been an interesting dream! The
more I thought about it, the more I loved it. Im 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. Theres 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 dreamers wild imagination.
Any explicit story told in words wouldve 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. Its one of my favorites
on the album. Hallowed Playground celebrates the purity
and wonder of the innocent dreamer, and its a very emotional
piece for me. Theres a pretty disturbing moment at its end,
which I wont give away for those who havent 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 OClock Tea allows
the individual to shine again and features the only lyrics in the
suite. If you read them, theyre actually a series of haiku,
so in keeping with that theyre 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 dreamers 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.
Its worth pointing out that Reapers 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
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 its a
meaningful listen and doesnt 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, theyre never as good in
my head as they become when the whole band gets involved. Ill
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.
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 Im not very cutting-edge.
My main axe is a Kurzweil PC3x, which I pair with a Hammond for organ
parts. Ive 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 havent 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 Synthogys 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 Arturias V Collection, KV331s
SynthMaster, and EastWests Quantum Leap line. Ill 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 wont pretend that this
actually makes any sense.
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 whats 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.
Im willing to try whatever works for the song.
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 Id like to hope that our digital production still
exuded a good deal of natural warmth. Its 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 Erics
Neumann U47. But, he also offered his vintage AKG C12 for comparison,
and we both agreed that it captured my voice more faithfully. Im
proud to have recorded my vocals with what many engineers consider
the holy grail of microphones. And its 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
its 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: Thats 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 theres 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 theyre no longer limited to such narrowly controlled
choices of what they can listen to. Ill take that a step further
and suggest that progs 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 Id
argue that its 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,
were 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.
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: Were 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 Im truly grateful. Naturally well
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 Nines sophomore effort. Itll
take us a little while, but hey, that shouldnt shock anyone.
Lets just say that it promises to be worth the wait. Were
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.