Thinking-man's band demands full attention

Appeared in "Philadelphia Inquirer", written by William H. Sokolic
August 1992

Eavesdrop in the audience at an Echolyn concert and you might hear discussions about Kafka or ruminations on the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

They're a cerebral bunch, these Echolyn fans. Mosh-dancing, beer-swilling metalheads need not apply, thank you.

"Our fans like to be sober when they listen to us," says Chris Buzby, keyboard player for the quintet from West Point, Pa.

No, Echolyn's songs demand full attention. Their tapestries of changing meters, cascading rhythms and shifting, often uneven, tempos are a long way from three-chord rock and roll. There are no hummable refrains, and nary a love song in their repertoire, which can be heard tonight at a soldout show at the Theater of Living Arts.

Some have called Echolyn's brand of art-rock pompous. Biff Kennedy, vice president of the Philadeplhia Music Alliance (PMA), sees it differently.

"They're a thinking-man's band," says Kennedy, whose organization put Echolyn in its showcase of area bands last month at the Chestnut Cabaret. "They're not the kind of band you say, 'Let's go out and boogie.' You sit and watch and get drawn into the music. They're trying to say something beyond a love song."

Echolyn's eponymous debut album illustrates Kennedy's point. From the song Carpe Diem, for example, "Looking back I see dreamers, deserters, and promises that weren't kept / And I know that my sonscience is clean." "Wild Thing" is isn't.

"We're an acquired taste," Brett Kull, the group's lead guitarist, lyricist and occastional lead vocalist, says proudly.

Greg Kull, Echolyn's manager - and brother of Brett - sees tonight's sellout as a sure sign of the group's future stardom. Its ascent to the TLA comes without benefit of major-label exposure. Echolyn's release got its h eaviest airplay in Trenton, Allentown, Harrisburg, Baltimore and Philadelphia. But it could also be heard in markets in California, Vermont, Michigan and Maine.

The band did its own production of the album and has handled the record's distribution and promotion as well. So far, 1,500 copies have been sold, some as far away as Europe and Japan.

Echolyn has headlined for more than a year, often at clubs in Philadelphia's Cabaret chain. "I needed a good strong local band, one with a high level of musicianship that can draw well," says Greg Mountain, who books that Cabarets.

The groups also has its own newspaper, Daedalus - motto: Et ignats antimum dimitt in artes ("Then he turned his mind to the unknown arts) - in which it prints poetry and other writing by bandmembers alongside news of future concerts and invitations to buy official Echolyn T-shirts.

Many of 500 or so fans on the mailing list have seen the band in concert. The band's touring circuit extends from Boston to Virginia to Harrisburg. But where once Echolyn played up to 70 dates a year, the memebrs have decided to take a more selective approach in 1992, with an emphasis on career-enhancing gigs such as tonight's and the one they played at CBGB's in New York on Tuesday.

Greg Kull says the strategy is designed to reach a much wider audience and to land a much-coveted record contract - in spite of a musical approach unlikely to land it in the Top 40.

"We really have't solicited a record company yet. But if we make some headway on our own, we'll have a better bargaining position," Kull says.

Echolyn began in 1989 with a core of three members from Narcissus, a cover band that enjoyed a four-year run. To that trio - Brett Kull, singer Ray Weston (who at 29, is the oldest of the group) and drummer Paul Ramsey - was added Buzby, and later, bass played Thomas Hyatt.

The group plays only original material - all five musicians collaborate on the music; Brett Kull and Weston writes the lyrics. The goal is to vary their musical approach, says Buzby, who recently received a degree in music theory from Moravian College in Bethlehem. (Buzby will teach music at Germantown Academy come fall. Weston is a carpented, Ramsey works for a suburban water company, and Hyatt works in a mail room. Only Brett Kull is able to devote full-time to the band).

"We listen to all different music and styles. But we don't sit down and say this is what we want to sound like," says Buzby, dismissing the idea the band's work may have certain antecedents.

Yet comparisons to past bands are inescapable in songs such as The Great Men, which recalls Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Lucky Man."

"They remind me of an earlier Yes," says Eddie Davis, from Trenton's WPST-FM. "I guess you can say they're pretentious in a way." Kennedy, of the PMA, hears a similarity to Genesis and Gentle Giant, as well as to Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Greg Kull says that such association will end with the fall release of Suffocating The Bloom, Echolyn's second independent effort. "We'll break free from our early influences, and set the style for Echolyn's future music," he says.

The album has both classical and jazz touches, Brett Kull says, and includes violins, flutes, viola and upright bass. "We experimented with different chords and rhythms, atonal kind of stuff," he says.

Suite For The Everyman, for example, has 10 movements. "This is even more pretenious than the last album," Brett jokes. "The only thing we thought was to get bal;ance between intense and softness, slow and fast."

Will Echolyn achieve its lofty goals?

Listen to booster Mountain:

"I think they will progress. They believe in what they're doing. If they continue to be successful, God bless them. But even if they don't, God bless them anyway. They did their way."

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