From the Archive: The Symphonic Prog of Fireballet
Rivetingly ambitious music from a New Jersey band of the 1970s
Even in the prog-rock 1970s, when bands routinely wore robes, posed solemn-faced in front of cathedrals and specialized in pompous suites with pompous names, this was a stretch. Five New Jersey musicians, solid players all, hanging their hat on an oft-furious rock interpretation of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s stately and demanding “Night on Bald Mountain.”
The score, originally for orchestra, is a song cycle or audio landscape painting, with each section capturing a different aspect of the namesake mountain’s forbidding terrain. Using Hammond organ and analog synthesizers and deftly deployed Mellotron, Fireballet replicated the intricacies of the work — translating the tense opening chords into a vivid synth scamper, conjuring idyllic, Pink Floydish moments of repose on a section titled “Night-Tale.”
The 18-minute title suite remains impressive purely on a technical level: It took some careful planning to get five people to bring to life key musical elements usually handled by an entire orchestra. In doing this, the musicians of Fireballet craftily “essentialized” the themes and harmonic highlights of the work. Listen to this as a warmup for an orchestral rendition, and you will be struck by how much Mussorgsky these guys caught, all while remaining in (more or less) a rock context.
The album, which was produced by Ian McDonald (King Crimson) and remastered for streaming in 2016, includes original music as well, and there’s no letdown in quality there. Clearly Fireballet was inspired by Yes, Gentle Giant and the kings of classical makeovers Emerson Lake and Palmer (see “Fanfare for the Common Man” and others); some pieces follow prog-rock convention by including fitful changes of meter and mood every few measures. But others, including the brief and refreshingly un-technical “Atmospheres,” dwell in a lovely, entirely unique sound world.
From a certain perspective, the tottering and grandiose constructions of progressive rock of the early ’70s are easy to ridicule. What’s often overlooked, and Fireballet’s gem of a debut album underscores, is just how demanding the music was, and how transfixing it could be when played with this attention to detail.