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4 Sep 2016

Supersister “Iskander” 1973 Dutch Prog Rock

Supersister “Iskander” 1973  Dutch Prog Rock
If I made a list of my favorite prog albums that I find to be grossly underrated, this one would definitely be part of the Top 5 if not no. 1: Iskander is a special album in Supersister’s history, since it’s the one not featuring the original flautist and drummer. Stips and Van Eck remained in the fold, summoning a heavily jazzy drummer and a wind player who preferred the sax over the flute. The latter factor influenced the band’s sonic development in a crucial manner, since it implies that the wind input can be louder than ever before in a Supersister album, and the keyboard input must necessarily adopt new tricks in order to establish a new form of dialogue with their partners in melody and soloing (the sax and the flute, of course). The brief intro is a real statement of what is going on: an exotic sax solo that properly announces the life of Alexander the Great as a champion in Greece and a hero in Asia. The sung parts are diminished, and so are the displays of musical humor, which makes the sense of musical intelligence become a major asset. What we can still notice clearly is that combination of warm dynamics and extroverted vibe that makes Supersister such a genius in the history of prog-jazz. The aforementioned sax solo gives way to “Dareios the Emperor”, a piece elaborated with similarities to Weather Report and the jazzy side of compatriot band Focus (I won’t go as far as to say that Focus was an actual influence on Supersister). Mariano does a big deal of Elton Dean chops, which makes for one of a few Soft Machine references for this remodeled Supersister. The title track continues in a similar vein and takes it to a more epic atmosphere: there is also an added touch of grey textures in places, which helps to make the sinister martial drums and organ layers really dark. It is a pity that the ultra- neutoric sax solo should be so short, since it reallly creates an amazing climax while it lasts. Once the electric piano comes to the frontline, the sax stops being intense and becomes quite evocative. The last two minutes are symptoms of pure jazz-prog majesty in a most orchestrated fashion. Despite its explicitly menacing title, ‘Confrontation of the Armies’ actually happens to be quite playful, as a nod to what the band used to do in their first two albums. 'The Battle’ starts with a tympani-driven orgy (reminding us of Carl Palmer’s individual highlights in the classic era of ELP), which deceitfully serves as a prologue to an eerie passage of soaring organ layers, soft baritone sax and vibraphone touches. The first main motif arrives like a mixture of Weather Report and Egg (the Canterbury element is a thing that this band can’t seem to take off itself): the resulting development states an alternation of languid and furious moods that eventually lead to a bombastic closing section in which the drums and the saxare literally on fire. This one and 'Alexander’ have to be the pinnacles of “Iskander”. But there’s still more. The following two tracks slow down a bit in order to deliver a more gracious mood: 'Bagoas’ has a soft colorfulness to it, adorned with exotic percussions and flute; 'Roxane’ takes a romantic approach to the bucolic side of jazz, with very tender lines on flute and stylish piano bases. 'Babylon’ brings back the Weather report reference, only this time with a stronger focus on jams delivered on various mid-tempo structures (unlike the more epic 'Iskander’ and 'The Battle’). The rhythm section is just superb, with a drummer who knows exactly the right place for each ornament and how to establish a whole sound with the bass player. This piece, while not as composed as tracks 2 and 3, can match their incendiary stance in many passages. 'Looking Back’ fills the album’s last 4 ½ minutes, with moderate Latin-jazz tones (a trick that was also used in previous releases): the connection between bass, flute and electric piano lands on a coda of the intro. That’s how this circle is closed, and this is what Supersister decided to become after the original line-up’s crisis: “Iskander” is a peculiar opus in Supersister’s world, yet still retaining proficiently the same level of musical excellence in the writing and performing areas. It is reasonable to miss the magic of Mr. Van Geest for this one, but it is a fact (at least to me) that this album is not a letdown at all. …by progarchives…..
Unlike their compatriots Focus, whose albums went considerably downhill after Hamburger Concerto, Supersister never released a bad record. That being said, their last two (if one counts Robert Jan Stips’ solo project Spiral Staircase as a group effort) are generally considered less interesting, mostly because they don’t feature the classic quartet lineup and they signal a significant change in direction. But there are reasons one might disagree with this view. Yes, Iskander is indeed different and must be accepted as such, but Stips succeeds in steering the group into a new direction. His writing is strong and his mark still obvious. First of all, only Stips and bassist Ron VanEck remain of the original lineup. Sacha VanGeest and his gracious flute have been replaced by ex-Embryo Charlie Mariano on sax and flute. Herman VanBoeyen sits behind the drums. More important than the changes in personnel is the change in style. Iskander, a loose concept album about Alexander the Great (Iskander is his Turkish name), is often described as being more in the jazz-rock vein, but listening to Stips’ choice of keyboard sounds and multi-tracked arrangements, one thinks of Triumvirat’s Spartacus (which it actually predates). The keyboardist is going for a more virtuosic prog rock sound, while Mariano’s sax introduces jazzier elements that are occasionally subverted into David Jackson-esque licks (as in “Babylon”). The feel of the music is definitely not in the same vein as “Judy Goes on Holiday” or “A Girl Named You,” and there may be a touch of misplaced pompousness in the conceptual aspect of the album, but it features some very good progressive rock with hints of mid-period Soft Machine (Mariano’s soprano sax can’t help but evoke Elton Dean). In fact, people usually annoyed by the band’s sense of humor will most likely prefer this album, as it is uncharacteristically “serious.” It has been reissued on CD as a two-fer together with Spiral Staircase… allmusic…….. 
Line-up / Musicians
- Robert Jan Stips / keyboards, lead vocals, vibes
- Charley Mariano / saxophones, flute, bass clarinet, nadaswaram
- Ron Van Eck / bass
- Herman Van Boeyen / drums, percussion

- Pierre Moerlen / marimba & percussion
- Gerard Lemaitre / voice actor
- Sacha Van Geest / flute 

Songs / Tracks Listing1. Introduction (0:42)
2. Dareios The Emperor (4:51)
3. Alexander (7:02)
4. Confrontation Of The Armies (2:47)
5. The Battle (7:59)
6. Bagoas (2:54)
7. Roxane (3:21)
8. Babylon (7:57)
9. Looking Back (The Moral Of Herodotus) (4:33)

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