Simply put, back in 1994, this Prog-Rock band from the USA released its one and only album, then promptly disappeared from the scene (and to discover the reason why I believe that happened, please keep reading). Regardless, I’m sure the main question facing any Prog-Rock fan who craves anything and everything from the genre is whether they should even bother to investigate this obscure band and/or track down a copy of this lone album for their collections. Hopefully my review will make that decision easier.
To be certain, Black September had an interesting line-up, with a keyboardist, a bassist (or two, actually), and a drummer (the basic E.L.P. combo to start) along with a sax player (who doubled on bass) and a violin player (who also doubled on bass). As one might expect, without a guitarist and a heavy emphasis on keyboards, the band did often sound like E.L.P. (or occasionally the band U.K.) as on the album’s opening track.
“Bellicose Agenda” is a sprawling thirteen-minute tour-d-force that displays the band’s instrumental skills, which are definitely commendable. The keyboards (both background washes and frequent leads) are straight out of the Keith Emerson playbook, and the violin (which pops up for a solo early in the track) makes the band sound as if Jean-Luc Ponty or Eddie Jobson had stepped into the studio with E.L.P. to lend a hand.
Here, also, comes the first hint as to the album’s major flaw and the main clue as to why I believe this band likely fell apart after just one album—the vocals are nothing more than just passable, and barely that. On several occasions (when he’s not almost talk-singing the lyrics) the vocalist is off-key. It seems as if he wants to replicate Greg Lake at times, but always falls short. On this track, the result is (as mentioned) just passable, but please be warned, since there are more vocal tracks to follow…
Now, since the track “Freeze” features some sax (generally relegated to the background), imagine E.L.P. teaming up with, for example, Andy Mackay (Roxy Music) or Mel Collins (King Crimson). Once again, the instrumentation is quite good overall, the keyboardist especially, and the arrangement includes additional variations on Keith Emerson’s synth sounds. But also once again, the vocalist brings down the quality level with his frequent inaccuracy.
The album’s third song, “Forever Winter,” is where the vocals really muck things up. What would have otherwise been a melodic track (this time—with the violin and particular keyboard sounds—the U.K. comparisons come readily) is nearly destroyed by the tragically off-key vocal leads. I came to realize here that when the singer is delivering lines within the louder, more thicker-sounding framework of tracks such as the previous two songs, his shortcomings are much less noticeable. But on this track, mellower and only lightly orchestrated during the verses and choruses, his inadequacies are in the spotlight, glaringly so. Near the end of the track, when he attempts to belt the words “in the name of the law” repeatedly, the cracking in his voice and his constant pitch-wavering when he’s struggling to hold a long note are absolutely wretched. And to make matters worse, the violin (an instrument that has a tendency to be a bit squeaky itself) is ad-libbing behind him, and notes start clashing all over themselves, making for some major eye-twitching on my part. Definitely not a pleasant listen. And it’s a damned shame, too, since the song, with its pretty melody, could have been something quite special with a competent vocalist at the mic. It’s a mystery to me why no one in the recording studio insisted these parts be rerecorded and perfected prior to the album’s release. Therefore, I suspect that this is the main reason why Black September didn’t last longer than this single album. A good producer, a studio engineer—hell, anyone with an ear for tunefulness—is always worth their weight in gold.
Far from the debacle of the previous song, the high-quality “Floodgates” follows. This energetic and bouncy instrumental piece is where the keyboardist is really given a chance to shine, with his fingers working magic during wild Moog solos. The sax player also pops in for an equally frantic solo, while the rhythm section adds jazzy flair to several sections of the track along the way.
“The Glen By Afton” comes next, and it’s another vocal track. But relax, no need to worry too much here since the singer is, thankfully, more subdued. He’s not shooting for any high notes he can’t possible reach, and he’s not attempting to belt out the lyrics to the point of his voice cracking, so that’s a plus. And no surprise, because of his lighter approach, the melody lines are actually rather enjoyable. Indeed, it’s a nice track overall—certainly the best of the four vocal tracks on offer—especially with the sax showing up again to deliver some gentle background ad-libs.
The final track, “Beast in Plain View,” is another instrumental that actually lives up to its name, returning full-force to the sounds of E.L.P. with a saxophone and a hunger to impress. As on the previous “Floodgates,” the keyboardist really grabs hold of the reins and steers the band into more Keith Emerson-like synth madness, “beastly” territory, and it’s an exhilarating ride.
So, were it not for the below-par vocals on this release, I would have rated this album 4.5 Stars. Yes, the musicians (especially the keyboardist) are that good. But there really is no acceptable excuse for an otherwise top-quality band releasing an album that includes such a piss-poor vocal performance as on the “Forever Winter” track, unless, of course, the singer was the leader of the band (or perhaps his mother or father footed the bill for the recording). Who knows? Anyway, because of this inexcusable mistake on the part of Black September, I pulled a full star from the overall rating.
Therefore, Prog-Rock lovers who especially appreciate bands such as E.L.P. (with a twist) might be interested enough in this lone album to track down a copy. But please consider yourselves forewarned regarding the vocals.