"Retro is the new black." I'm convinced that the whole "retro" movement is quickly becoming the most acceptable form of any medium. Granted, there's always a bit of generational look-back. In fashion, there's usually a 20-30 year cycle - the 80's often reflected late 50's, early 60's styles & clothing, and likewise the 90's reflected much of the late 60's & early 70's (the grunge/alternative penchant for hippie politics & simple living). So when bands jump on the "retro" bandwagon, the collective response will either be a groan of "here we go again", or a welcome smile, knowing that proper distillation of said retro influences is going to come across as fresh without being contrived.
Thankfully for this trio, it's the latter. Kinetic Element wears most of their influences on their collective sleeve, to be sure, but they do so in such a way that it's not just a rehashing of what's been done. Rather, they assimilate varying influences from progressive & art rock over a 3-decade span (largely pulling from the mid-70's) and put their own stamp on it by injecting it all with a high dose of listenability & class. In addition, they don't really sound like a clone of anyone else, though having a large melting pot of influences to draw from, so that helps them sound fresh, despite their "retro-pastiche" kind of feel.
"Riding In Time" starts out with a decidedly 80's neo-prog influenced keyboard intro, very spacey in its approach. However, the song quickly transforms into a very 70's prog rock affair, with other influences showing up here & there (Mike's usage of the piano, for instance). "The Ascent", on the other hand, begins with a decidedly different intro, with sparing use of drums, bass, and bombast, then quickly transitions into a very 70's organ-rich prog rock affair. Mike's use of varying keyboard sounds that span multiple decades & genres makes this song an interesting combination of different prog rock approaches. "Now and Forever" has a much more neo-prog sound overall, thoguh it does have some pieces that hearken back to the mid-70's. It's approach uses a more distorted guitar, more "modern" keyboard sounds, and a slightly more straight-ahead approach that lends itself to the leaner sound of early 80's progressive rock. There's some great solo work here from guitarist Todd Russell, and great drumming by Michael Murray. Basswork by Tony D'Amato is great as well, showing that the bass guitar is truly an instrument, and not just part of the rhythm section. "Peace of Mind, Peace of Heart" begins with a much more somber intro, remeniscent of a cross between Pink Floyd and some random 80's prog rock band. The song transitions into various movements & sounds, however, becoming a bit more "happy" sounding with Mike's hopeful piano, and the bouncier rhythms that show up later in the song. Lyrics are also hopeful, with Mike wearing his faith on his sleeve, even if it's expressed in relatively subtle shades. I like the somewhat "circular" approach this song has, with the intro, verse, chorus, an extended solo/jam section in the middle (with great instrumental work by all members), then back to verse, chorus, then a reprise of the intro & Mike's piano at the end.
"Meditation" is the one "black sheep" track on the album, bearing little resemblance to the rest of the material here. Written by guitarist Todd Russell, it's a plaintive acoustic number with some skillful playing and an interesting structure & a nice "loose" feel to it. My only qualm with this track is that it's a bit long for just an acoustic number, and loses interest a bit toward the end. "Reconciliation" is the longest track on the album, clocking in at just over 16 minutes. It begins with a somber clean-channel, picked guitar rhythm, and subtle keyboard sound from Mike, along with some very subtle cymbal work. Things don't stay somber, however, as the song transitions into an interesting minor-chord Emerson Lake & Palmer-esque organ/guitar interplay nearing 2 minutes in, and goes through several "movements" throughout the piece. Again, Mike's varied use of keyboard, organ, piano, and other sounds is inspiring. It really brings out the variety here, and keeps things sounding fresh, despite the familiarity of some of the more traditional sounds. It's a bit more to absorb than some of the initial tracks on the album due to its length & "movement" approach, but it's a great tune with a lot to offer for the patient listener. "See the Children" has a cool keyboard intro that has a nice late 80's, early 90's sound to it that sets it apart from some of the other material. It also has a low bass-note played on the keyboard that evokes the sound of a cello, which is a need effect. The intro guitar work is also cool, with the "fade-in" effect used for atmosphere. The song builds nicely with the addition of bass, drums, and a bit of light guitar noodling over Mike's atmospheric keyboards. I was almost fooled by the build-up, as it takes over 4 minutes to get to vocals - I thought perhaps this would be an instrumental affair, but Mike & co. bring in some nice group "woah's" and Mike finally takes a lead vocal at around 4 and a half minutes. The song has a different feel than many of the others, with Todd using a cool "phase" effect on some of the guitar work, and the keyboard & guitar work not recalling any one era of progressive rock, but being an interesting amalgamation of multiple approaches. Once the song actually comes in with vocals, the band wastes no time in getting to a traditional song structure with verse-chorus & also some nice instrumental interplay, especially between the guitar & keyboard. Todd has some great solo work here that is both fast & furious, but also slightly understated so as not to overpower everything else. All in all, a great way to close out the album.
One thing that must be said about this project is that Mike's positive outlook & hopefulness comes through loud & clear. The music takes a number of turns, and there are plenty of "minor chord" moments where things are musically more somber or sound as if the mood might turn sour, but lyrically, Mike never really gets too dark. There are moments where he expresses darkness, but always balances that out with light. Perhaps that is why the album's title is so fitting - Mike doesn't get caught up in how bad the world is or all of the negative stuff we have to deal with every day - he keeps things relatively "up" and takes an approach that gives the listener a very positive experience. Everything comes together here very well. While Mike isn't the strongest vocalist in the prog rock scene, his vocals are pleasant over the music, and they service the songs well enough. To me, despite the recent loss of bassist Tony D'amato, this band has a bright future, and I hope to hear more music from them soon, because if it's anything like this, I know it will be in heavy rotation on my MP3 player for weeks. Highly recommended!