The American progressive rock band Happy The Man (HTM) were formed in 1973 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. They were named after a line in Goethe's Faust. Guitarist Stanley Whitaker and bassist Rick Kennell first met in Germany in 1972. The band's early repertoire included a number of covers like Watcher Of The Skies (Genesis), 21st Century Schizoid Man (King Crimson) and Man-Erg (Van Der Graaf Generator). Very soon those covers were outnumbered by original compositions mostly penned by Whitaker (six and twelve string guitars, vocals), Kit Watkins (MiniMoog, acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, A.R.P-synthesizer, Hammond organ, Hohner clavinet, flute, marimba) and Frank Wyatt (saxophone, flute, piano, keyboards, vocals) of whom the latter provided the lion's share. They combined lush melodies, great complex interplay and a slightly jazzy touch with occasional vocals. The band claimed to be influenced by Genesis, Yes and Gentle Giant although they really don't sound like any of these bands.
In 1976 Peter Gabriel was looking for a backing band after his departure from Genesis. He came down to the band's house in Arlington for a try-out session, where he presented the band some of his newly written material, notably the song Slowburn which they rehearsed. Eventually Gabriel decided not to hire HTM, but this high-profile encounter resulted in a five-year, multi-album deal with Arista Records. The first two albums released by this company were lately reissued by Esoteric Recordings. These reissues have been perfectly remastered and feature a booklet that fully restores all original album artwork with a new essay.
The eponymous debut album of HTM was released in 1977. It was recorded at the A&M Studios towards the end of 1976, with Ken Scott handling the production duties. His groundbreaking work with luminaries as The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Supertramp and David Bowie had highly impressed the HTM-members. The album belongs to the most important ones concerning American progressive music. The two long, episodic instrumentals, Watkins' Mr Mirror's Reflection On Dreams and Wyatt's New York Dream's Suite, are the obvious 'pièces de résistance'. Both musicians contribute on other musical gems as well like the opening piece, the spacey and orchestral Starborne, which immediately establishes the trademark of the HTM-sound. This sound is mainly recognizable by the way Watkins played his MiniMoog and Wyatt performed on his saxophone. Other great pieces are Watkins' tone poem Hidden Moods and Whitaker's Stumpy Meets The Firecracker In Stencil Forest, with its addictive, jagged and bouncy melody line. This track allowed the band to venture upon the more rock based territory. The album included only two vocal tracks sung by Whitaker: Upon the Rainbow (Befrost) and On Time As A Helix of Precious Laughs.
Crafty Hands was released in 1978; it contains only one vocal track Wind Up Doll Day Wind. HTM sometimes recorded vocal tracks just to please the record company and in order to have more commercial success. The compositions and performances on this second effort were even more refined, and many tracks were instant classics, from the atmospheric Morning Sun and Nossuri to the up-tempo Steaming Pipes, I Forgot To Push It and the epic-like track Ibby It Is. Another highlight is Open Book including an excerpt from the abandoned Death's Crown suite. This piece of music saw the light of day in 1999 on an album with the same name. The contract with Arista Records was dissolved after Crafty Hands failed to make any significant commercial impact despite the recorded vocal track...
In 2004 the band returned with their comeback album The Muse Awakens. Although it once again featured the typical HTM-sound, the album didn't contain the same strong compositions as their two Arista albums. These albums are true masterpieces and should be part of the album collection of all devotees of progressive rock music. For that reason I can't give a rating less than five stars. Highly recommended!
***** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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