Salem Hill has a bit of a history: people left the band, came back again and sometimes they disbanded. This time it took Salem Hill five years to return with the new studio album Pennies In The Karma Jar. I leave the DVD Mystery Loves Company (2007) out of consideration. Their previous album Mimi's Magic Moment (2005) was highly acclaimed with its roots in the progressive rock of the seventies influenced by bands like Kansas, Glass Hammer and the more modern sound of Spock's Beard. Surely, most of these influences were due to the participation of members of the aforementioned bands, like David Ragsdale (Kansas), Neal Morse (ex-Spock's Beard) and Fred Schendel (Glass Hammer). Now, the special guest appearances have been narrowed to just one: Jeff Malash plays cello on The Day Is Yours and on Glimpses. All other instruments and vocals are provided for by the band members of Salem Hill. However, the influences remained, especially those of Neal Morse. The numerous Hammond and keyboard passages, the way of singing and the religious lyrics strongly reminded me of Neal's songs.
When I listened to the album for the first time, I was again impressed by the music, but after several spins my hair stood on end. It's undisputed that the compositions are wonderful and perfectly played. They surely pleased me very much, but I have a problem with the lyrics. I really don't mind what religion people adhered to, but please don't force it upon me! Carry Me opens the album, starting a bit like Kansas with great vocals, a nice melody and an emotional guitar solo in the middle-section. This surely is a good song to start with. My Gift To You opens with a pleasant bass line, a Hammond and steady drums by Kevin Thomas, but when the chorus begins I've got again problems with the lyrics, but luckily the nice instrumental part makes it possible to concentrate on the music and forget about the lyrics. In Fine the band slow down a bit to a ballad-like progressive song with a pleasant vocal line and a darker instrumental middle-section. An upcoming guitar riff and a soaring organ sound mark Stormclouds In Wonderland, the only song written by vocalist and guitarist Michael Dearing. It's the heaviest song on Pennies In The Karma Jar and while listening to it, I would have liked more of his compositions in order to obtain a better balanced album. All the other songs are written by vocalist, keyboard player and occasional guitarist Carl Groves, who has a much softer voice closer to Neal Morse's. These keyboard-based songs are pretty relaxed with many background vocals and they all have a well-played solo. Listen to the instrumental guitar and keyboard parts in Why Did You Make Me. Unfortunately, this song has an inconvenient end with all the'hoo-la-la's'. Why? After a creepy intro, The Horror Of Fearlessness turns into a very emotional and well-sung piece, followed by the almost fourteen-minute epic The Day Is Yours. A jazzy intro flows into smooth vocals and a cool bass line by Patrick Henry. It's good to hear how it all works out as the combination of the progressive and the jazzy parts make this a great song. Opening acoustically the well-sung Glimpses perfectly suits the other compositions.
Pennies In The Karma Jar is a pleasant light progressive album, instrumentally on a very high level, but what bothers me most is the religious undertone that's present throughout the album. Please, don't get me wrong. If people find their happiness and joy in whatever religion, I'm very happy for them. However, as a non-believer who likes progressive rock music, I don't want to be confronted with devotional lyrics...
*** Pedro Bekkers (edited By Peter Willemsen)
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