THE FIRST REMARKABLE--and very revealing--fact about a Mannheim Steamroller album is that you can never find it in a record store.
Oh, it's there, but finding it is no mean feat. This is because no one knows where to put it. Some record stores keep it in the folk or rock sections, since putting it under "classical" would cause an uproar. Others simply put it in the catch all: jazz.
The problem will undoubtedly persist until record stores install a section for what the group itself calls "baroque rock-and-roll."
With their newest album, Fresh Aire V. however, the record store owners would have to add yet another section "space-age Baroque rock-and-roll." In their Fresh Aire project (that is what Davis calls it), the primarily Julliard trained group has traded in their classical guitar for even more synthesizer equipment in order to record their new theme.
What is their newest theme? Since they've run out of seasons, the group's latest goal, with the help of the Cambridge Singers and the London Symphony Orchestra, is to "vinylize" Kepler's dream of travelling to the Moon Davis has taken the text of "Kepler's Dream" ("Somnium"), translated from Latin, and translated some of its themes into music, as he did with his wife's seasonal poetry on earlier albums. The first side of the album is entitled. "To the Moon," while the second is divided between "On the Moon" and "Return."
In many ways, both good and bad, the album is what many Mannbeim Steamroller followers might have guessed their fifth album would be: a mix of their four previous albums. The chants, such as the opening "Lumen," are reminiscent of the "Fantasia" side of Fresh Aire II, especially with the strong instrumental background on both. On V. however, the vocals are done by the Cambridge Singers and are recorded in the resinous Ely Cathedral, giving them a chilling quality never achieved in earlier Fresh Aire chants. The last song on the first side, entitled "Chant," (through it is not one), has a piano refrain which is very much like "Midnight on a Full Moon," the playful toy piano piece at the end of III. The rest of "Chant," however, recalls the monumental medieval style of "Fantasia" with its variations on a horn call theme. Though the horn sounds are fantastic (as they should be, played by the London Symphony Orchestra), the electronic "bending," the twinkling synthesizer background in place of the militaristic snare detract from its medieval effect These same qualities adapt the album, however, very suitably to the Moon.
The weird, oscillating synthesizer, with strange electronic sounds, adds a new and colorful twist to "Creatures of Levania" (Kepler's dreamy inhabitants of the Moon which he claims. "By combining nature with art,... can take refuge at the bottom of the deep waters.") The compressed, off-beat bass and high, clipped synthesizer sound like portions of Alan Parson's robot music, but the song is infused with Steamroller-style life through the flowing keyboard lead, which sounds like a space-aged vibraphone played by a master planist (a strange coincidence, as the keyboardist is Jackson Berkey, Juliard graduate and Baldwin grand piano champion).
Any great pianist, however, including Berkey, will be somewhat stiffled when playing primarily keyboards. This is the first Fresh Aire album without a single piano "Interlude," a shame, as these short demonstrations of pure style were one of the band's great trademarks. One reason for the omission could be last year's release of Interludes, a collection of all of Berkey's interludes from the first four albums--a possible reluctance to continue along the same line. This, however, would not explain the additional lack of organ Tocattas which started off their last two albums. In pursuit of what, has Mannheim Steamroller foresaken these trademarks? They seem at first to be "playing if safe," taking the themes which everyone liked from their previous albums to make a new one, but have they merely forgotten some obvious favorites?
A MORE REASONABLE explanation can be found in the album's theme--there are no purely piano interludes on the moon. That is why "Release," which starts out very much like "Interlude I" (from I), complete with the appropriate pauses, changes into an enchanted theme of discovery like the one which accompanies the opening of the Ark in "Raiders of the Lost Ark. "Furthermore, living long before Stanley Kubrick. Kepler seems to have missed the age of Tocattas in space they were probably reserved for such mundane things as Summer and Winter (the themes of III and IV, respectively) And the likeness with movie themes is no coincidence. In fact, many people, upon hearing the album for the first time point out that it sounds like a movie soundtrack. The similarity is that Davis, like a move maker, has picked a theme and stuck to it closely Furthermore, he has been successful in painting musical motion picture of "Kepler's Dream."
The first piece on side two, "Z-Row Gravity" evokes fun images of discovering a new world with its bumpy bass and likely keyboards. The soft background, which comes through in the middle provides a sense of peace and awe. The last part gains force and builds to a rocking theme with the horns playing a theme of success, or victory which recurs several times on the album it sounds almost like the theme at the end of a western. The high flute with a synthesized back ground, a low clarinet, and flowing strings with piano portray a beautiful image of an "Earth Rise," (described "The most pleasant of all occupations on Levania is the contemplation of its volva.").
Some fans might miss the simple seasonal pleasures of the first four albums. "Chocolate Fudge," "Mist," "A Shade Tree," "Red Wine, "Embers." The Fresh Aire project has taken a change of direction, however, as it had to in order to avoid stagnation. And in doing so, the group has put out its most cohesive album to date V holds together as an album in theme better than any previous Fresh Aire album probably because its theme is much narrower than an entire season Although it may lack some of the diversity of the earlier ones, as an entire album V tends to be better as a whole. Instead of moving into new areas of music, changing their sound, or adding elements like "political statement" to avoid the dreaded musical stagnation, the strong-willed Davis has retained the integrity of his project while covering new ground. Chances are that he will continue, as he has done in the past, to be a breath of Fresh Aire on the music scene.