ADVENT
Silent Sentinel
(Advent Music)

 

Based in New Jersey, the progressive rock band called Advent recently released their third CD called Silent Sentinel. The 79-minute album is a splendid testimony to Advent’s sweeping progressive rock vision. Mixing a variety of inspirations, the band recalls various prog legends such as early 1980s Yes, early 1970s Gentle Giant and much more. The band’s core features Alan Benjamin (guitars), Henry Ptak (keys/vocals), Mark Ptak (keys/vocals), Greg Katona (guitars), Joe D’Andrea (drums) and Brian Mooney (bass). Speaking to mwe3.com about the beginnings of Advent, Alan Benjamin explains, “Although Advent’s origins are over three decades old, we’ve only had the opportunity to release three albums thus far, each approximately nine years after the last—our self-titled debut (Mellow Records) in 1997, followed by Cantus Firmus in 2006 and Silent Sentinel in 2015. Our current lineup consists of Henry, Mark, and myself, along with drummer Joe D’Andrea, who also sings very well and plays violin in concert, and another guitarist/composer named Greg Katona—both of whom are very established, long-term members that are truly integral to what Advent has become.” The Silent Sentinel CD is superbly recorded and the packaging includes all the lyrics to the music which was mostly written by Henry Ptak, with the exception of a piece by both Mark and Henry Ptak and several instrumentals composed by guitarists Alan Benjamin and Greg Katona. The CD closes out with a mighty 12-minute instrumental called “Romanitas” that was written by Henry Ptak. So, as far as progressive music goes, there’s plenty of variety throughout the album. With the 2015 CD release of Advent’s Silent Sentinel, the spirit of U.K. progressive rock is alive and well—and living in New Jersey. Progressive rock fans lucky enough to hear this album will take notice of the impressive sonic vision of Advent. www.adventmusic.net

 





mwe3.com presents an interview with
Alan Benjamin of ADVENT



mwe3
: Can you tell us where you live now and what you like best about it? I know you’re from New Jersey originally, right? Tell us about growing up in New Jersey and what other cities or countries interest you?

Alan Benjamin: I was actually born and raised in NYC on the upper-east side of Manhattan, but sent to boarding school outside of Philadelphia at age 12, where I remained until graduating high school four years later—and, after a semester at Berklee in Boston, and working in the garment district back in NYC, I moved back down to the Philly area for about six years or so at age 17. About three decades ago, I relocated to New Jersey and have been living here ever since.

As for growing up, I found NYC a great place to get started with music, having apparently begged my mom, who was a great pianist and songwriter in her day and still plays quite proficiently, for piano lessons before turning three and starting shortly after my birthday. From there, I went on to play violin and, with the benefit of both a world-class violin teacher and private-school orchestra conductor, was able to develop remarkably quickly as a capable classical violinist. Being sent to boarding school at 12, against my will, without being allowed to bring my violin initially seemed like a major setback, but I quickly made friends who turned me on to some great rock music. My second roommate probably playing the most foundational role by constantly playing Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack, Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard, and Kimono My House by Sparks and ended up taking up guitar very soon afterward. Being very motivated and progressing rapidly on my new primary instrument, I soon formed a band at the school while also getting into music of other artists like Rush, YES, Genesis, and The Dixie Dregs.

There wasn’t much of an overt global focus to my interests at the time, although I was always intrigued by other cultures I’d see in movies and on TV shows. In fact, while I never really thought about it before, becoming a huge fan of the original British TV show The Avengers at a very young age probably ingrained a particular affinity for the UK—something which has increased dramatically since spending a little time there on several occasions. As an adult, however, my interest in other countries and cultures has grown to be practically limitless.

mwe3: When did Advent form, how did you meet each other and how many albums have you released and who is in the current lineup of the band?

Alan Benjamin: Advent cofounder (keyboardist/vocalist/composer) Henry Ptak and I first connected in October of 1989, via an ad in a local rock music/musician-focus magazine that was called The East Coast Rocker at the time. This publication was originally known as The Aquarian Weekly and has also reverted back to this title, by the way. We initially met up at Henry’s place—and, as soon as he put on a tape of his solo version of “Rear View Mirror,” I knew that Henry would be an ideal collaborator for the type of band I wanted to create. Henry’s brother, Mark, also a keyboardist/vocalist/composer, graduated from Berklee the following spring and joined us upon returning to New Jersey, completing the long-term core trio of the group.

Although Advent’s origins are over three decades old, we’ve only had the opportunity to release three albums thus far, each approximately nine years after the last—our self-titled debut on Mellow Records in 1997, followed by Cantus Firmus in 2006 and Silent Sentinel in 2015. Between the complexity of the music, the sizeable work/family responsibilities we all have lived through, and challenges in keep a full-band lineup together, it just seems to take a very long time to get things done. In addition to our own albums, however, we’ve also contributed recordings to a few tribute releases, two for Gentle Giant and one of Procol Harum, a 4-CD theme-based compilation based on Dante’s Inferno, a live track on a CD highlighting performances from a festival where the band performed, and even recorded a short track that was used as teaser music on the ESPN Classic network a while back.

Our current lineup consists of Henry, Mark, and myself, along with drummer Joe D’Andrea, who also sings very well and plays violin in concert, and another guitarist/composer named Greg Katona—both of whom are very established, long-term members that are truly integral to what Advent has become. Unfortunately, we lost our most recent bassist, Brian Mooney, in early 2016 and are still looking for a compatible replacement. On the bright side, I’m enjoying playing more bass in the studio, but it also means that we can’t perform live for the time being. Hopefully this will change soon.

mwe3: How would you describe the music of Advent and how does your new album Silent Sentinel combine and reflect the various influences of its members? How does the chemistry of each member move the sound of the entire band forward? Is there a group leader or founding member and how many shows have you done live?

Alan Benjamin: I actually find it rather difficult to describe most progressive music, with Advent proving harder to nail down than average in this regard. As such, I tend to suggest a more generalized reference to other artists that I hope may at least provide a rough idea how our music sounds—something on the order of: “A more modern and symphonic blend of Gentle Giant and early Genesis, with the occasional Tubes-style funk and fusion flourish.” On a more personal level, I’d say that Henry, as our primary composer, brings a very deep classical influence and is also quite amazing with his gift for writing program music—while additionally incorporating a lot of counterpoint and polyphony, particularly of the sacred variety, as well. In addition to his more ‘70s prog influence, Mark’s writing tends to bring in a bit more of the pop- and fusion-oriented aspects of what we do, including some of the funkiest bass lines!

As a trained classical guitarist, Greg injects a great sense of both traditional and modern classical music into his compositional output, but also tends a bit toward some of the flashier and more challenging guitar work. And, while Joe hasn’t been writing in the band as of yet, his dynamic, groovy, and versatile drumming and percussion work adds a whole other layer of nuance to the end results—and he remains very involved throughout a good portion of the creative process in general. As an avid collector of progressive music from all over the world, I’d have to say that there are a lot of influences that seem to seep their way into what I contribute to the band. From a compositional standpoint, Pekka Pohjola has probably had the most foundational impact on my writing sensibilities, but I definitely detect bits and pieces from many other sources as well.

In terms of the chemistry between members, I’d say it’s very symbiotic in nature—with each of us contributing in support of what the others do best, extending to arrangement and production as well. Fortunately, we almost always agree on what sounds best in the end—and, in the extremely rare instances where an impasse is reached, the primary composer of the piece or section, maintains the right to make the final call. While Henry and I are technically the band’s founding members—with Mark joining about six months later and essentially becoming an additional founder in the most meaningful sense—the band functions more like a creative and collaborative democracy, with Joe and Greg being equally part of the family in this respect.

Advent’s first full-band lineup came together in the early 1990s, with original drummer Mike Carroll and Stick player Pete Filatov covering the bass role. Unfortunately, due to personal circumstances, Pete was forced to withdraw from the group just prior to our debut concert performance, a live set scheduled at a music festival in Hillside, New Jersey. As hard as we tried to solidify a permanent five- or six-piece lineup for both studio and stage after that, the task proved too difficult and we ended up recording a good part of Cantus Firmus with just Henry, Mark, and myself on board—and were then very fortunate to recruit drummer Drew Siciliano just in time to record on the album as well. After that CD was released, we quickly found both Greg and bassist Benjamin Rose, and played a series of shows that started at the NJ Proghouse and went on to include performances at a few prog festivals, ProgDay in North Carolina and MARPROG in Connecticut, followed by the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend festival with a newer lineup, and individual shows in Philadelphia and NYC.

mwe3: How does the mix of instrumental tracks and vocal tracks on Silent Sentinel and your unique vocal harmonies set Advent apart from other prog bands? What are your favorite tracks on Silent Sentinel and tell us about the fifteen-minute CD closer “Romanitas” and how it was created in the studio?

Alan Benjamin: I think our music is fairly eclectic and sophisticated in one sense, but also melodic and accessible in another. On one hand, we seem to approach a sort of “songwriter’s collective” methodology, very much like Genesis did—but we think there is also something of an “Advent sound” that’s developed along the way and try to extend its boundaries in as sympathetic a manner as possible. Also, the songwriting and arrangement are always our top priority, and virtually everything else is simply in service to these compositional aspects of the songs, and instrumentals—and, in this particular sense, I think we differ from most other prog bands who are more likely to center on virtuosity itself, although there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and/or extended soloing. Also, there doesn’t seem to be many other prog bands who incorporate such a strong cinematic/program music component in their work as Advent does.

I really love the way the entire album came out and it’s very hard for me to select favorite cuts. From the sheer sense of emotional impact, though, I’d probably have to go with the title track—but that may also be cheating since it’s the longest one as well. Perhaps a bit self-focused in this regard, I’m also particularly fond of the acoustic guitar duets and can’t adequately express my appreciation for what an amazing writing and performing partner Greg has been in this context.

Henry started talking about writing a big instrumental album closer fairly early on in the process and, early on, shared the idea that it would be something a bit different—and, if memory serves, he came up with the title of “Romanitas” pretty quickly as well. As more of the album’s music was written during the track’s composition, it also afforded him the opportunity to incorporate some related thematic material—and the coda additionally inspired the album’s opening track, “In Illo Tempore”, as well, although the connection may not be so obvious without digging in a bit.

From a studio-construction standpoint, the “Romanitas” recording was structured very much like the majority of the rest of the album’s full-band tracks—keyboards/vocals recorded at Mark’s studio, Brian’s bass recorded at his home, and everything else tracked in my home studio. That being said, the choir recording for this track was definitely a unique and intense experience. Henry wrote several choir sections for “Romanitas” and tracking all of the corresponding parts—in a single session—was definitely the most intense day of recording we experienced during the entire album’s creation. There were 11 singers in total and, in order to emulate the sound of a much bigger choir, we used the approach of having everyone learn, practice, and record each individual line in unison, participants based on the line being in their respective vocal ranges, generally doubling or tripling each of these group-sung lines on separate tracks, with the same singers, to build out the corresponding sense of size. Even though we pretty much spent the entire day and evening, I’m still amazed that we were able to, barely, get all those choir tracks finished in a single day—and it was also such a joy working with all the great friends and family members who joined in and gave their all.

mwe3: Where does Advent fit in the progressive rock world of 2017? What do you make of the worldwide explosion of prog-rock over the past decade? We were listening to it back in the 1970s, when it wasn’t quite as respected as it is now, and of course we know that the founding architects, a lot aren’t around anymore.

Alan Benjamin: Although there certainly has been a lot of activity in the progressive rock realm over more recent years, I actually have mixed emotions about the way things seem to be going in general. Without trying to sound too cynical, I mostly see the prog world becoming more like a microcosm of the old popular music industry, with many of the most successful artists appealing to the more simple/familiar/accessible/commercial side of things and compositions that don’t resonate (at least with me) in terms of inspiration, creativity, or purpose. That being said, I’m also very happy to have discovered some new acts over the past decade or so that I think are truly inspiring—and am starting to see a “new wave” of great progressive music emerge that I’d consider somewhere between evolutionary and revolutionary. Sadly, I do see artists of the former variety getting virtually all the attention/exposure/sales while most of the new greats generally seem to have significantly smaller niche followings—even from the standpoint of the prog community as a whole.

As far as Advent is concerned, I see us creating more of a bridge between my favorite classic prog music of the 1970s, backward to its formative classical/European folk roots, and also forward to the contemporary—and in a way that’s quite different from what I’ve heard anyone else doing. I’d also say that this makes Advent sort of an odd duck in a sense—especially from the standpoint of potential media interest. I believe this insight may also suggest why Pandora rejected Silent Sentinel, by the way, as it’s just not that easy to categorize or align the scope of what we do as compared to other progressive bands.

mwe3: Tell us about your guitars and something about your background as a guitarist, for example when you started playing guitars, do you still practice and what, and also your current and favorite past guitars, amps and favorite effects and pedals? Do you follow the vast upsurge in musical equipment technology of the 21st century?

Alan Benjamin: I’ve got quite a few guitars, but tended to favor my fairly new Strat, an American Deluxe, for a lot of the recording work on Silent Sentinel. I also busted out an old Charvel Model 6 for several tracks on the album, with a 1970s Les Paul and my favorite old BC Rich Mockingbird Supreme also leveraged in various spots. I can’t remember for sure, but there may also be a Godin xtSA on the first part of “Voices from California” too, originally tracked for a working demo but retained for the final recording. For acoustics, I used a factory-second Martin HD-2832, an old Ovation model 1115 12-string, and a Yamaha CG-100A for the classical guitar tracks.

My dad had an old Vega f-hole acoustic at home when I was growing up—and, while I was much more focused on learning piano and violin in my early youth, I did pick up some guitar basics by reading chord charts in the old songbooks that were laying around on his instrument. After getting into rock music at boarding school, my mom bought me a fairly modest Conn acoustic—and, not too long afterward, my dad took me down to 48th Street to get my first electric guitar, an Aria copy of a Les Paul “Black Beauty”, and amp. I took a few guitar lessons in the 1970s, first at Guitar Study Center in NYC and then with a jazz teacher whose name I forget outside Philly, but remained predominantly self-taught until studying with the amazing fusion guitarist/teacher Glenn Alexander in the late 1980s for about a year. I definitely try to play at least a little every day, but generally don’t practice in terms of exercises—however sometimes write music with the intent of it strengthening at least one critical aspect of my playing.

Not generally being a big fan of using individual stomp-box pedals, I’ve always tried to find more integrated solutions that provide everything I need in a single place—and with the ability to execute complete sound/timbre changes with a minimum of acrobatic footwork. I’ve also toyed with modelers a bit and have a tendency to go back and forth between the corresponding tonal resources I’ve gathered, depending on what I hear fitting best into the material/situation. For the album, most of the electric guitars were either recorded direct and processed through one of two amp-simulation plugins—Overloud’s TH2 and Free Amp by Fretted Synth Audio, the latter generally for cleaner sounds or played live through my Fender Hot Rod DeVille 410 amp front-ended by an Ernie Ball volume pedal and a Vox ToneLab SE tube-driven modeler/effects board.

While I had also been using this volume pedal-ToneLab-DeVille configuration for Advent’s more recent concert performances, I began to realize that it was probably time for an update about a year ago and ended up purchasing a Fractal Audio AX8 modeler/multi-effects floor unit in the spring. Since this device models the entire signal chain—including amp cabinets/speakers being recorded by a microphone—and is optimized for playback through FRFR (Full Range Flat Response) speakers instead of a guitar amp, it’s been a pretty big adjustment. I’m still doing a lot of tweaking, but think the AX8 will likely be used for virtually all my future electric guitar recording and live performance (direct into PA) from this point forward.

mwe3: What is the current status of Advent and what other ideas or songwriting and recording lays ahead for its members in the future? Are you and the other members always writing music? Where would you and the band like to go next with Advent, musically and stylistically?

Alan Benjamin: Our original plan was to put together as much of a tour as possible in support of the album, but Brian’s departure forced us to put our live show on hold. After months of searching for a suitable replacement unsuccessfully, the band decided to work on new material once again instead—and we’ve been working on what is likely to be a stand-alone single that we hope to finish up and release over the next few months. What happens after that will most likely depend on the timing of when (or if) we find a new bassist.

I think each of us tends to write on different schedules, with Henry being the most likely to continually have something in the works at any given time. While I’d love to compose as much more new music as possible, my life has become quite hectic and I tend to be most productive when forced to meet some sort of deadline, self imposed or otherwise. In terms of where we go next as a band, I think it’s a bit too early to tell—as we generally like to keep our options open to whatever muse arises and be able to follow a natural path from there.

On a related note, there have also been a few significant personal issues in the lives of several Advent members that have cropped up since the release of Silent Sentinel. With this in mind, it’s really hard to be able to predict when we’ll know much more about the future, but I’m optimistic that you’ll see a new burst of activity from the band once we’ve made it past these more recent difficulties... and, fortunately, I am definitely starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel in this regard.



 

 
   
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