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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008

Prog’s Prolific Flower Kings

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   Almost seven years ago to the date, on Sept. 14, 2001, The Flower Kings, now arguably one of the world's leading progressive-rock bands, played what just might rank among Shank Hall's most memorable and cathartic shows.

  "I remember that gig, and I remember those days vividly," says guitarist, vocalist and head Flower King Roine Stolt, when reminded that the Swedish band was on a rare U.S. tour as the tragedy of 9/11 unfolded.

  The Flower Kings opened their penultimate show of that tour with "Last Minute On Earth," the lead track from the then-new studio album The Rainmaker. Suddenly, the catchy, accessible tune had new context: "Last minute on earth/ What would you do, who would you call?/ Your mobile is down/ Who will write the history of that final day?"

  Stolt, who returns with The Flower Kings to Shank Hall on Aug. 29, then thanked audience members for attending, "despite what happened," and he and his band aptly plowed into the cacophonous instrumental "Sounds of Violence."

  In the intervening years, the United States and The Flower Kings have both been through tumultuous times. In the 14-year-old band's case, several members have come and gone. The two most recent musicians to enter the Kings-dom-drummer Erik Hammarstrm and vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Ola Heden-are expected to give the band's music more depth, emotion and flexibility. (Stolt often refers to The Flower Kings as the "Spinal Tap of prog," given the inordinate number of drummers the band has exhausted.)

  The group also has released, since 2001, four studio albums (two of them double-CD affairs), a pair of multi-disc live CDs and DVDs, and a two-CD compilation. It's no wonder that critics have tried to tarnish The Flower Kings' crown by accusing the prolific purveyors of traditional symphonic prog of being both overly ambitious and long-winded.

  The Sum of No Evil, the band's latest and most focused album in years (even with a running time of 75 minutes), tries to eliminate the pop, jazz, experimental and ambient elements of past efforts and focus on pure prog-complete with The Flower Kings' signature dreamy vocals, backed by grand, layered musical arrangements. References to the usual suspects of Yes and Genesis abound, but the band also invokes Kansas, Spock's Beard, Pink Floyd and Chicago Transit Authority.

  The problem with-or maybe "for" is a better word-bands like The Flower Kings is their perceived prog-rock stigma. Stolt and label InsideOut Music tried to address that in 2007 with The Road Back Home, a two-CD anthology featuring 27 more-accessible and shorter songs ("shorter" being less than 12 minutes). Unfortunately, the album didn't work as well as intended, but Stolt still calls it "a fabulous collection" for new or casual listeners.

  Earlier this year, the band released Carpe Diem, an "official" bootleg featuring an eclectic collection of eight songs culled from a 2006 gig in Whittier, Calif. Stolt says he has plenty of new ideas that he hopes to bounce off the other Kings soon. In fact, he predicts another Flower Kings album by next spring.

  For now, though, a six-date U.S. tour (other stops include Pittsburgh, Chicago and New York) is the top priority, especially after the Swedes were forced to cancel a series of May shows in this country to focus on personnel issues. Plus, Stolt adds, it's becoming less economically feasible to undertake tours even as short as this one.

  "The U.S. audience is always very receptive and enjoys quite a bit more of our jamming side," Stolt says. "But it is also important for us to work our way to a bigger audience, so we try hard each time, hoping that something bigger will come out of it. You'll never know when or even if we'll ever come back."

The Flower Kings play Shank Hall on Friday, Aug. 29.

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