Prog is tough. For the casual rock fan, it's over-flamboyant, overindulgent stuff that's too difficult to follow, though it may, on occasion, yield a gem of "Tom Sawyer" stature. For the serious rock fan with a natural allegiance to one of several hundred subgenres, it's either pure anathema or pure bliss. There's rarely any sort of midpoint with prog rock.
And so it goes with those who make it. For musicians, prog is simultaneously the ultimate, genre-conforming expression of instrumental dexterity and compositional enlightenment and an open invitation to turn screws on the necessarily loose lid of rock to the extreme right-hand position. It either builds naturally to near scientific perfection (Genesis at its best) or it sounds methodically concocted in a laboratory (see below).
So it goes with Chapel Hill's Land of Chocolate, a prog band so concerned with lock-and-key instrumental prowess and maneuvering that the songs end up concerned more with professionalism than passion.
But there is plenty to admire here. Sticking true to the goals of progressive rock, forms are wide-open for Regaining the Feel, and some of the ideas (see the synthesized xylophone of "Pursuit of Happiness") are more than clever. Bold maneuvers abound, as "Killing with Kindness" spontaneously morphs from a driving drum crack to a sludgy, organ-soaked anthem.
The playing follows suit, too. Wes Hare is an incredible drummer who--despite being the sole band member lacking vocal responsibilities--turns in the disc's standout performance, pulling off a flabbergasting fist-flying run during the conclusion to "Film at 11." His playing doesn't seem twice-baked and overpracticed; it runs with natural confidence bolstered by whipsmart perfection.
And none of the above is to argue that most of John Buzby's arrangements aren't remarkable: The math shift that splits "Pursuit of Happiness" is an oddly perfect organ, and the funky organ washes coursing through "Regaining the Feel" come soaked in equal aliquots of acid hyperactivity and measured melody. John Covach has his best moments in the latter, driving through fancy-free, high-end runs on a six-string with a stinging tone.
The lid is pretty tight here, but the brain swirling beneath is hyperactive and able.