Sometimes we need a little escapism. So how about escaping 2022 and going back in time, musically, to around 1970 to indulge in some premium progressive sounds inspired by King Crimson, PFM, Aphrodite’s Child and Area?
Enter San Diego foursome Birth. You might have encountered them before, around a decade ago when Conor Riley (vocals, synths, electric piano, organ, acoustic guitar) and Brian Ellis (guitar, electric piano, percussion) were part of the prog-psych masters Astra.
After two very good albums – The Weirding and The Black Chord, brought out on Lee Dorrian’s Rise Above label – Astra downed tools. Then in 2017, Riley and Ellis’s new venture started to, er, gestate.
“Brian and I were the youngest in the group,” Riley says. “We were the ones going out and partying every night after the shows. We sorta stuck together.”
Today Riley is enthusing to Classic Rock about a recent date played at the Psycho Las Vegas festival (“We saw Mercyful Fate!”) as well as chatting about Birth’s recent debut album, Born. Astra’s work came from doom and psychedelia, as well as the prog world. Born reveals a band – completed by Trevor Mast on bass and Paul Marrone – more musically evolved.
At the start of the century, Riley was in a psychedelic group called Silver Sunshine, described by the local paper as sounding like “mildly crazed pagan folk music”. Now the multi-instrumentalist can move from soulful, resonant Greg Lake-like vocals – with lyrics on allegorical, dystopian themes – to unsettling keyboard sections that blend smoothly with his bandmates’ talents.
“The reason I play music is to collaborate with people,” he says. “The music ends up sounding better. Birth is a collaborative thing; I write a lot, but everyone’s added so much of their own style that there are joint credits.”
Birth’s band name is also very much of another era. “I struggle with band names a lot,” Riley laughs. “This issue was on my mind for weeks. Then I had a dream and ‘Birth’ popped out of my head when I woke up. It fits what we’re doing; a call back to the 70s prog bands that had one epic, memorable or impactful word as a name.”
It particularly works in some early artwork, with the logo beneath a longhaired dude emerging from an egg. “That was by [psychedelic artist] Arik Roper. It was supposed to be Jesus coming out of an egg… but I knew we’d get complaints!”
Riley might have started as a metalhead, but prog is now his favourite musical flavour. “What I like about prog is you can do whatever you want: you could do a singer-songwriter thing, then have a classical or a jazz part,” Riley smiles. “I like to have a song structure to base it around, but then I’ll dig back into archives of other little parts that I have, put all sorts of stuff together… prog means you never have to throw anything away!”