Sebastian Hardie were arguably Australia’s only truly progressive-rock band of the early 1970s. Sure, there are many bands that could take your mind way, way out to the outer reaches, and more Western Suburbs Pink Floyds that you could count. But, being wild colonial Australia, all of these bands had an undertow of hard blues that dragged the music band to Earth when it threatened to touch the firmament.

Sebastian Hardie were different – the passion and power were certainly there, but the flavour was more European, with less of that Celtic/Delta skin and bones to it. Their sound seemed to mirror the hugely popular UK and Dutch rock bands such as Holland’s Focus and the UK’s Barclay James Harvest.

By the time they finalised their ‘classic’ lineup they had been joined by guitarist and musical polymath Mario Millo, whose compositions pushed the band to a more symphonic sound and huge popularity. It also helped that he was a wicked guitar player, playing a lush, romantic style that fitted beautifully with the band’s musical soundworld.

After releasing two landmark albums (the Jon English-produced Four Moments and the second, 1976’s Windchase) the band split – Millo moving onto great success with soundtrack and production work.

The world turned. And turned. Thirty-six years passed. I heard that there was a new album. An album made by the Four Moments lineup of Millo, keyboardist Toivo Pilt and brothers Alex Plavsic (drums) and Peter Plavsic (bass). I had the usual mixed feelings that one does when any artist tries to add to their perfectly-made oeuvre – an oeuvre which was made at a time when they were young, brave and hitting their straps. I was happy they were back, but I didn’t want the new one to be a disappointment.

It isn’t. In fact the new album, Blueprint, is one of the best things I have heard this year. As when Steely Dan came back after 20 years between albums, Blueprint sounds as if Sebastian Hardie never took a breath in those 36 years. From the sea-wash Hammond organ and cello-like guitar of 6/8 opener ‘I Wish’ through thrill-ride ‘Vuja De’, down to orchestral closer ‘Shame’, the entire album is a delight. Majestic, spacey, classically beautiful by turns, it is everything I expected.

Album track ‘The Art of Life’ seems to be speaking about the band and its fans and the 30-plus hiatus between albums, quoting Oscar Wilde“Life’s too important to be taken seriously”. And Blueprint, like many ‘comeback’ albums by classic bands has that ‘serious fun’ vibe about it, with all youthful ego trips banished with childhood’s toys.

It is interesting to compare this superb offering by the veteran sound-warriors of Sebastian Hardie with another excellent Australian progressive release of this year, the young Brisbane prog artist Ben Craven’s Great & Terrible Potions (https://wordsaboutmusic.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/album-review-ben-cravengreat-and-terrible-potions/). Blueprint is very cleanly produced throughout and sounds deceptively unadorned (even though there is much going on) whereas Ben Craven’s Potions sounds more ornate and has the giddying dynamics of modern film soundtracks.

Neither work sounds ‘better’ for these qualities – it is just interesting to hear the markedly different timbres of two styles in the same genre, one mapped out prior to the prog-metal revolution of the 90s and one after. This to me is a sort of proof that progressive rock is alive and well and moving into the future that it, like science-fiction literature, has imagined and soundtracked ahead for years.

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On behalf of The Orangepress I put a handful of questions to Sebastian Hardie’s Mario Millo prior to posting this review. Here are his responses:

1. Your new album ‘Blueprint’ is the first Sebastian Hardie album since 1976’s ‘Windchase’. What was the impetus for the reformation and recording?

Since the band reformed in 1994 specifically to perform as headline act at Progfest ’94 in LA, the band had often discussed the idea of doing more concerts, a new recording etc, however, we found it was much easier said than done.  As we have been pursuing our separate careers none of us had time to focus on the band, so nothing much happened until 2002 when I produced my second solo album “Oceans Of The Mind”.  This gave me the push to contact Japanese promoters to set up a tour with the intention to promote Oceans.  One thing lead to another and a complete show featuring Mario Millo Band and Sebastian Hardie was put in place.  Prior to the concert tour of Japan, I organised a one off concert for both bands at The Metro Theatre in Sydney where the debut performance of Oceans Of The Mind was filmed (DVD due for release soon).  It was also the first home concert performance by SH since we split in 1976.

Also, in the late 90s, our albums, including my solo album Epic III and Symphinity by Windchase, were re-issued in Japan through an independent label which thankfully has kept the flame burning.

After returning from the concert tour of Japan in 2003 and later that year performing as special guests on The Yes 35th Australian Anniversary Tour, we – Seb Hardie – were buzzing and felt inspired enough to embark on our third studio album.  We figured that if we wanted to continue touring, a new album would be essential. However, due to all of our separate commitments, production on the project stopped and started a number of times.   In the end, even though it did take years, we finally completed the recordings and Blueprint was finally released.

2. ‘Blueprint’ seems to take up musically exactly where ‘Windchase’ left off. Was it a conscious decision to eschew more current prog-metal flavours and adhere to the classic Sebastian Hardie sound?

As best as I remember, we were clear re the direction the music should take. We felt it was important to produce an album that reflected the definitive sound of the band and one that would hopefully stand up along side Four Moments and Windchase. Keeping in mind, when the band was a happening force in the mid 70s, we were young, passionate and determined to make our mark.

After this “lifetime between albums”, I guess we just wanted to hear that familiar sound again, this time without the need to make a mark, but we did want it to be good and the best that we could deliver.

3. What are your feelings regarding the mixture of heavy metal and progressive rock that revitalised the genre in the 80s and early 90s?

I need to digress a little –

In the early 80s my career took a significant change of direction. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I became totally focused in composing and producing music for film. I was enthusiastic and passionate writing orchestral music, totally engrossed. It was also a great feeling being welcomed and acknowledged by the industry and to be awarded many times for my work throughout the years.

So throughout those years, I sort of lost touch with what was happening in the prog rock scene. The mix of heavy metal and prog is evident to me these days, though as I’m not much of a heavy metal fan, I don’t really follow the scene. I’ve enjoyed watching the odd Dream Theatre DVD and find them fascinating, however, not what I would choose to listen to these days.

In recent years I’ve been involved in producing my daughter Jess’s band “The Vandabelles” debut album, “Outside Looking In”.  As well, producing and performing on singer/songwriter Nick Latta’s debut album, “Filling The Void”. Neither of these artists would be labeled “progressive” but their music in my opinion will stand the test of time. Both these albums are soulful and heartfelt and the sort of music that I prefer these days, listening to or producing. Both albums are soon to be released.

4. As with much progressive rock, Sebastian Hardie’s music takes as much from orchestral music as it does from rock and roll. Which classical composers are on your iPod?

Believe it or not but I don’t have any orchestral Mp3 music in my iPhone yet!  However, my favourite composer is Gustav Mahler. There are many specific compositions by various composers that I love, but in general the music of Mahler does it for me.

Looking back, SH was a great vehicle for my writing. The band was always happy to accept and follow my musical direction, performing the specific parts the music required. This, I feel, was the strength of the sound of SH.

5. Will the Sebastian Hardie reformation and recording of ‘Blueprint’ lead to further recordings and a full tour (or will we fans have to wait another 36 years?

Hate to say it, but I very much doubt there will be another album or any more performances by the band. I think we’ve all accepted that fact. Speaking purely for myself, SH was a wonderful part of my youth, great camaraderie and a significant part of my music journey/career.

Our intention was to tour and perform Blueprint, however, we’ve now accepted the release of Blueprint as a sort of finale to our journey.

6. Finally, what are your thoughts on the current state of music in general and the place of your own genre within the wider sphere of popular music?

There are so many different labels/genres in rock music these days that I actually don’t know where my music would fit, nor do I stress too much about it.  My taste in music nowadays is so broad that if I produce another solo album it’s likely to cross over into several different styles. Throughout my career, I’ve been inspired and influenced by such a diverse range of artists and composers from Hank Marvin (The Shadows) to John Lennon through to Hendrix, many of the prog rock artists of the seventies, through to Mahler, Stravinsky, Puccini, just to mention a few.

At the moment I’m very interested in songs that my daughter Jess writes and I absolutely love being involved with her projects and seeing her blossom into an amazing songwriter/ artist.

At this time in my life, when it comes to music, I do what I feel and cherish every moment. I also have a wardrobe full of unfinished and new ideas waiting for me to make happen and I’m determined to see them through one by one.

Published March 2012 on theorangepress.net

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