Prog Time:
Axon-Neuron
Alex Hall, 07-17-2018


Provided by the Artist
Jeremey Poparad may be the busiest musician in all of Cuyahoga Falls, and for a wide swath around it too. The bandleader of Axon-Neuron—his progressive rock brainchild—Poparad has also recently finished Master’s degrees in music composition and electric guitar performance, and he continues to give guitar lessons out of his home and occasionally as contingent faculty at Ashland University. Add to all that his work playing double bass in pit orchestras for musical theater productions and guitar in various other rock and jazz groups, and it could be easy to forget about his innovative, boundary-pushing, prog rock sextet, which has been performing in the Akron/Cleveland regional music scene since 2011.

Then again, Axon-Neuron is hard to forget. The music is simultaneously ear candy for musicians and accessible tuneage for musical philistines. Its complexity, that is to say, somehow doesn’t get in the way of an enjoyable listening experience. Still, a musician of Poparad’s caliber is prone to flights of fancy, and he is no exception. “Kafka,” from the group’s latest release, Metamorphosis—a song which also references the famous novella—has a clear J.S. Bach influence that listeners might believe is a gimmick for its own sake, but what in the intro might seem forced turns out to make up the meat of the song. Nevertheless, flights of fancy are few and far between in Axon-Neuron’s music in general, and forgivable amongst many moments of greatness, especially on Metamorphosis.

As if Poparad weren’t busy enough, he managed to put together a 21-piece orchestra for the Metamorphosis double-disc, composing the opening and closing preludes in such a way that playing the release on repeat would produce an endless album-long loop. The orchestral preludes and postlude (“Postlude II,” though the longest track on the album, features the band with orchestral accompaniment in addition to orchestra-only sections) may verge on a flight of fancy as well, particularly given the length of “Prelude I,” which, as the album’s opening track, may challenge the patience of many listeners. This patience is rewarded, though, when “Prelude I” gives way to “Euclid,” which this writer dares you not to get stuck in your head. A comment on the album's bandcamp page said “if you listen to the lyrics it sounds like they took the concept of ‘math rock’ a bit too literally,” and “Euclid”—named for the Greek father of geometry—does illustrate this point. The song manages to personify “A pair of parallel lines [that] never intersect,” seemingly a sad tale of loneliness. Yet, “a massive local event / A gravity beyond trivial calculation / Warping space and bending the geometry of time” allow the two lines to “arc toward each other / Intersecting in a chance kiss / No longer eternally alone.” Many of the album’s other lyrics deal with broad concepts that are then applied more specifically to the lyrics’ speaker or humanity, or emotion, etc. “Suspicions” delivers an M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist where a figurative beast lurks beneath a watery surface, only to be revealed as the speaker’s internal demon, the fragmentation of history is revealed through the (perhaps too obvious) analogy of broken glass in “Shattered,” “Koan” uses a Zen parable to illustrate humanity’s inadequacy for enlightenment, perception is touted as blinding oneself to his or her own capacity for improvement in “Eyes,” and so on. The conceptual lyrics, in coming to rest upon a person or people, allow the album to come full circle in terms of the broader concept of metamorphosis underpinning the set overall.

Poparad’s preference for using female vocalists to bring his lyrics to life with essentially no vocal harmony may come as a surprise to prog rock fans, particularly now that the genre has become dominated more by prog metal and djent, which Poparad includes tastes of throughout the album as well. Vocalist Amanda Rankin (since replaced by Heidi Swinford), however, delivers as a tasteful foil to the music’s more aggressive areas while accentuating the lush sections such as in “Shattered” and “Koan,” among others. Another standout track is “Erasure,” which begins with Poparad’s 9-string guitar in all its extended-range glory, giving way to a building, bright tension that Steven Miller’s keyboards color heavily before an aggressive musical section takes over with tinges of King Crimson.

Poparad explains the choice of a female vocalist by saying that “the female voice is roughly an octave higher than the typical male voice, which gives me more headroom to fit harmony underneath in the piano and guitar.” Moreover, since the harmony he writes “uses many extended chords and the melodies also utilize those extended tones, it’s very helpful for the orchestration to have the melody up higher in the same register as those harmonies.” The lack of vocal harmony, Poparad concedes, is due to the fact that “previous members of the band weren't singers,” but he reports that “currently we have a few people who are good singers in their own right, so I'm planning on incorporating that in the next batch of material.”

However intentionally or unintentionally, Poparad has found himself in the shoes of Frank Zappa to some extent, as the performers on each Axon-Neuron release are largely different from the last. Since the release of Metamorphosis, in fact, a new crop of players makes up the band’s current stage lineup, including guitarist Mike Lowden, a co-owner and instructor at Falls Music School, which recently moved to Front Street.

Metamorphosis was released in January 2016 in an intimate setting with club seating on the stage of the Akron Civic Theatre for the audience to hear the album complete with a live 21-piece orchestra. After the show, Poparad sold the CDs at the merch booth himself, explaining that he had also personally engineered much of the recording—somehow he found time for that as well.

“Being a professional musician is not easy,” he says. “I haven't done the math, but I easily work 80 hours a week. It's pretty much morning-to-night always preparing for something, driving to something, performing something. It's often hard to find time to practice or compose.” Given his already-busy schedule, Axon-Neuron’s performance schedule slowed down in the midst of Poparad’s work on the dual Master's degrees. He also has a family at home, but, he says, “fortunately for my lifestyle, all three of us are very independent people who enjoy our personal space.” This arrangement allows for his musical output to develop, usually with lyrics first, from which rhythm follows, and after which he can employ the more complex musical ideas he has been working with.

Axon-Neuron has found a niche in the local and regional music scene as a progressive rock outfit, which has afforded the group the opportunity to perform alongside some of the best in the genre, including bands like Haken, Sithu Aye, and Chicago’s District 97, among others. This summer brings a slew of live performances for Axon-Neuron, meanwhile, which Poparad has suggested may include new material that fans can expect to see on a new release in the not-too-distant future, provided he can find the time.

Check out Axon-Neuron online at http://axonneuron.com/ for performance dates, videos of the Akron Civic Theatre release show for Metamorphosis, and links to stream and download the band's music.


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