By David Browne
Updated May 04, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner

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  • Music

Given Ben Folds Five’s power piano pop, prog isn’t the first word that comes to mind to describe the North Carolina trio. What, then, is one to make of ”Narcolepsy,” the first cut on their fourth album, ”The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner”? How can one describe the opening piano trilling, the orchestral fanfare, the drum paradiddles, the streets-of-Kashmir strings, and the winsome vocalizing of Ben Folds, all of it building to a full-on crescendo? Sir Ben, I dub thee prog!

Folds writes chirpy pop melodies much sparer than those of old-school art-rock bands, and the Five are less taken with electronic gizmos. But ”Reinhold Messner” is prog by any other name. Much like Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s ”Brain Salad Surgery” or Rush’s ”2112,” it (a) has a silly title that sounds important and (b) may be a concept album. The songs could be construed as circling around a character who recalls a life of sad grade-school memories, tattered loves, army duty, and tenure in a rock band. Even if the songs aren’t linked, the music is. Each cut is its own pop-and-circumstance, with tempos that accelerate and decelerate, guided by Folds’ adept piano playing and the string section.

And just like old-school prog, all the effort tends to weigh down the songs, which are fairly slight. It’s telling that the most poignant track, ”Mess,” is the simplest and most plaintive, with a cascading piano that sounds like a waterfall you’d love to dive into. ”Your Redneck Past,” perhaps the first song to mention both Billy Idol and Kool Moe Dee, has a playful, bouncing-ball hook. But much like that line in Yes’ ”Roundabout” — ”mountains come out of the sky and they stand there” — ”Reinhold Messner” strains a bit too hard to be significant.

Episode Recaps

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner

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  • Music
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