Lifesigns – eponymous (2013) – an album review

Seems that Progressive Rock’s reemergence from the shadows as an acceptable musical genre is being vindicated by the plethora of new acts coming out with full on Prog Rock epics and no consideration to other musical genres that might make the medicine a little more palatable (or salable). However, one thing is marking this reemergence that the original incarnation and various efforts to reawaken the beast often failed to do: be tuneful. This album is a perfect example of epic rock made with tunefulness in mind.

Lifesigns cover

tl;dr Version: Another day, another Prog Rock Supergroup… or is it?

‘Splain, Lucy Version: A supergroup with a difference, because the musicians involved are largely unknown on this (North American) side of the pond, but are well known amongst musicians and progressive rock fans in the UK and Europe.

Boring Version: I’ve been a passive follower of John Young for a few years now, since we sort of brushed against one another a year or two ago on Facebook while talking about other music. I vaguely realized he was a great keyboardist, but I really didn’t know much about him, even after we started following one another on Facebook. Now, the thing is, as a passive follower, I hadn’t actually gone out and hunted down any of his music, because as near as I could tell, he didn’t have any that wasn’t music by bands with established songwriters. If I was going to invest in some new music, I wanted to know it was coming from John, so I could take the full measure of the guy.

Ironically, I technically knew the work of Nick Beggs (Drums)(Bass & Chapman Stick) and of Frosty Beedle (Bass, Chapman Stick)(Drums; thanks for the corrections, JY. ~Lee) a little better, based on my prior knowledge of  Kajagoogoo and Cutting Crew respectively. But John, the keyboardist and lead vocalist of Lifesigns, was a bit of an enigma to me, even though we had been chatting briefly for some time. I knew he played keys for the modern incarnation of The Strawbs, and did other studio and live gigs to order, as well as playing in his own solo band, but still, not a note had I heard.

So when the Lifesigns promo finally came out, I checked it out with great interest, and was highly intrigued by what I heard. I waited quite a while before finally getting hold of a copy to review, and that’s why we’re here so many months after the release. I’m behind on my reviews by several months, and stuff I thought I was going to review I probably won’t, simply because I don’t have a lot of time on my hands (except for this afternoon, when I’m taking a much needed ‘break’ from other duties). But this album has something, and I want to talk about it, if I may.

THE REVIEW

Lighthouse opens with moody atmospherics and a bit of cinematic flavour, but as this is an epic of almost thirteen minutes, of course it wouldn’t stay like this for long. Drums, keys and guitars start creeping in, and then the first riff starts; a bright guitar and synth riff with some very nice bass playing, but this is merely the calm before the storm, when the bridge kicks in and the real progressive hook power of this band is revealed. The chorus is an edgy and moody, and a brief instrumental passage guides us to the first proper verse opens with a slightly Genesis-like melody, and John’s voice is revealed to be capable of pastel shades as well as dark washes. A not-quite-Yes-like vocal refrain passage follows, vocal harmonies and pastoral instrumentation; a lovely section, perhaps more Genesis than Yes, which leads to a bridge segment that turns it up a notch in intensity, though not in tempo or raw power. A new section follows this, with a slightly pop-inflected melody that could very well come from a tune by A-Ha or some other hit-making 80s band. Very tasteful and gorgeous, though; not a tweezy synth and drum machine feel. It has the sound quality of a David Hentshel production. This leads into a rather stunningly moody and effective instrumental passage that takes you on something of a journey through a cloudy landscape, fine guitar and stormy seaside sounds. Lovely close, and it hardly feels like it played for over twelve minutes.

Telephone bass and drums start this exercise, sounding for all the world like a Peter Gabriel number, because Nick Beggs (corrected) has that rare ability to play a Chapman Stick and capture that near-inimitable Tony Levin sound. The chorus eventually lands, and it’s an interesting hook because the melody is very radio-friendly, but the counterpoint bass line adds a density and complexity that just demands a more careful listen, and when the riff comes around for a second pass, it’s layered in harmony vocals that make it sound almost fugue-like. This in turn leads to a pleasant instrumental passage riffing on the same melody, before it shifts slightly in the bridge, including dueling lyric lines. The song is slightly longer than nine minutes, which affords the band a chance to explore themes a little more, bouyed up by a positive vibe and some lovely keyboard work. There is another hook introduced, a bridge beyond the first, I suppose, and then we move to a Pink Floydesque verse section that just feels like it’s going to explode, until the positive vibe melody returns, and eventually leads to an alteration of the opening Gabrielesque rhythm, and the original chorus melody. Nice finish on this. Makes you wish for more.

Fridge Full of Stars sails in on a huge synth pads and a minimalist rhythm, before piano and vocals introduce a sparse, spacious verse section. Then the intro hook returns, this time with strings and classical guitar (provided no doubt by guest guitarist Steve Hackett), when the chorus proper arrives, it’s very Yes-like  without feeling derivative (I love using that phrase, but it’s true. Hammond under Squire-like Rickenbacker bass playing and dense major key vocal harmonies do that.). Then we’re treated to a section of flute playing by the legendary Focus leader Thiis van Leer, somewhere between Ian Anderson and Zamfir, without the excesses of either; a jazzy treatment that spans the quiet divide. Guitar creeps in in the background, and we are reminded that this piece, which is over eleven minutes long, has other things to do. The synth solo makes this apparent, as the whole song shifts into late 70s Genesis/Styx territory, followed by that Yes-like chorus again. Lovely, and we’re only two thirds there. A piano bridge section with backing vocals sails through briefly, followed by a return to soaring guitar. This drops down to a section of piano and vocal duet, which jumps up into the Yes chorus again, and nearly rides out on a sea of synths and Rickenbacker bass glory, until an extremely Yes-like vocal fugue breaks out, followed by a curious mix of Yes and Genesis for the outro. Great piece.

At The End of The World starts off atmospherically, with pads of bass and carefully sedate Chapman in the low registers, followed by classical guitar and piano, as the vocals enter and the harmonies kick in. This is a lovely piece with a peculiar mix of Peter Gabriel and The Eagles, but not in the way you might expect. There’s a lovely return to the bridge harmony section, which builds up a bit, and then slides into a soft passage with vocal harmonies, joined by a few splashes of classical guitar, and then cello and haunting vocal harmonies. It occurs to me that the piano here reminds me of a pianist most of you haven’t heard of: Liam ‘Corwyn’ Birch. This section eventually makes it around to the real chorus, and a hook big enough to nab Moby Dick. Very cool. A late 70s Genesis vibe, but with something else a little harder to explain. This piece successfully rides in at 8:23, a fully satisfying piece with radio appeal, though we know we’ll never hear it on regular radio.

Carousel meanders in on a sea of guitars and keys, the rhythm section just carrying them along until the organ introduces a real melody, which is another infectious hook, this time of a Rabin-era Yes flavour. The piece is another epic, at almost twelve minutes, and the verse is the first positive sign of this, as it breaks down to piano and vocals, surrounded by restrained guitar and synth, followed by flute and keys playing in harmony, joined by guitar, and then breaking into a slightly jazzy downward progression, which itself shifts into a slightly Jethro Tull instrumental middle section that soon gains some synth to make it a tad more upbeat, only to slam into a wall of moody synth vox humana, and an Emersonian piano figure, leading to a vaguely Gabriel-era Genesis segment featuring electric piano and vocals. Guitar joins in, and vocal harmonies clinch the Genesis comparison, and THEN… twelve string and synth flute. Nailed it. The drums just add to this, and suddenly I’m back in Foxtrot, but this too cannot last, as the refrain takes us out to a Yes-like segment and back to the flute-laden segment that sounds to all the world like Yes and Tull had a bipolar child together. The Rabin section returns, and then shifts to the Gabrielesque refrain segment again, which breaks down to an ELP piano fugue moment, and after a moment adds vocals and closes the section on an almost Crimsonian vibe, until it shifts to a Genesis vibe once more, and then a true instrumental fugue that crashes and into a delicate wash of synths sailing the whole album away.

SUMMARY
I apologies for resorting to the comparison game on this album, but in so many places, it’s hard to resist the urge to play trainspotting on this one. The important things to keep in mind are, these guys are NOT the usual suspects on a prog album of this magnitude, the vocals are actually really quite unique (in a good way), and the album has the added benefit (if you care for such things) that it definitely doesn’t overstay its welcome. Five pieces at approximately 8-12 minutes a piece means it doesn’t even crack the 60 minute mark. Not bad for a start, but we could definitely do with another helping over here.

With much apology to John for waiting so long to finally actually listen to some of his music, and with the hope for much more from this band. Great stuff, guys.

© 2013 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.

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