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(65:03, Giant Electric Pea Records)
TRACK LIST: CD: 1. Show Me the Way 0:49 2. Forest Fire 7:32 3. Hold 11:42 4. How Long 11:28 5. The Bridge That Binds 28:22 6. Dreams & Machines 5:10 DVD: 1. Forest Fire 7:32 2. Hold 11:42 3. How Long 11:28 4. The Bridge That Binds 28:22 LINEUP: Sean Timms (ex-Unitopia) – keyboards; guitars; saxophone; b/v Danny Lopresto – lead vocals; el. & ac. guitars, mandolin Cam Blokland – el. & ac. guitars; b/v Jez Martin – basses; horns; b/v Brody Green – drums; b/v With: Tim Irrgang (ex-Unitopia) – percussion Adam Page – saxophones, flute Steve Unruh – violin (5)
Prolusion. Hailing from the Green Continent, SOUTHERN EMPIRE presents its self-titled debut album. The band was formed by multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Sean Timms, formerly of the Australian neo-prog outfit Unitopia. The album was released by the renowned UK label Giant Electric Pea (owned by IQ) a few weeks ago.
Analysis. In the CD press kit the music of Southern Empire is compared to Dream Theater, IQ and Steven Wilson, none of which are suitable as reference points actually, save, maybe, IQ circa 1987-’89 (on some occasions). The album begins with the 50-second Show Me the Way, a brief acoustic piece with a mellow vocal melody. In its turn, the concluding track Dreams & Machines appears as an expanded or, rather, overextended, vocal-heavy version of the intro with a glaring balladic feel all over its five minutes of length, most of it performed without the rhythm section either. Second track, Forest Fire (7:32), is one of the best compositions on the album, revealing a perfect balance of vocal and instrumental sections. Combining Sympho-Prog of the Neo variety and – still Neo – Prog Metal with elements of classic Symphonic Art Rock, it sounds much in the vein of “Generation 13”, the very best album in Saga’s discography. At least in places, the traces of the Canadian combo’s legacy are present on each of the remaining four tracks too. That’s not to say the Southern Empire is really influenced by Saga, not at all. Nevertheless, in terms of style and structure (and also in mood, which is never truly dramatic, let alone dark), there is certainly something that unites the groups. However, the next two tracks, Hold and How Long, find their creators investigating almost completely different stylistic landscapes, namely Jazz-Fusion and World Music, the latter of an Arabic origin in both cases. And if the former piece reveals a couple of heavy-sounding episodes, as well as some purely acoustic arrangements, the latter lies entirely within the realm of World Fusion (the genre invented by the US group Ancient Future). Within the instrumental sections of the pieces the music sounds both interesting and refreshing, standing out for some remarkably improvised guitar, piano, flute and saxophone leads, and also for some energetic percussion-driven moves. But the vocal ones leave pretty much to be desired in terms of diversity, particularly those on How Long, almost all over the second half of which all five of the musicians drawlingly, as if reading some mantra, repeat the same question – the one that is the song’s very title. For my taste, there are generally too many questions in the album’s lyrics. But if in most of the other cases those seem to be justified, mirroring an inner quasi-philosophical monolog of a person-at-the-crossroads, the ones on track 4 are too primitive for a progressive music creation and are just annoying. The remaining composition, The Bridge That Binds (28:22), is musically closer to the second track, Forest Fire, but not throughout, as the band from time to time enters the domain of Jazz-Fusion; plus there are some sympho-prog interludes and a number of mellow, ballad-like episodes too. This is definitely the highlight of the album, even though it doesn’t have a genuinely epic magnitude, appearing as a set of several, stylistically different, segments rather than as a real, always logically developing, suite. Nonetheless, the structures are often multi-layered, and the instrumental arrangements contain enough unexpected turns to satisfy even a profound listener. The accompanying DVD depicts the band ‘playing’ in the studio the very same tracks that are featured on the CD (sans the intro and the outro, an excerpt from which is used as a signature tune for the menu section), doing so in the very same manner, down to the smallest details. Not a big deal to imitate the performance of the album using its phonogram, but the band does it in a fairly spectacular way. Personally I’d prefer the DVD version of the release. The bridge that’s shown in the beginning of The Bridge That Binds is a gorgeous construction…
Conclusion. On its vocal level the music never complies with classic progressive rock demands and, devoid of a storytelling feel, much more often suggests AOR-meets-Neo than Neo Progressive of the first water. Thankfully, the vocals themselves, the lead and harmony ones alike, are strong and are totally original in delivery. Besides, as more than once hinted above, instrumentally the album is excellent almost throughout, the diversity of the styles explored being as impressive as the musicianship of each of the band members. Overall, this is a promising debut effort.
VM=Vitaly Menshikov: March 16, 2016
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