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(73:11, 'Thieves' Kitchen')
TRACK LIST: 1. The Long Fianchetto 21:05 2. Returglas 4:11 3. Chameleon 9:45 4. Om Tare 7:44 5. Tacenda for You 9:29 6. When the Moon Is in the River of Heaven 9:37 7. Plaint 2:58 8. The Water Road 11:11 LINEUP: Mark Robotham – drums, percussion Phil Mercy – el. & ac. guitars; b/v Amy Darby – lead vocals; reeds Andy Bonham – fretless bass Thomas Johnson – keyboards With: Anna Holmgren – flute Kristina Peterson – cello Paul Beeham – sax, oboe
Prolusion. One of the most ‘serious’ progressive rock acts to come out of the UK in the new century, THIEVES’ KITCHEN are back with their new effort, “The Water Road”. It took five years for the musicians to record this, their fourth, studio album, which follows Shibboleth”, “Argot” and “Head” . There are some changes in the band’s lineup: gone is original keyboardist Wolfgang Kindl, but – take note – it’s none other than Thomas Johnson of Anglagard who replaces him.
Analysis. So, Thieves’ Kitchen returns after a five-year hiatus, and what they offer us this time out is their best album to date, you may believe me. On “The Water Road” the band has broadened their scale of stylistic influences, inserting some classical, folk and even medieval elements to their trademark sound – the blend of symphonic Art-Rock and Jazz-Fusion with a touch of Prog-Metal we got to know and love from their earlier work. What’s more significant, however, is that, in contrast to their previous recordings, this one has a near-genuine and, moreover, pronounced vintage feeling, although it’s clear that the ensemble hasn’t changed their overall songwriting approach. I believe the point is that Thomas has always given preference to analog keyboards, owning several classic examples of those, such as electric piano, organ and Mellotron. In any event, this “Water Road” comes across as being paved with vintage flowers. However, the changes in the group’s sound don't end with those mentioned above: the strong widening of its acoustic wing in general and chamber one in particular is definitely an innovation as well. Besides handling all lead vocals, Amy Darby plays reeds; Anna Holmgren (also of Anglagard fame) plays flute on six the disc’s eight tracks, three of which also contain cello and oboe parts, courtesy of Stina Peterson and Paul Beeham respectively. Furthermore, Mark Robotham is now behind an acoustic drum kit, Andy Bonham’s fretless bass has a very warm sound, and Phil Mercy frequently switches over from electric to acoustic guitar, doing so on all compositions save Om Tare. The only piece with no acoustic instruments used at all, this one is generally a standout. While there are still quite a few sympho-prog and fusionesque moves here, this is overall quite a heavy tune and should really appeal to prog-metal fans – as well. Unlike that on Om Tare, which I see as a raging, turbulent sea with no islands of calmness, the band’s playing on the first two tracks, The Long Fianchetto and Returglas (the sole instrumental here, only featuring some vocalizations, it’s also the richest in folksy flavors), ranges from being quiet to explosive to, well, everything in between. Covering about a half of the recording, the said three compositions all stand out for their complexities, full of twists and turns, with arrangements that depict literally each of the band members as a lead player: think multiple differently-vectored solos, all delivered with technical precision. Chameleon and When the Moon Is in the River of Heaven both embody mostly a gentle, reflective, yet still fairly diverse music with a touch of magic. Though basically slow also, at least for the most part, Tacenda for You and The Water Road are nevertheless classically intricate compositions with many instrumental sections and a lot of compelling moves in general, the title track being woven predominantly of acoustic sonic fabrics. Finally, the short Plaint is a beautiful, atmospheric, symphonic piece, rendered with a proper delicacy by Amy on vocals, Stina on cello and Thomas playing electric piano and (probably) harpsichord. There are no even tiny hints of weakness anywhere on this recording, but nonetheless I would pick up the 21-minute opening track The Long Fianchetto as the winner. Largely instrumental, this is compositionally as well as stylistically the most variegated – and so progressively most advanced – composition here, with plenty of dramatic transitions, dynamic and textural contrasts and so on.
Conclusion. It happens very rarely that, when reviewing a modern-day outing, I don’t resort to any reference points, but here is just such a case. While seemingly breathing in the same vintage air that their more famous (or maybe more successful?) brothers in style did at the implied epoch, “The Water Road” by Thieves’ Kitchen is in fact a highly original and innovative recording that ranks about the best in contemporary Progressive and beyond, avoiding any comparisons. A definite candidate for my personal Top-20 chart of the year, it would have gotten no less than a gold album status if the golden age of our beloved genre had not had its hippie end (a self-invented antonym of “happy end”) – a temporary condition, of course.
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