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(46:55, Cuneiform Records)
TRACK LIST: 1. Malthusian Dances 6:39 2. I Cannot Fly 8:34 3. Sleeper Cell Anthem 6:10 4. A Virtuous Man 11:45 5. The Gyre 4:42 6. Climbing the Mountain 8:38 LINEUP: Mike Johnson – guitars Elaine Di Falco – vocals Mark Harris – saxophones, clarinets Kimara Sajn – drums; keyboards Dave Willey – bass
Prolusion. America’s THINKING PLAGUE was formed in 1982 by guitarist and songwriter Mike Johnson, the only member of the ensemble who’s played on each of its six albums. The 47-minute “Decline and Fall” is its latest release, lyrically ominous, focused on the decadency of contemporary human society – to put it in a generalized way. There are two newcomers in the band: vocalist Elaine Di Falco (who replaced original singer Deborah Perry) and Kimara Sajn on drums and keyboards.
Analysis. When listening to this album, I was never reminded of Henry Cow or Art Bears, the bands that are most frequently cited as benefactors of the heroes of this occasion. The sound of “Decline and Fall” is smoother than either of the two Thinking Plague albums that I’ve heard before, featuring no elements of classic RIO or real jazz improvisations either. The band’s compositional style is now deeply steeped in modern (symphonic) chamber rock patterns, combining a darker approach with an almost romantic one, at times on the same track, even though the lyrics are always on the former side, so to speak. Part of this seems to be bounded up with the singing of Elaine, an excellent vocalist, who isn’t stuck in the vocal traditions set by Deborah. On two of the six tracks here her vocals are multi-tracked, and one of those contains a lot of vocalizations in addition. The disc opener, Malthusian Dances, is the sole item that is full of fast-paced moves: an intense, dynamically evolving piece, a sort of chamber rock killer that all the connoisseurs of the style will fall in love with as soon as they hear it. To get a fuller idea of the music, think classic Thinking Plague jamming together with U Totem and late Univers Zero (at its most symphonic). The Gyre is of the same style, and is also an excellent composition, only featuring fewer up-tempo arrangements than the above one does. In both cases, as well as on most of the other pieces, it is common to hear three contrasting soloing lines over the rhythm section: those of clarinet, piano and guitar, with a slight predominance of the former instrument, often interlacing with each other into what only brings to mind neoclassical music (not to be confused with Dodecaphony). The bass joins them form time to time and even comes to the fore on some occasions, doing so in tandem with drums on each of the two pieces that follow the disc opener, Cannot Fly and Sleeper Cell Anthem. Slow-paced throughout, both of them begin with some serious instrumental workouts, eventually evolving into a series of vocal sections, some of which are accompanied by arrangements as varied and inventive as those within the instrumental ones, whereas others have a comparatively simple musical background. What comes to mind while listening to them is, well, the new Thinking Plague rather than the above ‘crossover’, albeit the bass-driven moves are reminiscent of early Anekdoten, and some of the guitar soloing evokes ‘80s King Crimson. (Traditionally, Mike’s approach to guitar playing is compact and varied at once, quite a few of his leads almost as quirky as Robert Fripp’s.) Much more polished than any of the others, the former piece is particularly rich in mellower arrangements, as if showing that the band is capable or, rather, willing to make its music sound smoother when necessary. The next track, A Virtuous Man, either doesn’t let up on the intensity that typifies the disc opener. However, this one makes its way through a fascinating variety of themes, incorporating neoclassical elements and bits of quasi Jazz-Fusion (courtesy of piano), so the music is never predictable, unlike that on either of its predecessors. There is also what comes across as the symphonic sophistication of mid-‘70s Van Der Graaf Generator, reflected in the passages with vintage keyboards. The closing composition of the disc, Climbing the Mountain, which contains comparatively few chamber rock arrangements, stands out for its spacious atmospheric landscape, where Mike’s (always fluid) guitar soloing is offset either by modern synthesizers or some electronic devices, making for a much more laid-back, almost ambient sound, no matter that it’s distinctly dark in mood.
Conclusion. Compared to any classic chamber rock creations, there is nothing ultra-sophisticated on this album, though on the other hand, it is way more innovative as well as pleasing than the majority of neo-prog ones. I’m pretty sure that fans of the band won’t be scared off by the changes.
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