“But, is it Prog?”, it may have started as an innocent question but, boy, has it become the bane of everyone’s existence who is involved in that particular music scene! Why anything actually has to be ‘Prog’ to justify listening to it is quite beyond me but there does seem to be a hardcore group who define their music listening by that mantra.
Let’s face it, that is quite a ridiculous question, what they should be asking is, “but, is it any good?”, don’t limit your listening experience to that one particular area, broaden your horizons and you really will find some excellent music out there.
One such intriguing proposition was put to me earlier this year by respected British multi-instrumentalist Steve Tilling who started talking to me about his solo project CIRCU5, which is a concept album that harnesses hard rock, punk and alternative influences to create its own unique sound.
A concept album? Oh that must be Prog then! Nae, nae and thrice nae, it doesn’t have to be, all it has to be is a bloody good piece of music!
A child raised as a psychopath. Could this be the subject of an album that rocks and intrigues in equal measures? The answer’s a sinister ‘yes’, if a new album called CIRCU5 is anything to go by.
Five years in the making, the debut album features guest performances from Dave Gregory (XTC, Big Big Train), Phil Spalding (Mike Oldfield), Matt Backer (Julian Lennon), Alan van Kleef (Rachel Stamp), Johnny Warman (Peter Gabriel) and Andy Neve (Steve Hackett).
“The album mirrors the ups and downs in my life while making it,” says Steve Tilling. “There were dark times, but everything ended positively. I wanted to make an album that’s fun to listen to but has a good story for those who like to dig deeper.”
Clues to the story are dotted throughout the album, but Steve is happy to give away the essence: “It traces the life of a child raised as a psychopath in a secret government organisation, which aims to cure the condition while harnessing positive traits for certain roles. The character discovers the truth as a dysfunctional adult – with catastrophic consequences.”
Oh, and by the way, it’s pronounced ‘Circa-5’…
It’s a relatively short album, coming in at 49 minutes but Steve certainly packs a lot into that time, the edgy opening track, Coming Home, is punk infused and almost anthemic and really sets the album up perfectly with its delicate guitar and intense but pared back vocal delivery. Keeping you on the edge of your seat ready for the staccato riff of My Degenerate Mind, this is where the touch paper is lit and everything goes off with a bang. Crashing guitars, dynamic drums and Steve’s excellent vocals give you a song that sounds like ska legends The Beat collaborating with The Clash and the end product is just over four minutes off perfectly judged punk infused alternative rock.
There’s been a lot of mention about the Foo Fighters as an influence on this album and Stars takes that influence and runs with it. Heavy riffing, punchy vocals and a superb rhythm section drive this rollercoaster of a track along at full speed ahead. There’s even a touch of Nirvana to the guitar sound and the drums have a nod to Dave Grohl in his days in that band too. Powerful and edgy alternative rock that’s not for the faint hearted. Days Erased is a brief musical interlude with hushed and haunting vocals that add to the tense atmosphere and leave you wondering what’s coming next.
A mournful piano tone introduces Strings, an absorbing song that draws immediate comparison to Radiohead yet Steve stamps his own authority on the track. A graceful acoustic guitar and the wistful vocals bring a feeling of nostalgia to proceedings yet there’s always a sorrowful undertone that leaves a feeling of rejection and loss in your heart as this contemplative piece of music comes to a close. The spirited alternative rock returns with the fiery Blame It On Me, another breakneck track that powers along to a modern punk-rock beat. A funky guitar riff joins some intense drumming to leave you breathless as this runaway train goes merrily on its way. Steve Tilling has a great voice for this sort of music and he leads the song perfectly with his slightly husky vocals, another potent and compelling slice of rock.
The next track is one of my favourites, The Amazing Monstrous Grady is funky hard-rock at its very best and is catchy as hell. A circus organ opens the song, meandering along in no particular direction before petering out and allowing a fine bass line and drums to get things going. The addictive guitar riff and Steve’s excellent vocal all add to the offbeat, fast-paced groove and the chorus is as hook-ridden as they come. Kings X influenced? hmm, I’m not sure, I just think it’s great songwriting. I tell you what though, there’s some superb bass playing on this song and the brilliant instrumental section in the middle of the song needs to be heard to be believed. A track that just about has it all!
The album concludes with the five parts of The Chosen One. Baptism is elegant and sophisticated with acoustic guitar and passionate vocals at its core, singer/songwriter music done perfectly. Transfiguration is bombastic and grandiose with a hyperactive guitar and sonorous bass joining with the commanding drums to deliver a superbly involving instrumental that is one of the more progressive (did I just use that word?) tracks on the album. Crucifixion is a short and yet intense piece of music where Steve’s vocal literally bleeds emotion as he sings over a stirring, pared back guitar. Resurrection is an involving, dynamic and edgy song that demands your attention with its insistent riffing and the demanding tone of the vocals. Dark and potent rock that brooks no argument, its slightly off-kilter feel leaves you on edge and unsure of where to turn next. Everything comes to a close with Ascension, literally the polar opposite to the previous track. Calm and collected and utterly sure of itself, the delicate guitar and graceful vocals lead you to a serene place of tranquility. Simple and elegant, the music washes over you leaving you utterly relaxed and is reminiscent of ethereal, hazy summer days, the album concluding on an uplifting and hopeful note.
Ambition can often be a downfall but Steve Tilling has taken his ambition and given us a musical spectacle that will stand the test of time. Great songwritng combined with superb musicianship and a concept that works, CIRCU5 is a triumph. Is it Prog? I’ve no idea but it’s bloody good!
Released 15th September 2017