Review – Downes Braide Association – Halcyon Hymns by John Wenlock-Smith

If there is anything positive or good that has come out of this tough time of the deadly coronavirus pandemic then it is that many musicians have been able to utilise this difficult time and lack of touring activity to create and craft a whole slew of new albums.

Many of these surfaced in autumn, like ‘Halcyon Hymns’, the new album from Geoff Downes and Chris Braide and the next chapter in their fantastic collaboration that has thus far yielded three albums, including the fabulous ‘Skyscraper Souls’ along with the excellent recording of their live debut concert at Trading Boundaries in East Sussex in 2018. 

Geoff had been working on music for Chris to work into complete songs and he used the suspension of activities with his main band Yes (who were due to play full shows highlighting the Relayer album from 1975) to finalise these ideas.

Well, this album is really impressive stuff with a fantastic set of songs and opens with Love Among The Ruins, which pretty much sets the standard for all that follows. This is a very fine track indeed, the video brings things to life with its portrayal of days gone by and how we look back with much fondness. The song is very upbeat with a great chorus that stays in your mind, there is also a fabulous guitar solo that elevates this from excellent into truly spectacular.

This followed by the more sedate but ever building burn that is King Of The Sunset, with its evocative imagery of England, Avalon. I must commend these two for the surreal and complex soundscapes that they evoke so well. Also worthy of note are the fabulous vocals by Chris Braide who really shows his class on these performances. This track will appeal to modern day followers of Marillion as they might see a similarity to that fine group. There are lots of interesting tones and textures that run through this song, along with some superb and striking guitar lines. Also adding to the mesmerising brilliance of the track are the dulcet tones of David Longdon of Big Big Train.

Your Heart Will Find The Way is next and this one has a great bass line that propels the song along with a lot of funk! Indeed, the bass on the whole album is exceptionally fine indeed, right on the beat, upfront when needed and very fluent and supportive throughout. There are lots of fine keyboard flourishes from Geoff that add to this heady recipe that they have concocted.

Then it’s onto the first of the three longer songs that this album offers. The first is called Holding The Heavens and, again, there is a prominent bass line that really drives the song along. The great lyrics make this song exceptionally fine too with another great vocal from Chris and good backing vocals that create a great sound. This is a fine album vocally and one that sounds good on headphones too. The chorus is also both very compelling and strong. and the song also has a good acoustic guitar section before returning to the chorus. A distinguished spoken section adds emphasis to proceedings while there is also a recurring chunky guitar riff that really adds value to this song.

Beachcombers is the next song. Shorter and opening with a brief spoken section, this one has a drum patter that percolates and brings the song to life. There is great imagery too as Chris tells of nightingales singing in the night, this is all topped with another spectacular soaring guitar break.

Warm Summer Sun opens with sounds of summer including church bells chiming and bird song, it is all very English and pastoral even before some strong keyboard sounds are introduced. The velvet tones of Marc Almond of Soft Cell fame are a brilliant addition. This is another shorter song but is none the worse for it with a great chorus. This track really shows off Geoff’s excellent keyboard sounds, textures, and tones fabulously.

I think this album will also appeal to fans of Big Big Train, not least because David Longdon appears on this album but also because of its pastoral imagery that will resonate with those fans. Today is the second of the longer tracks and speaks of summer days gone by and very evocative imagery and fond memories are voiced. This song is pure escapism, the lyrics are interesting, speaking of friendship and shared experiences and the desire for the day to never end. The song then moves into another spoken section from Joe Catcheside before another fabulous guitar break appears. David Bainbridge is a phenomenal guitarist on this entire album, playing with a good feel and soaring solo lines that really add to this fantastic ensemble piece.

Hymn To Darkness is a shorter track with mandolin playing throughout. There is rather a darker tone to subject matter as the song talks of putting the darkness to sleep, it is a nice mellow song with some more great acoustic guitar lines woven throughout.

She’ll Be Riding Horses speaks of a love gone by and a memory of her riding horses somewhere where they do not have telephones, they lose touch but find each other in later years. This is another very upbeat song, happy even, although the lyrics seem to suggest that she has gone and yet great memories of her live on in his mind. Another brief but very satisfying song. This is followed by another shorter piece, Late Summer. This is another song of memories asking why cannot it not last?

The last, and longest, track is called Remembrance and this opens with a spoken section that again evokes memories of the long summer of 1976 and the remembrance of passion walking along the Dorset coastal path. The song mixes vocal and spoken passages to great effect as it talks of loving this dirty old ground, ice creams, love in open places, holiday romances and many other seaside attractions. This song unleashes a treasure trove of memories, a memento-mori if you will, of one who has gone as have the days as it ends with a sad goodbye.

This is a truly sensational album, one that really deserves to reach as wide an audience as possible as it is truly worthy of that acclaim. Downes Braide have really made and delivered a very well realised album with lots of references to the past. Along with lots of imagery about death (which is a theme that runs through much of the album), this makes the memories bittersweet at times yet it is still an album to make you smile in these days.

‘Halcyon Hymns’ will reach into your soul and touch your emotions. It is very moving, well-conceived and produced. I think it is the best album I’ve heard this year but, then again, it’s only January so there is lots of time for more great releases this year. However, for now, this is definitely a strong contender, I urge you to listen to this if you can as you will find much to enjoy on this excellent album.

CD/DVD Released 5th February 2021

2LP White Vinyl is out on 26th March.

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Downes Braide Association: Halcyon Hymns, CD/DVD Edition – Cherry Red Records

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