Review – This Winter Machine – Kites – by Leo Trimming

Kites can be blown about in many unpredictable directions but somehow they remain tethered to the ground, and that appears to be a perfect symbol of the journey of the third This Winter Machine album ‘Kites‘, which is due out on 25th October. Let’s face it, the world has taken a rather unexpected battering in the last couple of years, but, on another level, This Winter Machine have also faced considerable upheaval in that period, leaving the main man Al Winter to have to recruit a whole new band around him. Such disruption would have spelled the end of many bands but on the evidence of this album it appears that Al has used it as an opportunity for the band to be re-born.

Kites’ is still recognisably in the same vein of the This Winter Machine sound developed on ‘The Man Who Never Was‘ (2016) and ‘A Tower of Clocks‘ (2019), but there is a different feel to this album, with echoes of the 1980’s threading through an album suffused with nostalgia, regret and some defiance.

Al Winter has described the theme of the album as:

“how we fight against life and the directions it blows us in… It’s about how we fight against being blown in the wind, but we don’t realise until we look back that these were some of the best days of our lives… we were buffeted by the wind but we always had the rope anchoring us to the ground… …and some day we’ll all be kites for the last time.

So, it would appear that, buffeted by circumstances, Al was the rope that tethered This Winter Machine so it was not lost to the Four Winds. However, the question is has this new incarnation of the band managed to make a successful transition with their new album?

There is definitely a whole new feel around the double guitar attack (with a decidedly more fluid style) and the keyboard sound is significantly changed. The departure of keyboardist Mark Numan from the original version of This Winter Machine was potentially the most significant issue for the band as he was a central member of the band in terms of writing the music. Two songs on this new album, This Heart’s Alive and Broken, still feature music written by the talented Numan. Indeed, Mark Numan’s original keyboards can still be heard on the yearning, heart-breaking and beautiful Broken. Al Winter has partly solved the keyboard issue for this release by recruiting the talented Pat Ganger-Sanders of the band Drifting Sun to guest on keyboards for the majority of the album, along with Reuben Jones on the final two tracks of the album.

Apparently, the search for a long-term keyboardist continues but Ganger-Sanders definitely provides some high-quality input, particularly on his self-penned opening piano intro Le Jour D’ Avant, and, in contrast, some great, towering organ work on the following dramatic two part piece The Storm. This blockbuster opens with sinister apocalyptic warning announcements, some rumbling drums from by Alan Wilson and a sinister bass line from Dave Close that sounds like its slouching towards Bethlehem. Killer guitar riffs blast in and Ganger-Sanders adds Gothic pillars of organ to the structure of this epic sounding song. Meanwhile, Al Winter sounds like he’s bellowing defiantly into the teeth of a howling gale, such is the passion he is putting into the vocals. However, we seem to hit calmer waters with a sudden change in tempo and atmosphere with a gorgeous fluid guest guitar solo from Mark Abrahams of the legendary band Wishbone Ash, around which Ganger-Sanders weaves eerie, shimmering synth lines.

This lovely section fades away to the sound of water and acoustic guitar for part two of The Storm. In this calm eye of the Storm wistful, heartfelt words from Winter are framed in a delightful acoustic pastoral setting, with some lovely subtle bass work from Close. The full power of the Storm soon returns with an infectious wall of sound from the band as guitars and keyboards combine magnificently with the rhythm section, before a flowing guitar solo by Dom Bennison takes us towards an echoing guitar and synth coda which almost feels like light reflected in water.

That liquid sense is maintained in the short but smooth (almost jazzy in places) bass led instrumental Limited, written by bassist Dave Close. This feels like a linking piece as does the later much more dramatic Bennison written short piece Whirlpool in which Ganger- Sanders in particular shines in the musical maelstrom alongside Bennison’s lead guitar. Enjoyable as they were, there was a sense for me that these two shorter instrumental pieces sound like they could have been parts of more ambitious extended pieces. Maybe in future as this formation of This Winter Machine becomes more established, they may develop such pieces further… or maybe they just like them the way they are – what do I know?!! (😊)

This Heart’s Alive has been kicking around as a song for some time (the band spoke about this song as due to appear on ‘A Tower of Clocks‘ to this reviewer in an interview in 2018) but I can hear why it was held back for this album as the style very much fits the melodic and melancholic feel of much of this latest release. It commences rather pastorally with acoustic guitar and subtle synths and then flows along lushly with gorgeous harmony vocals for the refrain (and even a short beautifully sung acapella interjection later on). An understated and tasteful guitar piece from Bennison adds emotion and class – he really is quite a find for Al Winter and the band, complimenting Winter’s lovely vocal melodies with Andy Latimer and Steve Rothery type guitar flights. Some may feel the song out stays it’s welcome a little with its repeated refrain, whilst others will delight in its mantra like progress.

This Winter Machine tread rather new ground on the gorgeous love song Sometimes, which features the inimitable vocal talent of Peter Jones of Tiger Moth Tales and the legendary band Camel. This lovely song is testament to the fine song writing talent of Al Winter and also shows a generosity of spirit and insight into what other artists could bring to his work that he invited Peter to sing one of the best songs of the album. There is a distinctly Folk feel to the song with an acoustic guitar strumming as Jones imparts a great vocal melody and then is joined for a rich vocal harmony refrain. The band come in with finely judged contributions as the song builds towards a beguiling violin solo from Frenchman Eric Bouillette, who usually plays electric guitar with The Room and Nova Cascade. It’s an infectiously lovely sounding ballad.

Pleasure and Purpose, alongside The Storm and Sometimes, is one of the standout tracks from the album, and may be one of the best ‘songs’ that This Winter Machine have ever recorded as it skilfully and intuitively combines a touching set of emotional lyrics with memorable melodies and skilful instrumentation. It is also a great showcase for Winter’s classy vocals, smoothly ranging from fragility to real passion. This is a song which has really burrowed into my soul and has been on constant repeat for some days now.

Al Winter has shared the background to the song as follows:

“…it’s about how a lack of clear communication brings an end to relationships. Things that can be sorted easily grow until they become unmanageable. It often means there’s no going back”

It is remarkable that often the best songs are also the saddest, and this is a piece imbued with a great sense of regret with powerful lyrics touching on deep emotions:

I just needed Forgiveness, A Little Restraint, I needed the time so I could just explain

All the Pleasure and Purpose tumbling down, Now there’s nothing but anger, covered in shame

And I finally had to accept the blame, All the Colours and Virtue just left on the ground

At the zenith of Winter’s vocals This Winter Machine take the song onto more musical heights as first Simon D’Vali plays a stratospheric guitar solo which Dom Bennison then joins in a flowing dual guitar harmony. Bennison then takes on the second half of the solo in an equally rippling fluid guitar display before the piece suitably fades wistfully – it’s a wonderful song.

‘Kites’ concludes with the upbeat title song, commencing with an impassioned yell from Al Winter – yeah, it has been quite a year or two, Al! Whilst much of the album has explored more melancholic and introspective areas Kites feels more defiant and triumphant:

So all of the people for all of the time, You can’t go thinking it’s the end of the line,

There’s gotta be something that we can do anytime

This would make a great live song to stir the crowd, with the quality rhythm section of Wilson and Close driving this rock song on. In the latter half Bennison throws in another great guitar solo before a curious vocal sample haunts the melody. Al Winter has given two explanations for this mysterious haunting voice in the background as either ‘a disembodied voice recorded in a Haworth graveyard at midnight on the longest day…’ Alternatively and more prosaically he explained ‘it’s an early advert for an Edison Phonograph… it sounded quite romantic and nostalgic’. I think I prefer to believe the first explanation!

Well, what’s the answer to the original question: has this new incarnation of the band managed to make a successful transition with their new album?

As this album is called ‘Kites’ it may be worth recalling that Benjamin Franklin once rather eccentrically in the 1750’s reportedly flew a Kite in an electric storm to try to collect electricity through the line into a metal key in a Leyden jar (don’t try this at home, kids!) It could be said that similarly, Al Winter sent this new version of This Winter Machine aloft with ‘Kites’, and that the album has similarly been charged with a surge of electricity and new life. Exposed to the elements alone Al Winter formed a talented new band and has clearly drawn great energy and inspiration from this new This Winter Machine. After a torrid couple of years generally and for the band it is utterly remarkable just what a high-quality album This Winter Machine have created. ‘Kites‘ will rightly sail high to be regarded as one of the best melodic progressive rock albums of 2021, and the future looks very bright for the band… as long as someone holds on to the rope!

TRACK LISTING:

  1. Le Jour D’Avant                       (1.40)
  2. The Storm (Part One)             (5.37)
  3. The Storm (Part Two)             (4.37)
  4. Limited                                      (2.00)
  5. Pleasure and Purpose            (6.35)
  6. This Heart’s Alive                    (6.31)
  7. Whirlpool                                 (2.17)
  8. Broken                                      (4.58)
  9. Sometimes                               (4.05)
  10. Kites                                          (7.19)

Released 25th October, 2021

Order direct from the band here:

Kites – CD Album PRE ORDER – This Winter Machine

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