Review – Big Big Train – The Likes Of Us

“Transitions are a part of life, allowing for perpetual renewal. When you experience the end of one chapter, allow yourself to feel the emotions of loss and rebirth. A bud gives way to a new flower, which surrenders to the fruit, which gives rise to a seed, which yields a new sprout. Even as you ride the roller coaster, embrace the centred internal reference of the ever-present witness.” ~ David Simon

I’ve been a fan of Big Big Train since David Longdon first sang on their seminal album ‘The Underfall Yard’ in 2009 and they began that run of English pastoral progressive rock classics that continued with the two ‘English Electric’ volumes (released 2012 and 2013 respectively) and ‘Folklore’, released in 2016. In fact, I’ll never forget going to the launch of ‘Folklore’ at the Real World Studios in Box, Wiltshire, an amazing weekend of music and friendship that cemented my affection for this wonderful band.

The unexpected loss of David in late 2021 put a cloud over the band and their future but one that has gradually lifted with the announcement of Alberto Bravin as the new lead vocalist and the rebirth of the band has come full circle with the release of ‘The Likes Of Us’, Big Big Train’s fifteenth studio album. This new album is the internationally-based group’s first full collection of songs since David Longdon passed away. Besides marking the debut of new frontman Alberto, a former member of the Italian band Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM for short), it also heralds the beginning of a new relationship with the Sony Music imprint InsideOut, the group having self-released their music via a label called English Electric for almost two decades.

Since his appointment in the springtime of 2022, Bravin has become more than just a lead singer for Big Big Train. His name appears in the writing credits against five of the eight numbers featured on ‘The Likes Of Us’, and in a massive departure for the group Alberto also stepped up to co-mix the album along with the band’s longstanding engineer Rob Aubrey. Drummer Nick D’Virgillio and co-founding bassist Gregory Spawton had seen Bravin performing with PFM several years ago. Aware that the affable Italian seemed potentially to have the voice to make things work within the context of BBT, Spawton noted his name for his own possible future solo project. However, amid the process of his appointment, little or no discussion took place over what else Alberto might bring to the table beyond the fact that he also played keyboards and guitar.

“I reached out to Alberto purely as a vocalist, not as a songwriter or a friend, but he has become all of those things,” Spawton comments. “I always need somebody to bounce ideas off, and for the second time in my life, after David, I have another musical companion. Finding Alberto, who pays respect to the band’s traditions but also brings his own ideas and amazing energy, has been a miracle. I’m incredibly blessed.”

“I had no idea whether or not the guys would be interested in the other things that I felt I was capable of doing,” Bravin adds. “But luckily they did, and everything has progressed so naturally. Like Greg, I too have sought a musical partner all my life. I’m proud of the two albums I did with my previous band [PFM] and write a lot, but I’ve never had the opportunity to do something like this. Together with this extraordinary group of people I think we have made a beautiful album.”

“Initially, I wasn’t sure whether carrying on [after Longdon’s passing] was the right thing to do, though David and I knew each other so well that we did actually have a conversation during which he told me that should anything happen to him, the band had to continue,” Spawton relates sadly. “BBT was a big part of David’s musical life and it was his wish that the songs he wrote should continue to be heard. We will never forget David; it goes without saying that he is a big part of our story.

“But,” he continues, “had Alby been even only a little bit different [from Longdon] then I’m not sure that it would have been possible. It just might not have worked.”

“Step up to the mark, Make the most, Of the light, Left in the day.”

It’s a magical moment for me as the delicate vocal begins to open Light Left In The Day, a mainly instrumental album opener that sees the every so classy brass section join in as the music gently washes over you. The calm of the opening then gives way to symphonic crescendo of guitar, keys, drums and bass along with brass flourishes as we are treated to an utterly uplifting piece of music that is definitively Big Big Train at their absolute magnificent best. Honestly, tears of emotion threatened to overwhelm me at what I was listening to, the repeated keyboard motif, what an utterly marvellous way to open the album.

“Life was never easy, Walking uphill, Turning his cheek, It became his best skill, Was it something he said, Or could have done? Fade into oblivion.”

Oblivion is a powerful statement of musical intent, the bombastic opening with a crushing guitar riff, thunderous drums and Greg’s stylish bass knocks you off your feet and then Alberto’s vocal begins, this man can really sing, he has a distinctive vocal style of his own but, somewhere in the back of your mind, you feel a little bit of David Longdon’s emphasis in his delivery, a smile and a nod to carrying the torch onward. Then it’s gone, just a fleeting moment, the harmonised chorus is a delight and the fantastic musicianship is all that is good about this band, Dave Foster’s guitar work is intricate and yet dynamic at the same time, this is a song that shows a group of highly talented musicians in perfect harmony and they deliver a track that is potent and moving at the same time.

“On the streets far below, Car lights dance as workers journey home, One last time we sat alone, Words unsaid remain unspoken.”

Victorian Brickwork, The Underfall Yard, East Coast Racer, Curator Of Butterflies, Brooklands, these are all song titles that every BBT fan will instantly recognise, classic epics which the band have become synonymous with and which always bring the house down when played live. You can now add Beneath The Masts to that list, a song cast in BBT’s time-honoured storytelling style. Greg was born in Sutton Coldfield, in the midlands of the UK, and close to where he grew up there exist two huge radio masts.

“For the best part of my youth they were there, lights blinking on and off, to the backdrop of my early formative years,” he explains. In later years the bassist moved to the south coast of England, and it wasn’t until returning to the area of his childhood that the subject of the two masts returned to his consciousness.

“That visit, to see my beloved stepfather who was suffering from a terminal illness, triggered the song,” Spawton explains. “The hospice in which he was being treated was between those masts. Being tethered to the ground, I realised they are symbolic of my Midlands roots,” he continues. “It’s a sad song but it has a surprisingly upbeat ending that reminds us we are always part of a bigger whole.”

It’s a wonderful seventeen minutes plus of wistful, sepia-tinged nostalgic storytelling that instantly draws you into Greg’s world, the tender music and Alberto’s softly emotive vocal just add drama to the song. Clare Lindley really gets to shine on this track, her violin playing is utterly sublime but then again, every single one of these musicians is adding their own skill to the complete whole. As in the best BBT epics, the song builds slowly, adding layers of musicality all the time. This isn’t just music, it is art, there is huge skill involved in creating something as good as this, adding wonder for the listener, taking you on a fantastic musical journey with every twist and turn. I hope Alberto Bravin doesn’t mind me saying this but, while not sounding directly like David Longdon, his vocal performance here really does bring back to mind that incredible vocalist and also conflicting emotions but it is happiness that wins over the sadness and I’m sure David would be really proud of Alberto. Again, Dave Foster delivers some incendiary guitar playing and the brass section send shivers down your spine once more. Greg’s stylish bass playing, Nick’s dynamic drumming, Oskar Holldorf and Rikard Söjblom both adding keys and more emotive guitar, it’s all there and, as this quite wonderful piece of music comes to a close, I don’t mind admitting that there is a tear in my eye, bravo to you all!

Big Big Train | Trieste, May 2023 | ph Massimo Goina

“It’s time to get your skates on, We’re only here for so long, Time to get your skates on, We’re here and then gone.”

Harking back to the band’s pastoral progressive roots, Skates On seems to be telling us to make the most of our lives, it’s a more acoustic number that skips along quite lightly and with a nod to the classic middle England days of the 20’s and 30’s. Uplifting vocals and music that has a definite deftness and lighter touch combine to deliver something quite contemplative and reflective, “Make those memories, Live your dreams, We’re just a flare on a lens, The house will still be dusty, When the kids have flown, When you are gone…”

“Far away from all they have known, They will dream of home, There at the edge of a distant land, New walls rise on old stone.”

Alberto had a storytelling idea of his own, rooted in his own childhood. All he sought was help in bringing it to life. When the singer raised the subject of Miramare, a 19th century castle in Spain that had been built by the order of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian and his wife Carlotta of Belgium, a lightbulb went off in Greg’s head. He bought three giant books on the subject of the castle’s former residents to transform Alberto’s musical sketch into a full-blown musical novel. More than ten minutes in duration, Miramare marked the first significant collaboration between the pair, setting the bar at an astonishing level for the album that followed.

“It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy, with madness involved, and he [Maximilian] ends up before a firing squad,” Spawton states. “Alberto handed me the story on a plate.”

Telling stories is how music really started, troubadours singing tales around campfires, that’s how news passed from remote village to remote village and that’s at the heart of everything that Big Big Train create. When it is done as well as this then it is something quite remarkable to behold and the songwriting skill has to be applauded. Miramare is like a glorious ten minute audiobook set to music and you are drawn deep into this compelling and tragic tale as Alberto’s voice dominates proceedings, almost hypnotic in its timbre and delivery and the music is just exquisite, Clare’s violin imbuing some of the heartfelt passion that the story invokes. The highs and lows are superbly created and the crescendos reached are irresistible, Greg has really found another songwriting soul mate in Alberto and the partnership promises so much to come, musical storytelling really doesn’t get much better than this.

“Love is the light, Hiding in the corner of my eye, Love is your smile.”

I doubt you will hear a piece of music quite as beautiful as Love Is The Light this year, or any other come to mind. Poignant and heartfelt from the start, as Clare’s yearning violin plays, it’s a song that majors on Alberto’s gracefully profound vocals and the utterly mesmerising brass section, led once again by Dave Desmond. Ethereal and exquisite from start to finish, you find yourself lost in the moment, rooted to the spot, as the world carries on without you. This stunning song then reaches new heights with an incredibly moving, soulful guitar solo, one of those moments in an album that you will always cherish.

“One day we rode out, Side by side, For the last time, Nobody there, Knew we’d not, Ride together again.”

My whole body shivers as if someone has walked over my grave, Alberto’s vocal at the start of Bookmarks is a dead ringer for David’s, it’s uncanny and memories come flooding back. Another song that harks back to the future with a feel of classic BBT and the English pastoral prog they are so well known for. Initially, quite a subtle and subdued piece of music where keyboards, mellotron and vocal are all that is required to create a hushed, almost mesmeric, atmosphere. When the music builds, it does so carefully, still relying on the elegant, harmonised vocals to be centric to everything. A nostalgic, wistful track that flows serenely along with the accompaniment of the graceful guitars and violin.

“Shallow enders, Last eleven, Are we nearly there yet?, Can the likes of us, Find a place to call our own?”

None of the album’s eight songs were worked on with David Longdon. Although originally intended for an album entitled ‘Shallow Enders’ that never came to fruition, Last Eleven, the first song heard with Alberto’s voice, was written during the lifetime of his predecessor. An urgent guitar opens the song, there is feel of movement and pace about the music and Alberto’s high energy vocal delivery and Nick’s drumming is animated and spirited. An ode to the ones that make up the numbers, the oversights and the extras, it’s a track full of hope and optimism and that can be felt through the music and its catchy, infectious rhythm. A really uplifting and upbeat way to close out the album and one that leaves you almost breathless but full of confidence and belief, “Shallow enders, Last eleven, Are we nearly there yet? Can the likes of us, Find a place to call our own?”

What an emotional rollercoaster, I have spent the last four weeks listening to ‘The Likes Of Us’ at every opportunity. In the best tradition of Big Big Train albums of the past, it is not merely a collection of songs, it is a musical masterpiece that becomes part of your life and, for me, that means this album stands tall with the likes of ‘The Underfall Yard’ and English Electric’ 1 & 2. I know it is early in the year but it is going to take something incredibly special to topple this off the top of album of the year list and, for a long time fan of the band, that fills me with joy and makes me very happy indeed!

Released 1st March, 2024.

Order the album here:

Big Big Train – Miramare (Single Edit) (


Big Big Train are delighted to announce 12 shows to take place in September and October 2024 in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway.

At these performances the seven piece band will be promoting their forthcoming The Likes Of Us album, their first for the InsideOut label, which will be released on 1st March 2024. Listen to the latest single ‘Miramare’ and pre-order here:

Big Big Train – Miramare (Single Edit) (

Lead vocalist Alberto Bravin says: “We’re really looking forward to getting back on the road this autumn around the UK and Europe.Following the success of last year’s The Journey Continues tour, we can’t wait to do it all again. On this tour in autumn we will be playing a significant amount of The Likes Of Us as well as some Big Big Train classics and a few surprises.”

Drummer Nick D’Virgilio adds: “Last year’s Big Big Train shows were so much fun. We made some changes to the set list every night. It was very challenging but it kept things fresh for both us and the audience, so we’re going to take a similar approach on this tour to make every show genuinely unique.”

Bassist Gregory Spawton continues: “For this tour we’ve decided to return to some of our favourite venues. But we were also keen to return to Wales for the first time since 2019 and get back to the north east and north west of England as well as visiting some parts of the country where Big Big Train hasn’t played before. While some fans travel vast distances to see us live, we recognise that others aren’t able to do so and therefore we’re trying to bring the show to them.”

Guitarist Rikard Sjöblom concludes: “In an ideal world, we would play everywhere! Scheduling is always challenging and so while we couldn’t organise a Swedish show this time around, I’m delighted that we will be performing in Oslo and Copenhagen again for my fellow Scandinavians. And I’m particularly looking forward to our weekend at the Boerderij where we plan to play two very different shows.”


TUESDAY 17TH SEPTEMBER 2024                     Wyvern Theatre, Swindon, UK

WEDNESDAY 18TH SEPTEMBER 2024              The Riverfront, Newport, UK

THURSDAY 19TH SEPTEMBER 2024                  Playhouse Theatre, Whitley Bay, UK

SATURDAY 21ST SEPTEMBER 2024                   Queens Hall, Edinburgh, UK

SUNDAY 22ND SEPTEMBER                            Palace Theatre, Newark, UK

TUESDAY 24TH SEPTEMBER                          Stables Theatre, Milton Keynes, UK

WEDNESDAY 25TH SEPTEMBER                   The Stoller Hall, Manchester, UK

FRIDAY 27TH SEPTEMBER 2024                         Stadthalle, Weinheim, GERMANY

SATURDAY 28TH SEPTEMBER 2024                  Boerderij, Zoetermeer, NETHERLANDS

SUNDAY 29TH SEPTEMBER 2024                       Boerderij, Zoetermeer, NETHERLANDS

TUESDAY 1ST OCTOBER 2024                            Cosmopolite, Oslo, NORWAY

WEDNESDAY 2ND OCTOBER 2024                    Viften, Copenhagen, DENMARK

Tickets for all shows go on sale at 10am UK/11am central European time on Friday 9th February. A pre-sale open to members of the band’s Passengers Club for all shows except Copenhagen, Oslo and Zoetermeer opens at 10am UK/11am central European time on Thursday 8th February. The pre-sale for Whitley Bay opens at 5pm on Thursday 8th February.

Ticket links here:


Trifecta announce details on ‘The New Normal’, New Album Released 12th April 2024 on Kscope

The collaboration of singer songwriter Nick Beggs, keyboardist extraordinaire Adam Holzman and internationally renowned drummer Craig Blundell combine Jazz Fusion and Progressive Rock with a dash of English wit.

Pre-orders are available here:

The New Normal (

Trifecta have announced their new album – their second musical observation in the form of The New Normal on 12 April on Kscope.

It is often said that the greatest musical groups are the ones with the right mixture of ideas, talent and chemistry. These are things Trifecta have in abundance. It is, of course, no secret that the three members – keyboardist Adam Holzman, bassist/Chapman Stick mastermind Nick Beggs and drummer Craig Blundell – have spent their most recent years touring some of the world’s biggest stages as part of many bands including with Steven Wilson. So when they decide to form a largely instrumental offshoot as a trio, eventually writing and releasing 2021’s Fragments debut, they were already off to a head start, with a tangible sense of creative familiarity that had been stunning audiences in every corner of the globe. 

For listeners seeking to escape the confines of the normal world, ‘The New Normal’ will enable a window into vistas in a multitude of sonics and in concept. By combining elements of Progressive Rock, Jazz Fusion all with a dash of typical English wit the band bring the listener into a world where sound is malleable, time is a mere concept and vegetables have otherworldly properties like the ‘Stroboscopic Fennel’. 

This new 19 track, epic sees the band building upon the innovative ambition and genre-hopping skulduggery they so fearlessly introduced themselves to the world with on ‘Fragments’. The New Normal could easily have carried on in that same direction and comfortably delighted fans of all three musicians, as well as their associated projects. But if there’s anything we know about Holzman, Beggs and Blundell, it’s that they are bursting with ideas of every kind. Which explains why this album is guided by an uncontainable brilliance and bravado that packs in so many twists and turns, practically laughing at any notion of genre or boundary. The mid-70s fusion of Beck And Call cascades into the jazz noir brilliance of Dot Are You Wooing without a flicker of hesitation, venturing far beyond the introductory nuances into something truly dazzling and unexpected, telling another chapter of a rapidly evolving story. It’s almost as if this band take delight in ignoring the stylistic stop signs that provoke fear in the less adventurous… 

“I think we all felt it was important to not fit too heavily into one idiom,” admits Beggs. “There was a lot we wanted to say and we couldn’t really compact it all into one predetermined sound. I’m especially proud of Dot Are You Wooing and Chinese Fire Drill. We wanted to take listeners on a journey they won’t forget. The roots of every song is representative of one person in this band. Adam would come up with something like Wacky Tobaccy, mapping out the sonics, and then we would expand on it together, changing things up wherever it suited the music. Craig came up with the song Ornamental Lettuce and then Adam and I added our parts on top. There’s plenty more to come!”

Joining the trio of masterful musos is Alex Lifeson (Envy of None / Rush) for additional guitar on ‘Once Around The Sun With You’ and Theo Travis (Steven Wilson) on saxophone for insectoid grooves of ‘Daddy Long Legs’. Alongside John Paul Jones’ very chapman stick from 1979 that was sent to Nick and used to record ‘The New Normal’. 

 The album was recorded in the Bermuda Triangle of normality that is Leighton Buzzard, Bedford and New York between 2019 and 2023, engineered by the band and mastered by Andy VanDette (Beastie Boys / Rush / Whitney Houston), adorned with artwork that was inspired by an original idea from Hajo Muller.

Available on Limited edition white 2 LP / CD / 2 LP and digitally – with pre-orders available here:

The New Normal (

1. Beck And Call [02:35] 

2. Dot Are You Wooing? [00:53] 

3. Stroboscopic Fennel [02:25] 

4. Just Feel It Karen [03:53] 

5. Sibling Rivalry [04:01] 

6. Ornamental Lettuce [02:15] 

7. Daddy Long Legs [04:07] 

8. What Are You Doing? [00:53] 

9. Stupid Pop Song [03:32] 

10. Crime Spree [03:07]

    11. Bach Stabber [02:07] 

12. Kleptocrat [02:35] 

13. Once Around The Sun With You [03:50]

 14. Chinese Fire Drill [03:29] 

15. Ouch! My OCD [01:17] 

16. Wake Up Call [03:46] 

17. Wacky Tobaccy [03:28] 

18. Canary In A Five And Dime [03:55] 

19. On The Spectrum [03:23

Band picture by Hajo Mueller.

Review – Ellesmere – Stranger Skies – by John Wenlock-Smith

I have come to the realisation that certain genres of music have the most impact on me. Growing up it was initially the raw power of Deep Purple that did it for me then, later on, Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ made a huge impression on my young mind. I started exploring music for myself, helped in part by the fine chaps at my local record shop of choice, Reddington’s Rare Records in Birmingham, behind Marks & Spencers. This treasure trove or Aladdin’s cave of wonders was a crucial part of that, as the music I heard there was life changing. 

I was also an avid reader of Sounds and Melody Maker, later progressing onto Guitar World when I started to play the guitar. When I was in my 20’s, Kerrang and Raw Power came into my sphere of influence and with them I discovered multitudes of new and exciting groups and artists.

Some of those artists helped shape my tastes today, I, like many others, went through a heavy metal phase and also a blues period and later I went through a Miles Davis phase. However, one resounding constant has been my love of the likes of Kansas, Styx, Starcastle, Magnum and Queen, alongside Yes and ELP. For me, symphonic prog hits all the right spots, as Progradar Editor Martin Hutchinson knows only too well. So, when he offered me this new album from Ellesmere, I was certainly only too happy to accept, despite the group being totally new to me.

This album is actually the fourth excursion for multi-instrumentalist Roberto Vitelli’s project, visually and musically strongly linked to his ‘Wyrd’ of 2021. Although for this incarnation, Roberto has added a vocalist John Wilkinson of Swan Chorus, whose distinctive vocals aid with Roberto’s vision in creating music that has echoes of Genesis’ ‘Trick Of The Tail’ and Rush’s ‘Moving Pictures’.

In addition to John Wilkinson, featured are guests like Clive Nolan who provides keyboards and John Hackett, whose flute graces several tracks, and many others appear as well. The artwork is provided by Rodney Matthews whose artwork has graced many albums, including Magnum and Praying Mantis, to name but two. The artwork shows the setting visually by depicting a cold side (the first four tracks) and the other side being the warm side (the 2 lengthy tracks that complete the album).

The album seems to be centred on a series of imaginary or imagined adventures but what is the music like? let’s dive in and find out. The album begins with a mini epic called Northwards which is suitably spacious with lots of keyboards. It sounds vast and also a little foreboding, despite some rippling keyboards offering a bold soundscape. This evokes the warranted cold feelings wonderfully and all of this is in the first 2 minutes! The song concerns itself with an attempt to get to the North Pole overland by sledge, it is a very strong and moody track but handled marvellously by all. Tundra is next with a very sturdy bass part and thrashing drums. Again, the imagery used in this song evokes the cold and open spaces of the tundra most convincingly. I can hear elements of Yes in this track, notably in the vocals and also with the guitar work of Giacomo Ansolemi. Crystallised is an instrumental with acoustic guitar from Graham Taylor and also features David Jackson providing saxophone and other woodwind instruments. With a strong and prominent synth line, the track is excellent and very musically accomplished and shows splendid playing from all once more. Artica opens with a sturdy guitar riff and guitar lines. This song appears to be about climbing in the Arctic and the strength of character needed for such activities. The track has a strong essence of Asia to me, sounding like something from the ‘Alpha’ era of the band.

This track concludes the ‘cold’ side after which we progress on to the ‘warm’ side of the album with the first long piece Stranger Skies, a song about a pilot who undertakes a very strange flight indeed, one that takes him to a strange world full of strange creatures and leaves him with no way home. The track has a long instrumental section in the middle section that builds this atmospheric track well. The tense atmosphere of the lyrics is displayed convincingly in this track and I really like it, with John Wilkinson’s voice definitely capturing the Genesis sound of the Phil Collins era most impressively. The run out of the track especially sounds very pastoral and English prog like. Another World is the albums other long track and also the last track of this fine release. Opening with another strong guitar riff to lead in to the track, the song is about a searcher who finds another world that is very different to the one he knows. There is sumptuous, fluid guitar work on this track, all backed with sumptuous keyboard textures and sounds and some lovely flute from John Hackett as the journey concludes back at the North Pole, emphasising the circular nature of life.

‘Stranger Skies’ is a most compelling and very well conceived release, intelligently imagined and realised. Unsurprisingly I thoroughly enjoyed the album, it really stays with you and is most definitely worth checking out in my opinion.

Released 12th January, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

Stranger Skies | Ellesmere (

Review – Pallas – The Messenger

‘The album that many believed would never be made, is here. And it’s about to blow your socks off!’

Forty years ago a band from Aberdeen recorded, not one, but two of the seminal albums of the 80s.

Now the classic Pallas line-up returns with ‘The Messenger’, an album which takes the preoccupations of that earlier age, and brings them right up to date. Where ‘The Sentinel’ echoed the concerns of the cold war and the shadows it cast on all of us, ‘The Messenger’ finds the band reacting to the existential threats to the world we find ourselves in. From what we’ve done to the world, to the politics that shape it.

This is an album which repays countless listens. With ‘The Messenger’, Pallas have created a rich musical tapestry which weaves back and forth from environmental concerns to a cold war grown hot once again. And the seeming inability of our leaders to do anything but pour fuel on the flames.

Capturing the bleakness that many of us feel at how the world continues to turn, it nevertheless contains hope. Alight in darkness, that all may not be lost. There is no outside help. No Sentinel to save us. This time the solution lives within us all.

Pallas have managed the seemingly impossible. – updating their sound without losing track of what gives them their identity. This album is dark, yet uplifting; It rocks out, yet has moments of tenderness and wonder. This is, without doubt, the album of their career.

There are some pretty bold claims in the above PR blurb that came with this, Pallas’ first new material for nearly twenty years and what could be a rebirth of one of the seminal Neo-Prog bands of the 80’s. Well, I am here to tell you why everything that is said about this new album is absolutely, 100% spot on!

From its bold, striking artwork to its immersive and eminently thoughtful songs, ‘The Messenger’ may be one of the most impressive albums that you will have heard over the last few years. It may be what seems like a musical eternity since the original line up of Pallas released any new music but it is as if they have never been away. Musicianship that is as tight and impressive as anything you have ever heard and superb, intelligent and earnest songwriting, coupled with Alan Reed’s mighty vocals, have created a piece of highly prominent musical drama that will leave you hanging on every note and every word.

From the opening dynamism of Sign of the Times it is evident that these musical troubadours have a dire story to tell. The impressive guitar work of Niall Mathewson is evident at every turn, allied with the subtle keyboard skills of Ronnie Brown, to give a driving life force to the music, one that is echoed by the superb bass work of Graeme Murray. This is all topped off with the charismatic and compelling voice of Alan Reed, as an opening statement of intent, it doesn’t get much better than this. Power and control, that’s what you get from the energetic The Great Attractor, pure bombastic theatre in musical form. A staccato riff hewn from granite and thunderous bass give an aggressive vigour to this strutting song and the vocals have a neat precision combined with a subtle arrogance, all told it is a mightily charismatic piece of music. Fever Pitch opens with a glorious piano led intro before a choral vocal gives an impression of something rather celestial. A hammering riff and drumbeat then arrive to give urgency to proceedings before the mystery unfolds. Alan’s inquisitive vocal draws you into the story that is opening up before you, it’s very clever and immersive songwriting and has a touch of musical theatre to it, like a prog rock version of Les Miserables maybe? A towering riff and demanding keyboards take up this entrancing tale of the harm our planet is going through and we should all really take note.

Heavy Air is a brooding song full of anticipation and apprehension, a storm is about to break and it is one that could herald the end of civilisation. The music has a feel of painful tenderness and Alan’s melancholic vocal conveys a light glimmer of hope that is gradually fading away. It’s a very emotive and heartfelt song with a powerful guitar solo just dripping with pain and regret and one that touches you at a very basic human level. A post-apocalyptic world is set out in front of us in The Nine, a potent foretelling of what our world could become, prophetic in nature and incredibly potent and compelling in intent and delivery. Like a sound track of dark, cinematic foretelling, there is an intentional bleak and sombre feel to the song, it demands your attention and insists you take note of the story unfolding in front of you. The sinuous, sinister guitar solo and stygian chants lay your soul bare. It’s a brilliant, if difficult listen and one that leaves you open-mouthed. The album closes with the epic title track, The Messenger, an end to what has been a dramatic and ominous journey towards oblivion and the end of the world as we know it. Could there be hope in the stars as our planet heads towards destruction? An electronic beat, almost dark synth-wave in composition, gives an off-kilter feel to the song as it begins before a wistful acoustic guitar and string like keyboards give an almost hopeful edge. The song ebbs and flows brilliantly, pulling you this way and that and the stirring vocals and irresistible guitar are just sublime. The uplifting ending makes me feel that here is something almost quasi-religious about this song as it talks about jubilation and a world reborn, maybe the creator hasn’t quite finished with us just yet…

Like a Phoenix risen from the ashes, with ‘The Messenger’, Pallas have returned triumphant with an incredible album that is so much more than a mere musical experience, it is a hugely compelling glimpse into what our future could be, delivered by four musicians who are truly at the top of their game and, surely, have much more still to give.

Released 15th December, 2023.

Order from bandcamp here:

The Messenger | Pallas (

Review – Baker Gurvitz Army: Neon Lights – The Broadcasts 1975 – by JohnWenlock-Smith

I reviewed a live Baker Gurvitz Army release last year and raved about just how good a unit the band were as evidenced on that great live set. So imagine the joy I felt when I heard that a box set of hitherto unreleased recordings and 2 DVD’s of the band live, including an expanded version of their live set for the German TV show Musikladen, a live Old Grey Whistle Test session and a BBC Radio In Concert show was to be released in January 2024.

Sheer musical heaven for me as a long time admirer of the band, a band that I first heard in 1974 or 75, I can’t remember which exactly, I have loved the band ever since. I immediately made contact to secure this for myself and today it arrived and is every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be. Parts of this set I already have, including a Video CD (remember those ill fated release’s in the early to mid 1980s?). Well, this is a proper version of that recording. Also here is an updated and expanded version of their ‘Live at Kings Hall, Derby’ CD from the early 2000’s, again with two extra tracks. As always on these sets, there is a degree of repetition but having it all in one tidy little box with great sleeve notes is fabulous

Once again, you can appreciate the strength and sheer power of the band as a unit, a five piece with Ginger Baker on drums, ex-Seventh Wave man Peter Lemer on keyboards, Paul Purvitz on bass and ex-Sharks vocalist Steve Parsons (A.K A Mr Snips) whose vocals allow Adrian Gurvitz room to play some very tasty lead guitar throughout.

For me, it is the opportunity to actually see and experience the band in my own front room that is the treat here and it is great to finally to be able to do this some nearly fifty years on from their short tenure as a band. I was too young to actually go to see these for myself, even though they played at Birmingham Town Hall in 1976. I do wish I had taken that opportunity back in the day, I’m sure I would have been blown away by them live. Instead this live footage is definitely an acceptable alternative and one I can repeat whenever I want to.

Despite several tracks being duplicated across the five discs (3CD’s and 2 DVD’s), there is sufficient variation in the different versions to still be of interest, especially for a fan boy like me! As always, great care has been taken with the sound, remastered to a very high standard by Ben Wiseman at Broadlake Studios in Hertfordshire.

The band are all on very good form on all of the recordings and it is wonderful to see ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris again introducing the band. Visually their stage setup is pretty standard, drums at the rear with keyboards to the left, bass front left, guitarist stage right and vocalist to the centre and together the five people on stage recreate their albums to perfection and even allow for extended takes of certain songs, all of which adds to the excitement and the atmosphere that the band generate.

For those fortunate enough to have been at any of these shows they certainly were treated to a highly impressive set of music and, remastered it all sounds great with no drop outs at all. Which, for recordings as old as these are, is remarkable and definitely captures a band on the rise, Sadly, as we now know, the death of their manager in a light aeroplane crash over Scotland was a blow from which the group never recovered and so it all fell apart. Baker went back to playing polo again, whilst the Gurvitz brothers teamed up with Moody Blues’ drummer Graeme Edge for his two solo albums and a string of live shows. Steve Parsons released a solo single and got involved with some punk and new wave projects but nothing that made any huge impact, he later revived The Sharks band and continued to make music once more.

Fate has derailed many a promising career, and she certainly did that here, the rifts were never healed and the band split up never to return! With Baker’s death in 2019 that dream died with him. It was a terrible loss to the world of music, however, thanks to the diligence of Esoteric, once again the Baker Gurvitz Army can March forward for a whole new raft of listeners to discover their unique and often different style of heavy rock for themselves.

For those who know of this fine band this set is a treasure trove of delights, I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it highly.

Released 26th January, 2024.

Order from Cherry Red here:

Baker Gurvitz Army: Neon Lights – The Broadcasts 1975, 3CD/2DVD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Steve Hackett – The Circus And The Nightwhale – by John Wenlock-Smith

On February 16th Steve Hackett will release his thirtieth solo album ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’. This album is not a concept album as such, however, it does have thirteen tracks interlinked and inter-woven and which take an autobiographical angle into Steve’s life journey. In the official blurb that accompanies the release we are told that it’s a “lovely journey that starts dirty scratchy  and smoky and becomes heavenly and divine”. So does it? And what does it tell us exactly? Well, here’s my thoughts on it, mostly based on a conversation I had with Steve himself earlier in the year.

The first track on the album, People Of The Smoke, opens interestingly with sound effects, a snippet of Listen With Mother, a baby’s cry, which is treated with reverb and echo, along with steam train noises and whistles. The song then moves into a busy section with Big Ben tolling and a guitar line that builds before drums come into force and a brisk pace is taken. Steve adds little flurries of notes and fills, this is all to represent the suffocating dark and smoke filled city of London when emerging from the post war years of rationing and entering the 1960’s and the opportunities that were becoming more available as a result. I guess it was possibly a case of you had to be there to experience it for yourself, but you get a good impression from the excellent video for this track:

The next track is the first of no less than five instrumental pieces, each of which are very different in sound and approach. These Passing Clouds symbolises the changing face of the capital as it moves from sinister to optimistic and this brief vignette captures that excellently. Taking You Down is about a friend of Steve’s at Senior school, they bonded over a love of music and had a close friendship. However, this friend was often involved in some jape or wheeze or scam and often roped Steve into these as well. This all ended badly when Steve got more involved in music and they drifted apart. The friend was manipulative and not always pleasant to be around, they had good times but it all came to an end. Steve often wonders about this chap and what he is doing these days, proposing that he is probably running a small country in Africa or somewhere similar, that is run with corruption and despotic greed. The next track, Found And Lost, is about Steve’s first love. A girl from a good family, intelligent and articulate however, she wanted something more than Steve offered so the relationship didn’t last. She got involved with a bad crowd, got involved with drugs and ultimately ended up in prison from which she would write letters to Steve. He was heartbroken by all this and it took a while for his confidence to rebuild and, while there were other girls, there were none like her.

Enter The Ring and Get Me Out! both refer to his time on the Genesis wheel of fame, all of this is being alluded to through the excitement of a fairground and the thrills it offered. This continues in Get Me Out! in which Steve realises that he is in danger of being stuck in a situation that he actually wants to be free of. This track has a lengthy and somewhat furious guitar solo in the middle, expressing his frustrations perhaps. Ghost Moon and Living Love is about moving on from his Genesis days and going it alone. Circo Inferno continues this theme of being stuck on a wheel going around and around. This track has a heavier tone with more fiery guitar flourishes ,it also features Amanda Lehmann on vocals and Rob Townsend on tenor saxophone. The next track Breakout is an impressive rock guitar showcase, as is All At Sea, both of which really impress as they both have a lot going on within them.

Into The Nightwhale is another interesting sounding track, opening with swirling keyboards and synths creating a moody soundscape with Steve providing long sustained guitar notes before a heavy drumbeat emerges from the mist, as it were. More sustained guitar notes follow and gradually build up to a peak at which point everything falls away and a delicate orchestral sound is played whilst Steve sings a delicate vocal. The song is about building resilience and how finding love give you strength once more. The penultimate song, Wherever You Are, is a love song for his wife Jo, who has had a major impact on Steve’s life in the last ten years or so. This song is a shameless celebration of the love that they have found in each other. That said, this one definitely rocks with extremely passionate guitar playing and sounds. The album closes with White Dove, a wistful and delicate acoustic conclusion to the album. Again, this song is very romantic sounding with its classical tone and playing. It will be great to hear this one live, as Horizons is possibly in need of being retired?Just a thought…

So there you have it, a most intriguing and different album from Steve with some great songs and excellent guitar work. There is lots to appreciate and enjoy, I certainly did and can highly recommend, another highlight in the career of this legendary guitarist.

Released 16th February, 2024.

Order from Steve’s website and other outlest here:

Steve Hackett – Wherever You Are (

Review – Shadows On Mercury – Worlds Apart

Shadows On Mercury is a prog rock studio project, based in West Yorkshire. It features Scott Owens on guitars, bass and programming, Charlie Bramald on vocals, and Tim Lofthouse on keyboards. It all began during the Summer of 2020 whilst the world was in lockdown, prior to the formation of Scott’s current band, Ghost Of The Machine. Unable to rehearse or play live, Scott began work in his home studio, writing and recording an album of demo tracks, that had been weaving their way around his head for months.

Once he’d laid down the guitar and bass tracks, basic synth ideas and drum programming, Scott asked his good friend Tim, from The Lowells, if he would like to put the keyboards and synths down for the project. Tim was onboard immediately, and his ideas and keyboard wizardry carried these songs to another level completely. After a few months of fine tuning the tracks, Scott knew he needed a vocalist/lyricist to complete his vision for this project. Enter Charlie, lead singer, and Scott’s bandmate in Ghost Of The Machine. Charlie instantly gripped the direction Scott wanted to go with the music, and crafted stunning lyrics that brought both the music and concept of the project to life.

Having got to know Charlie via reviewing the first Ghost Of The Machine release, I was lucky enough to get an early listen to the two singles from this impressive project, The Silence and The Flood, and it was a no brainer to give my thoughts on the debut EP, ‘Worlds Apart’.

This mini-masterpiece opens with the aforementioned The Silence, Charlie had this to say about the track, “I wrote the lyrics to The Silence based around the idea that the human race is utterly complacent about the end of the world. Nobody wants to talk about it, think about it, deal with it… as a population we’re avoiding grappling with those big concepts and questions. It’s much more comfortable to keep our attentions trained on trivial and more immediate concerns. I imagined it staying that way right up to the point that the sky is falling in above us! No panic, just… silence. Will we get what we deserve?

Wow, what a track, the music is a perfect accompaniment to Charlie’s meaningful lyrics, it’s a dark, brooding song full of a pensive and thoughtful quality. The vocals have a musing and contemplative touch and Tim’s elegant keys and synthesisers add a questioning feel. It’s totally different to what the guys deliver in Ghost Of The Machine, more an elegant rock vibe than the harder edge progressive rock of GOTM and the amazing interplay between Scott’s guitar and Tim’s keyboards that closes out the track has to be heard to be believed, an utter monster of a track! We then move into the brilliantly brooding Calculate (Control), this indulgent piece of music has a delicious feel of dark, progressive synth wave and really gets under your skin. Charlie’s vocals are more demonstrative and Scott’s guitar is more of a conductor than the main event, leading us on the moody, mysterious journey while also getting the opportunity to burst into life in a quite an outspoken manner. The icing on the cake though are Tim’s elegant, defiant keyboards, lending this song a real air of knowing gravitas.

The Flood is a reflection on struggling to process the guilt that led to a heartbreak, infused with bitterness and the destructive imagery of water – a recurring theme in this EP.”, says Charlie, “This person is succumbing to the flood of negative emotions but clearly they have played their own part in what happened. Perhaps with a degree more self-acceptance they’ll be able to tread water, or even reach dry land.

The Flood is almost balladesque in its feel, a heartfelt piece of music with a wistful and sombre touch. The floating, ethereal synths work perfectly in unison with Charlie’s passionate and ardent vocal delivery. Tim’s brilliant keyboards blend some Neo-prog with Scott’s expressive & profound guitar playing. It’s a beautiful track that took me back to the heydays of sumptuous and insightful songwriting and music that actually had meaning, utterly majestic! What can I say about The King Of Broken Things, it is a wonderfully immersive song that, if it was twice as long, would have to be considered a brilliant epic. The hard, monolithic riff has soul deep at its core and Charlie delivers one of his best vocal performances yet. It’s a track that builds slowly, ever rising in power and intensity, the superb guitar being the centre-point for Charlie’s voice and Tim’s eloquent keyboards to revolve around in a quite hypnotic way and when Scott lets loose on the solo, wow, just bloody wow! This is one of the best pieces of music I have heard this year, no word of a lie and a special shout out must be made to Scott for his programmed drums that sound just like the real thing!

The album closes with the more mainstream and laid back dynamics of title track Worlds Apart, an utterly sublime song that would possibly be riding high in the charts if we were back in the more musically progressive and inclined times of the 1980’s and 1990’s. The music just seems to wash over you and hold you in its embrace with wistful, sepia tinged feel of nostalgia. Tim’s keyboards (just check out his ever so cool, funky solo) and Charlie’s vocals are key in imbuing the absorbing atmosphere on this track and those striking programmed drums stand out once again. Scott lets rip with another impassioned solo before things come to a finish with Tim’s keys playing out, it’s a sumptuous way to close out what has been a very exciting debut from a trio of highly skilled musicians.

‘Worlds Apart’ is atmospheric and a wonderful showcase for a long awaited return to the Neo-Prog elegant keyboards of the 80’s but there’s also a darker and more immersive feel in parts that adds a deliciously dark and moody edge. Shadows On Mercury have landed with a incredibly powerful statement of intent that promises much, much more, you should just go out and buy it!

Released 2nd February, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

Worlds Apart | Shadows On Mercury (

Review Kristoffer Gildenlöw – Empty – by John Wenlock-Smith

This review is for the new, fifth, solo release from ex Pain Of Salvation man, Kristoffer Gildenlöw, and follows on from ‘Dust’ (2012), ‘Rain’ (2016) and the pandemic releases ‘Homebound‘ (2020) and ‘Let Me Be A Ghost’ (2021), a poignant exploration of depression. ‘Empty’ takes a different tack and, whilst not a concept album as such, it does, however, have common themes and threads throughout its sixty minute duration.

After departing from Pain Of Salvation, Kristoffer spent time working and touring with Neal Morse, moved to the Netherlands from Sweden and became a highly sought after session musician. He also spent time as a part of Kayak, appearing on two of the band’s albums and has done sessions for the likes of Lana Lane and others.

Kristoffer says of this album, “I don’t write concept albums in the traditional sense, with characters stories  and dialogue, ‘Empty’ is a sceptic and cynical look at humans and humanity, viewed from three different perspectives. The personal view as humans against humans, as humanity as a phenomenon on a global scale and as a species inhabiting this pale blue dot in space, looked at by the creator who has its doubts about his creation. It is quite a deep and possibly challenging theme that the album pursues.”

The album begins with Time To Turn The Page, which has echoes of both Dire Straits ( for the guitar sounds) and Pink Floyd. The song breaks out into a more expansive soundscape with drums and bass adding to the rhythm. There’s a fine solo with some fine wah-wah effects and it is all rather stirring before the song quietens down once more as it draws to a conclusion, an excellent opening track. End Of The Road features a great violin motif, the song pulses along in a rather downbeat manner and has a good chorus with great vocals. The sound is actually very organic and quite different to what you expect. Harbinger of Sorrow has a persistent piano melody rippling throughout and also has a very solid bass line punctuating the rhythm. As the track comes to a close it takes a harder tone with lots of suppressed power awaiting the chance to explode, which it does not actually do. He’s Not Me is next and, once again, we find the Straits/Floyd influences apparent. This song has lots of restrained emotions, you want it to explode, however, in taking the route less travelled and obvious, this graceful song is instilled with much dignity and strength. It has a great guitar break and slide guitar which, when coupled with the swarming broody keyboard textures, puts you firmly in Floydian territory!

Black And White is hinged on a solid bass line, with a medium tempo, and great guitar fills. A fine guitar solo enlivens proceedings significantly and shows that this album is definitely a slow burner that will creep up on you and overawe you with its beauty and restraint. Down We Go is one of the albums two longer pieces, again, the spacey sound will be very familiar to many, shades of Pink Floyd again, perfectly recreated and reimagined with a tone right out of the ‘Wish You Were Here’ era. This is an excellent track with lots going on and a great sound, it’s all really Impressive with another emotive guitar break towards the end. To me, the best track on the album so far, magnificent even. Turn It All Around is up next, the first in a run of tracks that are all shorter, but no less interesting musically. This one has some interesting orchestral embellishments, violin playing pizzicato sections for example, and some guitar fills sound great in amidst everything else. Means To An End has more piano and moody, yet expressive, vocals. There’s good bass here again that carries the song along well. It has a melancholic air to it but a great guitar break certainly helps move the track forward.

Beautiful Decay sees the piano takes centre stage along with the fretless bass and another earnest heartfelt vocal from Kristoffer is pleasing to the ear. It’s a brief but entertaining track, as is The Brittle Man which is hinged on counterpoint Bass and violin lines, playing in harmony until a piano enters the fray and carries a similar melody. Saturated is the albums penultimate track and the Roger Waters influence is clear, especially in the vocals. Indeed, in the overall soundscape, this great sounding track could be the best unreleased Pink Floyd song you’ve never heard. Yes, it is that good! The album’s final song is also the longest and the title track, Empty, which imagines the creator looking at the earth and wondering was it worth it? One for the theologians amongst us to ponder, no doubt. There’s a pulsating timbre, akin to a heartbeat, recurring throughout and more moody, expansive soundscapes. Again, it’s quite a melancholic track with an emotional vocal from Kristoffer as he voices the creators doubt so eloquently and with such depth of feeling. As he sings, you can hear his raw anguish, the latter part of the song then has a heavier, yet no less epic, guitar solo that plays out in a Comfortably Numb style, with similar tone and feeling. It’s most impressively done and is a blinder of a solo to conclude the album.

Overall this is a real grower of an album and one that needs your effort to get the most out of it. It is an investment that will pay big dividends to the listener though, as within its tracks lies much crafting and skill to creating memorable songs and soundscapes. I have very much enjoyed this excellent release and feel that many listeners will find much to appreciate herein.

Released 8th February, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

Empty | Kristoffer Gildenlöw (

Review – Monarch Trail – Four Sides – by David Edwards

Monarch Trail are a Canadian symphonic progressive rock project led by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Ken Baird, consisting of Dino Verginella on bass and Chris Lamont on drums, with guest appearances on guitar by Kelly Kereliuk and Steve Cochrane. Four Sides is their impressive fourth release and, in my opinion, manages to not only match the quality of their previous album Wither Down, but brings it up several notches more.

Deliberately recalling the classic days of the double vinyl album, with each side having its own distinct character, and the space to fully develop musical themes (such as ‘Tales of Topographic Oceans’ perhaps?) – this is classic, keyboard-led progressive rock but with a distinctive signature sound and modern-edge that the band have cultivated since 2014. It is musically the antithesis of the modern quick-fix, 3-minute soundbite culture of the modern music streaming sites, where songs are never given a chance to blossom over a full album side. So, while the 73 minutes of music can fit on a single CD – Ken challenges you to consider the album as ‘four sides’ of music, to be enjoy individually, or as a cohesive and complete body of work.

The opening ‘side’ of the album, and the longest track at over 23 minutes, is called The Oldest of Trees. This is the most personal song on the album, as Ken harks back to his younger days and an old four-chord song he could just about strum on guitar on the stairs of the basement music room. A place often full of musical friends, with the spotlight on one in particular who sadly passed away of a few years ago. Lyrically and musical it is full of reminiscences of those musical memories of rock music from 70s and 80s for those growing up in Canada at the time, including the likes of Rush and Iron Maiden, as well as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd amongst others.

After a dynamic keyboard-led fanfare, Ken’s vocals drip melancholy as he looks back to those halcyon days. As I’ve said before in earlier reviews, Ken’s distinctive, higher register vocals have a yearning frailty and vulnerability that reminds me at times of BJH’s John Lees, Chris Squire and Druid’s Dane Stevens. Once you attune to them, their ‘everyman’ character complements the personal nature of the music very well. Yet, it is his keyboard virtuosity that drives the album’s rich soundscapes. Supported by Dino’s expressive bass guitar and Chris’s dynamic drumming, the song soon moves up another level, with some rich organ chords and soaring synthesisers over the strong rhythmic foundation. Changing tempos and light and shade keep the shifting themes fresh and invigorating and some contrasting electric guitar over a repeating keyboard pattern fits in seamlessly. Lyrically we are also taken around various locations around the town of Dundas and wider Ontario. There is a nice kick in tempo from around 14 minutes and the introduction of organ chords and rumbling bass around the symphonic prog noodlings provide a diversity of sound before we return to bitter-sweet memories of youth:

Benches and the streets and parks will hold your name in high regard. Eyes of birds and storied words, help us where we stand. But of all these things to hold, there are some that seem much closer. Especially the oldest trees will never quite be gone.”

This was a song Ken needed to develop and resurrect from its humble beginnings and its cathartic conclusion is thoughtful and full of emotional.

Eris is even a bolder musical statement by Ken, and he really uses the concept of a double album structure to allow time for this epic instrumental to develop. Over the opening few minutes, a cold, desolate, almost wind-swept, ambient soundscape is allowed to gradually gain in intensity, with hints of mid-section of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ and then a subtle, deeper rhythmic pattern coming through. Named after the cold, icy dwarf planet of the outer solar system, the feeling of isolation is palpable, and it is only after 6 minutes that we get a swelling of rich, majestic, organ-led keyboards followed by dancing motifs and then Vangelis-like synthesiser sounds, undulating serenely and mysteriously. Ken imagines the atmosphere of Eris rising up from its surface as the dwarf planet warms on its elliptical orbit towards the Sun, creating a ‘new dawn.’

Yet this is but an extended prelude to a wonderful, improvised whirlwind of Keith Emerson-like organ pyrotechnics merging with playful, grandiose Rick Wakeman-style keyboards. There are hints of jazz influences amongst the complexity that could easily identify to the Greek Goddess of strife and discord who lends the dwarf planet its name. Chris’s galloping drums increasingly drive the music at this point and Dino’s deep, throbbing bass runs add intensity, with sections of resonating piano leading to a stately, yet flowing conclusion with soaring synthesisers taking flight before a satisfying, sustained finale. It was a track that Ken says developed quickly from his improvisations around the various themes, and it certainly rewards the patience of the discerning listener as the track slowly develops over its 19+ minute duration.

By contrast Twenty K hits the listener instantly, with urgent stabs of piano, along with a dynamic rhythm drive the music powerfully before Ken’s vocals announce “I can see life and water winking, to the side. Straight ahead lies a route to take me away.” We are being taken on a 20 km run through the dazzling countryside, and a chance to savour nature and life, but at the same time reminisce about past relationships and contemplate our place in the Universe. Ken’s voice is as confident and assured as anywhere on the album, and its depth and emotion mirror the rising pace and tempo of the song, with Dino and Chris building up the intensity over Ken’s melodic and expressive keyboard patterns. Kelly adds some lovely, contrasting guitar soloing as he picks up the main theme, before twinkling piano add a touch of serenity prior to a marching and swaying tempo that takes us through to rising synthesisers and then some more impressive guitar lines.

Midway, the vocals become more contemplative and deeply yearning. Ken says at the 10 km point there is a bench for the runner to rest and admire the view on the hilltop, which has the Carl Sagan quote ‘Life is but a glimpse into an astounding Universe’ and this marks the start of the runner’s return back home, through the flowering trilliums of the forest expanse. It also marks the start of a simply gorgeous extended section of undulating keyboard wizardry over busy bass and drums that will more than satisfy classic prog rock devotees, with melancholy now replaced with hopeful optimism and a sense of life-affirming wonder. A beautiful coda and thematic resolution see the runner back home safely at the end of the song, with the exaltation of “The time has come, to let it all go”. A memorable track, and for me amongst the very best in all the Monarch Trail musical canon.

‘Side four’ of the album, as it were, is made up of two shorter tracks more modest in their ambition, but still full of charm and stunning musicianship. Moon to Follow was developed and built on by Ken from a demo that Dino sent in, which keeps much of the rhythm, chord and counterpoint ideas, but mixed with the enjoyable sections of retro prog and even elements of jazz and Celtic folk. It starts with the gentle, swaying rhythm of the drums, accompanied with some delicate piano, with Ken’s fragile and breathy vocals imagining a scene of the young Brennan sisters, Enya and Moya (of Clannad fame), looking around the music area of their parents’ pub in Ireland and wondering what stories the walls might have in them from past musicians to inspire them.

There is a rather nice call and response-like vocal refrain of ‘Moon to Follow’ that creates a dreamy ambience. After a vibrant touch of electric guitar from Steve Cochrane, the middle section has a recognisable feel of Keith Emerson-style piano improvisation – supported by engaging bass and flowing drums and percussion. The keyboards build up after this and Ken’s lyrics playfully reference ‘Herne’ from Clannad’s Robin of Sherwood era, together with pipes and whistles, conjure up a Celtic folk atmosphere which takes the song to its conclusion. A track, just under 10 minutes in duration, that the band clearly enjoyed putting together.

Afterthought is a pleasing short instrumental that bookends the album very effectively. Dancing piano notes have both a melancholic and yet optimistic feel to them. Lush keyboard chords build the sound but never dominate the sense of remembrance that is there in much of the album. The spirit of Rick Wakeman’s solo work pervades the track, but Ken says he was also thinking of Jethro Tull’s plaintive Elegy. He even includes a small musical reference to The Oldest of Trees to round things off nicely.

With Four Sides, Monarch Trail have produced their best and most ambitious album to date, with the ‘double album’ concept allowing space for the musical themes and deeply personal lyrics to fully develop and never feel rushed. The symphonic progressive rock instrumentation is stunning and whilst undoubtedly it is the keyboards that will rightly dominate the musical panorama, the poignant and gossamer-like vocals also have their place amongst all the proggy instrumental exuberance. Old-school prog for sure, but lovingly crafted for the modern era by Ken and his talented compatriots. An album that rewards your listening patience and demands repeated plays – it is certainly well worth exploring further on Bandcamp – especially if you are less familiar with Monarch Trail musical vision.

Released: December 17th, 2023.

Order from bandcamp here:

Four Sides | Monarch Trail (