Music is the perfect accompaniment to life, when you listen to great music you don’t need to be doing anything else. There are all sorts of different music genres and we don’t like them all but, to me anyway, there’s no such thing as bad music, it’s just music that’s not for me.
Music that definitely is for me is, ‘Another World’, the new album from the brilliant Southern Empire, one of Australia’s greatest exports, music or otherwise! I’ve long been a fan of their bombastic and highly entertaining style of rock tinged progressive music and count the band’s second release, ‘Civilisation’, as one of my favourite all time albums. Well, now this band of antipodean troubadours are back with a new album and, perhaps controversially, a new lead singer!
“The dragon, unaware that Danny is still atop her massive frame, carries him afar to other realms and adventures. He is at peace, knowing that the others are safe and well, indulging in the countless distractions that this other world has to offer.
Then, a new paladin appears, our patriotic protagonist, Shaun of the Hollow Grove. Although familiar with the wind-swept terrain, he’s certain he’s never sojourned this far before… but he sets his sights on the embankment ahead and begins his sesquipedalian odyssey.”
Original lead vocalist and guitarist Danny Lopresto left under good terms (and still provides backing vocals on the album) but his are big shoes that new man Shaun Holton has had to fill. I spoke to Shaun about this and the new album;
“It was a long process! It began around May last year during a pretty challenging time for my family and I but, yeah, I have been a friend of Cam Blokland’s for a number of years and we have wanted to work together for a while (from early Projected Twin days in 2008).
So when Danny left, Cam put me forward quickly! I recorded Face the Dawn first, Sean and Cam loved it, but the other guys wanted to hear me do a bit more, so I sang Goliath’s Moon and Forrest Fire as well. Then it was White Shadows! (this was the song that made me really hope they went with me, I thought that we really had something with that!) Once the band had all heard White Shadows that was kinda it for them too.
So then it was a bit of work tracking the rest which we would have finished around January this year. Danny has heard a bunch and has let me know he thinks it’s really good and fully supported my entry into the band. I thought that was incredibly professional and spoke to his character greatly! It was challenging to replace vocals built for him specifically. Sometimes I had to go my own route. I’m happy with where we got it!”
I’m not going into the challenging time that Shaun references as it’s personal to him but let’s just say it shows what strength and character he has and why he fits the band perfectly.
Band leader Sean Timms said that;
“Shaun not only has an incredible voice, he’s also a gifted musician and song writer. He has a passion for life and is an incredibly upbeat person with amazing amounts of energy. When he commits to a project… it’s 100% all the way. He’s helping a great deal with the promotion of the new album, adding copious amounts of social media posting and always ready and available for interviews.”
Right, now for the music, ‘Another World’ is all that’s good about progressive rock, taking influences from all over the musical hemisphere, electro, techno, rock, funk and a huge dose of prog rock to deliver a hugely entertaining and theatrical romp. The songwriting and musicianship are absolutely superb and the production levels are off the scale, not surprising with Sean Timms at the helm.
What makes the new album stand out from the steampunk influenced (well, to me at least) ‘Civilisation’ is the harder edge epitomised by Cam Blokland’s superb, fluent and, at times, extremely heavy guitar. Add in to this the addition of not one, but two sax players (Adam Page on tenor and Marek Arnold on soprano), Steve Unruh (violin and flute) and Amanda Timms (flute) and we are treated to a veritable cornucopia of musical delights. The rhythm section of Brody Green (drums, percussion) and Jez Martin (bass) are the definition of stylish solidity and provide a firm (but always funky) foundation on which the music can soar, and soar it bloody well does!
Opening track and first single Reaching Out, inspired by the very prevalent multi-verse stories being told in a lot of films and TV series lately, takes the ‘What if’ scenario and runs with it at breakneck speed. Staccato riffs, swirling keys and a thunderous rhythm section marry up with a superb chorus to deliver a frenetic four minutes of musical fun and games. It’s all about understanding how the choices we make can have a profound affect on our lives… good, bad and indifferent. After that hell for leather introduction to Shaun’s vocal talents (the chorus harmonies are brilliant!), things take a more epic scope with Face The Dawn which was inspired by a documentary that Sean saw about climbing El Capitan in Yosemite (I’ve seen it and I also share his fear of heights!). It’s a twelve minute plus epic about facing ones fears and is an epic that only Southern Empire could do, funky, edgy and melodic in turn, the Leprous style repetitive guitar riff is slick and polished and yet the glorious piano and violin section is as emotive as they come. The song twists and turns, sometimes at a ferocious pace and, at others, laid back and leisurely and Shaun’s vocals are perfectly balanced throughout. It’s a veritable monster of a song and one that leaves you breathless and with a smile on your face.
Written by Cam and with his soulful voice on lead vocal, Hold On To Me is about staying strong for someone else to help them through their pain and is full of passion and soul. Cam lays down a beautiful acoustic guitar and is backed with aplomb by Shaun’s vocals and guitar and Sean’s wistful piano note. It is powerful but a lot more stripped back than the usual Southern Empire fare in most places yet, when it does blossom into something potent and compelling, it does so with sheer elegance and sophistication. Without out a doubt, it is one of the best pieces of music that the band have produced. On When You Return Sean married the subject matter about possible life on other planets with a sort of love song to the creator of the universe. The track features a great narration from the wonderful Lisa Wetton (who also lays down some percussion on the track), the jury is out as far as Sean is concerned regarding life on other planets, but he remains open minded about it as much as he can. I really like the lively, energetic feel of this track, the funky guitar, bass and drums remind me of Extreme and Living Colour in places and the uptempo beat is just a joy to listen to. Monstrous riffing aplenty, Moving Through Tomorrow is, without doubt, the heaviest track on the album, I’m sure Cam’s riff is hewn out of granite and Shaun gives his most dynamic and potent vocal performance yet. It’s a song about defiance, about getting through the obstacles of life, daily challenges, being humble but not broken and surviving. At one point you hear Shaun sing, ‘An angry call to arms…’, and there is a controlled anger in the song, a bravado and boldness that gives it a rebellious edge. There’s some fabulous harmonies and soulful keyboards but, at its core, there’s definitive call to live our lives how we want to and attributing as much meaning to them as we can.
“The birth of an electric sun, The Earth-bed dry, the colours run Left confused, so dazed and lost, With no one left to count the cost…”
As already said, there’s no prog epic quite like a Southern Empire penned epic and in the eighteen minute plus White Shadows, we are treated to one of the best. A legacy to the band from Danny, who had the main inspiration for the track, it’s a bit of a post apocalyptic piece about survival through horrendous conditions and circumstances. Ultimately uplifting and hopeful, it’s about loss and working through that loss to come out the other side… not unscathed, but hopefully wiser, more compassionate and resilient. You go through a whole gamut of emotions in its extended running time, emotions brought about by the impressive mixing of musical styles. There’s a magnificent, cinematic, instrumental opening section that spans horizons and takes you on a widescreen musical adventure, like an Oscar winning movie soundtrack with a classical influence, Sean’s piano playing is particularly impressive. The track then moves into a heavy techno, electronic section before Shaun’s stentorian vocal enters the fray. Brilliantly melodic and aided and abetted by some glorious sax, it’s very jazzy feeling, if jazz got all bolshy and aggressive and, once again, the song has a really catchy chorus.
“White Shadows were all that remained, A pulse and a heart beat were lost in the flame, White shadows were all that I saw, A ghost from the past here no more, here no more…”
There’s some quite violent but addictive riffing and the sax gets to weave its sinuous spell around your mind before the mysterious, enigmatic second part of the song begins. There’s a building of anticipation, all created by the inspired music, Shaun’s vocals and the quite sublime saxophone.
“Like a flash of lightning he fell, Shine on brightly, say farewell, “I will return” he said with rage, “And then I’ll truly come of age”…”
A wistful, ethereal flute then hypnotises as part three begins, laid back and undemanding with another sumptuous vocal combination from Cam and Shaun, Cam’s low voice a perfect accompaniment to Shaun’s more powerful delivery. It’s a hugely impressive part of the song and one of the best parts of the album, full of passion, intensity and fervour.
“This illusion disappears in the light of inspiration… inspiration…”
Jazz fusion then takes over with a brilliant keyboard, bass and drum led section that could have come straight out of the mind of Pat Metheny before we come towards the end of the song and a repeat of the impressive chorus section before Cam’s thundering guitar ends things in primeval style.
“White Shadows have faded away, The pulse and the heart beat are beating again, White shadows dissolve into dust, Descend into darkness, their dreams turn to rust…”
After that pulsating, heart pounding experience, the album closes with Butterfly, another of Cam’s songs, and a bit of a quiet closer and palette cleanser. It’s about letting the ones you love live freely without constraint from ourselves and it soars with a delightful, uplifting energy. Cam’s vocals are dreamy and contemplative and the music has a playful feel to it, especially the dancing flute, it’s a thoughtful and reflective end to an hour of musical wonder and joy.
A Southern Empire record is always just more than an album release, it’s a hugely significant occasion and one that I await with bated breath. Their music has been a soundtrack of my more recent years and is very, very important to me on a musical and emotional level. ‘Another World’ is an absolute masterpiece of musical theatre and, possibly, the band’s Magnum Opus, one of the best albums you will hear this or any other year, and the perfect accompaniment to my life.
Released 4th September, 2023.
Order CD from GEP here:
And the vinyl from GEP here: