Review – Swan Chorus – Achilles and the Difference Engine – by John Wenlock-Smith

I’ve heard about this album for a while but not actually heard it until i got in touch with David Knowles, the band’s keyboard player and a major part of the entire project. Everything that I had read and seen on the internet hinted that this one was a bit special, so it was with a small degree of trepidation that I sat down to listen for myself and see if there was any substance and truth to validate these claims or whether it was just hype generated in order to sell the album…

Well, I have to say that it’s is not hype at all, in a year of excellent releases from the likes of The Emerald Dawn, Ruby Dawn and Southern Empire (to name just three) this album has leapt, nay vaulted, into my list of albums of the year, it really is that fine! There are strong memorable songs, some truly exhilarating performances and vocals that are strong and clear. I think that, in John Wilkinson, they have a vocalist who can match the power of Collins era Genesis alongside which, with the intricate detailed keyboards of David Knowles, they have unearthed a very rich vein of talent and competence, it has barely left my CD player all week. I’ve listened on various systems, headphones, on my phone and even whilst in the bath!

This album is full of great songs like the stunning opening duo of The Waffle House Index and the so Genesis After Dark, that sounds like it could be a newly unearthed Genesis track from ‘Invisible Touch’ or ‘We Can’t Dance’. It’s that good and John’s vocal certainly helps with that impression. It has been a source of much joy reading the lyrics online whilst listening to this decidedly Prog/Pop crossover album, if this were on a major label like InsideOut it could get some good promotional impetus behind it and could happily meet the needs of Genesis deprived Radio 2 listeners. It really is that good and, quite frankly, the fact that this isn’t being blasted out over the airwaves is a major fault with music today. This has crossover written all over it it and warrants a far bigger audience that it will sadly receive, if Steven Wilson were to release this it would be massive. Such is the problem with prog circles, they can be a bit blinkered and short sighted in the width of vision.

So the album consists of ten songs and has a running time of sixty-seven minutes long. This comprises of three longer songs in the opener The Waffle House IndexMy Little Vampire and The Great Adventure. The other seven tracks hover around the four to five minute mark, although English Electric is just shy of six minutes. The sleeve is interesting in that, as a Liverpool based band ,the cover shows or seems to, a nighttime photo of the Liverpool skyline as it is now alongside a swan’s neck and head. Achilles refers to a band that David and Colin McKay were a part of in the 1980’s, in fact some of the albums songs were previously Achilles songs that have been revisited, refreshed and even reworked for this album. These songs being all except My Little Vampire and The Great Adventure, although English Electric itself actually dates back to an idea before the band’s name became Achilles, as they were not able to use English Electric as a band name due to legal/copyright issues.

The album is, unsurprisingly, somewhat political at certain points as they take a swipe at the fanatical following that folk like Donald Trump receive and how that blind faith is dangerous to hedonism. There is also a sense of political dissatisfaction that runs through some of the songs, I guess with them coming from Liverpool that they are more Labour oriented than Tory in their views. There is also a song about Peter Sellers (Being There) that talks of how his talent was largely under appreciated by the critics and also the fact that his talent was often overshadowed by his extravagant lifestyle, his love affairs and his hedonism. This was especially true with the tabloids (gutter press like the Murdoch media, rags like The News Of The World and the Daily Mail that so often tell lies and untruths about people). The song has a lovely piano refrain that runs through it, along with orchestrations and a simple synth line that adds weight to the track. A strong vocal introduces the song which, in itself, is rather sad but not morbid, rather it focuses on his failure to maximise on his talents to a level of success that eluded him till his death. This also notes that his passing was largely ignored by the mainstream media, there was no elongated celebration of his talent sadly, his life was worthy of much more than it received.

This is followed by a couple of shorter tracks, namely Cold Comfort and Contender, the former being about family it seems and with a busy bass riff throughout. There is also a chunky guitar fill happening alongside the symphonic keyboards of David Knowles, who really plays up a storm on this album, the song has pace and good dynamics. “The sole of your preachers” is a reference to some inferior footwear from before the days of Nike and Adidas’s training shoe cartel of today. This is followed by the muscular Contender, which is the tale of a man called Danny who is incarcerated for crimes undisclosed. Danny does a degree whilst locked up which affords him the attention of a prison visitor groupie, this is a cautionary tale.

My Little Vampire is a song about how relationships often play out very differently in privacy and how partners can be very cruel to each other. The song contrasts the illusion and imagery of a Bob Ross painting when the reality is very different. This has a piercing guitar solo in the middle and even more lush keyboard sounds and is an emotionally involved track. English Electric, despite its title, has nothing to do with Big Big Train except that originally Achilles considered the name but were unable to use it for copyright and legal reasons. The song has a strong triumphant opening salvo with a jaunty synth, strident bass line and a masterful vocal which complements the song greatly. It has a further snaking lead guitar line and the sturdy bass driving the song forward. I especially like this rather jolly song, it is a great track. Welcome Home is another shorter song with good lyrics, a driving bass and lots of guitar fills. It’s meaning is a little unclear but it is a good track with more than a whiff of the 80’s In its sounds.

The final piece, This Great Adventure, is the album’s longest at just under thirteen minutes duration. This song seems to be about stepping up, making a difference and taking on the challenges of life in a post lockdown pandemic afflicted world. There’s yet more solid bass driving it with scores of keyboards and short but effective guitar fills. The vocal are delivered with deep conviction. This song is a perfect representation of what Swan Chorus are all about and distils into one track all this band offer

This album will no doubt appear on many best of 2023 lists and will definitely be on mine. I commend it most highly indeed, it is simply sublime and enchantingly captivating. Get it now you, will not regret it one bit and the band will appreciate your interest and support.

Released 13th August, 2023.

Order from bandcamp here:

Achilles and the Difference Engine | Swan Chorus (