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.
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