January was incredibly busy. And February was incredibly surreal. When you edit a magazine titled Catholic World Report and the pope resigns while you are fighting the nastiest flu known to mankind, it is really surreal. And a new pope will soon be elected. Whew!
But I’m putting all of that on hold for a few moments so I can write what is apparently my monthly—or is it bi-monthly?—post. I have grand plans to post much more often, but for now it is a monthly splurge. I intended (and promised, I’m ashamed to admit) to review the recently released Lobate Scarp album, “Time and Space”, several weeks ago. Russell Clarke has already penned a Progarchy.com review, but I wanted to also share a few thoughts about the album, in part because Russell and I have different takes on a few things about the album and because I have, at the moment, nothing to add to the many reviews of the excellent new Big Big Train album.
Upon first listening to “Time and Space”, my initial impression was quite positive. I’m happy to say that having now listened to it another 10 or 12 times, that impression remains and deepens.
Three things stand out. First, the production is exceptional. This album sounds fabulous: the sound is clear, warm, rich, and with a lot of depth and “room”, if that’s the right term. This album is worth getting just to listen to with headphones, volume up, in order to enjoy the variety of tones, the tasteful cello passages, the top-notch rhythm section, the robust harmonies, and lots of nifty details.
Now, beginning a review with praise for production values is usually the kiss of death, with a big, fat, “But…” to follow. But, no—there is no “but” to follow as, secondly, the music is also exceptional. Russell mentioned Spock’s Beard as a point of comparison, and I would add Neal Morse and Transatlantic. Considering that Adam Sears, the band’s leader, is the main lyricist, singer, and keyboardist, it seems apt that the group might draw some comparisons to Morse. The band’s site states, “From progressive rock influences like Genesis, Yes, and Phish, to the rock sensibilities of bands like Kansas, Muse, Faith No More and Styx, and a pop infusion of catchy vocals like Simple Minds, The Killers, The Police, Queen, and Foreigner; Lobate Scarp’s unique Progressive Space-Opera Rock music will surely take you on a musical journey you won’t forget.” That’s an interesting mix of musical influences and comparisons, and I can best hear Kansas, Styx, and Queen in the mix, as well as some Pink Floyd, especially in some of the guitar work by Hoyt Binder. The “space-opera” connection is, however, mostly lost on me; in fact, it is a bit confusing, because to my ears there isn’t much in the album—at least musically (more on they lyrics later)—that warrants such a description. Then again, I’m not exactly sure what a space opera is in a musical context, although the album that comes to mind for whatever reason is ELO’s “Time”, a personal favorite. While we at Progarchy.com rightly disdain most labels, or at least treat them as necessary evils, I would hazard that “Time and Space” is much more of a cross-over prog, or neo-prog, album, if only because the songs—while fairly complex and played with obvious skill—have an immediate accessibility. In fact, one of the real joys of this album is the presence of very good melodies, all of which stick with you and don’t become tired or stale after a few spins.
Third, and closely related to the first two, is the playing. The band’s promo material highlights the abundant contributions made to the album:
Over 50 musicians were involved in this progressive space-opera rock extravaganza. Guitars, Drums, Synths, Organs, Trumpets, Saxophone, Viola, Violin, Cello, Theremin, Glockenspiel, and a Latin singing choir were all recorded on this one. Peru Percussionist Alex Acuña (Weather Report) appears as a special guest percussionist and Rich Mouser (Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Tears For Fears) mixed and mastered the album.
One might understandably think the resulting album would be overly busy, with endless layers of keyboards, guitars, strings, and whatever else. Surprisingly—and happily—this is not the case, at least not until the climax of the final cut, “The Mirror”, which features a full-blown choir (and to good effect, I think). As mentioned, this album has a lot of room; it breathes well, and part of that is the restraint shown by Sears and Company, who are clearly aware that there is a time and place for a wall of sound approach (at the Big, Choral-Driven End!) and a time for a less-is-more approach. The majority of the album features a very tight four-piece rock group that uses proggy time changes and proggy solos, but without being overtly, relentlessly proggy. This approach, I suspect, might annoy the more purist prog fans, but I think the band demonstrates they know what they want to do, and they do it very well. Besides, the mastery of various styles—notably jazz, classic rock, and some Latin based motifs—is obvious and adds a lot of flavor to the proceedings.
For instance, “Save My Soul” begins with a prog-icized classic rock riff that eventually works into a muscular bass line before Sears enters with a steadily gaining vocal line that finally releases into a big, power-chorded chorus. Then, at about the 3:20 mark, the song breaks down into a funky, fusion-ish segue with vintage keyboards that brings to mind late ‘60s albums (“Bitches Brew”, etc.) by Miles Davis, before eventually works back into a ripping rock song with horns and organ joining the chaotic fray at the end.
And while all of the playing, again, is exceptional, I must single out Sears for his fine vocals (clean and pure in many places; rocking and more raw in others), Binder for his tasteful guitar playing (the sequence in the middle of “Beginning of Us” stands out), and Andy Catt for some dynamic, propulsive bass playing.
Finally, the lyrics. Contra Russell, I heard (and read) the lyrics as working on a couple of different levels: one inter-relational and the other spiritual, or metaphysical. This was confirmed by Sears, who shared the following in an e-mail regarding the song, “The Contradiction”:
I’m sure one may look at it and think that it is about a struggle in a relationship. While this can be true, the deeper meaning of “Contradiction” is about the connection of the spiritual world and the physical world. It is spoken from the point of view of the soul which exists in the spiritual/metaphysical world and this soul is talking to its physical world inhabiter, who is struggling with the contradictions of existing in both worlds. For instance, if there is indeed a spiritual or meta-physical world, this computer I’m typing only exists in the physical world and doesn’t exist at all in the meta-physical world. So it exists, yet doesn’t exist at the same time. If you respect and accept the contradiction your physical self and your soul will be brought together in a strong bond, but if you think too much about the contradiction or try picking it apart, it can drive you mad. “The Contradiction will bring us together or tear us apart.”
I’m not sure I’m on board with the metaphysics outlined here (they sound neo-gnostic, but that’s for another discussion), but the seriousness of the searching is hard to overlook (also readily evident in “Save My Soul”); this is not an ordinary love song. And I suppose the lyrics are what are most obviously “space opera” about the album. Regardless of the descriptive used, I think “Time and Space” is a very good album by a young and talented band that rewards repeated listens—especially loud and with headphones!