Henry Fool’s new album, Men Singing, is an alternate history, a prog rock proclamation that it was the Soft Machine, not Elvis, who invented rock and roll, out of the ashes of bop, not blues. Led by keyboardist Stephen Bennett and stellar no-man vocalist Tim Bowness (who joins his bandmates in not singing on the album — he plays guitar here), Henry Fool conjures first wave English prog and ambient while alternately dodging and burning the spirit of King Crimson’s “Starless” and Soft Machine’s Third. If anything could convince me this is the way rock’s mainstream should have shaken out, Men Singing is it.
In writing* and on record, the project’s relationship to first generation progressive rock is explicit and real — Phil Manzanera is a collaborator here — but also cautious, with an important ambition to avoid simple mimicry. Any way you look at it, this is not an easy thing to pull off, and in fact is the central obstacle to bands consciously working in the contemporary prog rock genre. How to avoid stylistic forgery? The early prog groups had an entirely different set of references that, naturally, did not include prog, and there’s an uneasy recognition that once it’s “prog” it’s no longer prog. With that said, if it’s possible to meet expectations while pushing boundaries, Men Singing more than succeeds.
The four-song album begins with the longform “Everyone in Sweden,” which maps the record. The aggressive, energetic rhythm section structures the melodic builds and mixes, suggesting the work of Robert Wyatt with Soft Machine, Jaki LIebzeit with Can, and Klaus Schulze with Tangerine Dream. Which is to say that Bitches Brew-era Miles hovers like some benevolent deity. But this is not a music stuck in the past. It has a smartly produced, live sound that brings the drums and bass up front — with a rising and falling cadre of guitars and horns and glockenspiels and mellotrons working alongside — while avoiding the airtight digital separation or cleanness of many contemporary prog albums. It works anew the fertile ground turned over by post-rock instrumental bands like Pell Mell and Tortoise, and arguably offers a more focused experience than either of those estimable groups.
At 40 minutes, Men Singing is well-paced and doesn’t linger too long, which might have been a problem in different hands or in different eras. Terrain is explored, not exploited, and the two 13-minute cuts are satisfying in their development. The two shorter pieces make their point even more powerfully, with “My Favorite Zombie Dream” going some distance towards explaining the band’s name, a homage to Hal Hartley’s late 90s movie but really a nod to Hartley’s music, which colors his films in a moody, darkly humorous palette.
It’s hard to recommend this album too highly, which, given Bowness’s involvement, should be no surprise. And while an instrumental album called Men Singing might feel clever, the voices on this record show it’s only half a joke.