Seize the Day: Galahad, BATTLE SCARS

[N.B.  Due to weather, our internet is out, and I’ve typed this and posted it using our cell connection.  Spotty at best.  If there are errors and typos in the post, please don’t let it reflect on all of progarchy.  When I have a real connection, I’ll clean it up.  Promise!–Brad, ed.]

I hate to admit it, but I didn’t know the music of Galahad until about a year and a half ago.

Alison Henderson, first lady of prog and a fellow progarchist, introduced me to the music at the time that Battle Scars (April 2012) came out.  “Brad, you have to check out the new Galahad album.  It’s brilliant.”  Actually, I’m paraphrasing, not quoting.  But, I bet I’m really close when remembering her email that day.

I never fail to follow the advice of Lady Henderson, and I downloaded the music that day.

From the opening plaintive words to the direct pleading lines of “Battle Scars, Battle Scars,” I was rather taken.  I wrote back to her almost immediately, “This is what Ultravox should’ve been!”  She replied that she would have to take my word for it.

Granted, I really dislike it when reviewers compare Big Big Train to Genesis, as though Genesis needed completing or as though Big Big Train exists to fill the void left by 1977 Genesis.  So, please don’t take my comparison as anything more than a joyful comparison.  Stu Nicholson’s voice has, in the best sense, a Midge Ure quality—bringing just the perfect amount of emotion and emphasis to a song.  So, imagine if Ultravox had decided to explore the farthest reaches of its potential after releasing Rage in Eden (especially side 2 of that amazing work).  Imagining such a  beautiful thing, I can see—far into the distance—Battle Scars or Beyond the Realms of Euphoria.

After the brief discussion with Alison, being the obsessive prog fan that I’m sure many progarchists are, I looked up everything I could find regarding Galahad.  I’d heard the name, many times, of course, before April 2012, but always in the context of “neo-prog.”

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Neo-Progressive Rock

As much as I pride myself (always dangerous) on my knowledge of prog, ca. 1971 to the present, I’m really weak on what’s called “neo prog” or “second-wave prog.”  At the time that second-wave prog emerged, my junior high, high school, and college years (Class of 1990), I was listening to so-called new wave such as Thomas Dolby, The Cure, and XTC, presuming them to be the rightful inheritors of Yes and Genesis.  For me, the ultimate prog album of the 1980s is Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden.  Next to Talk Talk, Rush was my favorite band.  I didn’t even know about Marillion until a friend introduced me to them in 1993.  He handed me a copy of Misplaced Childhood, and I was stunned such a group had existed without my knowledge (there’s that pride again).  I very much liked what I heard, but this was just before Brave, The Light, and The Flower King appeared—which almost completely stole my attention.

Needless to write at this point, my knowledge of Pallas, IQ, and Galahad—all supposed neo-prog—was pretty poor.  About eight or nine years ago, I started collecting the back catalogues of Pallas and IQ, but Galahad still remained off my radar.  I’m pretty much a complete “newbie” when it comes to other neo-prog artists.

I’m not sure if neo-prog is a sub-genre of progressive rock or really the “second wave of prog.”  Whatever it is, I like what I’ve heard. . . .

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Battle Scars

. . . . especially when it comes to Galahad.  I like it very much.  Indeed, this is an understatement.  From the moment I first heard Battle Scars, I knew this was a band I would come to cherish.  And, I have.  Though I regret having missed out on so much since 1985 when it comes to this band, I’m also really happy to have it all to explore again.  As I love to tell my students, I’m jealous that so many of them get to read The Lord of the Rings for the first time.  I would give a lot for that “first time” again.  I feel I’ve been given a gift by coming to Galahad late in life.

I really have no idea if Battle Scars is a “proper” neo-progressive album or not.  I don’t have the tools to judge, and I’m more than content to know it’s brilliant music, whatever label might adhere to it.

In terms of tone, Battle Scars is the Grace Under Pressure of our present age  In 1984, Rush explored—in a rather dour, harried, poetic fashion—the final days of the Cold War, though most of us didn’t know the days of the Soviet empire were numbered.  Gulags, holocaust camps, the loss of a friend, fear, acid rain, and rabbits running under are squealing wheels all haunted Grace Under Pressure.  Listening to this album while devouring various dystopian novels fundamentally shaped my perceptions of what I saw in the news.

With Battle Scars, Nicholson has equalled Peart in quality and tone, asking what a post-9/11, a post-Bush, world might mean.  But, just as with Grace Under Pressure, the events of the world offer a symbol for the events of the soul.  Disorder in one is disorder in the other.

The album opens with haunting words—even in delivery—of St. Paul.  Do our actions reap corruption and death or life everlasting?

I’m not sure if Nicholson wants his listeners to take these words literally or not, but they fit ominously and perfectly, setting the stage for some of the most important and meaningful questions we can ever ask ourselves, Greek or Jew, male or female, bond or free.

How to you want to live in this world.  With integrity and purpose or without?  Do you want to achieve and strive or do you want to glide and get by?  Do you want the message on your tombstone to read “he lived” or to read “he lived well”?

Though only seven tracks at 44 minutes, Battle Scars packs a serious punch.  After the contemplative opening moments quoting St. Paul in hushed tones, Battle Scars becomes relentless.  Indeed, a wave of strings and respectful vocals become pounding bass and drums, crying against vanity.  “Hollow words count for nothing.”

An explosion or implosion ends the first track, and it glides into some nice reverb and more pounding bass, guitar, and drums in the shortest track of the album, “Reach for the Sun,” the lyrics reminding the listener that “battle scars are real.”

Track three, “Singularity,” begins with some appropriate spacey ethereal washes of keyboards, and the distant angular guitar is especially good.  It breaks into a full rock song a little over a minute into the track, and the listener is propelled forward again.  Having reached beyond the pain and suffering of this world, the protagonist of “Battle Scars” has transcended reality in his imagination and integrity.  “You can’t touch me now.” The track ends with some beautiful, romantic piano.

“Bitter and Twisted,” track four, brings the listener back to the world, with every instrument back in full, driving play.  It’s in this track that the band displays their full strength, as individual players and as an artistic whole.  This is one very tight band.  Lyrically, it’s difficult to know if Nicholson is identifying with the protagonist here, expressing shock at betrayal, or if we’re given the standpoint of an observer misperceiving and misunderstanding the protagonist.  “You’re just a little piece of nothing at all.”

With track five, “Suspended Animation,” the protagonist identifies the evil that is in himself and the world around him.  Here, we find a movement toward reconciling the order of the inward and outer person.  The protagonist must reconcile his own troubles and problems, seeking some kind of forgiveness and atonement.  Another driving rock song.  Nicholson’s vocals are particularly good, especially as he proclaims and enunciates the words, “suspended animation.”

My favorite song on the album is the sixth, “Beyond the Barbed Wire.”  As one would expect with such a title, the song is not a happy one, though it might be a resigned one.  One of the quieter songs on the album, at least for its first minute or so, it reminds the listener that though the Nazis and Soviets might be gone, other evils remain in the world.  At least, as I’m understanding the lyrics, this is what I’m hearing.  The holocausts and gulags have just taken on new shape and new form, but the essence of such evils remains.  “I’m just thinking, just thinking, beyond the barbed wire.”  The protagonist, however, finds great strength in those who came before him.

The spirits of the lost reinforce my will

Their souls reunite in pure defiance

We will not disappear in mournful smoke.

This is a stunningly beautiful lyric, and Nicholson delivers it not just ably, but expertly.  The voice reminds the listener of the opening lines of the album, the words from Paul.

The final song, “Seize the Day,” is the longest track and it successfully ties the whole work together, allowing all to end in real joy.  The track also prepares the listener for the second Galahad release of the 2012, Beyond the Realms of Euphoria.  Still very much a rock song, “Seize the Day,” also embraces, very well, forms of electronica.  “Seize the day/relish every moment.”

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Thank you, Stu, Roy, Spencer, Dean, and Neil.  You have created a thing of beauty.  Long may the creativity and virtue of Galahad continue.

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