This is a freakin’ amazing album. If you have not yet heard Schooltree’s Heterotopia, you have no idea what you’re missing.
Imagine if Kate Bush released, in 2017, a 100-minute long, double LP concept album. Imagine if it was so damn good that it ranked right up there in rock history with The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Quadrophenia. Sounds like a total fantasy — too good to be true, right?
Well, that is exactly the magnitude of what is going on here with this release. Except it’s not Kate Bush. It’s an incredible musician I had never heard of, called Lainey Schooltree, who has done the miraculous. With this amazing achievement, she has forever earned her place in the history of rock. This is seriously one of the greatest albums you will ever hear.
The story is divided into two Acts, and Act I (disc 1) flows perfectly as a prog opera, beginning with a dazzling six-minute overture that takes us through the album’s key musical themes. Lainey’s keyboard playing is spectacular, and evokes classical comparisons (e.g., Gershwin). To bookend Act I, track 2, “Rocksinger,” is musically echoed by “Specter Lyfe” (track 11), at the close of Act I.
Those eleven tracks, in themselves, comprise one of the best long-form prog storytelling masterpieces ever recorded. If the album had stopped there, at the end of Act I, it would have been enough for prog fans everywhere to place the disc, without hesitation, into their Top Ten for 2017. Take the epic track, “Cat Centipede,” for example, which early on (track 4) delivers everything a prog-lover might want in 7:48 of outstanding musicality.
But the album doesn’t stop there. What happens next is that, suddenly out of nowhere, the album turns into what sounds like a totally genius AOR classic rock album, maybe from the seventies, that you somehow overlooked. Tracks 11 though 15 show such mastery of rock and roll songwriting, it is completely surprising to find them hidden in the middle of a prog album. We’re talking musical achievement on the level of the greatest A-sides of the best rock albums of the twentieth century.
Whenever I didn’t have time to listen to both Acts of Heterotopia, I would listen to “Overture” (track 1) and “Rocksinger” (track 2), and then play tracks 11 through 15, which were the songs that first grabbed me from the whole project, simply because they were immediately accessible and could stand alone, apart from full immersion in the whole concept album storyline. “Power of the Ghost” (track 15) has such a powerful groove that, if radio was still a thing, this would be the album’s first single. It would be a massive hit.
“Dead Girl” (track 12) is one of the coolest alternative rock songs that you could play to anyone, as just one track to win them over, to show them the incredible vocal talent of Lainey Schooltree. So too with “Turning into the Strange” (track 13). Sometimes Lainey can sound like Kate Bush (as on “The Abyss”, track 5, which summons for me the mood of Aerial‘s “Nocturn”), but honestly she is a vocal chameleon who changes from song to song so many times that you can never pin her down as anybody’s imitator. She is a true original, but you’ll have fun hearing musical allusions in the multiplicity of all her transformations. Sometimes she even sounds like Karen Carpenter from an alternative universe (in which she lived to go on to convert to prog and to make brilliant concept albums).
I have come to think of the whole Heterotopia album as moving through three main musical phases: first, prog opera (tracks 1-10); second, an A-side from a vintage rock and roll classic (tracks 11-15); and finally a fully staged Broadway prog rock musical (tracks 16-24). Those last nine tracks cannot be listened to without you imagining a dramatic production, with performers singing at each other amidst choreography and stagecraft.
“The River” (track 18) is a spine-tingling musical experiment that takes risks on a Kate Bush level, and that totally succeeds, despite all the odds against it. It is a magical, outstanding track, so unusual and, when it happens, proof of the never-flagging genius throughout the album. One can only imagine what it might look like as part of a Broadway production.
“Enantiodromia Awakens” (track 20) is a showcase for synthesized prog recitative and it shouldn’t work at all, but it succeeds magnificently. I find it consistently exciting to listen to, as it sets up the whole stunning finale that follows.
From the introduction of the “Keep Your Head” theme in track 22, right through to the last song “Utopia” (track 24), in which the theme is recapitulated with devastating effectiveness, Lainey and her bandmates weave a perfect ending to a perfect album.
Lainey Schooltree, I have no idea who you are, but this album, which you have produced in collaboration with fantastic work from everyone involved, is one of the most wholly unexpected works of genius that I have ever encountered. Congratulations to all of you from Progarchy, and a big hat tip to our Adam Sears, who alerted me to this amazing gem. This dazzling album is truly a towering work of art.
Shine on, Schooltree.
Progarchist Rating: ★★★★★ 10/10 A+
Lainey Schootree – vox/pianos/synths
Brendan Burns – guitar
Derek Van Wormer – bass
Tom/Tod/Tad Collins – drums
Peter Danilchuk – organs/synths
Peter Moore – nylon guitar, additional vox/keys/programming