Cosmograf, THE HAY MAN DREAMS (Cosmograf Music, 2017).
Professor Birzer’s grade: A.
Having grown up on Great Plains of North America, surrounded by grazing horses, big skies, and farms, that guy that hangs out on a big kind of crucifix in the fields of wheat was always, to me, a “Scarecrow.”
And, that really, really scary Batman villain, Dr. Jonathan Crane, is also a “Scarecrow.” He’s creepy in Bruce Timm’s animated Batman, but he’s downright demonic in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy.
When I first saw the title of Robin Armstrong’s latest Cosmograf masterpiece (and, yes, this IS a masterpiece) HAY-MAN DREAMS, I had no clue what the album would be about. After all, Armstrong loves existential themes of isolation, alienation, and timelessness. When I first saw the title, I just assumed the album would be about a farmer who cultivates hay. Maybe some lonely old guy who couldn’t figure out the modern world. I knew that Armstrong would do something wild with it, but I didn’t know what. Hay man?
Then, I finally saw the cover, and I realized that in the U.K., a hay man is what we North Americans call a “Scarecrow.” Looking a little deeper, I found that almost every European people has a different name for a scarecrow. More often than not, the scarecrow particular to the Poles or the Czechs or some other European people has a pagan origin, transformed, later, by Christianity into a kind of good gargoyle, an evil defending against greater evils, and that there might have even been a talisman-like quality attributed to scarecrows during seasons of plague.
This might very well turn into an article about how prog rock makes me smarter! But, let me stick with how Robin Armstrong makes me not just smarter, but also so much happier as a lover of art and creativity.
I didn’t discover the music of Cosmograf until the project’s second release, WHEN AGE HAS DONE ITS DUTY. I pretty much fell head over heals with the first listen, realizing that this was a perfected type of Pink Floyd for the twenty-first century. Don’t get me wrong. Armstrong never imitates, but he always honors.
With each release and each new album, Armstrong (who is, for all intents and purposes, synonymous with Cosmograf) only gets better and better. Why? There are probably innumerable reasons, but I’ll list just a few.
First, Armstrong pours himself into every album. There’s never a note, a lyric, or a transition out of place. Everything fits amazingly well, and, yet, it’s never predictable. I’d never just want a download from Cosmograf. If it’s all I could get, I would take it. But, believe me, Armstrong puts as much into his packaging as he does his music. His music is meant to be savored, and the booklets that he produces only add to the sense of majesty and mystery.
Second, Armstrong doesn’t run with the crowd. If you’re fortunate enough to know him at all on social media, you will realize that it’s quite clear that he’s a man of dignity. He’s happy to receive accolades, but he wants to earn them through his excellence, not through some persistent hankering after fame. In the end, Armstrong cares most about art, not fame. And, related to point one, he puts himself into his music, not into some kind of celebrity web presence, vomiting out every thought that crosses his mind.
Third, in addition to being really, really smart (just look at the man’s lyrics), Armstrong knows how to tell a story and, yet, like his life on social media, keeps just enough of his music and lyrics unexplained to want us, the lovers of prog, wanting more and more. To put it bluntly, Armstrong knows how to shroud a thing in mystery while also giving it depth and meaning.
And, this takes me back to his HAY MAN DREAMS. After reading the lyrics repeatedly and listening to the album even more, I’ve become increasingly amazed, impressed, and stunned in a bit of proggy ecstasy. The “Hay Man” is not just some older farmer, or some scarecrow keeping away the crows in utilitarian fashion, or some totem-istic element of paganism or Christianity driving away demons and sickness—he is all of these things at once and, yet, he is even more. In a way reminiscent of Big Big Train, Armstrong has successfully layered a thing so that the thing itself is so much more than what the thing first appears to be. If Big Big Train digs deep into the earth, Cosmograf digs equally deep into time itself.
Finally, let me state, that while Armstrong continues to draw upon the existentialism of Pink Floyd for this latest prog release, he does so much more than Floyd ever did. Prior to his untimely death, Rick Wright lamented that Floyd had never taken the kind of chances that Mark Hollis did with Talk Talk. From that Great Gig in the Sky, Wright must be smiling down on Armstrong. Though armed with a Floydian sensibility, Armstrong is at once more artful and more innovative than his inspiration.
Finally finally (yes, twice!), the flow of the album is perfect. The album begins on a rather spacey, melancholic note—similar to THE MAN LEFT IN SPACE—but the album only builds from there until the glorious climax, track six, “Hay Man.” Holy Moses! This is one of the finest prog tunes written. An epic, to be sure.
So, go ahead and give all of your awards and press to Steven Wilson, but Armstrong is the real genius. Someday, everyone will realize this.
THE HAY MAN DREAMS is now available from Burning Shed: https://burningshed.com/cosmograf_the-hay-man-dreams_cd