I first came across Robin Armstrong and his musical project Cosmograf back in 2011 when one of his songs was featured on a Prog magazine sampler.
It was the stand-out track on that particular compilation as it had that certain something which usually draws me in: interesting instrumental and sound effects, thoughtful lyrics and astonishing emotion. The track was called Into This World and into Armstrong’s bucolic, wistful world of past memories I was duly enticed. This was beautiful, soul-stirring and thoughtful.
The song opened his third self-made Cosmograf release, When Age Has Done Its Duty, for which he had enlisted some top talent to help him tell his very personal and poignant story.
Now, nearly seven years later, the perfectionist that he is, Armstrong has made some significant “improvements” to the album and has reissued it as as 2018 remix edition.
For my part, this is great news because along the passage of his subsequent superlative four albums (The Man Left In Space, Capacitor, The Unreasonable Silence and last year’s The Hay-Man Dreams), Armstrong has attracted legions of new fans and many may not have managed to get hold of a copy of “Duty”.
The opportunity to re-issue the album came after all the original physical versions sold out. Armstrong left his record company, he went independent and the album rights returned to him.
As Armstrong explains on his website: “It’s considered by many to be a seminal work in the Cosmograf catalogue, so rather than just re-issuing it I thought it would be better to completely remix and master it and address some of the issues that were less than perfect on the original recording.
“Many of the original guitar, bass and vocal parts have been re-recorded, new string arrangements added, and a more dynamic low volume level master produced. I’m really pleased with how it’s now sounding.”
And so he should because the new features have only enhanced what is a truly remarkable album.
What marked out this album was the way Armstrong took his own very personal story and, using some of his musical influences, shaped a collection of diverse songs into a memory board of observations and emotions.
Central to these are his childhood memories of staying with his Uncle Harry and Auntie Mollie in the rural English county of Shropshire, an area of the country which lies between Wales and the industrial West Midlands, renowned for its unspoiled natural beauty.
What he delivers is a cradle to grave concept. which goes way beyond those childhood memories and delivers his own testimony to life and. in particular, growing old, a journey which he depicts with great tenderness and sorrow.
Going back to the beginning, Into This World is still an astonishing opener, the ticking clock and telephone ringing bringing about the anticipation of new life into this world that comes through the sound of a baby crying.
The song is given as a meditation on the meaning of life through a series of homespun truths. To the new mother, “Your life will change to the sound of an infant voice” and to the new arrival, “The years will soon pass, the seasons will change, follow your heart, explore your own range.”
For musical style, look no further than Steven Wilson, one of Armstrong’s heroes, another artiste who looks at the complexities of seemingly simple strands of life and makes them extraordinary. There’s a melancholic piano and searing guitar solo in there too to heighten the poignancy.
Those childhood memories reach an early peak on the acoustic loveliness of Blacksmith’s Hammer, starting with the physical sound of eponymous hammer (which I always thought had the lightness of touch as found on ELP’s Lucky Man). This is further uplifted by light and airy electric guitar passages, gorgeous vocal harmonies and Steve Dunn’s underpinning bass lines.
Armstrong has re-recorded the acoustic guitar in the haunting On Which We Stand, co-written with guitarist Simon Rogers (Also Eden, Ghost Community). It features a church-like organ and more close vocal harmonies. Roger’s soaring guitar and a huge ELP-like synthesiser further heighten the rural picture it paints.
For pure retro nostalgia, Bakelite Switch has it all. That recurring clock-ticking motif reappears, along with the sound of a brass band, as Armstrong recalls some of his memories of childhood. Bob Dalton of It Bites provides the heavy duty drums as the song begins to gather momentum.
However, there’s a darker side to this song as Armstrong begins to drill down into the realities of getting older through lyrics such as:
“Your busy life will lead you to forget, where your life came from, what is right and wrong.”
There’s also a blistering guitar solo from Luke Machin. It’s hard to believe he was delivering such fantastic fretwork seven years ago as he began his apprenticeship with The Tangent, his own band Concrete Lake/Maschine and, later, Kiama.
Armstrong’s music influences appear in a countdown sequence reminiscent of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, the lyrics taking on a Floydian turn at one juncture with a mention of “The lunatic is on the grass,” followed by a Beatles’ reference, the brass band re-emerging to bring it all to a close.
The recurring clock and a short speech in the manner of Prof Stephen Hawking do little to prepare you for the heart-wrenching anguish of Memory Lost. It features, to my mind, one of the greatest single vocal performances from Huw Lloyd-Jones (Midnight Sun, Unto Us, Also Eden) which will tear the fabric of your soul. It’s a song which will move anyone who witnesses the onset of age and its challenges in either their nearest and dearest or their friends. As Armstrong explains, it is about his Aunt battling on with life after the passing of his Uncle when all she has left to sustain her is her memories of their time together. It’s will simply break your heart as it does mine every time I hear it.
The wonderfully named Tom O’Bedlam recites Matthew Arnold’s poem “On Growing Old” to start the title track When Age Has Done Its Duty, before the understated melody line, comprising piano and mellotron, gives space to the extraordinary voice of Steve Thorne who all but delivers last rites in the song:
“Prised from her home, in a poor state of health, The time had come to face her death.”
But the Farrier (Uncle Harry) is there waiting by her bed. The moment of passing comes, depicted by a church organ and followed by a searing guitar solo from Armstrong.
Changing the mood again, Armstrong introduces an electro-synthesiser and an insidious beat, together with the heavy guitar riffs of Lee Abraham (Galahad), for White Light Awaits, his voice taking on a seriously sinister edge as he menacingly asks:”How do you feel, does the light hurt your eyes, is the change a big surprise?”
Finally, the tranquillity and peace returns on the beautifully chilled Dog On The Clee, in which Armstrong refers to himself as “the boy from down south.”
I love this album now as I loved the album then. It is Armstrong’s voice you hear throughout, musically, lyrically and above all, vocally and what a voice it is. Some may cite the likes of Messrs David Longdon, Steve Hogarth and John Young as the outstanding contemporary prog vocalists but listen to Armstrong and he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. He is a consummate story teller, able to inject pathos, drama, nostalgia and pain into his intonation and delivery.
The 16 page accompanying booklet, including the stunning original artwork from Graeme Bell, provides the stories behind the songs, some of which I have touched on here.
I looked up my original review of this album, written for another music website, and it alluded to him sounding like Van Der Graaf Generator and Pink Floyd. Listening to it now, yes, the influences are in there but this was the album which shaped the unique Cosmograf sound, so no comparisons are required: only compliments on how Armstrong has created his own special place in the current prog landscape.
Copies of the album are available from the Cosmograf website here.