The Flower Kings – Islands – Inside Out Music, October 30, 2020
CD 1 – 1. Racing With Blinders On (4:24), 2. From The Ground (4:02), 3. Black Swan (5:53), 4. Morning News (4:01) 5. Broken (6:38) 6. Goodbye Outrage (2:19), 7. Journeyman (1:43), 8. Tangerine (3:51), 9. Solaris (9:10), 10. Heart Of The Valley (4:18), 11. Man In A Two Peace Suit (3:21)
CD 2 – 1. All I Need Is Love (5:48), 2. A New Species (5:45), 3. Northern Lights (5:43), 4. Hidden Angles (0:50), 5. Serpentine (3:52), 6. Looking For Answers (4:30), 7. Telescope (4:41), 8. Fool’s Gold (3:11), 9. Between Hope & Fear (4:29), 10. Islands (4:12)
In an effort to find some sort of silver lining in this ridiculously crappy year, I’ll point out that there have been a lot of great releases in the progressive rock world in 2020. The Flower Kings’ upcoming album, Islands, probably wouldn’t have been released this year if the year had unfolded as normal. With many countries in lockdown and bands unable to tour, numerous musicians have found themselves with, as Styx once put it, too much time on their hands.
Multinational band The Flower Kings chose to make the best of their extra free time and use the Internet to their advantage, recording their new album from homes in Sweden, Austria, California, Denmark, and Italy. Fittingly, the album emphasizes the many forms of isolation we experience in 2020 – beyond just the physical. Thus the title Islands.
I’m not an expert on The Flower Kings’ discography, but I generally like their music and appreciate the profound impact they have had on the rebirth of classic progressive rock starting in the 1990s. I didn’t particularly enjoy last year’s Waiting for Miracles. It was a little too political for my taste. The artwork alone was a bit obnoxious – an elephant standing on a house of cards while being hypnotized and surrounded by a bunch of oranges… that’s about as subtle as a political cartoon.
Roger Dean’s artwork for Islands, on the other hand, is fantastic. It’s too bad he hasn’t been doing their artwork all along, because it really fits their music. The lyrics “Upside down between earth and sky” from the track “Between Hope & Fear” are particularly reflected in the album art. Islands in particular has a lot of nods to Yes, which has probably always been in their music. Jonas Reingold’s bass stands out to me as being particularly Yes-like on this record.
The opening track, “Racing with Blinders On,” gets us off to a pounding start with a full-on symphony of drums, relentless bass, and swirling keyboards. It’s prog at its finest. There’s a little too much dead space in the opening seconds of the song, but once you get past that it’s a brilliant way to start the show.
At 92 minutes long, you’re in for a ride with this album, which is pretty common for The Flower Kings. Roine Stolt’s guitar keeps the band on track throughout, but the whole band plays as well as they ever have. Zach Kamins’ keyboards, organ, mellotron, and symphonic orchestrations create a unique sound that fills in all the gaps. “Solaris,” the longest track on the album, opens up with a soundscape that sounds like it was probably all done by Kamins. The album is meant to be heard as a whole, with the collection of shorter tracks building upon and drawing from each other. At nine and a half minutes, “Solaris” acts as the epic for the album. Kamins’ keyboards provide a slow build that also offers a brief respite from the heavier sides of the album. After that first minute and a half or so, we’re back into full prog territory with Stolt’s guitar, Mirko DeMaio’s drums, and Stolt’s singing leading the way. Stolt’s guitar solo in the latter half is a nice high point, even if it could’ve been a bit longer.
There really is a lot to unpack with this album. I’ve listened to it many times over the last several weeks, and I’m still finding it hard to review. There are so many layers to the music, and the album is so long that you could listen to it 100 times and still find more pieces you didn’t notice earlier. The album leans more on the music than the singing, but the vocal talents of Stolt and Hasse Fröberg add an important layer, especially when they sing together.
Earlier I mentioned Reingold’s bass standing out to me. I recently reviewed Steve Hackett’s new live album over at the Dutch Progressive Rock Page, and Jonas played bass for Hackett on that tour (Spectral Mornings and Selling England by the Pound). Thus over the last month I’ve been listening to that live album and Islands a lot, with Reingold being the connecting piece (Rob Townsend from Hackett’s touring band also guests on Islands). His bass stood out to me on the Hackett show, so perhaps that’s why it stood out to me so clearly on Islands. But it truly is magnificent. His tone is wonderful, and it sounds so clear in the mix. I wish it was a little more prevalent in some of the songs, because my favorite moments on the album are when he’s wailing away on the bass.
If I had to make a complaint with the album, it would be the frequent quieter moments. With such a long album, those parts can start to drag once you’re near the hour mark. The last track on the first CD, “Man In A Two Peace Suit,” strikes me as filler. It starts off slow and quiet before focusing on a guitar solo from Stolt. The track would be great if the solo were more memorable, but something about it strikes me as being a bit off. If you skip straight from “Heart of the Valley” to “All I Need Is Love,” you really don’t miss much. That transition sounds natural to me because the latter track opens with a brief quiet synth section, which is how “Heart of the Valley” ends.
The first minute+ of “A New Species” is similar. The sound of running water with very quiet synth tones really doesn’t add much to the track. Once you get past that, the song is quite good. It’s a much stronger instrumental track than “Man In A Two Peace Suit,” but it doesn’t need that minute in the beginning.
I guess my issue is how much music is too much? This question is probably what has kept me from delving more than I have into The Flower Kings’ music. There’s a time for long double albums, but not just for the sake of it. It’s easy to get lost in a long album like this, and if losing a track (or a minute) here or there makes the album sound more cohesive, then so be it.
Nevertheless the album’s high points (which, despite what my last three paragraphs imply, are most of the album) are very high. The instrumental interplays highlight how good this band is. The album only drags when it loses all of its components. When they’re all playing, they’re shining. There’s a place for the quiet, reflective moments, but some instances of that are done better than others.
Another aspect of the album I want to point out is when the band branches out a bit beyond their typical sound. “Serpentine” finds them in a more playful spot, which I think helps break up the album in a good way. The unique chant-like vocal line that pops up multiple times in the song is a bit jarring, but it forces you to sit up and take notice. This track also features saxophone from Rob Townsend. That saxophone sound adds a lot to The Flower Kings overall sound, particularly highlighting the bands heavy jazz influences. They could have used Townsend more on the album, and I wouldn’t have complained.
Ironically you might say there’s filler in my review, but in conclusion I think Islands is a great album, and it already might be my favorite Flower Kings album. It still suffers from some of what has kept me from playing the band’s music more often than I do, but overall it’s a win and one of the best albums of the season so far. Check out the tracks the band has already released, and pre-order it at the links below.
Preorder from Burning Shed:
CD – https://burningshed.com/the-flower-kings_islands_2cd?filter_name=flower%20kings&filter_sub_category=true
Vinyl – https://burningshed.com/the-flower-kings_islands_triple-vinyl_2cd?filter_name=flower%20kings&filter_sub_category=true
Or order straight from the band: https://www.roinestolt.com/s/shop