This brilliant new release draws upon all the best features of Pure Reason Revolution’s back catalogue. But it also reveals PRR developing now into a heavier band, with cascades of sound that can suddenly rock the listener at unpredictable junctures.
I have listened to no other record this year more times than I have this one. Its beauty and complexity continues to unfold after repeated spins. My considered assessment is that this album lays claim to being PRR’s best work yet.
Those are bold words to commit to print, because Pure Reason Revolution burst upon the scene with a stunning debut LP in 2006, The Dark Third, foreshadowed only by their 2005 EP, Cautionary Tales for the Brave. The Dark Third earned them so many accolades, and was such an unexpected prog rock masterpiece, that it has been almost impossible for reviewers to avoid invidious comparison of their later work with that glorious debut.
For example, many listeners were baffled by the emphasis on dance grooves and electronica synth sounds on 2009’s Amor Vincit Omnia and 2010’s Hammer and Anvil. But those paying closer attention would have realized that PRR cannot be easily pegged as a conventional prog band, ready to unproblematically adopt a nostalgic label like “the new Pink Floyd.” That has always been a lazy inference, based solely on the David Gilmour-esque guitar of “Aeropause,” the opening track of The Dark Third. Rather, it is “Golden Clothes,” the last track on the 2 CD edition of The Dark Third (which unites disparate tracks from the UK and US editions), that contains the seeds for PRR’s later adventures, especially on their next two albums. The fact is, there is no genre that PRR works within other than: “no limits”; and so “prog” is simply the easiest way to try and categorize a band so creative that they consistently defy nominal categorization. They continually change musical shape, and not just from album to album, but typically within any given song.
Above Cirrus feels like the second half of a double album experience that began with PRR’s recent reunion on 2020’s Eupnea. On this new disc, the otherworldly harmonic duo of Chloe Alper and Jon Courtney consolidate their best musical insights and experiences from Eupnea. Hence, Greg Jong, also on guitars and vocals, is now a full PRR member again, which had not been the case ever since after The Dark Third had been recorded and just before it was released. Perhaps it was Greg’s stellar contributions to Eupnea that led to the realization that there was something in the debut LP’s ternary chemistry that was still untapped. Adding a fourth element, Geoff Dugmore contributed drums to Eupnea and, now here once again, his thunderous impact is heard to thrilling effect all through Above Cirrus. Consider, for example, how he seems to singlehandedly guide his bandmates on a trip from dance to metal in “Phantoms.” The only thing present on Eupnea that is not augmented further on Above Cirrus is Chloe’s complete metamorphosis into the new Kate Bush. Like the queen herself, Chloe too is capable of slaying at a distance with the emotional power of her unmatched phrasing. But on Above Cirrus she selflessly recedes into the harmonic structures, with no full blown leads or duets. Yet she still occasionally unveils her lone voice, on songs like “Cruel Deliverance,” with sparing turns of phrase that pierce the soul.
The theme of Eupnea (literally, “breathe well”) seemed to be “life,” and the theme of Above Cirrus seems to be “afterlife,” in the sense that the music this time around explores the theme of re-birth; that is, of what kind of positivity and regeneration can still come forth after encounters with evil and darkness. The impressionistic lyrics of PRR are so poetic and arresting, they add yet one more uncanny effect to be savored upon repeated listens and contemplations of the band’s work. On Above Cirrus, “Our Prism” and “New Kind of Evil” each allude to coping with the shadows of the pandemic, and “Phantoms” confronts lies, disinformation, and malice. “Cruel Deliverance” invokes death, failed escape, emotional wounds, and deception. Most epically, “Scream Sideways” is ten minutes of astonishing, visceral, haunting explorations of conflict, grief, and love. “Dead Butterfly” exquisitely contemplates violence and the fragility of life, while “Lucid” kaleidoscopically depicts lovers fighting their way through to reconciliation. Each of these songs connects powerfully with the listener on a deep emotional level. They generously repay the patient auditor with delicate and graceful bursts of radiance and consolation.
Looking back at The Dark Third 2 CD edition, that debut was really an era of a double album’s worth of material, adding up to an hour and half in total (if you also include “Sound of Free” from The Intention Craft EP). The theme was twofold: dreams and reality, and the moveable boundary between the two.
Further, PRR’s next two albums may together be considered to form a double album: Amor Vincit Omnia focuses on the theme of “love,” and Hammer and Anvil on the theme of “war.” Each disc complements the other; in themselves, they each contain carefully intricate musical tapestries. I am continually amazed that songs like “Victorious Cupid” or “Les Malheurs” or “Never Divide” or “Blitzkrieg” are not more widely recognized as the works of pure genius that they are, equal to or surpassing anything on The Dark Third. But such is the conundrum of being a devoted listener of PRR. Part of the pleasure lies in one’s expectations being repeatedly confounded and subverted by this endlessly clever and imaginative band. Only the joy and ecstasy of the music is itself the reward. Any reviewer’s words that come afterwards may serve only as mere nods to others, like us, who have also found their way to this incomparable band.
Eupnea and Above Cirrus, as I have already opined, take the shape of two halves of one whole, and not without precedent, at least if my above remarks also strike other listeners as true. Eupnea, with its theme of “life,” seems to possess a gentler prog idiom than Above Cirrus‘s fearless exploration of “afterlife,” namely, the life still possible after darkness and death. This new PRR disc may be too challenging for some in that it is scarcely comprehensible on first listen. But perhaps in that way it mindfully rises to embody its theme.
Jon, we are told, asked Greg, who knew all the cloud names: Well, what’s above cirrus? Nothing’s above cirrus, replied Greg. Well, if the only thing after life can be life, then this dazzling music is a fitting celebration of the miracle of life’s regenerative powers. For music is already beyond life. In this way, too, for PRR — with Eupnea and Above Cirrus now indisputably proof of a PRR back from the dead — music is their afterlife. And they take us right to the heart of the miracle.
Reviewed by C.S. Morrissey for Progarchy.com