Well, not quite perfect, but I probably got your attention. I’m becoming a marketer! Dear Lord. Help us all.
For much of my life, friends have asked me to explain progressive rock to them. A decade ago (Or so. It might have been more than a decade ago–probably sometime around 2002, now that I think about it), I decided to start burning CDs as a way of introducing the genre. This morning, as I was cleaning an area that should’ve been cleaned a while ago, I came across a copy of the CD.
For whatever reason, I entitled it “Regressive Rock, Part I.” I must’ve thought that was pretty funny at the time, though I don’t remember exactly why. I assume that I didn’t want my friends thinking that “progressive” had something to do with crazy right-wing nationalists (such as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson from a century ago; or President Bush of 2002). In the United States, “progressive” often recalls horrifically embarrassing memories of slaughtering Indians, interning Japanese Americans, and treating African-Americans inhumanely.
As I was making Sunday brunch, I popped the CD in and found myself quite happy with the selections. Here they are. Let me know what you think.
The Flower Kings have been an essential part of my life for the last thirteen years. In 2000, one of my students (now, rather happily, a colleague) lent me his copy of Flower Power. I’d never heard of the band up to that point, though I’ve been a progger since the age of 4, way back in 1972.
I’d purchased my first Spock’s Beard album (their first as well) when it first came out in the fall of 1994, and I knew that Morse had been working with a Swede (all I knew about him) in a new a “supergroup,” Transatlantic. I remember thinking, “Wow, this phase of progressive rock truly is mighty if it can have a ‘supergroup.’”
It’s almost humorous now to think there was a time when I didn’t know the work of Roine Stolt. Through Stolt’s work, I found out about The Tangent. And, really, life without The Flower Kings or The Tangent? Too weird to even contemplate.
From the opening few notes of Flower Power, I was hooked. I loved the packaging, the music, the dreaminess. I immediately purchased the back catalogue of The Flower Kings, and I’ve since purchased every release upon its release date. And, I’ve done the same with all of Stolt’s projects. I was also lead, of course, to Tom Bodin’s solo work, Agents of Mercy, Kaipa, and Karmakanic.
Be ware, gentle reader, the rabbit hole into the world of Swedish Prog is a winding but glorious one.
While there’s no album by The Flower Kings I dislike (quite the opposite), Space Revolver has always been my favorite. It has a perfect flow to it, and it only grows increasingly interesting with each listen. It served as a real life saver for me when traveling fourteen days for my job. I’d never been away from my family that long, and it was painful. This was back before I owned an ipod (did they exist then?; I can’t remember), and I only took about ten cds with me. It was Space Revolver that gave me the most joy and comfort on that trip. But, this is getting too long winded, and I’ll save this story for another time and another post. Let me just state here, Space Revolver is a desert island disk for me. I think it might very well be one of the top ten albums of the rock era. If you don’t own it, you should. In fact, you should stop reading this right now and order it now. Yes, it’s that good.
Admittedly, I’ve listened to the band so much, I’m really not sure I could even pretend objectivity when reviewing them. Nor at this point in my life, do I really want to be objective. All of the Birzers love The Flower Kings.
Additionally, whatever creativity I might possess, I owe a lot to The Flower Kings. Space Revolver served as the sound track for my first book, Unfold the Future for my second, and Paradox Hotel for my third. The Sum of No Evil and Banks of Eden have played a major role in the one I’m currently writing.
As I’ve stated too many times before, I dislike labels, as they’re almost always used to bypass real engagement with a person, an idea, or a work of art. But, even if I appreciated labels, I really don’t know how I’d label this band. The Flower Kings have produced so much beauty, and in such diversity, that they’re almost fully resistant to categorization. Well, that is, to label properly. For me, every Flower Kings album is a mood or a state of being.
The Flower King: Humanity.
Back in the World of Adventure: Exploration.
Star Dust We Are: Redemption.
Flower Power: Mythic.
Space Revolver: Appreciation.
The Rainmaker: Warning.
Unfold the Future: Righteousness.
Adam and Eve: Confidence.
Paradox Hotel: Tranquility.
The Sum of No Evil: Love.
Banks of Eden: Elegance.
Desolation Rose: ?
The most common description I’ve seen of the Flower Kings is “retro.” But, of course, this is meaningless. The band pays homage to those they love. Shouldn’t we all? I deeply admire my maternal grandfather, and I’ve tried to live my life in accord with the dignity he displayed. Does that make me “retro”? I speak the same language as my mother. Does that make me “retro”? The Flower Kings love Genesis and King Crimson. So do most proggers. At some point, labels become not only offensive, but absurd. But, enough of this rant. . . . If anything, pietist might be better than retro. Ok, now, really, the rant is over.
Through the good graces of Edge at Insideout Music, I was able to receive an advanced release of Desolation Rose.
The first thing to notice about this release is the darkness of the art as well as of the subject matter. The cover art depicts three tattooed human heads resting atop a deserted (and in a desert) classical structure. Above the heads blooms a bright red rose, surrounded by nesting birds of paradise intertwined in intricate greenery. From a distance, the image could be an explosion, possibly atomic. There are visual references to the cover art of Space Revolver as well as Unfold the Future.
The title could mean many things. Desolation almost never has a positive connotation, unless one might be referring to the landscapes of the American West. But, Rose? Rose is almost always good, at least as a noun and a proper name. Who couldn’t love a Rose? It’s the middle name of two of my daughters. And, traditionally, the rose is almost always associated with the mother of Jesus. She’s not exactly been absent from the art of The Flower Kings. She appears weeping in the lyrics of Space Revolver, and the devil hides from her in his playground in Unfold the Future. It’s worth noting again, the cover art of Desolation Rose refers to the albums that already have a reference to Mary.
Unfortunately, as with Eric and Tad, I don’t have the lyrics in front of me, and I’ve had to interpret them simply through listening to them repeatedly. I’m fairly sure that I am probably hearing what I want to hear, and I hope any interpretation I make will be taken with this caveat.
Though ten separate tracks appear on the main disk, the music flows from one song to another without a moment of silence. The album as a whole, however, ebbs and flows, and every track bleeds into the one following it. This only adds to the intensity and urgency of the record. A number of images and lyrics recur as well: revolution; false kings and false idols; mechanized man; the abuse of power; our place in the order of existence (“we’re the third from the sun”); our life as a game or a false dream; the soil of Eden; silent graveyards (where is the voice of the ages?); and, above all, the need to be individuals, unchained by the restraints of corrupt authorities and mass thinking.
All of the songs build to a climax in “Last Carnivore” and “Dark Fascist Skies.”
This has to rank as one of the darkest and most politically charged and angry (righteously so) of all Flower King’s tunes. It’s also absolutely brilliant. At the end of the song, the album rather quickly embraces a quiet denouement in the very short “Blood of Eden” and “Silent Graveyards.” In the end, the Flower Kings affirm that “we are stardust/we are sunkissed/we are brothers and still we’re strangers.”
Songs: Tower One; Sleeping Bones; Desolation Road; White Tuxedos; The Resurrected Jadas; Silent Masses; Last Carnivore; Dark Fascist Skies; Blood of Eden; and Silent Graveyards.
The album, itself, is flawless. Every instrument has a punctuated clarity to it. Upon my first listen, it was the bass I heard most. On the second, it was the guitar. On the third, it was the keyboards. On the fourth, it was the interplay of Stolt’s vocals with Frosberg’s vocals. On, probably, my fifth listen, I realized it was everything. Stolt has produced this album with an eye toward perfection. This album feels, at least at this point in my listening, less symphonic than other modern prog masterpieces, such as Big Big Train’s English Electric. In terms of urgency, it has a similarity to The Tangent’s latest studio album, Le Sacre Du Travail.
The only thing I find painful in Desolation Rose is the sampling of Richard Nixon’s voice in “White Tuxedos.” Don’t get me wrong. The song works, and it works well. But, having been born in 1967 and having been raised in a very politically libertarian family, Nixon was always the bad guy. His voice, to this day, makes me wince. And, as many times as I’ve listened to this album over the past week, I still cringe every time his voice pops up. Equally creepy, the voice from “Bavarian Skies” returns, but so does one of the coolest guitar lines ever (think The Good/The Bad/The Ugly meets Chris Isaak). Even the song, “Silent Masses,” makes me pause a bit, as Nixon continuously attempted to appeal to those he called the “silent majority.”
I can’t end a review with THAT man’s name in my conclusion.
So, on a much happier note, this year, 2013, has been nothing short of an annus mirabilis. When the new year hits, every prog lover will be, materially, worse off after having survived 2013. Every prog lover will be, also and more importantly, enlivened spiritually and intellectually after having survived 2013.
In the top of this astounding year of Prog is Desolation Rose. Empty your pockets. Another must–absolute must–buy.
Unlike Eric Perry in his earlier, excellent review, I approached the new Flower Kings album from a position of relative ignorance. I greatly admire Roine Stolt’s work with Transatlantic, but I do not have any Flower Kings in my music library. However, after listening closely to Desolation Rose the past few days, that is about to change!
21st century media provide wonderful benefits (could something like Progarchy have even existed 15 years ago?), but any technology can also be perverted into something terribly harmful. Desolation Rose is a dark and brooding jeremiad on the dangers of corrupt media and government, perpetual war and violence, and religious fanaticism. Freedom is not a given, and Desolation Rose is a dire warning to those who would trade it for “security”, whether by indiscriminately believing what governments and mainstream media tell us, or by neglecting critical thinking when it comes to the claims of deceptive religious figures. Each song segues seamlessly into the next, reinforcing the overall impact of the lyrics. It may take a few listens for them to take hold, but once they do, they are very powerful.
A sampling of some of the most memorable lines (as best I can decipher them; I do not have a lyrics booklet):
“Lies bring comfort to the king and his nation/Like fools, we just stare at the sun.” (‘Tower ONE’)
“In the silent soil of Eden lie the bones of a predator/From the sun and the stars, a dreamless penitentiary.” (‘Sleeping Bones’)
“In silent graveyards we look for saviors/A promised land beyond our prayers” (‘Desolation Road’)
“So if you follow, go look beyond the lies/A brand new kingdom will brighten up the skies/Close to the sea, the river’s getting wider/Take off the blinders, and love will take you higher” (‘Resurrected Judas’)
“We are just the silent masses/The things you need are out of fashion/And so the clock keeps ticking out of time” (‘Silent Masses’)
“When a man is not a man, but hostage to machinery/Will they ever let you out from this dreamless penitentiary?” ‘(Last Carnivore’)
“So the state has become the offender/To the point where there’s no turning back/Now you dream of your new independence/While they tighten their grip round your neck” (‘Dark Fascist Skies’)
“We are stardust and we’re sun-kissed/We are brothers and still we’re strangers” (‘Blood of Eden’)
Just as words and phrases are repeated in the songs, musical themes recur throughout, making the album a remarkably cohesive work. The propulsive drumming of Felix Lehrmann is terrific; Tomas Bodin’s manic organ locks horns with Roine Stolt’s lead guitar and musical sparks result. Hasse Froberg’s vocals are outstanding – full of dark menace one moment, and aching lament the next. Jonas Reingold’s bass work is as melodic and inventive as Geddy Lee’s.
Highlights are ‘Resurrected Judas’, which has a nice “Trick of the Tail”-era Genesis vibe and a graceful, loping guitar solo; the straight-ahead rocker ‘Silent Masses’, with its jaunty piano riff and nimble bass line; and ‘Last Carnivore’, which is very dark and oppressive until a key change brings relief and light. ‘Last Carnivore’ is representative of the album as a whole – from the first track, the band creates an atmosphere of conflict, darkness, and oppression which isn’t relieved until the beautiful and stately ‘Blood of Eden’ makes its appearance near the end. Hearing it is like seeing clouds part and the sun shine through after a violent thunderstorm. However, lest we think everything’s going to be fine, the ‘Silent Graveyards’ show up one last time in a musical coda that ties together the various themes masterfully. Froberg’s voice rises as if he’s framing a question, and it is unsettling to realize that ‘Dark Fascist Skies’ are always lurking around the corner.
With Desolation Rose, the Flower Kings have produced an album of extraordinary power and depth. Lyrics and music combine to pack an emotional punch that cannot be ignored. Detta är en att älska.
Over a decade ago, one of my brightest students introduced me to The Flower Kings. He lent me his copy of the two-cd “Flower Power: A Journey to the Hidden Corners of Your Mind” over a Thanksgiving break. I was rather blown away from the first listen. And, not just because of the truly psychedelic cover or the name of the band (those hippie Swedes!). I fell in love with the whole concept and packaging of the album. Since then, I’ve been a rather faithful fan of the band, searching out every track ever recorded by them and by the various members in each of their associated bands.
This post, though, is not meant to be a retrospective or analysis of The Flower Kings. Just a small appreciation. Despite the fact that I have a field day listening to disk one of “Flower Power” (the concept part of the concept album), I’m quite taken with a track that seems to have gotten lost in memory, even among fellow Flower King fans. That track, the first song of disk two, is one penned by Roine Stolt, “Deaf, Numb, and Blind.”
For several years after I first heard it, I considered it the finest and most perfect prog song ever written. Yes, I’m comparing it–as a song–to any single prog song written up to roughly 2000. So much has happened in the prog world since then, that I wouldn’t place it quite this high. But, still, it’s a nearly perfect song. If any non-progger ever asked me what progressive rock is, I wouldn’t hesitate to introduce them to “Deaf, Numb, and Blind” first.
The song builds for the first three minutes, with symphonic guitars, driving drums, keys, and bass swirling. I’m especially taken with the bass playing, though all of it is good. Stolt’s voice fits perfectly with the urgency of the song when he first comes in at 3:30. The song lyrics appear to be a plea to put away delusions and embrace the highest things in life. The consequences for maintaining the delusions seem apocalyptic–with the dogs of war and nuclear weaponry being loosed upon the world.
At 5:45, the song pauses. We breath. It slowly comes back in, with Stolt proclaiming the things lost, offering a tone of immense regret but perhaps resignation as well. “There’s so much we could’ve learned. . . .” But, we failed.
By 8:20, we’re in the demented, twisted world of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir.
Learn how to rebuild Babylon
Where the whores will drain our blood
Where the giant mushrooms grow
Where the truth is left untold
Where the ravens rip your soul
Where the poison rivers run
where the deadly game is gold
We find ourselves in no paradise, but in the realm where “the dead don’t dance.” We are in Hell, having earned it through our delusions and our pride.
The song ends with more soaring guitar, but the tempo has slowed down considerably, and the urgency of 11 minutes ago is gone.
As an aside, I recently saw The Flower Kings labeled somewhere on the web as “Retro-prog.” Admittedly, I laughed. I have no idea what this means. They use guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards. They tend to focus on rather positive topics (sometimes poetically religious and mythic), despite the lyrics just quoted. And, they make beautiful music. I tried to use common English in this post, inheriting a gorgeous medium from the Anglo-Saxon peoples of the British Isles. Does this make my language retro-English?
Back on topic: here’s a youtube link to “Deaf, Numb, and Blind.” Enjoy.