Robin Armstrong’s Cosmograf will be releasing their latest album, Heroic Materials, on September 9, 2022. The album is available for pre-order from Armstrong’s record label, Gravity Dream music, on CD (digipack and deluxe media book edition) and vinyl. The vinyl won’t be available by the date of release, but vinyl purchasers will be able to get a digital download on release day if they want.
Full disclosure: I PLAY ON THE NEW BARDIC DEPTHS ALBUM!!!!!
Now that I’ve got that out of my system . . . oh, wait. You want details?
Having gotten to know Dave Bandana through this website and the Big Big Train group on Facebook, I was one of the folks who contributed spoken words (“This! Is! War!”) for The Bardic Depths’ 2020 debut. I had mentioned to Dave that, if he ever needed a church organ part for an album, he should get in touch. Which didn’t lessen my surprise when, in that strange summer of 2020, he did! And so, I wound playing not only church organ for Promises of Hope’s closing track “Imagine” (no, not that “Imagine”), but a Hammond organ solo on the opener “And She Appeared.” Being listed in the album booklet as a “special guest” has turned out to be more of a kick than I ever would have anticipated.
With all that as backstory, Dave agreed to join me for a chat about the new album, released worldwide on June 24th! We cover its genesis and the integral contributions of lyricist/conceptualizer Brad Birzer, producer Robin Armstrong, the new core band that plays on every track, and other collaborators. (And yeah, there are a few minutes devoted to a goofy volunteer keyboardist.) The video of our conversation is below, with a complete transcription following.
So, brand new Bardic Depths album! I’ve been looking forward to it, for reasons we will probably get into – but I know a lot of people are as well! But what was the initial impetus for returning to the world of The Bardic Depths?
The success of the first one, and the actual joy of recording the first one and bringing it all together. Especially as, when we originally had done the first album, we didn’t know how it was gonna finish off. It was just gonna be a little home studio thing with me and Brad [Birzer] and a few friends. But then as more friends got involved in it, and then Peter Jones got involved and Robin [Armstrong] got involved, and the thing turned into a fully-fledged proper album. And just the joy of doing that and seeing the fruition from that, we couldn’t not do a second album!
And to be honest, I was straight on writing even before the first one was released. So that was the major impetus for wanting to do a second album. And, hopefully the same thing’s gonna happen for a third one as well!
So, you were so excited that you already had material going for this?
I didn’t have material going. I knew that I wanted to write again and started writing straight away from when that first one came out. I can’t even remember how much of that initial burst of enthusiasm got used on Promises of Hope. Probably a few snippets of it, but the writing certainly started as the first one was completed.
OK. So, where did the concept that drives this album – the overall, the lyrical concept — emerge from? I’m assuming Brad Birzer had a great deal to do with that. But where did that come from?
Yeah, he had a lot to do with it! Brad had sent me a little novelette thing that he’d written, a story. I’d suggested to him a while back, “you’re a great writer. Have you ever written a novel?” He said, “well actually, I started on one, but I never got it finished.” So, he sent that to me, and I said, “this would be a great idea for a concept album.” So, he then carried on and took it — he didn’t actually complete the story; what he did was, he took it as far as he’d gone with it and elaborated around it a little bit more. So, Brad was the guy that came up with the story for the second one.
And in the publicity, you mention that Virgil and C.S. Lewis are the two bards here. And it seems to me that the Virgil, if I’m reading the story right, it’s the story of Dido and Aeneas from the Aeneid.
Got that one right! I can’t place the C.S. Lewis part of it, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out as time goes by.
Brad’s the person to speak to for this. I think the actual C.S. Lewis part is actually in the booklet. In the booklet Brad’s written a whole page, basically detailing what the story’s all about. [Searching his memory] I can’t remember the complete title of the book. [A later message from Dave stated that the book is The Horse and His Boy from The Chronicles of Narnia.] Anyway, Brad’s actually quoted from that book, so we’ll see it in there, so we’ll know which one it is.
I left the story to Brad; it’s a tricky sort of subject. But I think it’s one that we dealt with in a not-complex way, in quite a simplistic way. But it told the story that we wanted to tell; it didn’t go into too much detail, but it gives the listener something to think about.
Uh-huh. So why Promises of Hope as the title?
The original title was gonna be Hope, Not Victory. But as an album title, that was possibly a little bit more difficult to explain away. And I liked Promises of Hope; it appears a lot in the lyrics – “with promises of hope, but never of victory” is a line that comes up quite a lot. And I think to have a promise of hope is something to look forward to, rather than the other way around. So, I changed it to make it a little more joyous, for want of a better word, yeah?
Got it! So, as you were recording this, how did the core band that you wound up with at the end of this album take shape as you were making this album?
The Bardic Depths, The Bardic Depths, 2020 (Gravity Dream)
Tracks: The Trenches (8:36), Biting Coals (7:50), Depths of Time (12:35), Depths of Imagination (5:01), Depths of Soul (6:40), The End (7:38), Legacies (9:28)
Longtime readers of Progarchy are well aware that just about everything written by Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is brilliant. The previous two album collaborations between Brad and Dave Bandana, 2017’s Becoming One and 2018’s Of Course It Must Be, were both great. I noticed strong strides forward in the second album, and I hear a huge leap forward in this third collaboration in the form of a more formal band called The Bardic Depths.
Birzer still handles the lyrical output and Bandana acts as the musical director, but the cast of characters has broadened greatly. Cosmograf maestro Robin Armstrong realized the brilliance in the demos and decided to both mix the album and make it the first release on his new record label, Gravity Dream. Along the way Bandana began asking people here and there to contribute to the album, and before he knew it a more refined sound had emerged. The Big Big Train facebook group became a means of connection for Bandana and the extraordinary Peter Jones (Tiger Moth Tales, Red Bazar, Camel). Jones contributed a couple soulful and beautiful saxophone solos. Gareth Cole and Robin Armstrong contribute some blistering guitar solos, and a host of other talented people contribute their musicianship and vocal talents (including spoken word). Sir Brad himself makes multiple appearances with the spoken word. Having had the fortune of taking one of his courses when I was in college, I can tell you he was blessed with a fantastic speaking voice, second to only Dr. Tom Conner in the Hillsdale College History Department.
Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’ … It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision – it is then that Friendship is born.
— C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
The Bardic Depths is a rare creation; the method of its making embodies what it portrays. It’s a distinctive take on the concept album, sparked from ongoing collaboration by two devoted lovers of progressive rock, with stellar contributions from some of the music’s current leading lights. (Oh, and fleeting spoken-word cameos from others, including yours truly — so yeah, objectivity is out the window here.)
Lyricist Brad Birzer and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Dave Bandana have been self-releasing enjoyablealbums for a few years now, launching impressionist volleys of lyrical prose (usually in a dystopian sci-fi framework) via arching, chantlike melodies, poised atop appealingly thick ambient pads and amiably chugging pop grooves. When Birzer pitched the life, times and friendship of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as an album concept, Bandana loved it — but as the music took shape, he realized that contributors who could kick things up a level were needed for the album to take wing.
Enter the Passengers — that astonishingly amiable Facebook group of fans brought together by their love of Big Big Train. Having seen BBT live (and made numerous musical friends in the process), Bandana modestly reached out for help. And, as the video below reveals, one thing led to another:
‘The Bardic Depths’ is an all new progressive rock project formed from the writing team of multi-instrumentalist, Dave Bandana with lyrics and concept from Bradley Birzer, plus contributions from Peter Jones (Camel/ Tiger Moth Tales) – Saxophone/ Vocals, Tim Gehrt ( Streets/ Steve Walsh) – Drums, Gareth Cole (Tom Slatter/ Fractal Mirror) – Guitar and Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) – Keyboards/ Guitar/ Bass, amongst a host of other amazing musicians from the progressive rock community around the world.
“The album is about friendship and its ability to get us through anything including war, with the concept centering on the literary friendship formed between J.R.R Tolkien and C. S Lewis between 1931 and 1949. “ says the Lanzarote based band leader Dave Bandana.
Friendship also provided the catalyst to enable such a wide cast of musicians to come together for the record, largely from the community provided by the Big Big Train Group on Facebook. The resulting album is an immersive combination of ethereal soundscape with Floydian undertones, and Talk Talk progressive pop sensibilities.
The Bardic Depths is available to pre-order now from Gravity Dream on CD or in an extremely limited CD/T-shirt bundle. It’s also available on CD from Burning Shed, who provide the tracklist:
1. The Trenches
2. Biting Coals
3. Depths of TIme
i) The Instant
iii) The Moment
4. Depths of Imagination
5. Depths of Soul
6. The End
And of course, there’s an album teaser on YouTube:
Progarchy wishes a huge congratulations to its former editor and co-founder Brad Birzer and Progarchist Dave Bandana who have formed a new band, The Bardic Depths, and become the first signing to Robin Armstrong’s (Cosmograf) new label Gravity Dream. Brad and Dave have made two albums under the name Birzer Bandana, with Birzer handling lyrics and Bandana handling most of the instrumentation and vocals. This new album, entitled The Bardic Depths, will feature a similar setup but with additional players and singers. Lyrics will focus on the literary friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Less (two of my favorite authors!). It promises to be a great album.
The following fine people have contributed to the album:
Brad Birzer – Lyrics and concept, spoken word
Kevin McCormick – Guitars
Paolo Limoli – Keyboards, Piano
Tim Gerht – Drums
Gareth Cole – Guitars
Peter Jones – Saxophone, vocals,spoken word
John William Francis – Marimba, spoken word
Glenn Codere – Backing Vocals
Mike Warren- Cello
Robin Armstrong – Guitars, Bass, Keyboards
Dave Bandana – Vocals, Keyboards, Guitars, Bass, Flute, Harmonica,
Richard Krueger, Henri Strik, Scotty Scott, Andreas Mowinckel, Tony Bridgeman,
Martin Holmes, Phil Ball – Spoken Word
Every album on this Top Twenty list is a standout. They are all worthy of your purchase (in hard-copy, not just streaming service). The discs in the bottom half of the TOP 20 are not any less worthy than # # 10 through 1, rather, they just did not move me with as much excitement and passion as the ones I will be posting later. Many of these albums were at one time in my TOP TEN but gradually slipped to this lower tier as the year wore on and as I continued to listen and pour over these works of art. Enough blather. Here are my TOP TWENTY bottom half (in descending order):
20) MONARCH TRAIL/Sand
This is the second effort under the moniker “Monarch Trail” for Canadian keys wizard and composer Ken Baird. As much as I enjoyed 2014’s “Skye” this second album surpasses it on all counts. This has a pleasant “British pastoral sound” that hearkens back, for me, to the joys of first hearing Barclay James Harvest (with Woolly on the keys). This is beautiful and relaxing without being twee or saccharine. My favorite tracks are ‘Back to the Start’ and the 25 minute closer–the self-titled ‘Sand.’
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?