What’s to like?
The sound of the band coming of age, as they release their most satisfying album so far. Rich in music and artistry, and complemented by an excellent audio mix. A possible contender for my album of the year.
The low down
If Ocean Sounds was the duo’s equivalent of “What we did on our holidays”, then The Bell is their return to class with the intention to graduate with honours.
Even before you’ve popped the CD in the player you can tell that this is going to be a classy release. From the lovely artwork that adorns the cover and runs through the booklet, to the CD coming inside a sleeve that slots comfortably into the cardboard cover. It might not be vinyl, but the experience is the same as you gently pull the sleeve out and then slide the disc out of the sleeve.
I actually took a little time to study the booklet before listening to the music, perusing the lyrics and simply enjoying the collage of paintings and stylish shots of singer Marjana Semkina and pianist Gleb Kolyadin. In age of downloads and instant consumption, it’s nice to see that some artists and labels continue to buck the trend and invest time and artistry to produce albums the way they used to when vinyl held stately court.
The duo’s fascination with times gone by continues with this album. The arrangement of the music in The Bell is inspired by 19th Century song cycles – a style established by Schubert – whereby each of the album’s ten songs recounts an individual story, with all ten stories then wrapped within a cohesive framework. The music has been deliberately multi-layered, so that you can enjoy the album as a complete listening experience from start to finish, or you can choose to cherry pick individual songs. Either approach proves equally satisfying.
And while each story is written as something unique, there is a common thread running through the album’s lyrics. Vocalist Marjana Semkina has described the central motif as a study of cruelty and the different ways that we each respond to it. “The album is… in many ways, a journey inwards, taking us inside of a mind of a person suffering from abuse or neglect or open hostility of the society or a specific person.”
“Aesthetically, the album is based on themes taken from Victorian England’s art and culture, but more in a way of turning our attention to the fact that at its core, humankind isn’t making much progress in terms of emotional maturity.” [Kscope web page]
The duo’s previous albums have seen them tagged with the label “chamber prog”, characterised by a mix of classical piano and strings, augmented with more traditional rock instruments. It’s a nice description that gives them a unique identity, and a fitting summation of their music thus far, and that tradition continues with The Bell, so existing fans will take to it immediately.
However, listening across the ten songs, I was struck by how much richer the music sounded on this album, with the strings less dominant, and more room for guitars (electric and classical), bass and drums. The duo have stretched beyond their comfort zone to include more colours on their pallet, but without losing what makes them sound so interesting and individual.
And I think they’re growing in confidence too, especially Marjana. Her singing on his album seems less fragile and hesitant and more impassioned. She still draws the listener in with her tender sotto voce during the quieter passages, but her singing in the more dramatic sections now portrays a strength and presence that was perhaps slightly veiled on previous albums.
Gleb’s piano playing, as you’d expect, is exemplary. This guy is incredibly talented, not just as a composer and arranger, but also in the way he approaches his piano parts. He knows instinctively when to hold back and let the music flow around his piano notes, and when to let his fingers fly across the board to heighten the drama. His style reminds me a lot of Keith Emerson, and I’d highly recommend Gleb’s solo album if you enjoy progressive piano music. [You can read my review of that album here.]
The Bell feels like the band coming of age, having moved beyond the need for patronage from established artists, such as drummer Gavin Harrison (King Crimson) or singer Mariusz Duda (Riverside), who contributed to previous albums. Even though the music revolves around Gleb and Marjana, you can sense them building a team around them, and a growing confidence in determining their own direction.
For this album they’ve continued with producer Vlad Avy who contributed to the previous albums, and I think the growing relationship has paid dividends with this album. The audio mix is excellent, and it’s certainly their best sounding album yet. You can savour every piano note, every string plucked, the rhythm instruments have a depth and presence, and the vocals sound rich and clear.
Highlights for me included the lovely closing melody on Ghost Of A Story, the descending chord section with multi-tracked vocals on Black And Blue, and the hypnotic drum patterns and guitar soloing on Salute, which reminded me in places of Mike Oldfield (and I’m sure Marjana won’t take offence if I suggest that she brings the same dynamic to the singing on Salute that Maddy Prior brought to Incantations).
Here’s the official trailer for the album:
Iamthemorning have slowly but steadily grown their music and presence on the progressive scene, and it’s not been the easiest of journeys for them, given their background. So it’s very rewarding to see their hard work pay off with The Bell, where they’ve produced their most interesting and best sounding album so far. It’s also heartening to see their label Kscope investing time and resources to produce such a nice physical package and enthusiastically promote this release.