September 26, 2021

Canterbury Kate, which unsurprisingly calls to mind the wistful ‘Englishness’ of Caravan both lyrically and musically, even down to a name-check for In The Land Of Grey And Pink … is a song which has the ability to conjure up long-lost youth and longer-lost loves in all but the stoniest-hearted listener.

Right off the bat I have to say that this is an album which I didn’t ever expect to be reviewing – not least because it comes a mere 38 years after the previous Airbridge album, Paradise Moves. Of course, a large part of the reason for that delay was the band not actually existing for most of that time, as they originally split in 1983, after three years together, at the height of the ‘neo-prog’ revival – leaving their small but loyal contingent of fans frustrated by the fact that they were never able to capitalise on the reputation they were building, and drifted from the prog public consciousness just as major labels were scrambling to find the ‘next Marillion’, with the likes of Pendragon, IQ, Pallas, Twelfth Night and Solstice all being, briefly, the cause du jour with the likes of EMI. After this, for the next couple of decades, the various band members embarked on a series of often short-lived bands, collaborations and reunions which would leave a ‘family tree’ designer either in therapy or a functional alcoholic. Connections at greater or lesser stages of remove can be made to the likes of Twelfth Night, Pendrgon, Soft Machine (via Hugh Hopper), David Carradine (via a soundtrack) and even Steven Wilson (via No-Man). You could practically play a prog game of ‘Six Degrees Of Airbridge’, as the band members became something of a prog rock equivalent of the Woody Allen character Zelig, who proves to have been present at practically every event of significance without anyone ever knowing who he is. (There’s a T-Shirt in that somewhere: ‘Airbridge: The Rock And Roll Zelig’…)

However, I digress. After some recording attempts between founder members Lorenzo Bedini (guitar and keyboards) and Sean Godfrey (bass) in the 1990s resulted in an unreleased album, they finally reunited officially as Airbridge in 2008, releasing an EP fittingly titled Return in 2013. That Summer, they played a show at the Cambridge Rock Festival, though sadly without Sean Godfrey, who had been forced to retire following a diagnosis of oesophagal cancer early that year. They played the festival as a three-piece, with the drum stool by now being occupied by former drum tech Dave Dowdeswell-Allaway, a performance which proved to be this particular writer’s first encounter with the band in a live setting. Playing existing Airbridge material, the show was intriguing enough to lead me, along with others present, to hope for a forthcoming album. We were still waiting after eight years until, out of the blue almost, this beautifully packaged album was released to an unsuspecting, and largely oblivious, world. Still featuring Bedini and Dowdeswell-Allaway (who now also handle bass duties between them), the band have now been augmented by new keyboard man Jason Crompton and flautist Maddalena Pastorelli. The band are essentially that rare beast: an alliance between Italy and Norwich, which isn’t something too often encountered, even in the pre-Brexit days! Let’s have a look at how the album sounds.

First off, the impression coming across is that the ‘new’ Airbridge have approached this, to my ears at least, as a statement of intent by what is essentially, for recording purposes, a ‘new band’. Some of the tracks, and certainly the homespun production values, have the naive charm of many of the early recordings by some of those other, aforementioned pioneers of the ‘neo’ scene. There is a feeling of being present at a home recording session when listening to the album, which is reminiscent of other early recordings such as the Pallas and Pendragon releases Arrive Alive and Fly High Fall Far, not to mention the early Twelfth Night efforts. There’s a charm within these songs which is hard to put into words – it can transport someone who was around at that time to smoky nights in the Marquee, or rushing home to play a cassette album which you’d eagerly picked up at a gig. For someone balancing on that 60-years-old highwire like myself, that’s heady and irresistible stuff.

All of which should not take away from the quality and variety of some of the songs here. The opener, the wonderfully-titled Fanfare To The Uncommon Worm and its sister piece What Was (And What Will Come) open the album with a tremendous two-fisted blast of pure prog quirkiness and nostalgic power, and are excellent. It has to be said that, despite its evocation of those long-ago days when prog had its own ‘new wave’ and got on the front cover of Sounds, this is far from a one-dimensional ‘neo-prog’ recording. Proving that fact unequivocally is the lovely Canterbury Kate, which unsurprisingly calls to mind the wistful ‘Englishness’ of Caravan both lyrically and musically, even down to a name-check for In The Land Of Grey And Pink (‘on a green plastic cassette’ no less, as the deeply personal yet universally relatable lyrics have it). It’s a song which has the ability to conjure up long-lost youth and longer-lost loves in all but the stoniest-hearted listener. Other fascinating diversions abound: the dark In Memory Of 3, with its dedication to, and stark relating of, the deaths of three actual people is a real highlight. New England is a song which was written back in 1982, and previously recorded (though not released) by the original band. The closing Middle East has a flair for the dramatic and, fittingly, epic in an Arabic-influenced way. The bizarre The Buddha Song (I’ve Got One On My Head!) takes its whole lyrical content directly from Buddhist poetry. There are influences from neo and Canterbury of course, but also areas where more symphonic, Floydian soundscapes rear their head (is is possible to use the word ‘Floydian’ without then using the word ‘soundscapes? I think not), and in some areas the quirkiness of early Genesis and even hints of ELP in some of the keyboard tones here and there. It’s a nicely varied record.

It’s has its flaws and rough edges of course. The production, as stated already, is quite ‘homebrewed’, with occasional balance issues such as drums too prominent in the mix, which mostly works but occasionally distracts. The main issue I would raise is the lead vocals, which I take to be mainly Lorenzo. Not that he has a poor voice – indeed, on many of the tracks here he reveals himself to be more than up to the task. Rather, the problem is that he sounds as if he lacks confidence in his own vocal prowess, resulting in the songs often having the vocals mixed far too low, and sometimes also delivered in a slightly diffident way which takes focus away from the uniformly excellent lyrics. I personally think that a more confident ‘to hell with it’ delivery would improve some of the material immeasurably – one only has to look at the way a ‘divisive’ voice such as Hammill or Dylan can bring a song to life by inhabiting it with raw emotion to see that the ‘attitude’ is often paramount. Failing that, bringing in a dedicated vocalist, especially with live work in mind, would certainly be an option, but either of those scenarios would be fine. I found myself straining to catch the words at times in a song such as Canterbury Kate, where the lyrical content is pure evocative gold, which is a shame.

As I mentioned earlier, the packaging of the CD (designed by Martin Cook) is a quite lovely thing, with a logo putting one in mind of an old book, or perhaps the sort of Old-English ‘steam train’ imagery which is the stock in trade of the likes of Big Big Train. If this is indeed seen as a sort of ‘do-over’, and an opening statement from a new band in a new era, the sophomore effort could be a thing of real excellence. Just not another 38 years, guys, please? I’ll be starting to think about a telegram from the queen by that time, and I’ll probably have forgotten what CDs are!