October 23, 2023

This is quite clearly a band who have a vast array of influences and tastes, and want to reflect that as much as possible within the confines of a CD which can fit under the progressive ‘umbrella’

You know that old saying about buses, waiting for ages then two coming at once? Well, veteran proggers Airbridge are pretty much the musical equivalent at this time, with a 38-year gap between their first album and 2021’s Memories Of Water being followed by this one only two years later (‘Prog albums eh? You wait 38 years and then two come in two years…’). Of course, that isn’t to say that the band were sitting around in a state of constant readiness for inspiration to strike for those four decades, nor were they working obsessively on perfecting the album in a manner similar to Axl Rose and the Chinese Democracy monstrosity. No indeed, the simple fact was that they had not even been together for large swathes of that time, and were plagued with line-up changes enforced by health issues among other things even when they were active. Happily, however, they have now coalesced into a seemingly stable core line-up of founder member Lorenzo Bedini, former drum tech Dave Dowdeswell-Allaway (a step up almost reminiscent of the Rock Star film there, if unlikely to be given the Hollywood treatment with Mark Wahlberg as Dave!), together with relative newcomer Jason Crompton handling keyboards. The band glamorously divide their time and locations between Italy and… erm… Norwich, which may not be exactly Rod Stewart straddling the Atlantic between London and LA in the ’70s, but it’s clearly working for them, as this is certainly the most stable they have been throughout their history. So, a relatively quick follow-up this time out, but does it do the job or does it come across as rushed? Happily, certainly not the latter at all, as this is in all comparable metrics a more complete and refined album than its predecessor.

Memories Of Water, you see, was rather a curious beast. A new album of entirely fresh material it may have been, yet it also carried with it a sense of nostalgia for that first wave of ‘DIY’ Neo-Prog back in the very early ’80s. The production was resolutely lo-fi by comparison to much contemporary material, and in so doing it managed a wonderfully refreshing trick of bringing back memories of Marquee shows, cassette-only albums and bands hoping to get that slot supporting the ascendant Marillion! It captured that feeling and era in such a heady way that it was like the musical equivalent of having the smell of freshly baked bread in your house when you have a potential buyer coming to view. However, while welcome, that really was a tactic which was only going to pay of handsomely once before diminishing returns set in, and the band have realised that here and delivered an album which by comparison is highly polished and impressively accomplished. Even Andy Glass from Solstice is involved, doing the mastering.

So, we know that the album is a very professional and sophisticated sounding effort for sure, but what is the material like? Well, the news is good there, as it’s nicely varied and almost all excellent – and certainly not what you could pigeon-hole as ‘neo prog’ by any stretch of the imagination. This is quite clearly a band who have a vast array of influences and tastes, and want to reflect that as much as possible within the confines of a CD which can fit under the progressive ‘umbrella’. There are two lengthy, full-fat prog ‘epics’ to keep those who crave such things (all right, including me!) happy; firstly the multi-faceted A Cry From The Deep, which contains the most overtly grandiose and symphonic passages on the whole album within its remit, and should satisfy all but the most demanding collector of capes and Tolkien first editions (no, not me this time, honest!). Secondly, there is what might well be the most unashamedly ‘prog rock’ song title since Utopia recorded Singring And The Glass Guitar, the magnificently named The Unwholesome Peregrinations Of Erasmus Gloom. Now, if you’re like me, you’ll see this and immediately say ‘okay, that’s me hooked’, but it gets better: the track is subdivided into three distinct parts, named Open Road, Exile and Desert Djinn. The best news, however, is that is manages to live up to that billing, being a grand storytelling epic of substantial quality. If this doesn’t scratch your prog itch, then quite frankly check your dog as you may have fleas…

Elsewhere among the nine tracks, however, there is much variety to savour. The opening, quite lengthy, Burning Sun is a prog/psych-flavoured rocker with more than a nod to the great material Uli Jon Roth was doing with Electric Sun in the early ’80s, or even Frank Marino with Mahogany Rush. It’s prog for sure, but it’s powerful, punchy, and epic in scope without recourse to mellotrons, and is a great opener. The percussive-acoustic flavoured Europa carries hints of a World Music element to it, while Dead Man’s Porn is perhaps the most unusual slant on the issue of leaving a legacy behind you that I’ve seen for quite some time (it’s actually named after one of Dave’s old bands I believe, which may or may not help)! Hey There is a Canterbury-style piece with an acoustic spring in its step which wouldn’t sound out of place on a classic Caravan album, Twilight Worlds is a delicate piano-led ballad of substantial depth and emotional impact, while the closing Dreams (Deus Ex Machina) is another proggy piece to end on which packs plenty into its seven minutes and ends things on a definite high. Overall, there is only one piece which to these ears doesn’t work, and that is the meditation on death and the afterlife That Big Small Step. Performed entirely acapella, it is certainly very skilfully arranged for several voices, but at four minutes is far too long to sustain itself, and ends up being a far better idea on paper than in actuality. As someone once almost said, however, ‘eight out of nine ain’t bad’, and on an album with almost an hour’s worth of material, it’s a fairly minor blemish.

As someone who enjoyed Memories Of Water enormously, I have to admit that, as an album aimed at the new listener, or someone not nostalgically yearning for those bygone Neo days, this is without doubt the superior album, and the band can quite justifiably point to it as the best thing they’ve done. It shows a band with a career well-lived who have picked up a veritable treasure trove of influences along the way, and it manages to blend many of those disparate elements together to produce a record which is at once definitely ‘prog’, and yet resolutely not trapped within the clichés of that genre. It’s a neat trick to pull off, and deserves applause for that. Now, do we wait at the metaphorical bus stop in two years for another, I ask myself…