November 2, 2020

This wonderful album from Norwegian band Arabs In Aspic matches any British prog album that I’ve heard this year.

‘Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher – your boys took a hell of a beating!’. For those not familiar with the lows of the England football team (yes, I know there are many), that was the legendary phrase used by the Norwegian commentator after Norway had shocked the world by beating England in a World Cup qualifier in 1981. Well, if I were a Norwegian reviewing this album I’d be tempted to write ‘Boris Johnson, can you hear me? Boris Johnson – your bands have just taken a hell of a beating!’ That is because this wonderful album from Norwegian band Arabs In Aspic matches any British prog album that I’ve heard this year.

So, you may well be wondering who this band are, as indeed I was a couple of weeks ago. The band have been around on and off for about 15 years and this is their sixth album. The name is certainly curious and one would correctly assume hints at one of their strongest musical influences (if that doesn’t ring a bell to younger readers, I’m referring to the King Crimson album Larks’ Tongues in Aspic). But rather oddly it is also the name of a cricket club formed in 1935 that had no fixed abode and toured the world to play cricket. When the club closed in 1993, their exploits were immortalized by cricket writer E.W. Swanton in a book, also with the name Arabs In Aspic. I don’t know if it is pure coincidence that the band picked the same name or whether somehow the band knew about this very obscure book about a very obscure cricket team!

The band live with their unusual line-up of two drummers

The album opens with I Vow To Thee, My Screen. Yes, a strange title – it’s a play on the patriotic poem I Vow To Thee, My Country – but in this case the promise is made to a computer screen because the theme of the album is a reflection on how easily both children and adults are affected in the digital age.  Musically, this is the song with the strongest King Crimson influence. It is based around acoustic guitar and organ and it progresses in a slow and elegant way very much like Crimson’s Epitaph. The two-part Lullaby For Modern Kids introduces different elements. There’s a funky bass line and a quirky Zappa sounding vocal section, and a brilliant guitar solo in the first part. There are also heavier elements in this track and while I’ve read that the band has Sabbath influences, for me the guitar is used more in a late psychedelic or proto-heavy rock style. With the frequent use of Mellotron and a lot of attention paid to percussion (the band have both a drummer and a percussionist!), there’s a distinct late 60s feel to the music. The short second part of Lullaby For Modern Kids returns to a more bucolic sound but seems to reflect the light-heartedness with which kids play war games with the line ‘I will shoot you dead, right through the head’ being sung in the same indifference as if the lyrics were ‘I like beans on toast for dinner’. These clever lyrical touches are part of the magic of this album.

The album culminates in the lengthy (16 minutes) Heaven In Your Eye which has several equally brilliant sections: a cheerful and rather commercial vocal section; a lengthy Moog solo; a heavier vocal section in the style of Van der Graaf Generator; and a stunning Eastern-influenced section where Jostein Smeby on guitars and Stig Jørgensen on the Hammond really let loose. It’s a magnificent way to close the album.

I’ve mentioned some of the Anglo-Saxon influences in the band’s music but the focus on harmony and melody also bring to mind many of the Italian prog bands as well as fellow Scandinavians Kaipa. In summary, the band have come up with great musical ideas originating from a lot of disparate influences, put them through a 1969 musical lens, and created one hell of a great album as a result. Now let me go and post a copy of the album to Boris Johnson….