September 6, 2023

With Threnody For A Dead Queen, the band largely lay waste to their neo-prog roots, or at least the more overt manifestations of them, in favour of an album owing more to the likes of Tangerine Dream than those of Marillion in places … and requiring considerably more than a single cursory listen to reveal most of its charms.

Scottish proggers Comedy Of Errors have been on something of a productive roll of late, since the thankful retreat of the Covid curtain of doom. This new 2023 release comes hot on the heels of the previous album Time Machine, only a year or so later, and shows a band absolutely bursting with ideas, as any thoughts of the two albums being almost like a double album released in two halves proves way off the mark. Time Machine was an absolute highlight in the band’s catalogue, it must be said, and certainly up their with their finest releases, but what it did not try to do was to redefine the parameters of the band’s sound and musical identity in any way. Threnody For A Dead Queen, on the other hand, does exactly that. The band have always had a knack for immediate, melodic and grandiose neo-prog, and indeed it is that neo-prog label which they have always had applied to them, even in the case of more oblique releases such as the deeply personal Spirit in 2015. With Threnody For A Dead Queen, the band largely lay waste to those neo-prog roots, or at least the more overt manifestations of them, in favour of an album owing more to the likes of Tangerine Dream than those of Marillion in places (composer Jim Johnston perhaps tipping his hat to some of his keyboard inspirations), and requiring considerably more than a single cursory listen to reveal most of its charms.

There’s generally an epic or two to be found on any COE album – and in this case you get three, all over 12 minutes in length, out of the eight tracks. Two of these open the album in succession – a brave move for sure, as the more tried and tested, and ‘safer’ tactic is often to open with a shorter and more immediate track to grab the listener. No, in this case you have to meet the band halfway and put in the work right off the bat, with the 15-minute Summer Lies Beyond a slow burner of a piece, with almost ambient keyboard-dominated sections (certainly with Tangerine Dream echoes ) jostling for position with vocal passages which recall some low-key and thoughtful Yes music from their 1970s peak. Hang on to the end, however, with a satisfyingly grandiose ending to the track which puts the whole build-up into focus. It’s an excellent opener which reveals more of its depths with each listen, but it’s likely many listeners may be unsure on the first play. The second lengthy piece, the scarcely shorter Seventh Seal, referencing the classic Ingmar Bergman film (you know the one, the knight and the devil playing chess), is a slightly less complex and challenging piece, consisting in the main of two distinct alternating themes: the first channelling the best qualities of 1970s Starcastle (for those saying that’s the same as 1970s Yes – in fact no, it isn’t at all), and the other a far more laid-back and ruminative quality, almost lazily drifting by. Many listeners will be very likely to prefer this piece of the two first off, but after a few more listens I would be surprised if a lot of them do not have their ranking reversed. Both are very good, but to these ears Summer Lies Beyond just has more levels to discover and explore.

There’s some lighter relief at this point with three of the five sub-four minute tracks coming along together. For an album which seems to strongly have various aspects of death running through it as a thematic concept, We Are Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made Of and Through The Veil fit like the proverbial glove, both being essentially ‘mood pieces’, carrying the atmosphere towards the next epic-length composition. In between those two, however, comes the outlier on the record; Jane (Came Out Of The Blue) comes out of the blue itself as a relatively jaunty folk-influenced song with a catchy chorus of sorts and rather a Strawbs feel to it. It’s not a bad song – quite the contrary, it might make a successful single in a fairer world – but it does ‘take one out’ of the album a little, and I think I might have preferred it to be positioned at the end, perhaps even designated as a ‘bonus track’ given its slight divergence from the overbearing tone of the record.

At this point, however, we are back to the epics with the title track, Threnody For A Dead Queen. To save you looking it up, a ‘threnody’ is essentially a poem or song of mourning, like an elegy. It is a large coincidence that this emerged relatively soon after the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, but that is presumably all it is, as this material will have in all likelihood have been conceived before that particular occasion. A timely link, however. The title track itself is an unusual affair, being a slow building instrumental piece for 75% of its running time, with the vocals and the ‘song’ proper bursting forth quite unexpectedly for the final three minutes or so, with some stately and anthemic guitar work upping the ‘pomp’ factor significantly. If that sounds as if it is a long slog waiting for the payoff, however, quite the opposite is true, with parts of that initial build-up displaying real quality, and once again a step outside what one might have expected from a COE release. On this occasion there are clear echoes of prime ’70s long-form Mike Oldfield mixed with Ricochet-era Tangerine Dream, as the use of repetition and gradual building ramps up the tension of the piece beautifully.

With the climax of that track, the work of singer Joe Cairney is done, as the final two pieces are two more concise instrumentals. An underwhelming finish to the album, you suggest? Well, absolutely not, as these are both tremendously effective if utterly different to each other, and yet they fit together very well. Both tracks coming in at an identical length of 3.09, And Our Little Life Is Rounded With A Sleep takes almost as long to say as the track does to listen to, but it’s a splendidly downbeat meditation on, once again, that cheery theme of death. This is perhaps where the spirit of long-ago Tangerine Dream really manifests itself the most – it’s like taking the 80 minutes of liquid darkness making up their seminal Zeit album and compressing it into these languid and ominous three minutes. And just as you think that’s a dark but effective closer, up pops Funeral Dance, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Beginning as a sort of soundtrack to a Medieval wake and funeral in the style of Gryphon, it morphs into a slightly more modern feel, a little like Mike Oldfield (again) did with his treatment of traditional pieces such as In Dulce Jubilo. The mood of grim jollity in defiance of the grim spectre of death at the feast really is the perfect way to close proceedings.

Is this the finest Comedy Of Errors album thus far then? Well, it’s hard to claim that, with the very different offerings of Fanfare And Fantasy, Time Machine and Spirit very hard to go against. On the other hand, is this the COE album with the most depth, undiscovered promise and absolute departure from the safety of the band’s roots and comfort zone. Absolutely and unequivocally ‘yes’. If you really love a nice melodic piece of symphonic neo-prog, then this most likely will struggle to float your boat for enough audio voyages. But if you like going that extra mile on a journey along with the artist to the outer regions of their creative muse, then this album is going to be very much for you. There’s a lot here to dive into, but it’s worth the effort.