This is a tremendously enjoyable release and pushes Ellesmere into the top drawer of active symphonic prog bands.
Ellesmere is a new name to me, and I was wondering whether they originate from either the small lakeside town of the same name in Shropshire, or the less attractive Merseyside port. As it turns out, Ellesmere is a project put together by Rome-based prog artist Roberto Vitelli, known as a member of long-standing Italian prog band Taproban. This is Ellesmere’s fourth release since their debut a decade ago, and while their first two albums followed a similar path to Taproban with an English pastoral-prog feel (with influences from the like of Genesis, Gentle Giant and Camel), this release moves towards a more symphonic prog sound, perhaps closer to classic Yes than anyone else.
While Roberto Vitelli might not be a household name, he’s certainly drawn some high-profile names into his project, including Clive Nolan (Pendragon, Arena), Mattias Olsson (Änglagård), John Hackett on flute and David Jackson on saxes. As well as this all-star prog line-up, the packaging is top class with artwork created by Rodney Matthews (famous for his album covers for Magnum, Nazareth and a host of other artists). The cover reflects two worlds, painted in mirror image, one representing an ice-bound world, and one a warmer climate. This directly reflects the music since side one consists of four songs about a journey in an ice-bound world and side two contains two longer pieces focused on the warmer world.
The album opens with Northwards which begins with a broad two-minute symphonic sweep, setting a suitably epic tone for the album. The full band enters for a slightly chaotic syncopated section before the chorus bursts in with vocalist John Wilkinson urgently crying out ‘northward’ and identifying the target as the North Pole. There’s a good solo which leads to a final rousing rendition of the chorus that concludes this compact seven-minute prog tale. The next track, Tundra, is of similar length and opens in a similar syncopated way but lacks a bit of inspiration. Things pick up in the second part though as an unexpected dash of Yes-like a cappella harmonies lead into an excellent guitar solo. Two short pieces round up the story of the ice world. Artica is an enegetic piece with clear Rush overtones, while Crystalised has a lovely acoustic beginning that is then contrasted with an almost prog-metal angular section in which David Jackson’s sax stands out.
Two twelve-minute tracks form the second part. The Yes-inspired title track builds up symphonically to a stirring chorus and then moves through different sections with some excellent Wakeman-like Moog work and a powerful guitar climax before the tension is cleverly released by an elegant flute solo over a final hushed version of the chorus. Another World is the one track that clearly evokes Genesis with an aggressive and rhythmic theme reminiscent of Gabriel and Co around the The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway period, and a keyboard hook that sounds closer to the Bank’s post-Gabriel style. During the central section, there’s an unexpected reprise of the chorus from Northwards which nicely ties the two suites together. Again, there’s a quiet coda to release the tension with gentle piano that fades out to the sound of children playing.
This is a tremendously enjoyable release and pushes Ellesmere into the top drawer of active symphonic prog bands. There are some inspiring moments, especially in the title track and Northwards, and the energy and momentum are maintained throughout. Stranger Skies is guaranteed enjoyment for anyone with a taste for English-style symphonic prog.