April 14, 2020

Franck Carducci. Is it, I wonder, a name you’re familiar with? If not, and you’re a fan of prog rock or the more expansive side of classic rock in general, then it really should be. This is his third album – following on the heels of the excellent Torn Apart – but to these ears it’s probably the best he’s done to date. As anyone who has seen Franck’s band on stage will attest, it is in the live environment that this native of France (via Holland on the way) really comes into his own, with a gloriously unashamed theatrical stage show which entertains visually as much as it impresses musically. But, as any flamboyant musician knows, you have to deliver on record as well as on stage – Peter Gabriel’s outlandish costumes wouldn’t have got Genesis half as far had they not been able to deliver on vinyl with the likes of Foxtrot and Selling England. So, does Franck manage to escape the visual experience here? Oh, yes. Yes he most certainly does.

Before even looking in greater depth at the individual tracks on here, it’s important to make one point first: this is an album which is very difficult to nail down and to categorise. There are elements of all sorts of beloved and familiar influences, as the ghosts of Franck’s musical journey look over his shoulder and nod approvingly, but there is never a thought that you could say to someone ‘this album sounds like Yes’, or Genesis or Zeppelin or Marillion or whoever. Because it sounds like all of them in places, but overall it just sounds like Franck Carducci. It’s an album which absorbs and respects influences without ever being constrained by them. It is comfortable and yet new. If there was a pigeon-hole for this music, it would be able to house an eagle.

Starting things off is what could loosely be termed the title track, (Love Is) The Answer. At eight minutes or so, it certainly isn’t a short, easy introduction to proceedings – straight away the listener is called upon to do just that. In fact, it is a tremendous song, with sublime keyboard parts courtesy of Olivier Castan (also of Zio) giving it overtones of ELP or early Genesis in places, and it is a triumphant way to open the album. In fact, the second song, the much more direct and rocking Slave To Rock ‘n’ Roll, would arguably have made a more obvious choice as opener, but once again, Franck does like to buck the trend. It’s a track which will be sure to make a cracking stage number, driven along by some tasty Blackmore-esque riffing and a chorus which could make you punch the air if you so desired! Two songs in and, yep, that pigeon-holing is already looking impossible.

In fact, Slave… is in a sense the first instalment of a two-parter, as Franck’s ‘alter-ego’, Arion Superstar, who is introduced to us in that song, gets his full, bizarre story told in the following 12-minute epic Superstar. You want theatrical storylines? Try the tale of jet-setting rock superstar Arion and his shy, adoring fan Dolly who seemingly inhabit different worlds, until that is Arion gets kidnapped, robbed and thrown overboard by sexy pirates (yes, really!), before being rescued at the last moment from drowning by the passing boat of – you guessed it – daydreaming Dolly. All utterly and intentionally absurd and larger than life of course, but oh, how much fun will be had enacting this one on stage! Musically it’s an absolute gem, with washes of acoustic guitars trading places with big, rocking sections and a chorus sung by Franck’s regular collaborator Mary Reynaud in the guise of the wistful Dolly. Around three minutes in there is a glorious burst of staccato keyboard riffing bringing to mind prime early Marillion, which is sadly over all too soon. That’s often what you get on this record – things which make you prick up your ears but are never overplayed.

“Hmm … I like that paragraph up there…”

Another lengthy track follows this, in the shape of The After Effect, which uses an expansive yet highly melodic prog format in the same way that Magenta love to do, although spiced up with the odd little quirky, arresting Gentle Giant nod thrown in. It’s a simpler song in structure than Superstar, but it is very, very good. The oddly jazzy, trumpet-led The Game Of Life comes next, to blindside us all, just as we thought we had a handle on the album. It’s not the strongest thing on the album from a melodic sense, to these ears, but it breaks things up nicely before we get plunged into the next epic, closing the album ‘proper’. Asylum is another 11 minute beast, featuring Derek Sherinian on keys and Jimmy Pallagrosi on highly recognisable drums, which takes much of its cue respectfully from the Supertramp classic of the same name. Franck tips his hat to that song lyrically, with playful references to ‘Jimmy Cream’, playing ‘for fun’ and ‘dying for a smoke’. It’s another track which mixes the muscular, heavier, and even bluesy side of the band with a big, thick prog flourish, and it brings things to a tremendous close.

Except it isn’t exactly the close. The vinyl version of the album ends there, but on the CD and digital versions we get a couple of acoustic-based pieces, labelled as ‘bonus tracks’. On The Road To Nowhere is a short, fully acoustic song whereas Beautiful Night is a more fleshed-out, yet still very restrained, seven minute ballad. After that come two genuine ‘bonuses’ in the shape of radio edits of (Love Is) The Answer and Slave To Rock ‘n’ Roll, though both are much better in their full versions.

To me, the album as a whole works ideally closing with Asylum, and I think of the two ‘bonus’ tracks afterward almost as encores, if you want just a bit more to round things off after the big finish. This is a splendid example of contemporary progressive rock using its influences as stepping stones to its own unique identity, and it manages that elusive trick of being accessible enough to grab the attention of the casual listener yet also having the depth and variety to satisfy the most demanding prog-head. In a fairer world, this would be a huge hit – though we know we don’t have one of those!

I wish I’d heard this when it first came out in late 2019, because it would have been in my Top Five for the year as sure as eggs is eggs (to quote another Genesis reference). Whatever the question is, this is The Answer.