It is easy to see some people picking [Another Life Not Lived] out as their highlight on the disc, and it is certainly the most unflinchingly honest – staring down the barrel of a situation in which no-one would want to find themselves, but refusing to avert its eyes from the tragedy unfolding. Cathartic music indeed.
There is a lot to be thankful as regards the sheer quantity of good material being released at this point in time in terms of prog rock – in one guise or another. For sure, this is a period of creativity which has rarely been rivalled in the genre, and keeping up with it all is a very satisfying chase indeed. However, occasionally the downside of this glut of notable new music can rear its head – most notably that, occasionally, a very fine album indeed can get lost in the ‘noise’, and pass by one’s notice entirely. Such was the case with this 2022 release from veteran neo-proggers (if I may use that term loosely) Galahad; their first since the pre-pandemic concept work Seas Of Change, as soon as I realised my oversight, it was a situation I had to remedy as soon as possible. And it is fortunate that I did, as this is without a doubt a very fine work indeed, and one which would certainly have been pushing strongly for inclusion in my ‘Top Ten albums of 2022’ has I heard it in time! Better late than never, though, so let’s waste no further time and dive in to have a look…
The CD in total consists of seven tracks, though only the first five are the album ‘proper’, with the other two being listed as ‘bonus tracks’ – and presumably missing from any vinyl edition. Therefore it is prudent to look at both the overall musical content, but also the impact of the core album minus bonus content. Happily, despite the quality of the two bonuses, the five tracks making up the main album provide an outstanding listening experience on their own, and the track selection and sequencing could scarcely have been better. In fact, those five tracks comprise what would, in the old ‘vinyl era’ money make up a classic two-sider, with a running time of 40-odd minutes being made up of what would have been two tracks on the first side and three on the second – a very nice ‘prog’ configuration straight away, before even hearing a note!
The album opens with Alive – a track full of vim and vigour which manages to mix the neo-prog influences it wears proudly on its sleeve with a strongly contemporary sheen and punchy production. It manage to be both nostalgic and yet bang up to date – which is a nice trick if you can balance it – and could hardly have been positioned better as an opening statement of intent. In fact, if any track could be said to sum up the essence of Galahad, with the neo sensibility and roots matched by the desire to remain contemporary and in the vanguard of a vital, restlessly creative current wave, this would be the one. It has just enough twists and turns to hold the attention over its eight minute duration, including a tremendous instrumental section which leaves the listener energised and engaged. It is very easy to see this becoming a popular and effective opener at live shows, without doubt. Taking up what would be the second half of this first ‘side of vinyl’ is Omega Lights. With lyrics written by frontman Stu Nicholson about the coastal feature of his beloved South Coast, the track is divided into two sections called, appropriately, Alpha and Omega. The first part, lasting around three and a half minutes, is a very different beast to the high-octane Alive, being an atmospheric keyboard-based episode, which brings to mind the Van Der Graaf Generator classic A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers in its wistful, lonesome ambience. It’s a marvellously evocative passage, and it’s almost a disappointment when the inevitable switch-up in tempo and feeling arrives for the main vocal part of the piece. The remainder of the track twists and turns in a nicely ‘traditionally progressive’ way, switching between a couple of distinct yet related themes, and it goes on to finish very strongly. I would have loved that wonderfully muted opening to have been explored further, however, with its implicitly grandiose elements teased out, though that is a minor nit-pick for certain, and a purely personal response.
It is worth remarking at this point how strong Nicholson’s voice is at this point. Always having possessed a strong vocal technique, with this recording he really has developed his own distinctive style and vocal identity, landing somewhere in between the intense soul-bearing of Peter Hammill and – strange as it may be to say it – definite echoes of the more ‘diffident’ style of Neil Tennant. The latter at times definitely led me to mentally weigh up the delights which would have come from the Pet Shop Boys daring to attempt a fully prog-rock album, with the conclusion that such a thing might well have been a thing of beauty, and a more natural fit than one might expect in the first analysis.
Blood, Skin And Bone is next up, occupying what would be the first eight minutes of the second vinyl side, and it’s at this point that we get the most aggressive, instrumentally powerful, track on the whole album. The closest thing to ‘prog metal’ in evidence, the piece is built around a propulsive, Arabic-sounding riff full of creeping menace and threat of imminent danger or violence. It’s dark stuff for sure, with a lyric describing the ‘beast within’ all of us, and how close we are, as a race as well as individuals, to descending into chaos. It’s both an unnerving look into a potentially ugly mirror and also a cautionary tale, and notable for some tremendous guitar work courtesy of Lee Abraham, who is also credited with ‘guitar orchestration’. Things just got serious!
The shortest piece on the album follows this, the four-minute Enclosure 1764, but the subject matter is once again anything but bright and breezy. The title refers to the Enclosure laws present in the 18th Century and around that time, which enabled the wealthy to simply take common land and claim it for their own, with the peasantry suddenly liable to harsh punishment should they take any previously free livestock from the area. This appalling state of affairs is related starkly and effectively, with some excellent deployment of some wordless (possibly sampled) female backing vocals, but can also be extrapolated to refer to the present day, with the rich and powerful seeming to be above the law all too many times, while the common man feels its full force brought to bear. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, as the French saying has it – or indeed, ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss’, as a certain Pete Townshend also summed it up! A very thoughtful piece, its impact belying its relatively brief duration.
At this point it is time for the album’s centrepiece, however – the ten-minute title track, Written in tribute to Stu Nicholson’s own father, Bob, who in his mountaineering days scaled the two highest peaks in Austria, it is the album’s single most unashamedly grandiose prog epic, full of soaring choruses, sweeping instrumental passages awash with big walls of keyboards and liquid guitar runs – all of the pomp and circumstance you could shake an ELP album at, and magnificent in its overarching ambition. It is clearly a heartfelt and honest tip of the hat to Nicholson Snr, whose own photo is seen on the album cover in snowbound climbing mode. Towards the end it appears as if the piece will close on a tremendous instrumental section which is big, windswept and suitably unconfined in its grandeur – but in an unexpected twist it drops to a short, smoky jazzy coda, with the chorus lines intoned once more against a musical backdrop which, you feel, would probably be far more in Bob’s favoured wheelhouse – and in the end, that is very likely the intent. It’s a nice touch to end on, and a perfect way to close the core album.
Of course, CD owners have another two tracks to come yet, and both are noteworthy. Normality Of Distance is a quite subdued and reflective piece, dispensing sage advice to someone trapped by their own inactivity in a toxic relationship, and is a piece which one imagines would resonate very strongly to anyone even on the periphery of such a situation. It’s the final track which is the most eagerly awaited, however, being a version of a song written with late bandmate Neil Pepper some years ago, but only now making it onto record. Another Life Not Lived is a heartrending true story about someone losing a child, and is almost unbearably poignant in places. Another understandably downbeat track in essence, it is nevertheless leavened by some spirited musical development over its eight minute duration. It is easy to see some people picking this out as their highlight on the disc, and it is certainly the most unflinchingly honest – staring down the barrel of a situation in which no-one would want to find themselves, but refusing to avert its eyes from the tragedy unfolding. Cathartic music indeed.
It’s incredible to think that, back in the ’80s and ’90s bands who had formed at the dawn of the 1970s were often written off, and regarded with amazement if they managed to produce what was regarded as a ‘late career’ recording anywhere near their best – as if forty-something rockers could not put too much effort into a recording, lest they might lose a limb or some such hazard with advancing age – and yet today a band such as Galahad with nearly four decades behind them can produce something at least very close to their very best without an eyelid being batted. This, in truth, is an album which it is impossible to imagine disappointing anyone who has been an admirer of the band before now, and could very easily go on to win them plenty of new followers who might come upon this as their introduction to the world of Galahad – and one which I would strongly recommend as such. Arise once again, Sir Galahad – at least, if your dodgy knees and hip replacements will allow you to, as we used to think of such denizens of the Old Rockers’ Home! It would certainly appear that there are years left in the old knight yet…