Taking its inspiration from a Philip K Dick story, the gloriously retro and yet simultaneously futuristic [Perky Pat] displays an array of keyboard textures, coming over like an infectiously joyous meeting of Rick Wakeman and Philip Glass. This is the way the album unfolds, bouncing from one element of the full prog rock all-you-can-eat buffet to the next, leaving everyone satisfied yet never over-full.
The marvellously named (and quintessentially, Pythonically ‘English’-sounding) Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate have been on my personal radar ever since I first crossed their path with their fourth album Out Of Mind in 2018, with my interest especially piqued by that album’s closing track, the powerful Lidice. The following Nostalgia For Infinity, along with the accompanying EP Ark, was equally impressive, and my hopes were high for this, their sixth album. It would be incorrect to say that my hopes have been met, as in fact they have been exceeded in almost every way by what is the finest recording I have yet encountered by the band – and unless some astonishing delights lie within the earlier albums which I have yet to investigate, I feel reasonably confident that this will stand as their crowning achievement thus far. Just as fascinatingly conceptual and thought-provoking as the previous two, this is music which can move your heart, your mind and your feet in different ways and to different degrees, and is far from easily classifiable ‘contemporary prog’, although that is the envelope in which it proudly belongs, albeit pushing said envelope at every turn. It also gives the lie to that idiosyncratic band name which, although it initially attracted me, did so for entirely the wrong reasons. Conjuring up images of such quirkily eccentric yet brilliant acts such as Stackridge, Kevin Ayers or even Gong at a push, that is a perception which is very wide of the mark indeed. HOGIA are a band who take their craft, and the results of it, extremely seriously, and while they certainly possess a sense of self-deprecating humour when the situation demands, do not allow that to dilute the strength of their musical ambitions or lyrical message in any shape or form.
The concept of this album, inspiring its name, relates in a general way to the perils of overconfidence as a species, and the ways in which society has fallen foul of such a conceit and, more crucially, failed to learn from the mistakes of the past. The pieces all coalesce around that theme, but still the concept is loose enough not to demand immersion in it in order to enjoy the album to a major extent. It simply enhances it should the listener wish to dig that little bit deeper – which is easy to do as the beautifully designed booklet contains notes about most tracks as well as lyrics and extremely well-matched illustrations. If the past couple of albums have contained undeniable standout tracks, almost everything attempted on this record comes off entirely successfully, and the breadth of styles never leads to any risk of sameyness creeping in.
Take the first few tracks as an example. The opening Silence Is A Statement gets us underway in recognisably Hats Off fashion, a serious piece of modern progressive music, and as much a statement as the silence of the title. Malcolm Galloway’s almost spoken word delivery imbues the song with the gravitas of a news bulletin, and commands you to pay attention. Up next, Back Where I Started begins in similar style, causing one to believe that this, albeit effective, template may have prepared us for the album as a whole, until around halfway through the track there is a touch of brilliance, as the flute of Kathryn Thomas cuts through the dour and brooding atmosphere like the sun suddenly appearing through slate-grey clouds in a moment of stunning contrast. The flute interweaves with the song for its remainder, anchoring it with one foot in the past and the other in the present, echoing the album’s theme of learning from past experience, like Jethro Tull sparring with The Pineapple Thief. In that one fell swoop the album opens up as the smorgasbord of musical courses that it is. End Of The Line drifts in on a Pink Floyd pillow of winds before taking off in a modern Marillion direction, all world-weary Hogarth-esque vocals intercut with some soaring guitar work, before the instrumental Perky Pat upends things again. Taking its inspiration from a Philip K Dick story, the gloriously retro and yet simultaneously futuristic piece displays an array of keyboard textures, coming over like an infectiously joyous meeting of Rick Wakeman and Philip Glass. This is the way the album unfolds, bouncing from one element of the full prog rock all-you-can-eat buffet to the next, leaving everyone satisfied yet never over-full. Philip K Dick makes another inspirational appearance with the grim World War Terminus based on his story Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, and its war to end all wars in which both sides have forgotten the initial cause entirely, while Another Plague tells the story of a disease which removes people’s facial features, with the twist that it actually affects the brain of the viewer, making facial features indistinguishable to them. It is not, despite what one might initially think from the title, about the recent pandemic in any way (having predated it), but it does ring chillingly familiar when one conjures up supermarkets full of masked and uneasy figures.
Interlude is another enjoyable instrumental, breaking things up in a similar way to On The Run on Dark Side Of The Moon (if a little more substantially), leading into the grand prog of the towering title track, bursting with moving grandiloquence and pomp, but the centrepiece of the album without doubt is the lengthy instrumental Refuge. The piece is based on the real-life experiences of Malcolm Galloway’s great-grandmother, a refugee with a sobering yet simultaneously life-affirming story from the first world war and after, and her dealings with both the best and worst which humanity has to offer. Like Ark from the previous album, this is the sole exception to the rule of the concept not being necessary to full enjoyment, as the back story to the piece brings it to life in a way which the mere music without context provides a mere shadow of. Reading the background to this major, classically-influenced piece is almost mandatory! The album ends in quite a downbeat way, with another grim, modernistic piece of warning in the shape of the relatively short All Empires Fall being followed by the brief yet heartfelt Cygnus, which closes proceedings by paying understated yet perfectly weighted tribute to those NHS personnel lost to the pandemic. It’s a little like the sort of vignettes which Ian Anderson would often put onto Jethro Tull albums, such as Requiem from Minstrel In The Gallery for example, and shows yet another string to the Hats Off bow. If there is a piece which I could have lived without it would probably be the jazzy, slightly avant-garde feel of Lava Lamprey, but from seventy minutes of music that is a minor niggle indeed.
There will be marmite elements to the band’s sound for sure. Malcolm Galloway’s vocal style, far more Steve Hogarth ennui and spoken word gravitas than soaring choruses, will continue to divide the crowd (just as Hogarth vs Fish or Waters vs Gilmour do to this day in their own respective worlds), but such elements are grist to the mill of fandom. Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate have made consistently good albums in the past, but it could be argued that they have been waiting to produce a truly great one; their magnum opus if you will. With The Confidence Trick they have most assuredly done so. This is an album which will surely take up residence in many ‘best of the year’ lists come the final reckoning at the end of the year, and with good reason. It will make you smile, it will make you frown, and it will make you think. Hats off, gentlemen – this is outstanding!