March 13, 2022

The final track, at eleven minutes plus, could not go anywhere else on the record as it is without doubt the grandest and most traditionally anthemic piece of all, happy in its beautifully widescale pomp and circumstance. This is a Big Prog Piece, capitals absolutely intentional. It knows what it is and it revels in it.

Kalle Wallner is a name which may need an introduction to some people, but to those already in the know he is already a widely respected musician and composer, as guitarist with German band RPWL – who themselves evolved from their origins as a Pink Floyd tribute band in the 1990s into one of the most accomplished progressive rock bands on the scene today. A band scarcely averse to a grand concept and lyrical tour de force, this solo album – conceived and recorded by Wallner during a small pandemic that you might have noticed in passing – is conversely an almost entirely instrumental work. Indeed, it may seem odd that a mostly wordless album should be entitled Voices, but the intention seems to be that the instruments are used as voices of a sort themselves, with wordless vocals on one track reciprocating that, thus blurring the lines between the two. If that sounds like a rather vague concept for the record to be hung onto, don’t worry about it – because it really doesn’t matter. This is simply a superb collection of instrumental progressive rock, and there is no call for any conceptual context in order to enjoy it completely.

The first thing to note here is the unusually prosaic track naming – of the seven pieces here, the first six are simply called ‘One’ through ‘Six’. The exception is the final one, which bucks the trend only slightly by going under the title of ‘Seven. Out’ (including full stop). That certainly makes a reviewer’s life easier in a way; when the tracklisting you have to discuss goes: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven. Out, referring back to the disc to remember the titles isn’t really a problem! This does make sense in different ways as well, since naming often seems random for instrumental pieces. Of course, there will be times when the track had its genesis via the inspiration of a particular place, time or event, but just as often one can imagine the artist desperately trying to conjure titles up to describe something which is simply a good musical idea. And let’s face it, calling classical symphonies by numbers never hurt such luminaries as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or Mahler, did it? (Yes, I know they often had alternative names such as Eroica, Pastoral, Resurrection etc, but I stand by the comparison nevertheless!)

Photo: Alexey Testov

Anyhow, on to the music. The first thing to note about the album is that Wallner has neatly sidestepped that gaping trap which has claimed many a great musician when recording instrumental music – namely that the composition and the solo are two different things. In a vocal-led song, the ‘instrumental section’ may well consist of a guitar solo, or keyboard solo, but an instrumental composition is not, and should never be, an extended solo. I think we can all bring to mind some extremely talented players who have fallen screaming down that particular trapdoor, and one or two who have co-opted the hole and built their careers on it! No, I contend absolutely that the best instrumental compositions should be driven by the melodies in the same way as a song is driven by the voice and vocal melody, with any soloing coming in to highlight it. This is something which Kalle Wallner clearly has an instinctive handle on, as it is carried off with effortless aplomb. It also doesn’t hurt that the core band for the album also comprises the keyboards of his RPWL partner Yogi Lang and also the highly rated Marco Minneman on drums. That’s one fine power trio, right there – and they certainly deliver.

The first couple of tracks (that’s One and Two, in case you hadn’t been keeping up) introduce things by being the perfect combination between complexity and brevity, both being in the ‘five-to-eight minute’ ballpark and featuring memorable themes and – when wisely allowed its freedom – magnificent guitarwork. It should also be noted that this is no gentle, flutteringly pretty prog concoction, and there is some very meaty riffing going on – however, while the heavy content would make the staunchest metalhead feel right at home with their feet touching the bottom of the metaphorical pool, this could not be described as ‘metal’, even with the ‘progressive’ caveat. It’s prog rock, but played by three guys who want to rock and sound as if they are having an absolute ball doing so. Three is the sole vocal piece, with lyrics and vocals by Arno Menses, familiar to many from the band Subsignal. It’s just the perfect leavening agent, to avoid any chance of ‘instrumental fatigue’ as one might call it, when extended instrumental music can cause the mind to wander off in search of vocals only for it to forget where it’s been…

Kalle Wallner – marching furiously towards reviewer’s paragraph… (Alexey Testov)

Four and Five follow this by virtue of simplifying the construction just a little, and in fact coming the closest to that ‘progressive metal’ tag of anything here. Five is the shortest track, at around three and a half minutes, and sets us up perfectly for the rousing finale of the closing pair. The near ten-minute Six is possibly the most complex piece here, and yet never loses its way and wanders into that Minefield of Mindless Soloing where so many have fallen. It also has rather effective wordless vocals provided by Carmen Tannich, who goes by the name Tanyc. The final track, at eleven minutes plus, could not go anywhere else on the record as it is without doubt the grandest and most traditionally anthemic piece of all, happy in its beautifully widescale pomp and circumstance. This is a Big Prog Piece, capitals absolutely intentional. It knows what it is and it revels in it. The influence of David Gilmour, wisely subverted elsewhere, is here allowed to run joyously off the leash and start burying its bones in the garden. Grandiose themes come and go, light and shade between the great and the subtle are generously deployed, and when the track finally drifts to its quiet denouement, you just know that it’s the capstone that this fine record needed to end itself on a defiant exclamation mark. And why not indeed.

This is really an enormously impressive release, and I harbour a quiet hope that one or two bits of this could find themselves deployed somewhere in a future RPWL show, as the stage is the perfect home for some of the vibrancy and dynamics on show here. It’s rare that a solo project from someone within an established and respected band can compete toe to toe with the ‘mothership’ as it were (as the rusting remains of certain Yes and Pink Floyd side-projects bear silent witness), but this certainly manages it. Is it too early to say ‘top ten for the year’? Maybe, but what I will say is that if ten better albums than this are released this year it will have been a very fine twelve months indeed…