Nothing to do with celestial carryings-on, Kepler Ten are a British prog-rock trio comprising Alistair Bell, James Durand and Steve Hales. Originally formed in 2015 by Steve and James when doing Rush tributes, they released their debut album Delta V in 2017 to widespread critical acclaim. They then recruited guitarist Alistair (who got the gig by responding to a recruitment ad) and they’ve progressed from there. Their influences range from Rush, Muse, Rush, Dream Theater to Rush, Queensryche, Van Halen (yes, they like Rush a lot!). They’ve subsequently featured in the HRH Prog extravaganzas, nominated in the 2017 UK Prog Awards, and got into several journalists’ top 10 albums for 2017. Since then they’ve toured extensively before getting down to that awkward second album – A New Kind of Sideways.
The debut album Delta V was definitely a Prog Rock album, with intricate time changes, complex arrangements and sweeping lyrics, all illustrating their influences without slavishly aping any. Seven tracks lasted just over an hour, and the new album is pretty much the same, albeit with a definite rock tinge, all three extremely talented musicians demonstrating their mastery at song composition whilst thoroughly enjoying themselves.
A New Kind of Sideways is described by the band as being “semi-conceptual” – each track stands alone as its own individual entity but the album is encompassed and held together in a cyclical manner by the first and last track. It pushes the message that as human beings we are all the same and have a duty of care and responsibility towards each other – never more true than in 2020. The sense of the cycle is underlined by the second part of the three-part epic closer, an instrumental section that rewinds back through musical themes from the preceding songs, taking the message and feeling of “universality” back through the album to the moment of clarity at the start.
James is a thoroughly decent bass player, but a gob-smackingly good vocalist! Not having heard these guys before, I am hugely impressed at his versatility, control and power. There’s a hint of Sting about his delivery, people mention Rush but I find James’ vocals stronger! Drummer Steve is again a versatile powerhouse, and these two create the kind of stable platform that allows “newby” guitarist Alistair full rein to sweep, chop and soar with an effortless grace. The trio have only been together for a relatively short time, but they play with a collective assurance and maturity that I find staggering. Some are already dubbing this the best prog rock album of 2020, and I would happily echo this!
The opener Universal is a short scene-setter, it has an intriguing heartbeat bassline echoing the Ultravox track Vienna before the power chords sweep in and bleed through into the ten-minute opus that is Clarity. A repetitive riff emerges and builds through various stages of guitar strength and rhythmic power. This is Prog, but it’s also a great rock composition, and for me that’s the magic key, you lose sense of labels and simply enjoy! Yes (hah!) there’s influences of Rush, but you can hear Muse, early and mid-period Genesis, plus hints of (dare I say…) Opeth and Porcupine Tree – and the guitar work could easily be tagged as power-Metal. This is transcendental!
Falling Down is the lead single, and is accessible, straightforward electronic rock a la Muse. The intro reminds me of Bon Jovi’s Livin On a Prayer! It has a great melody, an insistent rhythm, a wonderful bass line, sharp synths – a great sampler for the album with some great playing from all three (and a great video – see below)
Weaver illustrates what a beautifully crisp sound mix this album has, a credit to everyone involved. This builds slowly, it’s perhaps the one track where the vocals sound just a bit “earnest” somehow, but it also features another great slappy bass-line and bubbling synths. Next up is another slow-burner, but These Few Words is altogether more majestic. It starts with virtually solo vocals plus brooding bass-line before percussion comes in and develops organically, some whopping drum-rolls and really chunky chords announcing this is a properly meaty number! Interesting bridge sections give pause for thoughts before the full-on treatment returns and builds to the conclusion.
The title track A New Kind of Sideways shows more than a hint of Rush, and Yes, in all their pomp here, particularly in the mellotron, synth, bass and especially choral vocals. I have to confess to not being the greatest fan of Yes, so the harder, full-on rock guitar work makes this all the better for me!
Icarus Eyes is a chirpy little number. Can I be cheeky (in a very positive way) and say it almost sounds like a rock sound-track for The Lion King!! It’s introduced by some lovely Steve Howe-like 12-string acoustic work. The band really struck lucky when recruiting this guy, he can play! I also love the percussion, it’s a combination of congos and other “light” patterns skittering around for quite a while before the full-on Prog sound returns, followed by a mellotron-led bridge section and choral climax that is either Gospel or Disney, or both! – its in the ear of the listener, but for me it’s definitely got that African vibe!
The closing track One And The Same is truly epic; twenty minutes long, distilling and wrapping up all that’s gone before, a series of sections constructed to rehearse, build, encapsulate and conclude the story. James Durand’s voice sounds different here, deeper, authoritative, almost preacher-like to start with. This is serious stuff, as we’re urged to treat personal freedom with more respect. There are three main sections to this song, the middle section returning to the acoustic lightness of earlier tracks, then building into a majestic instrumental, almost orchestral Yes-style overture in its own right. Some of the drumming here really pushes the music into a sort of wide-screen sound-scape (Not Disney this time!) Another lush, acoustic bridge section follows, with gorgeous “spanish classical-style” bass work.
A word here for the backroom team as well as the three performers – getting the engineering, mix and overall production right feels like this must have been a herculean effort for this track alone, and much praise is due to all concerned. The gentle middle bridge section then starts building slowly towards the big climactic conclusion, with showpiece guitar solo to die for, plus chorale harmonies to round off the big message …”We’re all One And The Same; we all have a responsibility to each other, and to the planet”.
To sum up,then, A New Kind of Sideways is simultaneously a big-screen ‘epic’ story about our current condition; and it’s also an excellent, varied selection of very well created, performed and produced tracks, that cuts right across the Progressive / Rock boundary to provide a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. The future looks very bright for Kepler Ten as an extremely talented trio as musicians, composers and arrangers!