We’re only in April but this is a sure-fire candidate for the best prog rock album of the year.
Knight Area are a Dutch band that have been around for almost two decades now. They play melodic neo-prog with both a symphonic and metal edge, a bit like a heavier version of Dutch legends Kayak. They’ve been on the periphery of my vision for a while, having released some solid material, but in a crowded market have never done enough to fully grab my attention. But they released an interesting concept album D-Day in 2019, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. That album significantly marked the debut in the group of a top-class vocalist (and lyricist) in Jan Willen Ketelares which took the group up a notch or two and added a harder edge. Three years-later, we get D-Day II: The Final Chapter which takes the band up several notches more, resulting in a genuinely outstanding prog rock release. The album title is potentially misleading. It’s not about the battle itself at all. That was fully covered in D-Day. Instead, the story focuses on the soldiers who tried to go back to normal civilian lives after the war.
The opener, The Enemy Within, is the longest track here at just over seven minutes and it’s a densely constructed piece of progressive music. A blaze of swirling organ and jagged guitar chords (imitating memories of the machine guns on the battlefield?) sets the scene. It’s followed by a vocal section, and you assume that the song will develop from these initial ideas – but you’d be wrong. This is just an introduction and at the two-and-a-half-minute mark, a gentle and remarkably beautiful melody is introduced followed by an unexpected but brilliant Wakeman-like flourish on the Moog from Gerben Klazinga. That beautiful melody remains central to the remainder of the song and emerges towards the end gloriously in Mark Bogert’s guitar solo. It’s seven minutes of pure prog brilliance!
Peace Of Mind opens with discordant piano tinkling which persists throughout the song creating an unsettling feeling. Lyrically, the song takes the viewpoint of a German veteran who must bottle up the memories inside (‘no-one wants to remember, we just have to carry on’ Ketelares sings tellingly). You might be thinking that this is all getting a bit maudlin, and its certainly an easy trap to fall into with this type of topic – just think of Floyd’s The Final Cut, for example. But Knight Area expertly avoid that in what is a surprisingly upbeat album that’s almost bombastic at times. That might sound odd but if you take a song like, I believe, where the lyrics seems to be about a soldier hoping to survive the madness of war then the aggressive and hectic pace of the music perhaps reflects the determination of the soldier to survive and live that future beyond the battle.
Mark Bogert must be one of the most underrated guitarists around. Listen to the instrumental For Those Who Fell. It has a pleasant enough theme over a military backing but that theme is transformed thanks to the gorgeously emotional guitar delivery of Bogert. It sounds like Andy Latimer at his best. Bogert makes telling contributions elsewhere but musically this is really a band effort with Pieter van Hoorn (drums) and Peter Vink (bass) providing a solid base on which Klazinga’s keyboards and Bogert’s guitar weave their magic. The two work so well together that it doesn’t feel like a guitar-based album or a keyboard-base album but a perfectly balanced band album.
That instrumental is followed by three further outstanding tracks: The Dream which has a wonderful vocal hook line (introduced first on guitar); The Journey Home which builds to an epic final with another compelling vocal performance by Ketelares; and lastly Crossroads, which could be described as a simple power ballad but has a spine-tingling melodic turn (‘if you call on me, my friend, I’ll be there if you’re in need’) that turns this track into an anthemic classic. Lyrically, it is about the bonds that are built between soldiers, and that chorus line is a cathartic reference to how they help each other see it through after war too.
In many ways, Crossroads would have been the perfect end to the album, and since the band have admitted that the original intention was for this to be an EP, one wonders whether those seven tracks and thirty-five minutes was what they had in mind. Without splitting hairs on duration, some artists have even considered thirty-five minutes as a perfectly adequate length for a full-length vinyl release (yes, I’m thinking about Rainbow Rising, Ritchie!). Whatever the reason, the album concludes with two additional bonus tracks. Firstly, there’s Freedom For Everyone which was the closing track on D-Day, and probably the best one too. Here it is presented in an unplugged version with an impressive emotional performance by Ketelares. To wrap up matters there’s an Orchestral Compilation which is something of a belated overture since it’s simply an orchestral mix of the wonderful themes that abound in this album. While these are two enjoyable pieces, if I’d had the choice on running order then the orchestral piece would have been an epic opener, and Freedom For Everyone could have been a separate release, thus allowing Crossroads to close the album.
Leaving aside that very minor gripe, there’s no doubt that the stars have magically aligned for Knight Area and they’ve produced riveting music here. To these ears, it’s the best album they’ve made by a long way. We’re only in April but this is a sure-fire candidate for the best prog rock album of the year.