Prog fans that like a pun might well ask the question ‘are Lifesigns showing any signs of life?’ The band formed by John Young way back in 2008 took until 2013 to release their eponymous debut album and it was a further four years before Cardington hit the shelves. That sort of distance between albums could stretch the loyalty of fans but in the case of Lifesigns, that doesn’t seem to be the case. On the contrary, it was the fans that voted with their wallets and funded this year’s album, Altitude. I don’t know if the many line-up changes have been one of the causes of these infrequent releases but as it stands Young is the only survivor from that 2013 debut album. For this release, Dave Bainbridge (Strawbs) – not to be confused with Harvey Bainbridge of Hawkwind fame – is now considered a member of the band rather than a guest. New drummer Zoltán Csörsz (Flower Kings, Karmakanic) adds strength in that department too. With these additions, the quality of the musicianship has certainly gone up a notch or two.
In Altitude, Lifesigns continue to produce a very English style of neo-prog, most notably so in the fifteen-minute title track. Here we get a mysterious opening (high notes on the piano and shimmering synths), a mellow melodic vocal section, the first of the many excellent solos that Bainbridge contributes to this album, warm touches from the cello (Juliet Wolff) and violin (Peter Knight; yes, that one from Steeleye Span!), a big guitar-based climax, and a gentle fade-out in the style of Shine On You Crazy Diamond but with Knight’s violin replacing Floyd’s sax. It’s an expansive track that’s touches all the right prog buttons and it’s brilliantly played too but personally I was left with a nagging feeling that this was a band that was in a safe prog-by-numbers territory and that lack of adventure meant it fell short of me tagging the song as ‘epic’ or as a ‘classic’. The other obviously neo-prog track on the album is Fortitude which meanders along in a repetitive vocal section without ever really going anywhere before then majestically closing with an instrumental section full of sweeping keys that transform the previously mundane melody into something totally inspiring.
The band deserve credit for the variety in this album. The short and quirky upbeat track Gregarious breaks the neo-prog mould, and that mould is well and truly shattered by the jazz-rock intro of Shoreline that bustles along nicely and full of energy – but in doing so accidentally highlights the lack of energy elsewhere on the album. We also get two tracks that are fundamentally ballads, both of which are older songs brushed down for this album. Ivory Towers is likely to be familiar to fans of the band since it’s based on a piece they have played live. This mournful tale of betrayal certainly has a killer melody which is enhanced by a delicate acoustic arrangement before the track heads into a less successful faster section (brilliantly underpinned though by a funky bass line from Jon Poole). If they’d stuck to a four-minute ballad then many of us might have needed to get the Kleenex out after listening to this song but sadly that faster section breaks the spell. Last One Home is the second ballad and it’s another excellent melody, this time telling the story of survival on the sea (‘you’ll be the last one home, the sea won’t get you tonight’ is the hopeful chorus line). The highlight of the piece though is Bainbridge’s slow Latimer-inspired guitar solo which fits the song perfectly. Without a doubt it’s the sort of song that can be used to close an album on a high note, but the band missed that opportunity by following it with a short and curious reprise of the Altitude melody backed by jazzy electric piano. Pity.
You can understand why the band have a committed set of fans that would finance an album like this. There are good songs, excellent musicianship, and several truly magical moments. Lifesigns are on an upward path, and with this new line-up certainly have the potential to grow further. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another four years before the next installment!