White Rainbow was my Velvet Thunder album of 2019, and it’s hard to see this one being very far from that same position again. Exhilarating stuff.
Majestic. I’ve rummaged around my brain to find the one word which describes the music of Mostly Autumn in general and this album in particular, and I’m unable to come up with one as succinct and to the point as that. Majestic. Although Mostly Autumn have musical links to a host of influences over the years, with Marillion, Pink Floyd, Camel and even Fleetwood Mac often cited, over the years (an incredible quarter century now!) they have developed and honed their own unmistakable sound, and every strand of that identity, from the soaring guitar work of Bryan Josh, through the strident rhythm section of the rock-solid Andy Smith and the cast of fine drummers he has partnered over the years, and on to the soaring, crystal-clear vocals of Olivia Sparnenn-Josh, simply adds more substance to that word. Majestic.
Over the past decade or so, it can surely be said that the band have hit an exceptional seam of inspiration with their albums, and indeed their live shows. It could be argued that there was a time, around perhaps Heart Full Of Sky to Glass Shadows, that there was a little bit of treading water (albeit very good water), as the band, and Bryan as leader especially, searched for that spark which could see them up onto the next creative level. Ironically, that spark first came when they faced what seemed something of a crisis with the departure of much-loved frontwoman Heather Findlay – some fans wondering whether they would even continue. However, in that way of ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, the band hit back with more to prove than they had for years, with no laurels to rest on and no safety net, and this new urgency saw live shows hitting new peaks and the release of the superb Go Well Diamond Heart album, as Livvy proved to be the modern day prog equivalent of Phil Collins taking over Peter Gabriel’s mantle. She took to the role with consummate ease, and before we knew it Mostly Autumn had their creative fire stoked higher than they had in years. The release of the brilliantly conceptual Dressed In Voices and the resulting shows playing the whole thing, proved to be their ‘Quadrophenia moment’ if you like, and more than ever Mostly Autumn shows had gone from being an evening of great music to a genuine event.
Of course, Bryan wisely opted to shy away from being pigeon-holed by trying another high-concept story-driven album again, but nevertheless that conceptual streak has remained, with 2019’s White Rainbow poignantly taking its inspiration from the tragic and unexpected death of former bandmate Liam Davison. That same themed approach has forged this new album, which takes as its basis their experiences of living through the Covid pandemic, and lockdown scenarios, of 2020-21. This of course makes it something uniquely relatable, as every single listener cannot fail to have their own recollections, whether of loss, loneliness, fear, financial worry or just sheer boredom. However the masterstroke here is that the concept is not taken at a literal level. You will find no direct references to dates, events or individual details here – rather, the whole thing is couched in allusion, imagery and metaphor, making it a work which can be appreciated equally well by drilling down to seek out each relatable lyrical nuance or simply taking it as a great album. In fact, echoing the genius of loose concepts such as Dark Side Of The Moon or Wish You Were Here, for example, or even the vague ecological message of the Pretty Things’ masterpiece Parachute, it can be enjoyed to the absolute fullest without the listener even knowing about the concept. That’s a fine balancing act to pull off, and it has been executed here with the finesse of a band, and of course songwriters, who know that they are at the top of their game. As usual here, Bryan Josh is the chief songsmith, but he is ably backed up by Olivia, Chris Johnson and also keyboard man Iain Jennings. Let’s have a closer look.
First off, I will state that, of course, the main album proper is the chief focus here. There is a second disc with the limited edition release, but at time of writing that has sold out owing to pleasingly high demand. However, if you don’t have the album yet, fear not, as the main dish is more than strong enough not to need the support of the extra course – though I will come to those added delights shortly. The title track kicks things off, positioned at the just pre-pandemic time of early 2020, and it is one of two 12-minute epics bookending the album. Multi-faceted, containing every Mostly Autumn trademark you could wish for, it has great, strident vocal lines from Livvy, more reflective singing from Bryan, multi-faceted musical structure and of course some – there’s that word again – majestic guitar work lifting things higher and higher as the track wears on. There is also some marvellously complementary violin from guest musician Chris Leslie of Fairport Convention. Evocative lines such as ‘Constellations changing shape, sightlines digging in your grave’ and ‘I was the lamp beside your bed, I was the diamond in your head’ make it clear that this is something which can mean different things to every person hearing it, which is the mark of the very finest songwriting. The other lengthy ‘bookend’, closing the album, is Turn Around Slowly, celebrating the hesitant return to a world with new hope and a sense of normality again, and in fact it is in these two songs that we see the key to the whole album represented in a sense, as this final track contains nods back both musical and lyrical to earlier songs from the darker days, such as Graveyard Star itself and Skin Of Mankind, and as such it both yearns for the end of the crisis while simultaneously looking back at it as if to reinforce the fact that we can never forget it or, in some ways, ever be exactly the same again. It is fittingly dedicated to the vaccine trailblazer Dame Sarah Gilbert, with the simple message ‘words are not enough’. In simplified terms, it also unites the album musically, in a similar way to Genesis with Los Endos on their classic Trick Of The Tail album, a little like an overture in reverse. It’s a masterstroke.
In between those extremes, however, we have ten shorter songs, ranging between two and seven minutes, looking at all elements of the pandemic timeline. It would be too laborious to go through them all, but suffice it to say that the other great quality of Mostly Autumn songwriting, namely the ability to craft a concise yet still weighty and significant shorter piece is alive and thriving. Introduced by Bryan’s mournful herald of impending doom via nautical metaphor in The Plague Bell, Skin Of Mankind is not only a great stand-alone four-and-a-half minute song in the grand tradition of so many others over the years, but also one of the pivotal pieces in the timeline, as the darkest hour befalls us. Elsewhere there is a Sparnenn-Josh solo writing credit on the aching This Endless War and Chris Johnson’s beautifully contrasting penultimate piece The Diamond, imagining the pain of the world being compressed down into a single diamond and being able to be thrown away. A real highlight is the irresistible Spirit Of Mankind, a sort of partner piece to Skin Of Mankind in a way, which contains the most defiantly uplifting Mostly Autumn chorus for quite some time. It is hard not to see this one becoming a real live favourite.
That’s the main course, but anyone fortunate enough to have the deluxe edition will find a fine eight-track dessert in the shape of the bonus disc. Containing tracks which would not fit, musically or thematically, on the album proper, it is extremely strong in itself. The opening The Show Is On, with its almost dance music influence, celebrates the return of live music in such a joyous fashion that it surely must translate to the stage. It would have been out of place musically at the climax of the main album after Turn Around Slowly, but it can certainly be seen to carry it on. Iain Jennings contributes two instrumentals on the disc, with the first of these, the almost ELP-like drive of Into The Valley Of Death…Rode The Six Hundred, being a marvellous piece. The other, Mountain Highway, is the latest of several Mostly Autumn pieces to give us an echo of the Spirit Of Autumn Past theme, threading through the band’s work, and is a nice touch. There are unusual experiments here as well, with Heading For The Mountains seeing Bryan solo on guitar and vocal, exploring his country-folk singer-songwriter muse. The finale, This House, begins as a sort of melodic country-rock influenced song of loss and regret, before it rears up toward its climax and ends the disc on a real high with some big guitar work. The real gem, however, is the eight minute Swallows, a delicate ballad which resists its temptation to go into the expected big chorus and trademark guitar lines, instead resolving itself into a brilliantly restrained instrumental featuring the immensely talented Chis Leslie again, contributing beautifully nuanced violin. As the piece enters its final third, the guitar enters with its own solo, but instead of then simply carrying the song to its end, it intertwines brilliantly with the violin to produce a climactic section which is – hell, let’s use it again – simply majestic! It’s an absolutely stunning piece.
In summary, anyone interested in the album need not worry about the unavailability of the bonus disc, as the main album proper is more than worth the price of admission – but if you do see the opportunity to get hold of a copy of the limited edition, then even if you have the standard album, do not hesitate to grab it as well. You won’t be disappointed. After so many albums and so many years, it’s pointless to even attempt to play the ‘best Mostly Autumn album’ game, but it is certain that if there were such a list, this one would be a pretty strong competitor for honours! White Rainbow was my Velvet Thunder album of 2019, and it’s hard to see this one being very far from that same position again. Exhilarating stuff.