…this is the best rock album to come out of Austria for some time.
Austria and music go together, don’t they? Everyone knows Haydn, and Mozart, and maybe even Bruckner and Schoenberg. Even Julie Andrews declared the Austrian hills are alive with music! But since Julie’s bold claim, the nation has barely made a blip in the rock music scene. OK, there is Opus and their one-hit wonder Live Is Life (if that doesn’t ring a bell then go listen to it because, believe me, you do know the song), but there’s not much else of note that I can recall. So, it’s great to see a promising new band like Mother Morgana emerge from the land of the blue Danube. Rise is actually the group’s sophomore release, following on from a lyrically ambitious debut album, Endonautica, which was an adaptation of the 2001: A Space Odyssey book/film. That was released in 2019 to little fanfare, and to be honest is musically a little anonymous. Three years later, Katharina Franz (vocals, keyboards) and Fabian Gössler (guitars) remain but are joined by a new drummer and bassist, with the latter (Jakob Mayer) also contributing the lyrics. Whether the sudden maturing of the band is due to the growth of Franz and Gössler musically or the influence of the new members, I don’t know, but Rise is certainly another kettle of fish compared to that debut.
Just looking at how the band have been tagged on Bandcamp, they are listed as ‘rock’, ‘alternative’, ‘progressive’, ‘psychedelic’ and ‘stoner’. I might add ‘Arabic’ to that list because the use of Arabic scales and modes adds an extra bit of originality to this material. You might now be thinking that they are an unlistenable hotch-potch of styles but in reality they are a straight forward slightly heavy rock band that has cleverly absorbed and used elements of different musical styles without falling into the trap of mindlessly imitating any of them. So, if we take the “progressive” tag, for example, then there are some good prog hallmarks: it is a concept album (which I’ll come to later), and four of the twelve tracks are short eerie instrumental pierces (with some spoken words) interspersed between the more regular songs, and each subtitled Dream 1 through to Dream 4.
While the ‘progressive’ tag is therefore well justified, they are not a band that waste time with ten-minute atmospheric doodlings. Instead, they write compact but often complex songs. Take opener Outcast And Stranger which begins unusually with the bass playing a solo rhythmic theme which is then joined by percussion and gentle guitar notes before thrilling heavy piano chords come in (reminding me of those inspiring Ken Hensley piano moments in The Spell or The Magician’s Birthday). After two minutes or so you are convinced it’s an instrumental track. But no, Katharina Franz enters with the vocals, gently at first and slightly reminiscent of Suzanne Vega but both here and later she demonstrates she has a good rock voice too (and a good command of English, I should add). Gössler adds a good solo and the big piano theme rightly is the climax. It’s a mini epic packed with good ideas lasting all of five minutes and twelve seconds.
Call Me Echo and the title track both have fine stoner riffs (with slightly distorted guitars contributing to the ‘psychedelic’ tag). But calling Call Me Echo a stoner song would be a misinterpretation. Yes, there is a stoner feel to the riff that runs through all but the middle section, but the song has a sultry Arabic mood created by both Franz’s quiet but influential keyboards and by her vocals that are delivered mostly in a seductive low register. The title track is also a complex beast but is the one track on the album that feels a little disjointed to me and doesn’t quite work. Much of the album is mid-paced but an exception is the rather odd Emotion which races along with a fast keyboard-driven theme which sounds like it is on the verge of losing control – before at the end it seems to do so as it accelerates to a breakneck speed! Sea Of Vision is possibly the standout track here with strong smoky vocals from Franz again, and an odd-sounding duet between what sounds like guitar and xylophone before the second half of the track is dominated by some serious Sabbath-like riffing.
The closing track, Strange Ways, feels like the sun breaking through on a cloudy day. I wouldn’t describe this as a depressing album, but you only realise quite how dark the mood has been when the cheerful singalong feel of Strange Ways enters. And this is where the music perfectly captures the concept of the album which represents isolation as a dark journey during which the female protagonist has to face Lovecraftian creatures before eventually awakening from a long and dark coma in a hospital bed. That last song certainly has a sense of relief about it which fits the concept hand in glove. While not intended to be about Covid, the timing is uncanny as most of us are now moving out of various degrees of isolation back into normal life. So, the ‘Rise’ of the title could refer to the protagonist waking from a coma, or you or me emerging from a pandemic, or even the band themselves rising up and putting Austria on the musical landscape because this is the best rock album to come out of Austria for some time. Yes, folks, those Austrian hills are once again alive with the sound of music, so go check them out!