It’s hard to straddle that line whereby hard core prog fans nod their heads in appreciation while more conservative listeners can still thoroughly enjoy the music without finding it inaccessible, but that is what we have here.
There probably is a record held by a band somewhere for the longest gap between albums released, but whatever it is then Multi Story must be at least in the honourable mentions. After two albums in the ’80s, they broke up following album number two in 1987, before finally getting back together and putting out their third studio release, The Crimson Stone, in 2016. That’s a mere 29 years hiatus, before you do the maths. Even Kate Bush would be impressed with that interval, but against all the odds, this Wales-based band came back even stronger than before they went away all those years before. Their biggest mainstream success may have come in 1985, when they toured the UK with Magnum to great acclaim, but with frontman Paul Ford back in place after he had departed before album number two, Through Your Eyes, the comeback Crimson Stone album was better than anyone had a right to expect. At the time the band went on record as saying the album was a bridge between their past, and the newer direction they planned to take going forward. The subsequent live album Live At Acapela put a sort of full stop after that period, being as it was a superb summation of the band’s career with material all the way back to their debut album East West. What we have now is that promised ‘new’ Multi Story, if you like, and it has to be said that the wait has been worth it and then some.
Essentially, The Crimson Stone was an album still very much in touch with the band’s ‘Neo-Prog’ roots from their inception, whereas the enigmatically titled CBF10 sees the full flowering of the plant which has emerged and matured from those same roots. The important principles of that classic period, such as focus on melody and the song, and an avoidance of excessive noodling, are very much still touchstones here, but the music has been allowed to grow far beyond those initial ‘neo’ confines. This is classic prog rock unconcerned about age, period or any sort of dating; if it’s good music, it goes in. This is ably illustrated right from the off by opening track Signs And Traces; skirting around the ten minute mark without quite dipping its toe in the ‘bloated epic’ end of the pool, like much of the album, it gives itself just the right amount of time to expand its ideas and lay them out in a leisurely and natural fashion. Opening with what could be a trademark jaunty introduction with half a nod to accessibility and the other half to power and energy, the track develops far beyond that as it morphs into a lengthy, almost spacey, section featuring some beautiful sounding guitar licks which could have sat comfortably somewhere on Pink Floyd’s Animals album without being asked to leave. It’s influenced by both the ’70s and the ’80s, but overall it belongs nowhere so much as right now. Timeless yet nostalgic, proggy yet heavy, it’s a superb opener.
Starting the album off with such a strong statement of intent is a perfect opening gambit, though fraught with danger if the material following it up is not as strong. Thankfully, there is no hint of that here, as second track Sharp Recall is another winner, yet followed up by the even better Celluloid Star, which is a strong contender for the high point of the album, with its soaring dynamics and, again, deftly impressive songwriting. By this time you realise that Multi Story play to their considerable strengths, and make them work brilliantly. This is an album which is absolutely, by any criteria you name, a prog rock album, but by the same token if you are looking for any Gentle Giant interludes with fifteen time changes in two minutes, or any lengthy meandering suites based on Alice Through The Looking Glass you’re not going to find them here. It’s hard to straddle that line whereby hard core prog fans nod their heads in appreciation while more conservative listeners can still thoroughly enjoy the music without finding it inaccessible, but that is what we have here.
There is a loose sort of linking concept to Paul Ford’s lyrics to the album, and it concerns the idea of personal identity, and being a free-thinking outsider, if you will. Several songs link into this, with the character of ‘The Rebel’ being a biker who goes his own way, riding with the ‘Freeway Army’ and ultimately, in the song Easy Rider, in the manner of the film which inspired the song, being gunned down by a ‘redneck’ character simply because he is different. This ties in with the ending of that classic movie, of course, and the closing title track here has the killer going to death row to be executed by lethal injection, despite his claims of being guided by voices in his head. Thus the CBF10 title is explained as ‘Counting backward from ten’, being what anaesthetists may ask patients to do when going under, and also the time in which death by injection will occur. It’s dark stuff for sure, but also balanced by the uplifting nature of the Rebel’s life and creed of living your life the way you want to providing you don’t harm others. And if there ever was a timeless code to live by, there won’t be many better than that.
There is powerful, heavy music here alongside the prog flourishes, most prominently in the multi-faceted Rebel Inside, where the band go full bore on some crushingly heavy, yet gracefully executed, riffery, the contrast between the light and shade emphasising this still further, before the track wends its way out of it with anthemic splendour. It’s like being run over by a Panzer tank which is simultaneously performing a perfect three point turn, and then calls an ambulance for you. It’s a great trick, and another mark of Multi Story’s growing unique identity.
One more thing which must be commented on is Paul Ford’s voice, which is somehow perfect for straddling the line between prog and heavier fare, and a part of that is his unlikely yet sometimes undeniable similarity to Saxon vocalist Biff Byford. Now, I know this is probably the first and only time that Saxon will be mentioned as a comparative example in a Multi Story review, but do bear with me! A big part of this resemblance is the intonation, feeling and emphasis put into the delivery of the words, which are never simply sung so much as inhabited, breathing life into each line. During a heavier piece such as Freeway Army this is especially apparent, and indeed there were moments during that particular track where I found myself half expecting to be informed that ‘there’s a 747 coming down in the night’, and I love the way this lends dynamism to the performance.
The packaging of the album is beautifully put together, with the superb cover painting, a nice digipak presentation and an artfully presented booklet with each lyric being accompanied by an appropriately representative photographic image. It’s artfully done, and crucially is clearly designed to look perfect at CD sized dimensions, rather than like a compacted vinyl album cover. To any lover of physical media, this is an important factor, and one which I always applaud.
I enjoyed The Crimson Stone a lot, and thought Live At Acapela was a superb retrospective, but this is better than either of them. After almost forty years in the business, Multi Story have almost certainly just recorded their finest album to date, and that’s no mean feat. This one is a winner from front to back. Just ask The Rebel…