The overall impression you get from listening to the eight immaculately crafted pieces on this album is that it feels a little like living in a world which is enveloped in a comforting cloud comprising Wish You Were Here and Hergest Ridge…
Nova Cascade are a name that many people, even those keen to keep track of the modern contemporary prog scene, might not have come across. That’s a shame, because they are a band who plough a furrow which, while it may not break new ground, is pleasingly out of step with the herd in terms of what is being produced in large numbers elsewhere. The band have been described – and sometimes even by themselves – as ‘ambient prog’, but I only partially agree. To me, labelling anything with the word ‘ambient’ only conjures up ghastly new-age wallpaper music or the kind of pretentious piffle that Brian Eno has been known to serve up when it has suited him. No, there is far more substance to Nova Cascade than stuff that might be played in an elevator or as quiet background music in an Indian restaurant after the pubs close!
Obviously, labels and descriptions are only useful up to a point, before becoming merely false restrictions imposed on the music, but they’re fun to play with anyway, so how would I describe Nova Cascade to someone of the many who haven’t yet listened to them? Well, despite the negative connotations, that ‘ambient prog’ tag does have some merit to it, but I would prefer to throw in words such as ‘languid’, ‘relaxed’ and – oh, what the hell, let’s go for it – ‘Floydian soundscapes’! Because the overall impression you get from listening to the eight immaculately crafted pieces on this album is that it feels a little like living in a world which is enveloped in a comforting cloud comprising Wish You Were Here and Hergest Ridge. It’s far from ambient in the negative sense, but everything is meticulously planned to take its place in the aural sculpture the band assemble like a musical house of cards, with no room for anything big or too obtrusive until the precise moment when that contrast is needed. It’s put together with almost surgical precision, and it manages to walk that tightrope of unfolding its pleasures at its own comfortable rate yet not boring the listener.
Take two of the tracks here as examples: There Is Always A Way and The Hill. Neither are overlong pieces, but both develop with a practised langour before reaching just the tipping point when something has to happen, when just at that moment Eric Bouilette’s soaring lead guitar comes in like the glorious parting of the clouds to dispel a fog of ennui. It’s just right, and all the more effective for tricks like that not being over-used. It’s the precise opposite to the sort of musical 18-rated self-gratification purveyed by the likes of Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen. Subtlety and restraint is the order of the day. You have to be in the right receptive mood for it, certainly – this won’t work if you’re getting ready to go out on the tiles (do people still DO that?) and need something to get you bouncing. In that case, reach for Deep Purple In Rock or Led Zeppelin IV – but if you’re driving home after a long day and you want something to speak to you as it soothes your synapses, this is the puppy for you.
The centrepiece is undoubtedly the longest track, the ten-minute title piece. This is where the guys show just how much they have listened to Wish You Were Here over the years, as the first five minutes are a virtual invocation of that seminal album’s spirit; the lazy grandeur of Shine On You Crazy Diamond clashing with the industrial urgency of Welcome To The Machine to create a mesmerising whole. After this, some sublime acoustic guitar takes centre stage, once again from that man Bouilette, before leading into an orchestral sound to bolster the grand finale. It’s a great piece, and stands in nice relief from the rest of the record.
Mostly the album is instrumental, but there are a few vocal tracks – although even then the lyrics are sparse and delivered in an almost diffident tone, as if the voice is more of another instrumental texture than the focal point. There are some echoes of prime Radiohead or latter-day Marillion in these moments. The whole mood is matched perfectly by the beautifully evocative cover artwork, and the visual delights of the lovingly crafted booklet. It’s also not a long album, which is a very wise move, as this sort of material is best appreciated all in one sitting and is strongest at the old vinyl length. 40 minutes or so was perfect for Mike Oldfield, and it’s perfect here.
Don’t come here to get your prog-metal kicks, that’s rule number one. Remember the band We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It? Well, Nova Cascade could go out under the name We Haven’t Got A Fuzzbox And Have No Plans To Get One. The name of the game is ‘less can be more’, and it’s done pretty impressively here. Elevator music? Well, I guess you could feed it into the lift in a building if you wanted to. But be warned, if you pipe the title track in there, I’m going up and down for ten minutes so I can hear the whole thing, and that would just make me late, wouldn’t it?
Bottom line? Ambience doesn’t necessarily correlate to ambient. This album has tons of the former, but it really isn’t the latter. Sink in and see for yourself…