May 19, 2024

If you are yet to discover Patchwork Cacophony, then be assured that this is absolutely the place to start. It’s the moment where everything which Ben Bell has been striving for coalesces into one deeply satisfying whole.

A fine name for a prog band, Patchwork Cacophony is in actual fact a solo project under a band ‘umbrella’, a set-up which his become quite de rigeur in prog circles since some bloke called Wilson started making music in his bedroom under the name Porcupine Tree some three decades ago. The man behind this venture is keyboard player and accomplished multi-instrumentalist Ben Bell, whose name you may recognise (adopts Simpsons Troy McClure voice) ‘from such bands as Gandalf’s Fist, Broken Parachute and Drifting Sun’. He first used the Patchwork Cacophony banner a decade or so ago as the title for his first solo release, an album on which he played and sung every note – but not too long afterward he elected to use it as the name of the band project itself. A second album, Five Of Cups, arrived in 2017; and now, a Def Leppard-like seven years later, we have album number three, Hourglass. (Have no fear however, this is far more interesting fare than Def Leppard!)

Like the previous album, there are some guest appearances on this album, but only very sparingly. Drums are handled by James Chapman, while Drifting Sun main-man Pat Sanders provides synthesiser on one track – returning the favour that Bell has done the other way around before now. Apart from that, it’s All Bell, All The Time, as an ad executive might put it, and to all intents and purposes this could easily have come out under the Ben Bell credit – although I have to say that Patchwork Cacophony is a far cooler name, and of course it opens the door to a live incarnation performing this stuff, which would be quite the prospect.

I haven’t heard the debut Patchwork Cacophony release, but Five Of Cups was a very strong album, and still sounds excellent today. However, Hourglass beats it at a canter – it’s really an exceptionally good album, bridging the gap between contemporary prog, the dreaded ‘neo’ label, and the classic 1970s ‘Golden Age’ sound effortlessly, without ever sounding rooted in any particular box. Though containing eight tracks, it is really made up mostly of a core spine of four lengthy (roughly 10-minute) pieces, with two shorter ones each split into two as sort of interludes. Wake Up bookends the album (a little like Pigs On The Wing did with Animals), while Perspective I and II are placed in-between the longer tracks. This makes the album run quite seamlessly, essentially coming across like a couple of those marvellous two-track vinyl sides of the prog ‘golden age’ (Close To The Edge, Relayer, Red Queen To Gryphon Three etc) – and there’s really nothing not to like about that. It uses the extra running time which comes from losing the vinyl constraints, without going too long for the sake of being able to, and hits that ‘attention span’ sweet spot just nicely.

The first main track – after Wake Up, well, wakes us up – is Carpe Diem, which seizes the day immediately by putting the album’s dynamic, contemporary neo-prog credentials front and centre. There’s a propulsive energy to the track which keeps it exciting despite the twists and turns of its construction, coming across as reminiscent of the best work of Arena over the past couple of decades. It’s a storming opener, to be sure, but it doesn’t define what we’re going to get by any means. After Perspective I leads us easily into Blind Faith, a more ‘classic’ prog influence becomes evident, with a clear bed of 1970s goodness given a nice contemporary overhaul (‘Pimp My Prog’ – now there’s a TV programme in waiting…), including the heartwarming sound of an old-school Hammond organ entering proceedings. I found myself thinking ‘Wait, is that… oh, yes it is!’, as it is an instrument and signature sound which surely defines classic rock and prog keyboards more than anything except, perhaps, the mellotron. My Home Is Tomorrow continues this flavour, with a slightly harder edge to proceedings at times which, again, prevents things from becoming at all samey, or stale, at any point. Finally, after Perspective II has drifted in and out, we get perhaps the highlight of the whole album as the longest track (just!), Castaway, manages to link up the classic, neo and contemporary eras in one gloriously unashamed bout of controlled and structured pomp and bombast. It’s an exhilarating piece which leaves the listener to unwind as Wake Up (reprise) does the exact opposite to its title and takes the album down to a nice conclusion, like a full stop after a particularly pleasingly constructed sentence.

If you are yet to discover Patchwork Cacophony, then be assured that this is absolutely the place to start. It’s the moment where everything which Ben Bell has been striving for coalesces into one deeply satisfying whole. And in a very clever move to utilise the ‘demon’ Spotify to its best purpose, there is also an EP cunningly titled Halfhourglass, which contains edited, radio-friendly versions of the four main pieces here, so that people can get to check out the stuff without ‘giving away the farm’ so to speak. Obviously if you have the full album, then the Half Hour version is unnecessary, but it’s a tremendous way to check it out. I know it’s only May, but if this isn’t in my Top Ten albums for 2024, there will have to be ten very, very good releases to beat it, that’s for certain – quote me on it! Highly recommended…