September 13, 2020

It’s been a bit since we’ve heard from Simon Collins. Seven years, in fact, since his band Sound Of Contact’s debut album Dimensionaut and twelve since his third solo album U-Catastrophe were released to much acclaim. But on 4 September, the long-awaited solo followup Becoming Human was born, an hour-long platter of fresh new material that finds Collins examining his (and our) evolving humanity, struggles, life lessons, and ultimate place in the universe.

While these dozen new tracks cast one eye skyward with these grand concepts, Collins devotes equal attention to introspection and a yearning for self improvement right here on the big blue marble. Themes of renewal and personal growth are probed following a turbulent few years that saw him divorced, Sound Of Contact dissolving and stints in addiction recovery. The result is a more mature, refined songwriter who gathers the best qualities of his past work and infuses them with newfound perspective; the kind that can only come with the experience of reaching that stage of life when one might pause to reflect, ‘Am I being human… or am I becoming human?’

Musically, the album is forward-thinking, dynamic and varied, wading into different pools with confident ease: edgy rock, techno-tinged beats, and sophisticated pop enriched by experimentation. There’s no ‘retro’ prog rock to be found here; this is progressive music for a new decade, with a strong melodic backbone and numerous curve balls thrown in to keep the listener engaged (and occasionally surprised). Collins (handling drums, keys and all vocals) and producer/sound designer Robbie Bronnimann are joined by bassist Gaz Williams and guitarists Robin Boult and Kelly Nordstrom, the latter a frequent collaborator and Sound Of Contact band mate (and as the writing credits suggest, a couple of the tracks here were originally being worked on for what was to become the second SOC album).

Where Collins most notably draws influence from his famous father is his ability to create and amplify mood from deceptively simple bases. He knows when to suddenly spike the intensity and when to sit back and allow a few chords to breathe and do their job – techniques that he employs to great advantage here. And to precisely no one’s surprise, there’s a natural gift for rhythm that provides a lot of groove and heart, with even the quirkier tracks causing heads to bob and toes to tap. His sometimes thunderous drumming anchors many of these new pieces, and the prevailing attitude seems to be that catchy is not a dirty word.

Witness, for instance, the tuneful earworm that is the chorus of the title track, or the way songs like No Love and So Real seem to bounce along unhindered by pointless complexity. Collins does not shy away from such straightforward rock or pop arrangements, but is equally at home with ideas of a stranger nature. The Universe Inside Of Me takes the unusual step of fading midway into a dreamy, atmospheric passage that evokes images of being suspended alone in deepest space, like a scene from an arty sci-fi film. Transitioning back to the final chorus with an industrial/techno treatment, the track is a standout moment showcasing the more substantial aspects of the album.

I Will Be Waiting, too, boasts a more unconventional structure, gradually building from its pretty intro and gentle verses and chorus to a chugging second half where the chorus is then re-imagined as decidedly rockier. Another major album highlight, and a song that would prove a hit if radio was to get off its ass and pay attention.

Collins is brave and bare here, making no attempt to sugarcoat his analyses of his intimate struggles

Heavy and hard-hitting personal subject matter form the lyrical foundation behind songs like This Is The Time, Thoughts Become Matter and 40 Years. That’s not a first (a song like The Good Son from U-Catastrophe springs to mind), but these topics are considerably weightier. Collins is brave and bare here, making no attempt to sugarcoat his analyses of his intimate struggles, putting them plainly to his audience as his father often did (although it’s tough to imagine him penning a lyric about heroin use – from a first person narrative, at least). Though fearless in approaching these murky subjects, an ultimately hopeful tone is gleaned from each of the pieces, in keeping with the general theme of the album.

The lengthy closing track Dead Ends is its own affair altogether; a dark anthem that builds slowly, unfolds into a brief major key bridge, then yields to a delicate piano melody. Soon augmented by electric guitar, crashing drums and distorted spoken word samples, the track retains its ominous vibe until the end, forging an unusual but effective album closer. Perhaps the best piece he’s ever done, but as always, time will tell.

Becoming Human proves an intriguing snapshot of a man learning how to hang on and deal with what life throws his way, while pointing to the cosmos and combing through its clues. This is Simon Collins in 2020. Shaping these thoughts and feelings into songs must surely have been cathartic, and in exorcising these demons, he’s produced his finest and most balanced album to date. Highly recommended.

Into The Fray · Becoming Human · The Universe Inside Of Me · Man Made Man · This Is The Time · Thoughts Become Matter · I Will Be Waiting · No Love · Living In Silence · 40 Years · So Real · Dead Ends