…this is exactly what it would say on the tin, if you could buy ‘prog rock’ in two-litre cans – and there is something rather wonderful about that – to these ears, in any case.
For those who have yet to make their acquaintance, The Emerald Dawn are a prog band formed in Scotland, but resident these days in the somewhat balmier location of Cornwall, a perfect location to find the creative muse in order to craft a work such as this – lots of space, beautiful locations and the sea never too far from your door is surely just what the doctor would order for the creation of widescreen progressive rock soundscapes such as these. This is the band’s fourth album, and never have they sounded as relaxed and comfortable in their own creative heads as they do over the three lengthy tracks making up this album, Yes, that’s three tracks – just like mama used to make (or Yes, at any rate) – wonderful stuff, and music that is simply made to luxuriate in like a warm aural bath.
For, make no mistake about it, The Emerald Dawn (founder members Katrina ‘Tree’ Stewart and Ally Carter, ably abetted by David Greenaway and Tom Jackson) are unashamedly, proudly and defiantly A Progressive Rock Band. This isn’t progressive metal, it isn’t Celtic-influenced rock, it isn’t edgy jazz-rock fusion and nor is it the sort of well-crafted commercial rock that is often described as having a ‘prog feel’. No, this is exactly what it would say on the tin, if you could buy ‘prog rock’ in two-litre cans – and while there is certainly nothing wrong with any of those other prog-related genres, there is something rather wonderful about that – to these ears, in any case. Not that this is any slavishly derivative carbon copy of 1973 in any way – on the contrary, classical and rock structures are assembled here in places which are far from common, and mellifluously melodic sections are occasionally balanced by darker forces to keep this from straying into lush ‘fluffy clouds’ territory. Each of the three pieces here has its own internal logic, its own raison d’etre within the framework of the whole record, so let’s have a look at what awaits us when we drop the metaphorical needle…
The opening track, The Awakening, is, at over eleven minutes, the shortest track on the album (when’s the last time you heard that?), and almost functions as a sort of overture for the record. Not in the sense of containing previews of themes used later on, but in the more nebulous sense of being a gradually unfolding piece of music which eases you into the action and sucks you into it as it gradually builds in intensity – very much like an actual ‘awakening’, in fact. The piece opens in a very literal ‘symphonic prog’ manner as the piano from Tree Stewart, which is the prominent instrument early on, is very much in a classical piano vein, something which is often not seen in prog rock where organs and synths play a wider role – the obvious exception being Renaissance, whose influence can be felt here. The piano is supported by some percussive flourishes from Jackson which, again, conjure up the percussion section of an orchestra rather than your standard rock drumkit. Some nice vocals from Tree (the album is predominantly instrumental, though each track features vocals where appropriate) lead us into the real meat of the piece, where a further example of massed percussion evokes a little bit of a post-Barrett early Pink Floyd feel. This is is emphasised further as Ally Carter’s sheet-metal guitar chording lays down an increasingly heavy and dramatic backdrop to this quite astonishingly hypnotic piece. No higher praise can be offered than to say that this could have fit shoulder to shoulder with some of the music on the ‘live’ half of the Ummagumma album. The track is so propulsive and relentless in its development that, despite the lack of too much in the way of grandstanding soloing, one feels that it could have gone on for as long again without overstaying its welcome. It just may be the finest track on here, but it has some competition to come, as we will see.
The second piece, the fifteen-minute And I Stood Transfixed, opens with some definite Pink Floyd hints again, this time with echoes (no pun intended!) of the Animals-era material. In places, this piece could have come from the same litter as Dogs, and it would hold its head up. As the track develops, it becomes the most overt example of those darker, edgier elements coming into play. Beautifully melodic guitar and keyboard work combine with an ethereal vocal to lead the listener into thinking it will be a fairly tranquil, reflective piece, but Carter’s aggressive saxophone puts paid to that, as something of a Van Der Graaf Generator vibe takes over, and suddenly all bets are off. We get a real crescendo, some splendid Carter guitar work to trade blows with his sax, before it resolves into a gentler climax again. This is likely to be the most divisive piece, not least because it depends heavily on the listener’s taste for sax in their prog. I have to confess that it is rarely an instrument I particularly enjoy, with some notable exceptions (most of which are David Jackson!), and this track could easily be one man’s number one selection and the next man’s number three. But as I said, it isn’t just a crowd-pleasing ‘safe’ symph-y album – and who would want it to be?
The real ‘epic’ meat comes in the form of the sprawling 22-minute centrepiece The Ascent – taking its cue somewhat from the similarly massive The Child Within on the previous album Nocturne. With a piece of that length you would expect a gradual build-up, and you wouldn’t be disappointed, as some fine instrumental textures and more nicely placed vocals give us the context for the album title, in the inspirational nature of the lyrics. It is worth noting here that Tree Stewart’s voice is rather unusual among the plethora of exceptional female prog vocalists with which we are currently blessed, in that her range is notably lower than the more ‘operatic’ or soaring vocal stylings of many of those other marvellous singers. Indeed, when she does rise to a higher note, the impression is very much one of attention-grabbing contrast, and gives the band another original string to its bow. Much of this track is given over to the brilliant interplay between Carter’s guitar and Stewart’s keyboards, with both trading lead sections to superb effect. The playing is never showy or flash for the sake of it, and melody wins the day in triumphant fashion. Ally Stewart’s guitar work is far more reminiscent of the likes of Andy Latimer, Dave Gilmour or Steve Hackett than it is of the lightning-fast shredders of the world, and that is exactly as it should be for this sort of record.
When that final epic ends, it leaves the listener – or at least this one – wondering whether those superlative instrumental passages actually lift the track above The Awakening. There’s only one thing for it, back to the start and hear the evidence again! If you are an admirer of the band’s previous excellent work (Visions and, especially, Nocturne being highly recommended), then you can’t go wrong here. If you’re new to the band, you can approach this with confidence. Either this or Nocturne would be your perfect first glimpse of the Emerald Dawn. Very, very nice stuff indeed.