Determining who is the busiest musician in modern day progressive rock could prove to be a difficult task, one that might quickly cause debate and arguments – in fact, it probably already has. But nobody would disagree that Roine Stolt’s name is near the top of that list. The guitarist and songwriter has been tirelessly creative for decades, merrily bouncing from project to project and producing high quality music alongside scores of accomplished musicians under a variety of banners. Since 1994, Stolt has helped to produce over thirty studio albums and numerous live albums from various bands and projects, including his acclaimed collaboration with Jon Anderson, Swedish bands both recent (Agents Of Mercy) and legendary (Kaipa), multinational prog titans Transatlantic, last year’s supergroup The Sea Within, The Tangent, and a handful of his own impressive solo albums. But it’s his flagship band The Flower Kings, those Swedish darlings of symphonic prog, that he is most well known for. To date, approximately nineteen hours of original music span their dozen studio releases, and that’s not counting Stolt’s own band-launching album The Flower King, or last year’s Manifesto Of An Alchemist, (released under the somewhat awkward moniker Roine Stolt’s The Flower King), both of which sit comfortably alongside the greater body of work anyway.
Following the band’s longest hiatus to date, November sees the release of Waiting For Miracles, the first proper Flower Kings album since 2013’s Desolation Rose. The fifteen tracks on this double CD/LP total 85 minutes, a goodly amount of fresh, new material to sink your teeth into, but significantly shorter than the massive, 140 minute works of past double releases like Flower Power and Unfold The Future. Opinions on such epic scale works tend to differ, with some listeners wanting as much new music as possible, and others feeling that it’s best to trim the album and just feature the very best of the new songs. Either way, 85 minutes is a decent stretch, and should be enough of a compromise to satisfy both camps.
To address the elephant in the room (and on the album cover) – yes, there have been a couple of lineup changes. Most notably, longtime keyboard player Tomas Bodin’s absence has raised a few eyebrows, but Stolt has said that the writing contribution and younger blood the new guys have brought to the band has led to a more positive atmosphere and enthusiasm that may have been dwindling over the course of the last few releases. To be fair, that’s far from uncommon in a band with such a lengthy career. And anyone already familiar with Bodin’s replacement (Berklee multi-instrumentalist Zach Kamins of chops-heavy band An Endless Sporadic) can probably tell you that he is no slouch as a player or a composer, so it’s safe to say that he’s at least bringing some new flavours of his own to the music.
There are no monstrous epics this time around, although two pieces do reach the ten minute mark, and are sequenced back to back. Miracles For America and Vertigo, though very different tracks, both follow a similar pattern: a standard song followed by an instrumental second half that features lots of tasty guitar soloing. Vertigo is likely the better of the two tracks, with its atmospheric backing a more interesting complement to Stolt’s guitar. A shorter piece which also follows this format is The Bridge, with a delicate, gentle first half changing to a full band section and a long, bluesy solo.
Six of the tracks are fully instrumental. Ascending To The Stars is the best of these, an exhilarating composition and definite album (and dare I suggest, career) highlight. Its majestic sound and exotic violins are soon joined by electric guitar that gives it a cinematic feel. Drums and choral mellotron briefly enter, but soon the piece veers into a bouncy string section augmented by acoustic guitar and a fleeting background melody that sounds curiously like one from the classic title track of 1997’s Stardust We Are. Quick Spanish motifs come and go in a flash, and eventually the frantic piece calms and trails off. Wonderful! The Rebel Circus is another of these instrumentals, an engaging track that introduces itself with odd noises and a wobbly synth melody. Some heavy rock riffage transpires alongside more quirky sound effects, and Stolt again takes the spotlight with a long solo underpinned by outstanding drumming and bass lines. The quirky Spirals is another high point, a hypnotic and rhythmic piece with no real lyrics, as the vocals are largely sound bite samples from elsewhere on the album. The Crowning Of Greed appears at first to be a seventh instrumental, but surprisingly some gentle vocals appear during the last minute. If it seems like I’m talking a lot about instrumentals, that’s because this is a heavily instrumental album, despite the presence of two solid, capable vocalists. And while it is also drenched with guitar, it is well balanced with plentiful keyboards.
Rounding things out are the slightly more conventional Flower Kings songs Black Flag, Wicked Old Symphony, Steampunk, We Were Always Here, and the darker (and best of the lot) Sleep With The Enemy. Stolt handles the verse vocals and Hasse Fröberg takes the chorus on this track whose melodies sound like something that could have been brought to Transatlantic – but here, it never strays from its path and remains a strong piece because of its conciseness. Black Flag and Steampunk tend to outshine the rest of these tracks, partly due to their more complex nature and changes of mood. The band has always been a bit stronger at these types of songs than the simple, sunnier ones, which is not to suggest that any of those are weak. This is a solid collection of tracks no matter which way you slice it or what your preferences are.
Waiting For Miracles is still very much the Flower Kings sound we all know and love. The familiar ingredients are all there: heavy use of vintage keyboards, complex drumming in odd time signatures (courtesy of other new member Mirkko De Maio), grand, symphonic works with pristine solos and diverse lyrics, recurring themes and of course the well established dual lead vocals of Stolt and Fröberg, a key element to the sound of the group for the last twenty-plus years. Add to all of this the incomparable bass playing of both stalwart member Jonas Reingold and original bassist (and sibling) Michael Stolt, and you have yourself The Flower Kings 2019. While some bands attempt to change their sound for the sake of, and fall flat on their face in the process, The Flower Kings have never done that. It’s no disservice to the album to say that it isn’t going to go down in history as groundbreaking, because it doesn’t have to – it reaches the band’s usual level of excellence, and that’s an impressive achievement for a group now on their thirteenth album. Most longtime fans will be pleased to immerse themselves in this comfortable, familiar style while appreciating a few new twists and turns along the way.
European tour with Kayak:
1st December – Bahnhof St. Pauli, Hamburg, Germany
2nd December – Musikzentrum, Hannover, Germany
3rd December – OK Andaluzia, Piekary Slaskie, Poland
4th December – Klub U Bazyla, Poznan, Poland
6th December – Burgerweeshuis, Deventer, Netherlands
7th December – De Borderij, Zoetermeer, Netherlands
8th December – Scala, London, UK
9th December – Piano, Dortmund, Germany
10th December – Columbia Theater, Berlin, Germany
11th December – Amager Bio, Copenhagen, Denmark
12th December – Brewhouse, Gothernburg, Sweden
14th December – Kraken, Stockholm, Sweden