If there’s a prize for the best new prog debut release of 2021 then it must surely go to The Flying Caravan.
Think about legendary progressive rock double albums for a moment. What comes to mind? The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway? Tales From Topographic Oceans? The Wall? All of those are examples of bands at the peak of their powers, stretching themselves beyond the standard 45-minute mark. With those albums still today being talked about reverently, there’s something surprising, if not shocking, to see a brand-new progressive band dare to release a debut double album. It almost smacks of arrogance! Add to that the fact that the band is from Alicante in Spain – not exactly a hotbed of progressive music, or any other music for that matter……well, unless you count the discos of nearby Benidorm, that is. I therefore confess to putting the needle on the record (virtually, because the only physical release is in CD format) with a little fear that I might need lots of coffee to keep me going through two hours of music from our Alicante hopefuls. But I needed a sedative more than a stimulant as I was taken aback by the quality and maturity of the compositions and the seemingly endless flow of original ideas. The two hours passed by in a flash.
The album can be considered in two blocks, split between the two long epics (definitely of Tales From Topographic Oceans proportions!) and the four shorter tracks that open the album. Well, calling them shorter may give the wrong impression that they are minor pieces but in fact none of them are shorter than six and a half minutes and none of them you would describe as simple pieces. An instrumental entitled Get Real opens proceedings with a gentle jazz rock groove, reminding me of the mood of Camel’s debut album. The second part of the track loses some of the jazzy feel and gets into some more aggressive (but not heavy) riffing with some great duelling between guitar (Antonio Valiente) and organ (Juanjo Sánchez). Valiente’s solo playing (here, and often later) recalls Andy Latimer – with impact and emotional beauty being to the fore at the expense of any flashiness.
The next song, titled after the band, is infectiously energetic and cheerful, full of fast-paced acoustic guitars and 70’s-tinged Moog. This track introduces Izaga Plata on vocals. Her English diction is not quite perfect, but she makes up for it with a strong voice and a pleasant tone. Next up is Upstream To Manonash that opens with an impressive wave of symphonic keyboards, acoustic guitars and drums, almost like a modern-day Epitaph. The vocal section that follows is gentle, supported mostly by picked electric guitar and organ, before leading to a beautifully restrained guitar solo. Plata returns for the strong but not over-emphasised climax of this brilliantly constructed song. This ability to create impactful music without any kitchen-sink histrionics is a hallmark of the group. The last of the opening quartet is called Love’s Labour Mislaid – a great title, one of many clever linguistic twists amongst the song titles here. The song opens and closes with ethereal vocalising while the highlight of the main section is the anthemic chorus, emotionally sung by Plata and reminiscent of Mostly Autumn at their best.
The first of the lengthier pieces is the seventeen-minute The Bumpy Road To Knowledge. ‘Epic’ is certainly the word to describe the Floydian three-minute opening with synths and ocean sounds (hinting at life emerging from the primordial sea), a wailing guitar theme and then mysterious organ over a pulsing bass. This intro is followed by a leisurely vocal section which gradually increases with intensity, climaxing in a fine guitar solo. This is then unexpectedly followed by an excellent lengthy sax break (from guest artist Juan Carlos Aracil) before a second guitar solo and then a gentle coda closes the piece. While the track certainly kept my attention, I also felt it was slightly fragmented and might have felt more satisfying if for example some of the themes in the introduction had reappeared later in the music to help glue it all together.
That risk of appearing fragmented does not happen in the final piece of the album, A Fairy Tale For Grown-Ups, which is explicitly split into seven distinct parts over its massive thirty-six minute duration. Two of the pieces are instrumentals – Part 1 Northern Lights shows the same sort of infectious variety they displayed in Get Real, while Part 5 Moonlight Labyrinth is an enjoyable extended jam over a funky groove. The centrepiece, at least in length, is the near ten-minute Part 3 S.A.D. (Solitude Affective Disorder) which belies its title by being ridiculously cheerful thanks to a wash of Styx-like keyboards and its energetic momentum from layered acoustic guitars. My favourite piece in the suite is Part 5 The World Had Turned Over (And I Couldn’t Hold On). An ethereal vocal line over a sparse accompaniment gives the piece the same sort of mysterious feel that Zeppelin created in No Quarter. This vocal line is punctured three times by a warm guitar refrain from Valiente. It’s very simple but so very effective.
Rather oddly, we close proceedings with a second version of The Bumpy Road To Knowledge. Yes, another seventeen minutes of it. The one significant change I spotted in this version was that the sax solo has been replaced by a flute solo – which in my opinion causes the track to lose something. It may be that they had too much material for one CD, but not enough for two, and fleshed it out in this way. If a vinyl release is forthcoming, I would guess this second version would be dropped and we’d have five tracks on the first two sides, and A Fairy Tale For Grown-Ups occupying the other two sides. That, I think, would be more satisfying.
The band might just modestly ‘wanna break even’ but they certainly deserve to hit the jackpot with this release. It is a quite remarkably mature and varied prog feast. If there’s a prize for the best new prog debut release of 2021 then it must surely go to The Flying Caravan.