Whenever the subject of The Mentulls comes up, I always feel obliged to make one thing clear before anything else. Namely, no, they are NOT a Jethro Tull tribute band! Far from it in fact, but the odd spelling of the name does make for that obvious, if spurious connection. In fact, this the the third studio album released by the band (or fourth, if you include the mini album The Long Road To Home). Formed by brothers Jamie and Andrew Pipe, for this album (which has had a gestation period of six long years since the preceding Reflections) they are newly augmented by vocalist David Neil Crabtree – and this line-up change has either caused, or at least coincided with, a significant change in the Mentulls sound. If you’ve heard their previous albums, you will be used to a repertoire mixing touches of blues-rock and prog into a nice accessible ’70s influenced sound, a little like a bluesier Wishbone Ash, as a vague guideline. You will therefore be expecting roughly more of the same on this release. What you will get, however, is the sudden fast-forwarding from the ’70s into the ’80s and a huge flashing sign announcing ‘ASIA’! The sound is startlingly renovated into the 1980s adult-rock-with-a-bit-of-prog as purveyed by the aforementioned Asia, Trevor Rabin-era Yes and others. Crabtree’s voice in particular is remarkably evocative of the late John Wetton, and goes a long way to putting that Asia stamp all over this. As soon as the opening track Easy To Walk Away fires up, it’s immediately clear that if you thought Heat Of The Moment was a great song, then you’re in for an absolute treat here.
Now, personally, I thought Heat Of The Moment was a rather bland and of-its-time sort of track, but fear not, because as this album goes on, the band start stretching out that little bit more and producing some genuinely great music. There’s some weak stuff to get through first, however, as the album is very much back-loaded with the real meat – to these ears at least – almost as if they wanted to put the most easily accessible material on the first half of the release in the hope of airplay, and to that end three out of the first four tracks of the nine here are probably the weakest trio on the album. The odd man out from that opening clutch is the title track – yeah, admittedly it has ‘Asia’ written right through it like a stick of rock, but blow me if it isn’t the absolute best song that that band never wrote! Powerful playing, great singing, impossibly catchy melodies and a real irrestistible impetus mark this one out as a real highlight. As the following Opened My Eyes and Learning Through Living limped past in a haze of dated AOR saccharin, however, I began to fear in case that one great track was going to be the sole standout on the set, Happily, I was dead wrong, as things immediately kick up a notch with fifth track, and halfway point, Summit Fever, wherein the band rediscover their proggy yet powerful mojo and turn what could have been a rather average song into a proper highlight. Sure, this still has an ’80s air about it, but to use a Genesis comparison for a moment, it does so in more of a Home By The Sea way than an Invisible Touch way.
From that moment, we’re at the races, with Saviour and Smoke And Mirrors both being above-average examples of the kind of ’80s AOP (Adult Oriented Prog) which, while not exactly challenging, nevertheless makes up for that in vibrant and lively execution. Find A Way To This Journey’s End is an instrumental which dials up the ‘prog’ and does it very successfully – aided by the lack of that Wetton-esque vocal allowing the Asia ghost to be momentarily exorcised. Finally, the closing track Worlds Made Of Sound is the longest here at around six and a half minutes, and the band do stretch out to good effect on what is one of the most adventurous and also best tracks on the record.
The album is apparently a conceptual affair, detailing the story of a man escaping his busy and complicated life and exchanging it for a happier rural existence, but it is safe to say that it isn’t necessary to be fully aware of that, since these are all very much self-contained songs, working just as well in isolation as they do as a part of the whole. All in all, it’s an intriguing move by the band, as they have put their reputation with their existing fanbase on the line with this release, but hopefully those fans will go with them, as they are a fine collection of musicians beyond any doubt – as proved convincingly by the latter half of this album. It’s an interesting paradox, as on the one hand my chief issue with the album is the tendency to ‘play it safe’ a little too much on some of the tracks here, but by the same token that very ‘safety’ is also a brave move as they try to take their core audience along with them for the ride. Personally, I would be happiest if the next record were to perhaps hit a sort of sweet middle ground, with the fresh glossy sheen of this album balanced by a little more of the ‘old’ Mentulls identity, but if this sort of material is your listening of choice, you’re not going to go far wrong with this one, as it does what it does with consummate ease. Recommended, albeit with some reservations.