December 3, 2023

a gloriously enjoyable melting pot of full-fat prog goodness with none of the carbohydrates removed

The Swan Chorus are, for those not aware, a prog outfit based in Liverpool. This, their second album, has been some time coming as their self-titled debut came out a full five years ago back in 2018. It was a fine record, and I for one have been looking forward to this long-gestating follow-up to arrive. Happily, the wait has not been in vain, as this is a solid prog rock album with no grand pretensions to be post-rock, alt-rock, Rock In Opposition or math-rock, or any of the other myriad self-importantly grandiose sub-genres which more often than not translate to ‘can’t write an actual tune’ or ‘really want to be King Crimson’. The Swan Chorus play progressive rock that sounds like the progressive rock they love, because basically they want to play music they enjoy in the hope you will too. A simple formula, maybe, but a refreshing one which – surprise surprise – actually works.

All of which isn’t to say that TSC (as they are often known) come over like some slavish tribute outfit, like one or two bands who I suspect we could name if we cared to. There are strong influences, true, and none more so than Genesis – but a very good reason for that is that many of the lead vocals here are by John Wilkinson, who is actually the singer in an all-eras Genesis tribute, so it would be pretty surprising if there wasn’t a strong echo of Messrs Collins and Gabriel around his intonation. While Genesis do turn up musically in a few songs here, there are also plenty of other influences cropping up in what is a gloriously enjoyable melting pot of full-fat prog goodness with none of the carbohydrates removed. If some of the material has an early ’80s, or ‘neo-prog’ air to it, that’s also unsurprising – the ‘Achilles’ in the title refers to a band which Swan Men Dave Knowles and Colin McKay were in at that time based in St Helens, and some of the songs here date back to that band and time. It also made me feel quite young again, since I remember Achilles from being a part of that very rock scene in St Helens at the same time, and some 40 of my accumulated years fell away with a wave of nostalgia for those heady times!

On to the album, however. There are ten tracks here, of which the arguable standouts are the two lengthiest, which bookend the record. The opening and splendidly titled The Waffle House Index is a fine curtain-raiser, being both very strong and a good representation of the sort of thing you’re in for. The music here is a splendid sort of amalgam of prime Yes and Genesis, with a very ‘Collins’ vocal, but in many ways the real joy is the bitingly sardonic lyric, politically charged and acerbic, in which – spoiler alert – the Conservative Party don’t fare well. The title and lyrical style are pure Frank Zappa meets Godley And Creme, and the whole thing is like a glorious meeting of the albums You Are What You Is and Freeze Frame by those great artists. The rhyming of ‘set the hounds on the welfare losers’ with the line ‘start a tsunami of wheelchair users’ may well be my favourite couplet of 2023 so far. It’s a cracking start to the album for sure. The closing This Great Adventure, coming in at 13 minutes, is a fine example of latter-day, mid-’80s darkly claustrophobic prog, with at least the second half of the song very reminiscent of the Genesis two-part piece Home By The Sea. It unravels gradually, taking its time, and never outstays its welcome, and is a perfectly placed closer.

Other highlights are plentiful. My Little Vampire is pure Wind And Wuthering, coming over like a delicious cross between Blood On The Rooftops and One For The Vine (and if that doesn’t sound appetising, I really don’t know what to say!). Being There is – as hinted by the title, but still unexpectedly – an affectionate tribute to the late Peter Sellers, lamenting the fact that his legacy is entirely overshadowed by Clouseau. No Idea is a nice pop-prog outing in the vein of prime Alan Parsons Project, and does it as well as Alan ever did, while Welcome Home takes an upbeat and effervescent turn into the electro-synth pop of the likes of OMD or Blancmange. One might expect English Electric to hark back to the Big Big Train albums using that title, but while it may share that name it takes its musical cue far more directly from early Marillion, in what I would be sure must be an affectionate tip of the hat to Market Square Heroes, if not for the fact that it reportedly predates that song – so what do I know! All ‘we’re in it together’, ‘young lads in a band’ unity and defiance, it’s another nostalgic look back to those 40-years-away days of youth, vim and vigour.

If you’re after an album which is going to challenge the way you think about prog rock, or prompt a beard-stroking conversation about how ‘the music must always be progressing’, or spin your head round in a cavalcade of prog-metal riffs and time-changes, you’re not going to find it here. If, however, you want an album to remind you of just why you fell in love with this music in the first place, which you can listen to as easily in the car or on the headphones, and is just plain old enjoyable music, this is going to scratch a rather pleasurable itch for you. The Swan Chorus – should I say it’s a ‘feather in their cap’? No, I probably shouldn’t. It’s a damn nice album though…