October 6, 2023

Prog fans might consider it heretical to ask: ‘Can a progressive rock album be too complex?’ but that was the question that came to my mind when listening to this fascinating release from Australian outfit Unitopia. Seven Chambers is released as double vinyl or CD, with a duration of over eighty minutes, which given the ambitious writing and intense subject matter, makes for both an exciting and a difficult listen.  The band is new to me but has been around for a while, having released three albums in the early part of the 2000s. However, for this release, the line-up changes are significant with just two original members surviving, singer Mark Trueack and keyboardist/guitarist Sean Timms. They are joined here by John Greenwood (lead guitar and keyboards), Steve Unruh (violin, flute and guitars), plus two names that surely will be familiar to readers: Chester Thompson on drums and Alphonso Johnson on bass, who crossed paths previously on Weather Report’s 1976 album Black Market.

The album title is a reference to the human heart and the album appears to be a reflection on the impact of illness and the realization of the frailty of human life. The songs on the first side of the vinyl version seem positively hasty compared to the rest, consisting of three out of the total of seven tracks.  The first two, Broken Heart and Something Invisible, highlight the band’s typical melodic writing and lush symphonic writing. The verse of Broken Heart reminded me of Procol Harum’s Salty Dog and Trueack’s vocals are warm and theatrical, even if they sometimes seem at odds with the lyrics (‘Help me now as darkness looms; I am in need of resuscitation’ sounds like it needs a bit more bite in the vocals!). There’s almost an ‘80s power ballad feel to the song although it does accelerate into a rocking groove for the closing section. The soundscape of Something Invisible is a little more menacing, not surprising since cancer seems to be the entity that quietly an invisibly grows inside. The best part of the song is the lovely texture in the middle part created by flute, mandolin and then piano and synths. These two tracks are relatively straight forward songs that barely hint at the more adventurous material to come.   

Things take a much more progressive turn with Bittersweet, a song full of Wind And Wuthering period Genesis-like acoustic guitar and keys. It meanders along enjoyably at a slow pace and then there’s the totally unexpected but quite brilliant transformation into a rap tune during which Trueack recites all the unhealthy foods that we eat, followed by all the good foods that we should eat (with ironic ‘very nice’ side-comments!). The two parts of the song are both excellent, but do they work well together? To these ears, perhaps not.

Side Two of the vinyl opens with the first highly ambitious piece, Mania. This is where the band get heavier and Greenwood’s guitar work is a real highlight. Despite this, there’s something downright catchy about the chorus melody that sticks in the mind. The mood becomes a little more positive in the middle section, but then an angular guitar riff break in, the vocals become slightly hysterical, and the music careers to a chaotic conclusion. Side Two concludes with The Stroke Of Midnight, and the opening symphonic strings are the perfect antidote for Mania. The song builds gently with Trueack’s vocal performance worthy of the West End stage. The highlight of the song though is the magical passage from the four-minute mark with flute and rippling piano being the prelude for some gorgeous violin work.

If you’ve been keeping count, then you’ll have realized that only two tracks remain and hence those last two tracks each take a full side of vinyl.  I was pleased to hear the ex-Weather Report rhythm duo getting us off to a jazz fusion beat in Helen but sadly that isn’t developed. Despite there being some impressive moments – such as the brief flurry of flamenco guitar or the curious a cappella harmonies later on – Helen seems to lack a little inspiration and didn’t merit being drawn out to almost twenty minutes. 

Luckily, inspiration isn’t lacking at all in the concluding track, The Uncertain. It is the standout track on the album. It gently starts with the line ‘Goodbye is so much closer than hello’ which I guess is a very elegant way of saying you feel old! The initial part develops surprisingly as a pleasant pop song, but the mood soon changes as Greenwood bursts in with a rhythmic heavy metal guitar riff and Trueack’s vocal becomes more aggressive too. There’s then an excellent instrumental section mixing the guitar riff with dynamic work on keys and violin that wanders into Kansas territory. Trueack’s vocals return with just acoustic guitar backing, almost whispering an exquisite new melody ‘in the land of the uncertain, I am found’. The rendition that follows on violin could melt butter. There’s a return of the aggressive riffing, this time with an impressive Moog solo as the song reaches a climax. To close the piece perfectly, the two lovely melodies are peacefully reprised, the last line being ‘in this land of the uncertain, I am home’ as if in acceptance of the uncertainties that inevitably accompany aging.  

Seven Chambers contains some of the most thrilling progressive rock music you will hear this year, and The Uncertain is very possibly the most impressive prog song I’ve heard this year too. However, it’s a big ask to create eighty-odd minutes of quality prog material and Unitopia fall slightly short of creating a masterpiece. The best parts are outstanding but there to these ears other parts are undermined by trying to be too clever and mixing too many different styles. But don’t get me wrong: if the three of four best songs on Seven Chambers had been released as a single album, then it would be a pretty certain shoo-in as best Prog album of 2023, so it’s still highly recommended listening for all prog fans.