I started reading at an early age and it was obvious from those formative years that heroic fantasy was going to be my genre of choice. I tried Michael Moorcock, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and other science fiction authors but, it was when turned the first page of The Hobbit and read novels by Terry Brooks, George R.R. Martin and Raymond E. Feist that my imagination took fire. My interest focused on heroic fantasy, sword and sorcery if you like and I really enjoy reading novels by the likes of Conn Iggulden, R.A. Salvatore and Bernard Cornwell, a solid base in history but with a liberal licence taken and drops of magic and mystery thrown in, perfect for me! So, it would seem a perfect fit for me to enjoy listening to progressive music that relates to these kinds of literary genres and novels, generally concept albums as the whole story would be seen as a concept in any case.
When I was asked to review The Tale of the Golden King by The Psychedelic Ensemble I was intrigued by the description of ‘a 72-minute concept presented in 10 gapless tracks. The concept is based on medieval sleeping hero and mountain king legends’. To me, this was progressive heaven, as you probably know, I’m a huge prog rock fan anyway but, to find an album that was based around fantasy legends, swords and sorcery et al was like nirvana to this reviewer. Before we get onto the review of the album, let us find out more about The Psychedelic Ensemble.
The Psychedelic Ensemble is actually a misnomer being, in reality, a one-man, multi-instrumental enigma. TPE (as we shall call him) has garnered numerous awards including more than 20 ASCAP awards and many others. Having worked as a performer, composer, and arranger with many preeminent musicians worldwide, The Golden King is the fourth solo album released under the moniker of The Psychedelic Ensemble. In 2009, Musea Records released the debut album, The Art of Madness, which received many nominations for various progressive rock awards, this was followed in 2010 by The Myth of Dying and, in 2011, by The Dream of the Magic Jongleur, both of which were garnered with extensive praise. For The Tale of the Golden King, TPE is joined, on certain tracks, by a full chamber orchestra conducted by Jonathan Roberts and featuring Amanda Smith Roberts as principal violinist and concertmaster. Furthermore, Ann Caren provides lead vocals for Queen of Sorrow and backing vocals elsewhere and Kurt Fowler is the cello soloist on Queen of Sorrow. As an aside, I have to mention the amazing artwork on the album booklet by Yimin Lee which is totally in key with the concept of the album and adds to the whole package.
As is the norm with most progressive rock epics nowadays, the album opener is an overture, Overture – Our Great Kingdom to be exact, and it is a huge behemoth of an opening song, the intro just builds up the intrigue with layer upon layer of intricate and spellbinding music before the superb vocal kicks in. I am dumbfounded that one person can produce this astonishingly complex mix of sound, keyboards swirling here, classic guitar soaring high and, in keeping with the concept, there is a definite mediaeval feel to proceedings, expertly emphasised by the clear as a bell organ sounds and harmonised vocal. The complex guitar notes and keyboards lead you on a fast paced, meandering journey away from the real world, superb from the first note until the last. There is a gentle acoustic guitar and keyboard introduction to The Prophecy of the Seer- The Transformation of the King that leads in a vocal that is more focused on the narrative and telling a story. There are hints of Yes, Rick Wakeman and prog legends of the 70’s flying around with the intricate time changes and convoluted keyboard sections. Whilst being a concept album, each individual track is given its own chance to shine and this song goes heavy on the 70’s psychedelic keyboards and quick fire guitar runs to produce a sophisticated smorgasbord of musical delights.
The Golden King starts delicately with a delightful orchestral introduction, fans of modern progressive stalwarts Glass Hammer will be very much at home here. The music has a lilting quality to it, dancing on your aural receptors, before a vocal glides in with a delicate timbre, adding to the fantastical feeling that is all pervading. The vocals offer a narrative as the principle and secondary voices converse back and forth. There is an incredible lightness to the proceedings emphasised by the nuances of the songwriting and expert musical ability on show, another admirable part of the ever impressive whole. Captive Days takes the listener on an instrumental journey though the world of The Golden King giving, as it does, a feeling of movement, perhaps a journey. The musical arrangement is a delight, the whole piece having an ethereal quality that, rather than making it feel like an interlude or break in the main composition, gives it a life all of its own.
Now to one of the masterpieces of the album, Queen of Sorrow is a quite breathtaking song, the angelic vocal of Ann Caren providing beauty and soul which gives this track a folk rock feel. The guitars, cello, flute and piano all take their place in the musical majesty on show. There is definite melancholy feel to the song, hinted at by the quality of the vocal and, especially in the low key, almost sinister section where the vocals become eerie whispers and the instruments take on an almost chaotic, distorted sound with staccato keyboards and guitars firing back and forth. The superb orchestral backing to the final vocal section is bordering on genius, giving this song the finale that it deserves.
Save Yourself moves away from progressive rock to a very modern jazz feel, funky basslines and rat-a-tat drum beats backing an ululating vocal. The virtuoso keyboard playing is a fine touch and adds to the ultra smoothness of the groove and the catchy chorus. The music strays into fusion territory in places including some stylishly imagined jazz piano, a super-smooth insert into the continuing narrative. In a clever contrast, Make a Plan – Golden Swords takes on a laid back blues mantra with a cool blues guitar in combination with a sultry piano note. The keyboards take on a mind of their own but work well with the more intense vocal eventually performing an intense duet with the scorching licks from the guitar. A lot of that chaotic intensity finds itself flowing over into The Battle, a raging instrumental that evokes the chaos and disorder that happens in war. The time changes come thick and fast imbuing a feeling of discord and even anarchy. If I have one small criticism it could that, on these three tracks, there is a feeling of smugness and cleverness, of being abstract for abstract’s sake, only my opinion but, it does detract from the whole very slightly.
We return to the calm and harmonious theme that runs through the rest of the album with the heavily Yes influenced, Great Day. The acoustic and 12 string guitars glide in with an all encompassing feeling of serenity, ably aided and abetted by the serene synthesizer. The vocals are silky and polished hitting a higher range than elsewhere on the album and harmonising with great effect. There then follows a section of intense competition between the instruments as, one after the other, they come forth to burst into life with a brief solo before the song is lead out by a precisely harmonised choral section that harks back to the initial part of the track.
This fantastical concept is brought to a close by Finale – Arise! – Great kingdom, the recurring orchestral themes are brought back into play with increased grandeur and meaning. There then follows a dazzling, multi-layered vocal section with energetic, vivid instrumental interludes that, rather than detracting from the vocal sections, add subtle overlays and nuances to the overall sound. The frequent solo incursions are precise and delicate incisions in a complex piece of music that seeks to give an overview of what has gone before, a précis of the whole story in instrumental fashion, and the energy and enthusiasm are superbly judged. The finale is another excellent combination of the orchestral and vocal that comes to a flamboyant and grand close.
To be fair, The Psychedelic Ensemble has been hovering around the edges of my consciousness for a while and yet, I have never had the foresight to listen to any of their work, more fool me! The Tale of the Golden King is an epic piece of work in more ways than one, a superb, engrossing story told with amazing skill and musicianship. It is 72 minutes that just fly by, immersed in the music as you are and is not just a glorious piece of music but a complete listening experience that makes your life just that little bit better.