In my opinion Prog musicians never die, they become a rotating band of minstrels for hire, working with some of the greats in the genre. This is why you will see some superlative musicians appearing on many different recordings from diverse artists. It seems that, when you have proved your skill and your worth on your prog ‘apprenticeship’ it will open many doors, perhaps this is because progressive musicians are a secretive and mistrusting lot? Me? I think it is because they are perfectionists and, the level of skill required to play on a progressive rock release may be higher than that needed for a less complicated release. Whatever the reason, it cannot be denied that, the recurring merry-go-round of musicians that appear on many progressive releases becomes very familiar after a while.
Take British neo-progressive group Lifesigns, a quick look at the history and background of the 3 musicians who, originally, appeared on the their first, eponymously titled, recording becomes akin to reading a novel, a worthy ‘who’s who’ of the music scene from the 80’s onwards and, after you read in depth, who these talented musicians have played with, it does leave you a little in awe if you have any small knowledge of music. Vocalist and keyboard player John Young spent his early years with the Liverpool Cathedral Choir where he was classically trained on the keyboard and voice. A very brief list of his career highlights include: being part of Uli Jon Roth’s band (ex-Scorpions), doing studio and session work with Steeleye Span and Bon Jovi. John went on to join Asia for two European tours and he joined Paul Rodgers and Kenny Jones in a short-lived band called The Law. John joined Bonnie Tyler in the mid-1990s and has since worked with her all over the world. In 2002, John formed his own band and released albums Life Underground and Significance. John has worked with Jon Anderson of Yes and with The Strawbs on their Canada / UK tour. Bassist Nick Beggs was a member of Kajagoogoo, Iona, and Ellis, Beggs & Howard. Nick has also worked with various artists and bands including Alphaville, Belinda Carlisle, Emma Bunton (on her album Life In Mono) and John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin’s bass player. Howard Jones invited Nick to tour as part of his band. During this time Nick has also worked with numerous bands and artists and is currently a member of Steven Wilson’s touring band in support of Wilson’s two solo albums. Drums and percussion are provided by Martin ‘Frosty’ Beedle who was a member of Cutting Crew, he has, also, worked with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Sarah Brightman, Sinead O’ Connor, Zucchero , Russell Watson, The Three Degrees, Harold Melvyn and The Blue Notes, Precious Wilson, John Wilson, Gloria Gaynor, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, The English National Orchestra (to name a few) and has held the drum chair at the original production of Mama Mia since Aug 1999. Add in legendary engineer and producer John Rispin who has worked with Threshold, Pendragon, Fish and Asia to name a few and, you have an impressive line up. Get such luminaries as Steve Hackett, Jakko Jakszyk to provide your guitars and then add Thijs Van Leek’s noteworthy flute and you could be on to something quite special. Is the whole greater than the sum of the parts? Let’s have a listen and find out.
The album opens with Lighthouse which, at over 12 minutes long, you may have thought would be some sweeping, bombastic, panoramic prog epic but, in fact, is a delightful, pared back track with a slight pop rock edge to it. The intro is all sparkling guitar and 80’s keyboards backed by a gentle drum beat and progressive bass. When John Young’s vocals first join the fun, they are nicely laid back and harmonised with a strong progressive feel. The instrumental sections are small sound bites of intensity and, for me the whole track has a decidedly nostalgic appeal to it. The stand alone interludes give real definition to the vocal and showcase a genuinely captivating voice. The lush guitar and keyboards that follow are really quite ethereal and the conjoining sections throughout the song give a real narrative to the music. As we move further into this congenial song it becomes more progressive whilst never losing that enchanting edge that makes it so enjoyable. Yes, there are definite neo-progressive parts to the sound but it does tend to plough its own, relatively unique, furrow containing, as it does, the distinctive bass sound of Nick Beggs. The song moves into an extended guitar section, a bit more random than the rest of the song but without taking anything away from the inventiveness and we are left with the sound of seabirds calling and waves crashing as the track fades to a finish.
An 80’s drumbeat and notable bass line lead in Telephone before a more plaintive, wistful vocal that, backed by a lovely guitar and piano, becomes more urgent and takes your mind and soul on a meandering journey. There is a heavy hint of a commercial progressive sound, more 1980’s Genesis or Mike and the Mechanics that, on this track, really works. Like the first song it is captivating and contemplative and, whilst being extremely accessible, has some incredibly clever sections, the dreamy and ever so catchy chorus being a case in point. The vocal harmonising in places is seriously addictive and adds another dimension to what is, already, incredibly polished and brilliantly worked progressive rock. There is another nicely worked, guitar heavy, interlude preceding a reflective and, once again, impressively harmonised vocal and then the song draws to a sedate close.
I like playful song titles and Fridge Full of Stars has a modicum of merriment to it. Starting with a synth heavy intro and cool bass line, John Young’s vocal then sneaks in at the back, unnoticed, overlaying a tinkling piano note followed by a nicely harmonised section. The next instrumental interlude includes a heavenly guitar sound that your ears pick out as something special, above the nicely judged drums and bass. The next vocal section includes a soaring chorus that just lifts your soul and, you cannot help but smile as the sumptuous sounds pervade your being. The whole sensation that this song gives is akin to tiptoeing through something magical especially when the tender flute heralds another superb instrumental tract, it is like the whole world has paused for a moment to take stock of life as we know it. This juxtaposing between vocal and instrumental sections is a highlight, not just of this track but of the album as a whole and, combined with the contrast between the more mainstream sections and the more traditional progressive elements (especially the finale of this track), gives rise to something a bit different and unique.
At the End of the World sees Lifesigns leaning on more of the commercial sound. The gentle intro with precisely harmonised and breathy vocals could appeal to anyone who likes great music and superior songwriting, things that, unfortunately, are rarely seen in the mainstream music world today. The otherworldy feel carries on into the song and the harmonising on the vocals just gets better and better, it would be true to say that the voice becomes more imposing and integral on this track. A laid back instrumental section dominated by a delicate piano is the backdrop as the song takes on a more urgent feel with swirling keyboards and a steady drumbeat, the vocals rise in intensity to pour forth with a superior chorus line that then, backed by the elaborate keyboards, leads out the track to a coruscating conclusion.
The final track, Carousel has prog heavy introduction of distorted keyboards that fire off in all directions, giving an almost steam punk feel. The drums and bass keep everything in check as a driving keyboard punches above its weight imbuing everything with a dramatic fervour. The vocals have a harder, more ardent appeal to them. It is not long before the pace is slowed down and the song takes on a more emotive feel to it, lighter keyboards, titillating piano and flirtatious flute take away the serious note and replace it with a much more flippant atmosphere. Everything then hightails off on a progressive free running spree filled with an abundance of energy. The changes in pace run back and forth as the song becomes more sombre, aided by softer vocals and a keyboard that eddies around inside your head. As we come to the end of the song, and the album, the whole musical feel takes on a more urgent edge, moving towards the conclusion of this epic album, the track coming to an end like some majestic overture.
Lifesigns have produced something individual and with its own uniqueness, sweeping prog epics combined with clever and inventive melodies that would garner praise from a more mainstream audience. They are not re-inventing the wheel but, in many ways, improving on a well established blueprint and this excellent album can stand comparison with anything that has been released in the last 12 months and hold its head high in exalted company.