- Album Reviews

Spleen Arcana – The Light Beyond the Shades

“If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” that is an idiom that is very true in all walks of life, quit tinkering around with something that was inherently right in the first place, you may make it slightly better but, in all probability, you will send it all pear shaped and spoil it. So, when it comes to music, should you plough a lone furrow and be individualistic with your quirky take on an established genre, take a risk and hope it works or, should you tread the established boards and go with the flow, producing music that closely follows what is expected, relying on your audience to elevate you above your contemporaries?

On initial hearing, Spleen Arcana seem to follow the latter route, producing progressive rock that has very close ties with the 70’s classics of Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd and modern classic progressive acts like Anathema and Marillion. Those of you that know me will know I am a sucker for an interesting name and excellent album artwork and, in Spleen Arcana and their new release ‘The Light Beyond the Shades’ we have both. If that isn’t a name to spark conversation in a bar with complete strangers, I don’t know what is and, the album cover has classic prog rock written all over it (well, it has the band name and album title but, you get my gist!).

Spleen Arcana is the brainchild of self-taught French musician, Julien Gaullier, who has composed music at home since 1994. Inspired by vintage progressive rock, Julien decided, some years ago, to release a self-made and produced album. Playing on any instruments he could get his hands on and recording on the equipment he found around him. At a later date, he was joined by David Perron on drums and Marie Guillaumet on additional vocals. The debut album, The Field Where She Died was the product of this sometimes chaotic adventure. Five years later, Julien returns with The Light Beyond the Shades, an album that was an age in the making because it now sounds exactly as he wanted it to sound.

The Light Beyond the Shores consists of three tracks that total 46 minutes running time, no fast fix here then, just three absorbing and complex songs that complete the whole.

Erin Shores begins with the sound of water washing up a beach and a keyboard note that is almost gaelic, sounding like bagpipes, the drums are of a similar ilk, pounding like war drums. There is a delightful swage of keyboard sound, very 70’s and then a brilliant piece of guitar work, almost vocal in its intensity. The vocals chime in, accompanied by a folk-like acoustic guitar and I’m transported to a magical land of folk lore and fantasy. The lush keyboards and harmonious vocals are feather light and silky in texture and I’m hooked, there is something very reminiscent of gallic progressive bands in Spleen Arcana’s sound, hints of Demians and Huis in the dreamlike hooks and keyboard notes. Underpinning all this wraith like feel is a solid guitar sound, full of substance and emotion, conveyed through multiple extended and impressive guitar breaks and solos. There is an impish intermission with keyboard notes dancing around you and more of the sensuous vocals before that softer side is swept away by a guitar and keyboard riff that charges along morphing into a superb mellotron solo and keyboard run that smacks of outrageous stage sets and costumes straight out of an era gone by. This superb instrumental section at the end of the song cements the thought harboured at the back of my mind that this guy is quite the virtuoso performer, the soft, lulling piano outro is quite superb, bringing your heart rate right down and leaving you in state of grace.

A funky keyboard note introduces Fading Away before a pondering piano note and flamenco style guitar take up station. The vocals kick in, breathy and trance-like, holding your attention and are countered by a clashing, harsh section that snaps you to attention. The effects laden guitar that follows traps you and you are held in its embrace, in rapture, as it spirals high. More of that laid back Spanish style guitar follows, accompanied by a delightful vocal section where Julien and Marie harmonise their enchanting voices to produce something that is ambrosia to the ears, all enveloped by stunning guitars and keyboards. The section that follows is nirvana to any 70’s progressive fan, a complex instrumental section that twists and turns in a mysterious fashion with an urgency that belies what has gone before. The bass note is incredible, leading you through this elaborate maze of aural delight, never taking a wrong turn and, in accompaniment with the excellent drums, delivers you to the end unscathed.

The sound of raindrops can be heard at the beginning of the final track, Memento Mori before an uplifting keyboard crescendo takes centre stage, demanding your attention. A gentle vocal section then begins, underscored by a glossy and polished keyboard note as we venture further into this 24 minute epic. You know, I think this music is almost magical in the way it holds your attention, seeping into your being and almost becoming one with you. As befits any epic prog track, there are many different sections to the song and the next delivers more of that sublime bass, driving the song along with an oriental keyboard and synthesiser sound spiralling around and providing the focal point. This is not incidental music, is it something of substance, fulfilling a desire for music that stays with you, I find I cannot listen to it with distractions, I need to concentrate on the subtleties and nuances that pervade every nook and cranny. In a direct homage to the epics of the genre, this track ebbs and flows around you, enveloping you in its warm embrace, the vocals are warm and inviting, the mellotron, keyboards and synthesiser leave you with a feeling of agelessness and a sepia tinged view of the past and the stylish guitar is like a narrator, guiding you along this time-worn path. In this modern age of sharp edges and angular lines there is a fluidness to some of the instrumental sections that calms the soul and hypnotises you, your enraptured state only occasionally broken by a contrasting, clamorous guitar  riff or enigmatic, sci-fi inspired, mellotron run. This trade off of coruscating notes against laid back, jazz inspired rhythms runs throughout this great song and, the occasional interjection of a slick guitar solo provides a laid back contrast to both. This song runs along multiple avenues at once, like a 5 lane highway but, you never feel out of your depth or overwhelmed, it is a lesson in how to do the convoluted and labyrinthine but, still make it accessible, thought provoking and engaging.

Spleen Arcana may have not pushed any boundaries or given us anything new but, when it is as classy and impressive as this, do they need to? The Light Beyond the Shades is polished and delivered with vim and verve, faithful to Julien Gaullier’s heroes and influences of the past and, as far as I’m concerned, that makes it a winner for me.

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