And so we come round full circle, over 120 reviews and fourteen months after I penned my first words for Lady Obscure Music Magazine we arrive back where it all began. Am I feeling nostalgic? You bet your cotton socks I am!
That first review, written on July 31st of last year, was for the progressive rock collaboration dreamed up by Milan’s own Umberto Pagnini. Active Heed’s ‘Visions From Realities’ was the fledgling start to my musical meanderings and I still have a soft spot for it so, when Umberto told me he was releasing a new collaborative album under the same name of Active Heed, nothing was going to stop me reviewing it.
Now, if we delve back into the past, this musical project is orchestrated by Umberto who writes all the music and lyrics but is not involved in the recording process of the album. The only surviving musician left from the first album is the vocalist PelleK (Per Fredrik Åsly). Arrangements were taken care of by Cristiano Roversi (Moongarden) who also contributed keyboards and bass, Gian Maria Roveda (Moongarden) took care of the drums and Mirco Ravenoldi (Catafalchi del Cyber) provided all the guitar work.
Gathering around such an experienced bunch of musos would, hopefully, garner some impressive results. The first album lent a pop veneer to the major slice of progressive rock that was its core and this seemed to split the reviewers down the middle. Would ‘Higher Dimensions’ follow that lead or plough its own furrow? Only one way to find out dear readers, just press play!
With twelve songs and a sixty-five minute running time, we are not going to be short changed with the musical quantity here, what concerns me is whether the quality matches it.
The beginning to the first track War of Tempos is a very inauspicious start and has a feel of prog done by numbers. There is no depth to the music or vocals and you could be tempted to turn off at this point and wonder what the fuss is about. Don’t do that, whatever you do. Persevere, as we get deeper into this relatively short track and the keyboards begin to come to the fore it begins to exhibit a depth and sincerity previously missing. The keyboard runs and instrumental section in general have a real quality feel and leave you with renewed hope for what is to follow. Far Escape begins with gentle acoustic guitar that has a lightness of being that exudes calmness before the impressive drums fire in and light the blue touch paper. The tempo is lifted and some of that mainstream, pop edge that featured on the first album bleeds into the general feel. Not too much to be annoying, it is quite palatable and matches the atmosphere that the vocals engender. There is some impressive guitar work going on behind the scenes that makes your ears prick up and Roversi’s keyboards anchor the whole darn shooting match firmly in the progressive corner. A Little Bit Expired has a real quality introduction that grabs you instantly, a slow burning guitar lick and atmospheric keyboards and an insistent vocal promising something more and, maybe, something mysterious. As we break into the main track it lightens up with an uplifting aura whilst always keeping something out of sight. PelleK’s voice has a touch of the minstrel to it on this song, like a storyteller and not just a musician. My only gripe is it seems to be happy with what is has achieved rather than expanding into something more but, when Ravenoldi contributes his intricate guitar work you’ll forgive it this minor discretion.
A delightful flute note starts Gaps in Time and it has a heavy folk feel with the vocal and acoustic guitar. Light but satisfying, it has graceful portent as it cheerily meanders its way through your musical consciousness. There are touches of the ‘pop’ edge denigrated by some but I think it adds a certain something to the mix. Now, if the previous track had a touch of flippancy to it then Multiple Replies returns with added gravitas. A slow and steady, synth heavy intro is blown away by a tasty riff and the vocals are earnest and heartfelt. Never crossing into the realm of prog-metal but with a definitely more powerful delivery, this is intense and intelligent and allows the musicians to showcase their inherent skill and ability. Inventive interludes and stylish acoustic guitar all add to the drama of this accomplished song. The Numbers of God powers off in a distinctive prog-metal guise with a hectic and heavy riff and frenetic drumming. Strong vocals and a searching keyboard note deliver a controlling influence so it never strays from the straight and narrow. The breaks are applied for a smooth and silky interlude before the go pedal is depressed again and off we go on a progressive helter-skelter, slightly chaotic but with a veneer of control.
The first promotional track released for the album, Crop Squares has a meandering synth introduction before a smooth vocal begins. The riff has a real Rush edge to it but never feels like a copy, rather a homage. The vocal is stentorian and stiff upper lipped in places, like you are being dictated to as you drink it all in. A Pet Called Prime is a song that seems to have both feet firmly in the lyrical camp and concentrates less on the intricacies of the music. This not to damn it with faint praise but it is nice to have a track that majors on the songwriting rather than on the technical side of things. It is warm hearted and pleasing without really catching fire. Knock me over with a feather, No Speed Limit is like the black sheep of the family and like nothing else on the album with harsh and grating introduction that I actually really like. This melds into something more progressive and song based but it is totally different to the light and airy feel of the rest of the album. To be honest, I think it works really well adding contrast to the accompanying tracks and when it ventures off on a different tack it is quite superb.
Kick-Ass Grammar won’t win any awards for song title of the year but throws in the Rush comparisons again as it hurtles into your eardrums. A really tight progressive track with tight vocals, the keyboards on this song are really catchy and lively. A vocal performance that is precise and fastidious and a guitar note that seems to have Yes written all over are added to the smorgasbord of progressive influences to give something that ticks all the right boxes. As we get towards the end of the album and the final two tracks, the album decides to finally decamp firmly in the progressive fold. Ternary Level One is all swirling keyboards, harmonies and gentle acoustic guitar and lends itself to the descriptive word ‘twee’. Full of emotion and layers of sophistication that the 70’s masters would heartily applaud, it brings the heart rate way down and leaves you with a feeling of calm and collection. Not Left and Not Taken is the longest track on the album which would lead you to place it firmly in the pantheon of prog epics and it doesn’t let us down. To me, it is the track that defines the whole album and what Umberto Pagnini was hoping to produce. Place some expert musicians with a quality vocalist and give them some well written material to record and I am sure this would be what you would be hoping to end up with. The guitars are fierce in places yet placid in others. PelleK gets to showcase his full vocal range, the drums are excellent and the keyboards add the final sheen to what is actually a rather sublime progressive rock track. The instrumental sections are superbly written and performed with the highlight being the fiery guitar solos, on this track the band just excel on all fronts to deliver a classic progressive rock track that has been dragged into the twenty first century and it closes the album with decided aplomb.
So, sometimes nostalgia can be a bad thing, leaving you pining for what you thought was a glorious past when you should be looking forward. However, with ‘Higher Dimensions’, Umberto Pagnini and his Active Heed project don’t leave me missing what has gone before, rather it leaves me thankful that he has taken that and brought it bang up to date to deliver what is an improvement in all facets.