Meticulousness can be a virtue when writing and recording a new album, fine tuning the finished product can give it a little extra sheen, a layer of polish that would not have been there otherwise.
Conversely, it can also have a negative impact, the continuous fiddling around with that was a great album to try and add something that isn’t needed can leave the listener wondering where all that time was spent.
When vocalist Huw Lloyd-Jones left Also Eden in 2010 and formed Unto Us with bass player Leopold Blue-Sky I wonder if he thought it would be four years before the union would come to fruition? The final evolution of the band has taken a long time but that was an intentional thing, to avoid many of the stresses and strains that ruin the experience for many musicians.
Eventually joined by Dave Roelofs on drums, Alex White on keyboards and Tom Ennis on guitar, the band’s debut album ‘the human landscape’ was written and recorded over two years and released in September of this year. Due to the pressure of work and family commitments Dave left the band in August to be replaced by Rohan Jordan-Shah.
I had the pleasure of seeing Unto Us play at The Resonance Rock Festival earlier this year and, despite the fact they were sans drummer due to illness, they played a brilliant set. It was with much anticipation that I got to listen to the album for the first time. After much cogitation, here are my thoughts…..
Well, for starters, the order of the day is, in the majority, long tracks and, I for one, do like that idea. First track Towers of Babel is a ten minute prog-fest that lands both feet firmly in the neo-prog camp with studious hints of Marillion and even a drop of Twelfth Night for your delectation. A studied opening with flashes of guitar and Huw’s signature vocal sound leaves you waiting for the main course with much anticipation. When the track gets into its swing, it does so with a real 80’s vibe from the keyboards and staccato guitar. When I first heard the song I thought the vocals were a bit low in the mix and, whilst I’m still not sure on the production, they do, after multiple further listens, seem to fit the feel of the track. The power of the vocals is really apparent on the soaring chorus and, overall, there is a consistent quality to the song that is evident throughout. As album openers go, this is certainly an excellent appetiser leaving you with lofty anticipation of the stature of the remainder of the record. Boy begins with an eerie acoustic guitar note and lead before the song strides confidently forward with more than a hint of the mainstream about it. A classy piano note and intricate drums add gravitas to the mix as you are led on a merry little journey through the rest of the song. I hear hints of Fish’s original songwriting from the 80’s and, it is a nice thing. There is a jollity to the song, a feel good factor that leaves a grin on your face, maybe it is the whole upbeat nature to the song, I don’t know but, I really like it. Huw’s vocals are decidedly earnest and shout sincerity in spades, he has a really emotive way of singing. The intricate instrumental sections speak of a kind of storytelling by music, imparting thoughts and knowledge without words. The soaring guitar notes reach right into your being and the excellent keys add a real substance to everything. The eyebrows keep rising the further I get into this impressive album, to my ears, there are even touches of The Beatles laying there to be found.
The next track In a lifetime is delicate, precise and thoughtful from the beginning with a extremely gentle piano note leading the delicious vocals. As the softly strummed guitar joins the fray this song takes on a lush aura. Like a plaintive ode to a loved one, there is a melancholy beauty at the heart and soul of everything. The instrumentation is subtle and tender, matching the bewitching vocal. What follows next is a precise instrumental interlude that lifts off and climbs to the heavens with no embellishment at all. This song bares its soul to the listener and divulges its charms with gentle persuasion. Just when you thought it might get too saccharine there is an off kilter instrumental section, all odd time signatures, that reveals a previously hidden darker underbelly to the music, it is a great contrast and elevates this track from the merely good to something altogether more impressive. The normal, charming, service is resumed as the song concludes. Title track A human landscape is a graceful, cultivated instrumental interlude of under two minutes with a strong classical tone to it, a moment of refined grace amongst the musical proclivities that rolls straight into These four walls seamlessly. This track hands a bit of a jazz fusion edge to the album, the guitar has a funky side to it before the song builds itself up layer by layer on the back of the elegant vocals and tirelessly inventive keyboards. This is, perhaps, a more serious track than the previous one with a thoughtful sincerity at its core. To me there is a minstrel, bard-like feel to the whole song as the story unfolds in front of you slowly, one piece at a time, holding you transfixed as you fall deeper under its spell. The guitar then takes centre stage to create a mosaic in your mind, contemplative and meaningful before Huw takes the song to a close.
The final track on the album is Plan B and it begins with an ethereal introduction of a skilfully plucked harp that holds you in sway before the guitar kicks in with a funky riff, followed by a delightfully swirling keyboard sound that twist and turns in your mind. The vocals are edgy, delivered in a breathless, anticipatory style that keeps you uneasy and skittish. A delivery that is more reminiscent of hard rock with an 80’s keyboard backing is quite canny and clever, lending the song something different to what has preceded but in keeping with the overall tone of the album. Huw’s vocals are at the centre of that feeling of disquiet and menace that is all pervading and keeps you second guessing which direction it will head in next. There are numerous musical twists and turns as the song takes you on a turbulent and tempestuous ride, the keyboards delivering an ominous and intimidating atmosphere to the end as the vocal get ever more urgent and pressing and the whole album comes to a satisfying ending.
This is intelligent, well wrought music played by extremely competent musicians to an exacting standard. Like many of the best albums, it requires more than one listen before it starts to unwrap itself and disclose its musical secrets. To be honest, I thought it was fairly good on first listen but, as I was in receipt of more and more of its hidden pleasures, it began to really impress me and, I am sure, it will do for many years to come. Should it become part of your musical collection? The simple answer is yes!