‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’, sage words in the world of music. Just because I like a particular record does not mean that someone else will and, vice-versa, just because I dislike something, it does not mean that other people will not appreciate its qualities.
To take it a step further, just because I will put an album to the bottom of a pile, never to be listened to again, it does not mean that that particular piece of music is without any merits, after all, who am I to be the judge and jury of all things musical?
I will recommend things that resonate with me, tunes that are like ambrosia to my ears but, in the vast majority of cases (THAT album apart) I will not actually tell you to disregard a musician’s hard work, just that it does not appeal to me. It is a matter of opinions and I know mine is not always going to be the same as everyone else’s.
Within the network of journalists and musicians I know, one thing that can be really divisive is the vocals on an album, they can be really black and white to different people. To be fair, if I don’t like the vocalist on a particular album it will heavily influence my review and rating of that record.
Fractal Mirror had been recommended to me by quite a few people and I had also heard differing opinions of the vocals on the record. What was I to do but listen to their album ‘Garden of Ghosts’ myself and formulate my own opinion, it’s the only way to go, surely?
First a little background on the band.
The origins of Fractal Mirror can be traced back to the mid-eighties when three friends from Amsterdam started to make music together influenced by bands from the famous 4AD label and artists like David Sylvian.
Fast Forward to 2012:
Two of the original members are still working together but the musical focus has shifted towards contemporary pop/rock music with progressive rock influences. Via Facebook a drummer from the States is found and the band decides on the name Fractal Mirror.
At the end of 2012 tracks were recorded at home for a CD. The drum tracks were recorded at a studio in New Jersey in the summer of 2013. These tracks were then mixed and mastered in August at the Autumnsongstudios in Trondheim, Norway by Rhys Marsh from Rhys Marsh and the Autumn Ghosts.
The band released their first studio album ‘Strange Attractors’ in November 2013 and November 2014 would see the release of the follow up ‘Garden of Ghosts’.
The band consists of Ed van Haagen (Bass, Keyboards and Programming), Leo Koperdraat (Voice, Guitars, Keyboards and Lyrics), Frank L. Urbaniak (Drums, Percussion and Lyrics) and artwork by Brian Watson. The album also features background vocals and guitars by Brett Kull and guest appearances by Larry Fast, Don Fast, Jacque Varsalona and the Stephanus Choir from Amsterdam.
This album is a deeply immersive experience that holds the listener in sway, from the opening of House of Wishes with the synth-heavy melodramatic edge, there is a vastness to the scope of this album. Now here’s the rub and where you will realise where I was going with my introduction, Leo Koperdraat’s vocals will not appeal to everyone but, for this author, I love their haunting melody and mono-tonal delivery. They meld perfectly with the fateful feel of the music, giving you, the listener, a box seat for the performance. There is something unique about the cinematic aspect of Fractal Mirror, almost as if the music is too big for the stage, bursting to get out. That electronic edge continues into The Phoenix with its 80’s edge and halting, staccato delivery. There is a feeling of suspense at the beginning, as if the song is building up momentum to move to another level. Most of these songs don’t have definitive choruses, just parts where there seems to be an increased melody to the vocals, rather than the level, almost spoken delivery that pervades the rest of the album. The addition of some precise guitar notes adds a little edge to the smooth polished feel of the keyboards and the percussion is very clever in that it just stays out of reach, adding and not detracting. The next track Lost in Clouds has a much more sunny, laid back ambience with a gently jangling guitar introducing Leo’s vocal. This track feels like it is bathed in late summer sunlight and engenders a peaceful easy feeling throughout your soul. The keyboards bring a minstrel’s jollity to the party and the gentle meandering guitar licks and solo are laid back and chilled. More pop than prog? perhaps, but no less enjoyable for being so.
Solar Flare has an introduction full of lush keyboards and steady drums. Again, there is a heavy 80’s synth pop feel running throughout the song, which is no bad thing in my opinion. The vocals are gently harmonised and add gravitas to the track, in fact there is a heavy seriousness at play here and I can’t help hearing touches of Mike Kershaw in this track, music for the mind more than for the soul perhaps? The Hive lifts the sombre feel a tad. A pensive introduction opens up into more of a light hearted chorus. The vocals literally bounce along and invigorate the song with a feeling of goodwill and work very well with that wall of sound that washes over you from the keyboards. Darker, harder edged sections occasionally break the reverie and keep reminding you of the sinister edge that hides, not far, away, the harsh, coruscating solo a case in point. Solar Flare Reprise is a slow, pulsating track that begins with a piano and strings that drip emotion. The guitar that follows almost feels alive and then it opens up into a huge soundscape of monumental keyboards and powerful, beseeching guitars. It impresses a feeling of ancient wonder upon me and holds me in thrall throughout its criminally short running time.
Mystery pervades the intro to The Garden as the music is all eerie and enigmatic. Leo delivers another searching vocal performance, when he sings you listen. He is telling you a story, and a sombre one at that. There is melancholy in every word and it opens your soul to the deeper meaning at play here. The soulful guitar enraptures and beseeches you and leaves you with more questions than answers. Nothing less than a conundrum encapsulated in song, this track will leave you feeling drained of emotion. Orbital View takes a strident step into the story, measured and collected. The systematic approach in this song, as it puts one musical foot in front of the other, draws you into its embrace. Unfortunately, for me, this song does take the once paced style that works elsewhere a step too far. It seems to be heading nowhere and to no conclusion and, at eight minutes, is perhaps a tad too long. Taken in isolation there is nothing wrong with it but, compared to the other, more expressive, tracks it is lacking something. With more than a hint of that pop style heard elsewhere, Event Horizon lifts the momentary gloom and adds a luxuriant feel to the album with its swathes of rich and sensuous keyboards and fulsome vocals. Light of mind and delivery, there is sense of a mist lifting as the heat and light burn it away. Contented is how I would describe my state of mind after listening to this little gem.
Assured and confident, Legacy enters the fray with a swagger of strings and keyboards backed by a quality drum beat. Leo adds his unflappable and assertive vocals to another thought provoking track. I feel as if I am in sync with the song as my thought process mirrors the beat and I find myself nodding my head to the music, almost in affirmation of a job well done. Polished to the nth degree to assure virtual perfection is how I would describe my favourite track on this quality release.
Well, all good things must come to an end and ‘Garden of Ghosts’ closes out with Stars. Where the eight minute long Orbital View disappointed me, this fellow lengthy track is the stellar opposite and a lesson in how to close an album out consummately. Its initial scope is awe inspiring, bringing into mind huge glacial landscapes. Calculated and restrained it takes you on a memorable journey through the whole of human existence and the cosmos and delivers a decisive verdict on the future of mankind. Leo carries on his role of principle narrator and the timbre of his voice encourages attention and reflection. The mammoth expanse of sound that floods your senses is mesmerising and entrances your inner self to such an extent that I find myself rooted to the spot for the whole song as I try to define its deeper meaning.
Not just an album of songs but a journey into a world of profound understanding, ‘Garden of Ghosts’ is not for the fickle of heart or soul. It requires commitment and intelligence to fully benefit from its deeper connotations, once smitten though, you will never want to leave. Fractal Mirror are currently working on their third album and I, for one, cannot wait.