Every now and then I get an album come along and have no idea what to expect from it. Not normally being a gambling man, I would file it away but, for once this time, I decided to give one a spin and see where it took me……… on quite a weird and wonderful journey if I’m being honest!! I don’t know if it is the long cold nights and the deep dark winter but, there is something quite peculiar about the Scandinavian countries. Maybe it is the strong liquor they drink to while away the time whilst everything is shrouded in the endless darkness or the extreme cold they endure for the majority of the year, who knows? What I do know is that it produces some beguiling, intriguing and downright crazy music and musicians. The likes of Moon Safari, Anglagard, Diablo Swing Orchestra, The Flower Kings and Kaipa, to name but a few, all deliver amazing music that has a certain edge of frivolity or even madness to it and it just makes it even more entrancing.
Ever since their inception in 2001, Swedish band Beardfish have established a reputation for being innovative, inventive and even peripatetic, in the best progressive sense. “Our fans have always been open to new ideas and, production wise, we always do different things, but there is obviously a Beardfish sound”, says vocalist and keyboard player Rikard Sjöblom. The Beardfish approach has established Sjöblom, guitarist David Zackrisson, bassist Robert Hansen and drummer Magnus Östgren as one of the most dynamic and forward thinking bands of the 21st Century. The new album has been mixed by Zackrisson, which is something of a departure. Usually it’s Sjöblom who handles this crucial area. The album title ‘+4646-COMFORTZONE’ is a take on the adverts you see all over America encouraging you to dial a number in relation to a product or service, like ‘1-800-BACKPAIN’. In this case 4626 is the country code and town code for where the band reside and COMFORTZONE, as well as being the title of one of the songs on the album, relates to an invisible protective suit of negative thinking. This is the eighth studio album the band have released and, to be honest, it is the first one I have ever listened to, hence me having no idea what to expect! Well, there is no time like the present so let’s dive in head first and see what unfolds before us.
The introductory The One Inside – Part One – Noise In The Background sets the scene for what is to follow, not really giving anything away but piquing your curiosity. The album really begins with the second track Hold On, an excellent and funky bass hoving into view, subdued at first, before the whole track blooms into something that could be the bastard child of seventies prog and a Bootsie Collins funk-fest. The vocals take on an airy surf music feel to really deliver a melting pot of stylistic influences. Hesitant and edgy there are some superb keyboards that drive the track on and it is a superb start to my ears, inventive and addictive. The title track Comfort Zone is an ingenious track with a slow burning, pensive introduction that is followed by a searching guitar note that holds your attention like musical glue. The swirling keyboards in the background are mystical and arcane as if from the depths of Nordic history. A neatly played piano note heralds the vocals and they take on a minstrel’s timbre as if telling a heroic tale from many years ago. Musical storytelling at its best accompanied by a troupe of players magically adept with their instruments, the story continues as it meanders through your subconscious. A stronger, edgier feel takes over the second half of the song with earnest vocals and a powerful organ driving things along, this really is excellent stuff.
Can You See Me Now? Has a feel of the Beach Boys and The Beatles getting together to go on a psychedelic trip around Scandinavia with the jaunty rhythm and upbeat keyboard note. It is very sixties in style which is only aided and abetted by the increasingly laid back feel to the track. Jolly and fun-filled it really leaves you with a smile on your face. Now for an about face of musical direction as we go all hard rock with a U2 style introduction that makes way for a heavy riff that fires King in your general direction at a high velocity. The staccato riffing, insistent vocals and powerful drumming make for a pleasingly fierce track that mixes grunge with a Red Hot Chilli Peppers style funk infused hard rock. Please be warned, it is highly addictive music that will mess with your mind! The One Inside – Part Two – My Companion Through Life goes down the singer/songwriter route with a delightful little ditty that evokes thoughts of a beauty tinged melancholia with a classical acoustic guitar and a vocal that drips honey. There is honesty to this song that is seared onto your conscience and melts your heart and, as it plays out with a haunting vibrato guitar, you feel at peace. Bang! Crash! Wallop! No peace for the wicked, that feeling of gentle reverie is utterly blown part by the hugely powerful Daughter/Whore. Like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse let loose on your aural synapses it takes you on a heroic, madcap musical ride and pulls no punches. Crunching guitars, high intensity drumming and a dynamic vocal combine to really deliver and the guitar solo is a thing of insane genius. Frenetic, breathless and, basically, good!
We now move on to what I consider the piece de la resistance on the album, the fifteen minute long If We Must Be Apart (A Love Story Continued). This track, to me, is the epitome of stylish, impressive Scandinavian progressive music with Hammond organs and Mellotrons adding a vintage feel to the modern underpinnings. The introduction is superb and the exemplary bass guitar work just adds a frisson of skill to proceedings. When the vocals begin, underscored by an angelic guitar, you have a feeling of a band at the height of their powers. Weaving complicated stories with aplomb, captivating your heart, soul and mind, this is what real music is all about to this sometimes jaded hack. Moving through different sections as if directing a stage play, the band holds your attention and leaves you wondering what is coming next. They take the best of the past and bring it bang up to date with a nod to their forebears. The storytelling continues with the story of a world weary musician Ode To The Rock n’ Roller which is, in a word, sublime. A flamboyant yet serious tale that leads you round some metaphorical establishments and dives and leaves you in no doubt about the musicians state of mind. It is delivered in a catchy, upbeat fashion and never fails to grab your attention. I found myself returning to this song all the time, the rock and roll feel is steeped with a jazzy edge and never fails to let its hair down. I challenge you to listen to this without singing along or tapping your foot to the music. All good things must come to an end and The One Inside – Part Three – Relief closes out this mighty fine collection of songs. Sombre and serious with breathless edge to it, the song has a kind of fragility at its core. The vocals are delivered with slight tinge of wistfulness, almost pensive. A song that has a charm and grace all of its own, stylish and urbane, it leaves a touch of class on your skin as it comes to a close.
With an amazing combination of styles that integrate perfectly to form their own identity, Beardfish have produced an album that epitomizes all of what is good about Scandinavian progressive music. Polished and profound yet with a quirkiness that lies never too far from the surface it defies the criteria and assumptions to proudly turn back the tide. Am I glad I took a gamble on this? You bet I am!