In the process of reviewing the second album from the German musical band/project Flaming Row, I had a life moment. Now I’m not talking about some esoteric spiritual awakening, or an epiphany of purpose, though this album had its share of those as well. No folks, I’m talking about a rock solid concrete marker that signifies a point in life where there is really no going back. I had to get glasses. Now I feel this speaks to how this album affected me. After years of stubbornness, squinting, and holding pages at arm’s length, I felt this album was important enough to finally bite the bullet, just so I could read the lyrics in the liner notes. And it’s no fault of theirs either, their liner notes are nicely printed, in black on white, not some other obscure style that many bands take to further challenge us in our musical pursuits. I truly felt, after a spin or two of this wondrous album, that to not fully follow and understand the story would be a slight of criminal proportions against all the hard work the musicians put in to make every aspect of this one just right. It was out of respect, and my undying love for the holy trinity of prog music, the concept album, and good science fiction, that I plodded one step further on the long road of growing old, and got those damn glasses. (In retrospect, the Lady did say I looked quite dapper in them)
Now, Flaming Row began back in 2008 as the brainchild of Martin Schnella (composer guitar, lyricist, guitar, keyboard, and bass, vocal). He wanted to create a concept album with a diverse group of musicians, especially vocalist. He enlisted the help of Steel Protector bandmate Kiri Geile (lyricist, vocals) in the endeavor and filled out the backbone of the band with Marek Arnold (keyboards) and Niklas Kahl (drums). Then around this sturdy base of talent he laced on a stunning group of guest musicians and released Elinoire, which was universally received with high acclaim (including a perfect 5/5 on this magazine). Fast forward three years, multiple acclaimed live performances, interviews (one with the Lady Herself, which can be seen here) and a tremendous amount of studio work. Then add in another stellar cast of guest musicians including; Jimmy Keegan (Spock’s Beard), Leo Margarit (Pain of Salvation), Kristoffer Gildenlow (Ex Pain of Salvation, Rust), Magali Luyten (Aryeon, Beautiful Sin), Ted Leonard (Spock’s Beard, Enchant), Dave Meros (Spock’s Beard), Johan Hallgren (Ex Pain of Salvation), Eric & Nathan Brenton (Neal Morse), Gary Wehrkamp & Brendt Allman (Shadow Gallery), Diego Tejeida (Haken), and a guest guitar spot by the Lady’s favorite prog god himself, Arjen Anthony Luccasen. So, it seems we have the makings for some concept album magic, right? Well, there’s one more little detail folks, Flaming Row- Mirage- A Portrayal of Figures is part one of a trilogy. That’s right, there’s going to be two more albums in this epically conceived project. So the real question that begs to be answered is did they get said trilogy off to a good start? My answer is a total and complete Hell Yes!!!! But enough of this rambling, let’s dig into this stunning album…
Mirage- A Portrayal of Mirrors is the type of album where no amount of words would suffice in giving the reader an accurate portrayal of what it actually contains. No song-by-song analysis could serve it justice. It is one of those rare albums that hits the mark on what I feel is the holy trinity of music: composition (both musically and lyrically), musicianship, and vocals. Let’s start with Schella’s musical compositions. It’s hard to believe that the majority of what is heard musically came out of the mind of one man; such is the wide variety of styles and genres he draws from. The base of it is progressive rock/metal, but he drops in everything from ragtime to blues to Dixie to power metal. The real brilliance isn’t that he utilizes all these styles though, it’s that each has a place and time that is just right for the story being told, which brings us to the lyrical aspects of the composition.
The story behind Mirage centers around an alien race, The Minders, who have decided that human intelligence has outpaced its soulful aspects, posing a grave danger to the universe at large, and decide to annihilate all humanity with intense solar storms. The story is told through the main characters of Piper, John, and Ethan, and also through a rogue’s gallery of philosophical construct characters which act as narrators to the story and as emotional and spiritual aspects of both humanity and the Minders. Some of the characters have constant vocalist attached to them throughout, and some are varied to add to the harmonic aspects of the respective songs. The final effect is a fluidic and startlingly dramatic story with a clear direction and purpose, though with enough “wiggle room” to allow for further development and changes in the subsequent albums to come. Whether this was intentional or an accidental stroke of genius, it works wonderfully.
The album is split into eight tracks, starting off with the title track Mirage- A Portrayal of Figures. The second longest of the album, this is a very serviceable opener with plenty of vocal dramatics to set the tone of the true epic nature of the trilogy in the beginning. In the middle section is a folksy ragtime-esque section, piano and alto sax that not only are brilliant, but also set a frontier like atmosphere, akin to any quality cowboy sci-fi adventure, something that becomes more apparent as the story unfolds. Skipping ahead to track three, Burning Sky, we find ourselves in the heart of the disaster, emphasized by a full frontal power metal attack that leaves no question as to the dramatic nature of Earth’s scorching. Vocal work here is stunning, with varied vocalist carrying the lyrical sections, and all of them coming together in brilliantly harmonized choruses. The next track, Journey to the Afterlife, opens with a rocking/bluesy tone, highlighted by the stunningly raspy yet powerful vocals of Magali Luyten (and a personal favorite vocalist of mine).One of the things that make this album really special is that no song other than Burning Sky sticks to one note or tone. They are all dynamic, living, breathing entities that highlight the greater story unfolding, something done to perfection in the next two tracks, Alcatraz and Memento Mori, the latter of which has some shockingly electric instrumental movements.
The track Pictures is one I want to highlight a bit, since it pretty much owned me for the better portion of a week. Simply stated, it’s one of the most beautifully conceptualized songs I have ever heard. Softer in tone at the beginning, yet still it delivers some tremendous power. Deeply soulful vocal work from Melanie Mau, Schnella, and Leonard pour brilliant color across this one. I do want to give a nod to Leonard, for carrying two roles in this one with two different vocal stylings, such a tremendous talent whom I have nothing bad to say about (especially since the next Enchant album is in the works!!!). I also have a personal message for Mau. The way she delivers the line, “Say, how does it feel? There’s nothing you did wrong. Don’t hang your head, oh be strong.” If ever we are to meet, and we hug and I pull away with a tear in my eye, it’s because of how you sang that line, and how it will affect me for all my life to come. Thank you. Music that reaches beyond the ears, the mind, the heart, and digs into the soul is a rarity, and this album has it everywhere, with a good deal packed into the near twenty minute closing track, In Appearance- A Portrayal of Figures. The music throughout this album defies a simple description, and this track is no different. An epic track that leaves the listener both fully satisfied, yet hungering for more and more, a good way to close it out since we have two more albums to come. (YAY!!!)
Mirage- A Portrayal of Figures is musical art at its highest level for me. It’s dynamic, flowing, changing, yet with a distinct purpose and direction. It takes a few listens to settle into, and probably a lifetime of further listening to fully grasp, it grows with me each time, and I really don’t see that aspect of the album changing. Knowing that there are two more albums to come just further fuels my passion or the album, the anticipation for the rest of this adventure is already palpable in my soul. Thankfully, I have my reading glasses at the ready to dig into whatever adventure Flaming Row has in store for me.