Style: Progressive Rock
Release Date: 14 Feb 2020
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I discovered rock music just a little late to notice the debut of Marillion but not too late to devour it in hindsight and follow their subsequent rise into and out of the mainstream. I knew they weren't alone and that neo-prog was something of a movement and, while Fish-era Marillion has always stayed my favourite neo-prog band, I discovered a host of others through the Friday Rock Show, like IQ, Twelfth Night and Pallas, that I enjoyed too.
Pendragon were another and they may be the earliest of them, as they formed back in 1977, before any of the others I've mentioned, but their debut album didn't show up until 1985 and The Jewel is still the one I remember best. I haven't kept up with the band but I see that they've stayed together with a pretty consistent line-up ever since. Two of its four founding members, lead vocalist and guitarist Nick Barrett and bass player Peter Gee, have now been with Pendragon for over four decades. Clive Nolan has racked up well over thirty years as keyboardist. Only the drummer keeps changing, the latest, Jan-Vincent Velazco, being the band's eighth.
This is only their eleventh studio album in that time but I enjoyed it a lot and maybe even more than last year's IQ album. It's lively and playful, with imaginative vocals from Barrett and some searing guitar solos too. It's over an hour in length, ignoring the bonus acoustic and instrumental discs, so it had every opportunity to drag but it stays inventive throughout and doesn't drift away at any point.
It's enticing from the seaside organ that introduces Everything, but it does a lot in only a few tracks. Everything doesn't quite include everything, but it does often try. It's followed by a soft, introspective ballad in Starfish and the Moon; a real attention grabber in Truth and Lies; and an absolutely impossible to ignore track in 360 Degrees. That one is almost Runrig in the way it builds around a jig and I don't think anyone who enjoys prog enough to stay that long can fail to feel highly impressed by what Pendragon manage to conjure up here.
It's a very organic album, Nolan's keyboards surrounding already interesting songwriting so well that we sometimes feel like we're wrapped in a bubble on a journey through the elements. With song titles like Starfish and the Moon, Soul and the Sea, Water and Whirlwind, it should be no surprise to find that these lyrics are fundamentally connected to nature. The core influences here could be summed up by the opening words of Eternal Light: "Summer. Swallows and Amazons."
I'm surprised that there isn't more folk music in here, given that focus on nature, but this is emphatically prog, even with flutes and whatnot adding a texture or six all over the place. There's a breathy saxophone to finish up Whirlwind. I'm also surprised that it doesn't delve deeper into psychedelia, given how surreal the lyrics get. "Be conscious of daffodils," sings Barrett as if that's a routine line. "I don't care if I've got seaweed for hair," he points out. "Believe between the starfish and the moon." "Deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole", indeed. I don't have a lyric sheet but is one of the lines really, "Crouching praying mantis, a plaster on his arse"?
Sometimes these lyrics are conversational, most overtly in 360 Degrees, but they tend to lean towards the surreal as a matter of course, as if whoever's writing this material started that process by walking out to a field in the middle of nowhere and taking a heroic dose of acid. "Water is truth," we're told. "This is my element. Time is irrelevant." And, perhaps when the effect started to fade: "Can I tell you how much it means to see oystercatchers on some lonely beach in winter?"
All this makes sense, because everything here is organic. The keyboards aim to take us places and embellish them in our minds; they swirl like seagulls on Who Really Are We? Even the solos, which sear and soar on Eternal Light, Water or Soul and the Sea, feel like they're made of liquid or lightning or something more natural than plugging a guitar into manufactured equipment. I honestly feel that the tone is as important here as anything else and it's a delight.
I read that Pendragon heavied up over the last decade or two but that's not obvious here. The only track that even hints at metal is Who Really Are We? and it doesn't remotely get there. This is an old school neo-prog album and a very good one indeed, sitting in a clear lineage that starts clearly with Genesis and adds in other bands on the way: a little Pink Floyd here, some Marillion there. The resulting album is a full immersive hour of Pendragon and, frankly, it's better than I remember them ever being back in the day and I liked them back then.