While I never expected it, prog isn't just alive and well in 2020, it's at a peak. Major prog bands are putting out their best work in years and a lot of new bands are springing up with quality material. Case in point: Fren, from Kraków in Poland, for whom this is a debut. It's brilliant stuff, shockingly mature for a first album, combining krautrock experimentation with some more traditional composition, conjuring up a simple theme and then running with it across multiple instruments and levels of complexity.
Fren's sound is drawn primarily, if not entirely, from the seventies, though had this been released in, say, 1975, it would have been regarded as rather heavy for the era, especially through riffs like the one on Surge. That fits its name really well, as Michał Chalota's guitar goes looking for trouble from the outset and promptly enlists Andrew Shamanov's bass, which plays a prowling monster from moment one. There's a calmer section midway but it's the eye of the storm because everything surges into dangerous action again before it's done.
Not everything here is heavy. In fact most of it isn't, as it's keyboard led for the most part, the man responsible for most of that being Oskar Cenkier. I couldn't suggest a single influence, but there's a lot of Pink Floyd here, along with jazz prog rockers like Focus or King Crimson. I should emphasise that all these songs are instrumental, so imagine bands like those in a jam session with any vocalists away from the mike.
Add in synths from Van der Graaf Generator or, on occasion, Tangerine Dream, as well as a Jethro Tull flute and you have a heady mix. Some sections on Heavy Matter remind of a long Boston intro before the song moves into David Gilmour solo territory. The first half of Time to Take Stones Away takes the Elton John, from, say, Funeral for a Friend, and combines it with a rhythmic Philip Glass approach, which is an interesting sound indeed.
I've been playing this album to death on repeat and there are no parts that I've ever wanted to skip over. I really can't say whether I prefer Fren in their more emphatic moments, like on Surge or in the urgent parts in others, or in a gentle mode, in piano-led sections like the intro to Pleonasm or by the soft swirling synths on opener Twin Peaks. They travel a lot of musical territory here and it's all good.
Certainly, Pleonasm is my favourite piece here, because it does so much in a mere twelve minutes, all of it apparently effortlessly. It kicks off gently, with a rippling brook of a piano that springs into broader life soon enough, unfolding in the form of a jazzy workout that's utterly delightful. Cenkier is at his very best here and, gradually, after letting him do his thing for a while, the rest of the band join in to shine with their own contributions too.
There's a serious maturity in an approach like that, as well as patience and a strong view of the bigger picture. This doesn't remotely sound like it's a debut album, just as Cenkier doesn't remotely sound like he's just starting out. I have no idea if any of these four musicians have prior histories with other bands in Poland but it sounds like they all did and they each brought a different set of influences to the table.
Part of that maturity also lies in how long these songs are, because they're each as long as they need to be, whether that's the three minutes of Gorąca Linia or the twelve of Pleonasm. Ironically, the word "pleonasm" is an exact opposite to what I'm hearing here; it means linguistic overredundancy, using more words than are necessary in description, like "burning fire". In other words, Pleonasm is definitely not pleonasm and neither is anything else on this stunning debut album.