Monday 18 May 2020

Karfagen - Birds of Passage (2020)

Country: Ukraine
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Jan 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | YouTube

Even a mere five months in, this year has already been a stellar one for the genre of prog rock and I've only just discovered Karfagen, a Ukrainian band, who have put out a new album and a box set in 2020 already. Founded in 1997 by Antony Kalugin, they ddn't get round to actually releasing an album until 2006 because he was at school when he put the band together. This counts as their eleventh studio album and its Prog Archives rating ranks second only to its predecessor, last year's Echoes from Within Dragon Island.

Antony Kalugin may actually be the only primary member in the band nowadays, and he wears a lot of hats. He plays the keyboards that dominate the album, provides vocals and percussion, composed and arranged the whole thing, mixed it and co-produced it to boot. Others appear to come in when requested and I believe the guests here are the same as on the prior album, providing vocals and the usual instrumentation, plus flute, bassoon and violin.

I found the result a sheer delight, because it's as instrumentally varied as we hope any prog album will be but much lighter than most of what I've been hearing lately. The mix lets the keyboards lead with the drums and bass back a level or two, clear but not as overt as most producers would make them in 2020. The feel is as bright and weirdly pastoral as the fantastic cover art might suggest, with its fairytale buildings and anthropomorphic birds. It's a trip to a quiet and different fantasy world, through what Kalugin calls a "symphonic art rock suite".

There are five songs on offer here, but the vast majority of the album finds itself taken up by the first two, halves of the larger title track that runs almost forty-four minutes. After that, there are three further short pieces to wrap things up, which last less than fifteen minutes between them. These betray a set of influences a lot more overtly than Birds of Passage, which is more of a journey through a few of them to somewhere new and enticing.

Given my mention of the word "pastoral", you can be sure that there's a lot of Genesis here but I'd suggest that there's more Camel and quite a bit from Jethro Tull. Certainly the vocals on Birds of Passage (Part 1) remind of a lighter Ian Anderson in the way they're delivered. I don't know if it's Tim Sobolev or Kalugin himself, but the soft female voice is Olho Rostovska's. I felt very comfortable in their presence, even though both sing in English. The lyrics appear to be poetry, from Longfellow and Blake.

It's very easy to get caught up in the music here and totally lose track of time. The title track doesn't feel like it runs on for three quarters of an hour and the album as a whole doesn't feel like it takes up an hour. For my part, I was too busy being carried along through this fairyland countryside enjoying the delights on offer through the windows. I felt calm and patient as the carriage ran on, knowing that I was safe and we'd arrive wherever we might be supposed to at some point. The album is me enjoying the ride.

Kalugin isn't credited for guitar, so it's someone else providing the intro to Birds of Passage (Part 2). It's a flowing solo guitar, part Steve Hackett and part classical guitarist, and it's as playful and delightful as anything else here. Eventually, the band join in and find a groove. This second part is easily less experimental than the first, but it still has its moments of more ambitious composition. This time it's flavoured Camel and King Crimson, with maybe some instrumental Boston added in for extra taste.

With so much of the album taken up by the excellent two parts of the title track, it almost seems unnecessary to mention the three short pieces that it eventually hands over to. Spring (Birds Delight) is neoprog, its intricate vocal delivery and clean but powerful guitarwork worthy of comparison to an early Marillion. Sunrise is drenched in world music so comes off more like Dead Can Dance. That leaves Birds Short Introduction to wrap things up in a smooth way. Maybe it's introducing us to the next album.

I don't want to overdo the word "delightful" but a lot of the music crossing my path is dark and even the prog rock I explore is much darker than this. I know what I'm putting on next time the world wants to tread on me and I need a pickup. It will be hard to come into this with a bad mood but not leave in a good one.

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