I've said a few times during the past year that 2020 was a flagship year for prog rock and the year end lists reflect that. I'm seeing a lot of the same names: names of long-standing like Fish, Pendragon and Kansas, along with newer ones like Pattern-Seeking Animals, Arabs in Aspic and Gazpacho. At least one is new to me but not perhaps to many and that's Pain of Salvation. Always floating around the top, if not at the very top of these lists is this album, the fifth from a Norwegian symphonic prog band with a rather odd name, Wobbler.
I've listened to this a lot today and it's clearly the work of incredibly talented musicians. I had a blast with it and I have no problem giving it an 8/10 and adding it to my highly recommended list. But... in the end, there was a serious problem that I couldn't get past and it's relatively easy to describe.
The runner up for my 2020 album of the year (not just prog album of the year, but album of the year) was Solstice's Sia and, if you listen to that, you'll hear music easily identifiable as Solstice. Duh, I hear you say, but that continues across all the other great prog albums I heard last year. The Kansas album sounds like Kansas, the Pendragon album sounds like Pendragon and the Fish album sounds like Fish. This Wobbler album, on the other hand, sounds like Yes, merely with a new vocalist they slipped on us while we weren't paying attention.
There are other influences here, but we have to listen carefully to catch them. There's some ELP early in the fourteen minute opener, By the Banks. There are moments of Genesis here and there, especially in Naiad Dreams. I see a lot of reviewers bringing up Gentle Giant, but I'm not familiar enough with them to follow suit. But this is Yes, constantly and consistently. It's Yes during the delightfully quiet moments in Five Rooms. It's Yes later on the same song when they ramp up to a more emphatic speed, with all the instruments overt, like the parts of Roundabout where everyone seems to be playing lead at once.
So I'm a little disappointed that five highly acclaimed albums haven't yet got Wobbler to the point of defining their own sound, rather than playing someone else's, however masterfully. I have to say that I'm also a little disappointed that this is so quintessentially English. Sure, that's where the genre had its origin and all the top fifteen rated albums of all time at Prog Archives are English, but Animals by Pink Floyd, which is the most recent of them, came out in 1977. The genre has moved on.
I'm hardly well versed in the Norwegian scene but I know enough to know that there is one and it's an especially vibrant one. Motorpsycho are amazing and every time I find another new example, whether it be rock bands like Mantric, Magic Pie or Mythopoeic Mind (or others who don't begin with M, like Kanaan), or metal (or former metal) bands, like Enslaved, Leprous and Green Carnation, it's somehow a level up on whatever else I've been listening to that week. So I wish Wobbler were more Norwegian, as if I know enough to know what that means. I'm overdue checking out keyboard player Lars Fredrik Frøislie's other band, White Willow. Maybe they're what I'm looking for here.
Like Wobbler's previous album, From Silence to Somewhere, which was as well received by critics and fans, this features four pieces of music, two really long and two not so much. This time the shortest is a four and half minute piece that often goes acoustic, Naiad Dreams. The dynamic play is impressive, all the more so given the scant length of the piece, so you can imagine how much more there is going on in a song like Merry Macabre, whose nineteen minutes close out the album.
It's fair to say that I need to listen to this a lot more than just the dozen times I've probably played it today. It's grown on me considerably already and I have a lot of depths still to explore. However, it's a decision to choose to do that. I didn't have to make that decision with the new Solstice or Pendragon or Motorpsycho. For them, it was just a given and I think it's because I know who those bands are and I'm not sure I know who Wobbler is yet. Except Yes.