Welcome to January, when my first review of each day is of an album released in 2022 that I should have reviewed last year but didn't. I trawl the end of year lists and rankings for notable omissions from my coverage and fix them. First up is a Polish neo-prog album that weighted reviewer ratings at Prog Archives put at the very top of the heap for last year, at least counting only albums with a substantial number of ratings. Last year's equivalent was Shamblemaths 2, from Norway, which was an amazing album, so I wanted to see if they'd hit it out of the park again. And yes, they did.
I haven't heard of Collage before, at least this Collage, but they hail from Warsaw and this is their comeback album, after a long time away. Formed in 1985, they released four studio albums before splitting up in 2003, including a widely acknowledged standout release, 1995's Moonshine, which I now need to track down. They reformed in 2013 but it took them a decade to put out new material in the form of this album. As they're new to me, I haven't been waiting on tenterhooks, but I would expect that a lot of people have and this album ought to have met their expectations.
Based on this album, they play a British flavour of neo-prog that's heavy on Marillion, an observation that shouldn't shock too much, given that Steve Rothery is a guest guitarist on the closing track, Man in the Middle. However, they're far from clones and the sound they generate is an intriguing mixture of Fish era Marillion and Steve Hogarth era Marillion. Bartosz Kossowicz, the lead vocalist in Collage since 2018, sometimes reminds of one and sometimes the other but without ever mimicking either. The most fascinating vocals for me arrive on What About the Pain (A Family Album) because it sometimes plays like Peter Gabriel had replaced Fish instead of Hogarth.
Collage certainly have confidence, because this almost hour-long album begins with a twenty plus minute epic of a title track, which absolutely stands up to that billing. It moves through a number of phases: scene setting intro to keyboard dominated instrumental section, theatrical vocals from Kossowicz commanding a series of changes in emphasis, playful guitar solos from Michał Kirmuć, a series of fascinating interplays between instruments that extend and extend without once getting less than truly immersive, an eventual slowdown to shimmering piano and softer vocals, then shift back up in intensity to a searing finalé.
If Over and Out is a masterpiece of dynamic play that we ride as much as listen to, I honestly think I like the next song even better. It's What About the Pain, a skimpy song in comparison, wrapped up in under nine minutes, and it's more commercial, but it grows in gorgeous fashion, weaving drama through melodies all the way to a choir of children late in the song who prove to be the icing atop a delicious cake. It's only a blip in time since I discovered Galahad three decades late, and I find that I need to bring up the "where has this band been all my life" line again during another review of a neo-prog album. That's not a bad thing to reach during the first review of a new year!
Needless to say, nothing here lets the album done. One Empty Hand is a shorter and quieter piece that highlights how much Kossowicz has studied Fish and mastering his ability to shift from almost whisper to firm command on a dime. And back. It also shows just how capably the instrumentation underpins the vocals. A Moment, a Feeling is a carefully constructed thirteen minute epic, with an amazing breakdown early in the song that shifts the typically eighties keyboards briefly back to a rich seventies sound. This is the most progressive piece here, with some intricate drumming from founder member Wojciech Szadkowski, but Kirmuć gets plenty of opportunity on guitar.
And then there's Man in the Middle with Steve Rothery lending his talents to a band who have so obviously been paying attention to what he's done over the past forty years and change. It's piano to kick off, but it grows and grows well. Rothery makes his presence known about three minutes in and the piece shifts not into instrumental territory but Floydian territory too. It's a good section, a long one too compared to how often sections in other songs shift into further ones, and it provides an opportunity for a quiet coda to wrap up the song and the album.
Of course, there are bookends in the form of a heart monitor, which suggests at the beginning of Over and Out that Collage were precisely that but, almost an hour later, at the end of Man in the Middle, it perks back up and tells us that Collage are back and as healthy as ever.