Monday 24 July 2023

Pendragon - North Star (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Jun 2023
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Having perhaps not heard Pendragon since their debut album in 1985, I was blown away by a stellar eleventh album from them in 2020, Love Over Fear, which was a rare 9/10 album for me. Pendragon uberfan John Tymon kindly let me know about this EP, which was available during their recent tour and has now been released digitally, so I should follow his advice and take a listen. Even though it's an EP with two tracks on offer, that still means twenty-four minutes and they're glorious.

The bulk of that time is taken up by the title track, which appears in three parts, and there's a lot going on within it. Quite frankly, there's a lot going on in the first minute of A Boy and His Dog, the first of those parts, and it only grows from there. The overall feel is pastoral, as if we're outside in a meadow with birds above us and a brook rippling not far away, but there are hints of darkness at points, like the dissonant tone that takes us into part two, As Dead as a Dodo.

What I like about the beginning of A Boy and His Dog is that it feels alive. There are guitars going in one direction, keyboards in another and then the rhythm section in a third, with others added a little later, all competing for our attention. However, they're all compatible, stretching the song in gentle ways but promptly handing over to the next to stretch it back again. Being simple creatures at heart, we aren't sure which direction to follow but eventually we let the song stretch us in all of these directions at once and that's immersive and delightful.

It's a very folky piece, even when Nick Barrett's guitar solo suggests otherwise. The folky element continues through the album, but in different ways. As Dead as a Dodo begins with American style fingerpicking, that sounds like it ought to have been played on a banjo but isn't because it isn't the tone being sought. Then it gets very British, back to the Runrig sound I heard on Love Over Fear, or maybe a Waterboys sound with grand commercial melodies. As with A Boy and His Dog, though, it evolves into something far more complex, with some special fury reserved for the drums.

Phoenician Skies aren't something I want to hear about, actually living in Phoenix, where the sun is eager to kill us all. We're shattering heat records right now. Every day in July thus far has reached 110° and there's no sign of stopping. The Phoenician skies that Nick Barrett sees are more benign, it would seem, whatever the lyrics suggest. It's a more open song, a little folk, a little psychedelia and a little calming inevitability infused into its prog roots. It's a happy song, not truly celebratory but blissfully at peace and able to explore on the side while waiting to reach the destination with some delightful soloing in the second half, both on guitar and keyboards.

The three parts of North Star play very well together, each with their individual styles but working capably as a single journey that takes us eighteen minutes or so. That just leaves Fall Away, at just six and a half, and the first minute of that is Spanish style guitar to build us into a mood. It's clear that Pendragon have found their own identity in the three and a half decades since I last paid any attention and so comparisons are more glimpses than guides. I caught a lot of Pink Floyd on North Star but in details rather than sweeps: this section, not the song. Fall Away trawls in a lot of Peter Gabriel.

Occasionally I wonder if I should call out in the header that something I'm reviewing is an EP rather than an album, but this underlines that it's not needed. It doesn't matter that this is shorter than a regular studio album. It does the things that albums do and it does them to the same degree. It doesn't even feel shorter, though of course it is. It certainly doesn't feel short. It feels like it's only ever been an album with clear movement and much to explore. I'm still finding little touches on my sixth or seventh time through.

I haven't yet looked back at all that back catalogue I've missed since maybe The World in 1991 and Love Over Fear in 2020, but it's clear that the latter wasn't a one off. They're impeccable right now and I'm even more eager for their next full length studio album. This makes me extra happy as the bigger British prog bands are all putting out excellent material, even if most of it isn't quite up to the levels of Love Over Fear or Solstice's Sia. Maybe we've acknowledged the Norwegian threat and we're ready to counter it.

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