By Nick Tate
Ten years from now, “pandemic prog” seems likely to be regarded as a subgenre, every bit as much as the Canterbury, folk, jazz and classical splinter categories of 1970s-era progressive rock. The Architect, the striking new concept album from former Sound of Contact members Simon Collins (son of Phil) and Kelly Nordstrom, is a stellar example.
The record is an edgy and sardonic morality play on the dark side of soul-crushing government power, societal alienation, us-vs-them politics and the rise of technology in the era of COVID-19. It is also an extraordinary debut from two long-time collaborators whose efforts here are wildly greater than merely the sum of its parts.
Collins and Nordstrom have been working together, on an off, for nearly two decades — most memorably as members of the short-lived band Sound of Contact with Dave Kerzner and Matt Dorsey, releasing 2013’s critically acclaimed Dimensionaut. But The Architect brings the duo together again as musical partners under the new name eMolecule.
Work on the album began more than 2.5 years ago — at the height of COVID, when tours and recording studios were shut down by the pandemic — at Simon’s studio in Ireland. It was written (with Simon and Nordstrom sharing songwriting credits), refined and recorded both remotely and during occasional in-studio sessions in Ireland.
The result is a stirring, heavy prog rock outing that showcases Collins’ commanding vocals, thunderclap drumming and atmospheric keyboard style, along with Nordstrom’s dazzling fretwork on bass and guitars. The 11 tracks here are a rocky 70-minute trek through contemporary prog that features grinding heavy metal, symphonic rock, spacey atmospherics, folky interludes and propulsive techno — sometimes all in the same track.
Cinematic and theatrical, The Architect unspools like a soundtrack for our times. Each track plays like a mini film score, collectively providing a series of aural snapshots that might make for a solid backtrack for a Black Mirror-esque Netflix series.
The album opens with one of the strongest pieces on the album, the 11-minute eponymously named “eMolecule.” It’s a strong introduction that encapsulates the band’s signature techno-prog sound and offers a taste of what’s to come. A series of apparently random notes kick off the track, sounding like a strand of musical code that might have been generated by an auditory application of ChatGPT.
But about a minute in, a staccato metallic riff kicks in, giving the opening notes a context —like a robot-assisted rock symphony. Two minutes later, Collins intones, in a computerized half-sung chant: “Sparks become marks, The origin of our material, Eventual we are…eMolecule.” From here the track builds slowly back to a raging amped-up crescendo that will appeal to headbangers and symphonic-rock aficionados alike. As opening statements go, this is quite a tour-de-force.
What follows is a stirring series of prog-metal-techno mini epics — most clocking in between five and six minutes — that combine Nordstrom’s virtuosic guitar work, Simon’s earnest vocals and melodic drumming, and sound effects that enhance the album’s cinematic sweep and scope. Highlights:
• The title track is a rollicking heavy-metal raveup with a tricky guitar intro, death metal vocals, melodic drumming and spoken-word passages that speak directly to the strident divisions (politically and socially) in the time of COVID-19: “I am avarice, I am the virus.”
• “Prison Planet” is about the closest thing we have to a pandemic-anxiety rock anthem, with the signature line — “This prison, this planet…in lockdown forever, we wait we wonder” — topping a propulsive rhythm section that sets the toes tapping, the head bobbing and the mind reeling.
• Three techno-infused tracks — “Mastermind,” “Dosed” and “The Turn” — sound like a shotgun marriage of Depeche Mode and Steven Wilson, but with a twist. “Mastermind” layers throbbing bass and drum lines over an industrial-metal soundscape, with Collins’ delivering intense vocals as arresting and compelling as a police sire. “Dosed” sounds like Violator-era Depeche Mode had the Brit lord of dark synth-pop put down their keyboards and picked up electric guitars instead. And “The Turn” opens with a gloomy six-note piano figure that builds to an explosive rock passage showcasing an inspired bit of shredding from Nordstrom.
• The strongest song in this collection, “Awaken,” is also the prettiest melodically. It’s a romantic ballad that finds Collins sounding most like his famous father. Unlike the heavier material on the album, “Awaken” is a slice of melodic prog that echoes latter-period Genesis. It combines creative drumming, interlaced synth/guitar runs and lyrics that even echo the signature line from “The Carpet Crawlers” — “Just go within when you’re without.” (More like this one, please, gents.)
“Moment of Truth” closes out the album with more techno-metal and earnest vocals from Collins, singing about a tyrannical dictator who takes his own life, declaring “This is a new day, you will have a new way, free for you to be, without me in the way.” It ends with a bit of theatricality: A voiceover from a TV reporter describes a man found dead in his home, characterizing him as “the world’s most evil dictator,” lying next to documents claiming he has blown the whistle on his “entire regime’s agenda.”
It’s a fitting, evocative end to Simon and Nordstrom’s 70-minute mus-drama — and one that leaves you wanting more from this talented pair.
Released on Feb 10th, 2023 on InsideOutMusic
1. eMolecule 10:43
2. The Architect 6:05
3. Prison Planet 4:58
4. Mastermind 8:39
5. Dosed 5:07
6. The Turn 5:56
7. Awaken 5:09
8. Beyond Belief 4:47
9. The Universal 6:03
10. My You 5:27
11. Moment of Truth 6:56
‘The Architect‘ is available here: