by Prog Nick
The Prog Report’s Chief Editor, knowing me as he does, has expressly instructed me not to ‘drool’ over this review. With full disclosure that I am a rabid and avowed Lifesigns fan, and greatly admire the band’s founder and leader, John Young, I must confess that I am already finding it difficult to comply with my Editor’s instruction. I will, nevertheless, do my level best to give an objective review of Lifesign’s highly-anticipated new album, based on the music only (and will try to keep my computer’s keyboard dry in the process.)
The expectation with which Lifesign’s second studio album ‘Cardington’ has been awaited by fans of melodic prog, has been nothing short of fevered. This is because Lifesigns’ debut album, released in early 2013, and the band’s regular stellar live appearances and DVD release thereafter, have steadily and increasingly garnered Lifesigns a particularly loyal, dedicated and vociferous fan base, especially in Europe. In the years since the release of their debut album, Lifesigns have effectively entrenched themselves as torch-bearers for British melodic prog, and yet the band somehow seem to defy any standard categorization. Fiercely independent, their music is indeed prog, it is at times pop, it is always melodic, it is rock, it is filled with feeling and emotion, and it is keyboard-driven. It is, indeed, all that you would expect from a band led by keyboard wizard and singer John Young. Yet it is somehow unpredictable and indeed unique – it is a specific and customized alcove of prog that does not sound quite like anything else. In point of fact, Lifesigns have, through two studio releases now, declared that they own their own musical niche.
The band is comprised of legendary composer, keyboardist and vocalist John Young (Scorpions, Asia), bassist Jon Poole (the Cardiacs), drummer Frosty Beedle (Cutting Crew) and Steve Rispin (sound design). Poole is admired for having very successfully filled the rather imposing shoes of Nick Beggs (who played bass on the first Lifesigns album.) Beedle is one of the most underestimated drummers in prog (his technical chops are beyond excellent, but he uses them only where absolutely necessary, and he is well-known for conferring savoury instrumental feel and taste.) Rispin is an audio expert of that rare variety – a technician with a great musical ear. Various excellent guitarists have contributed to ‘Cardington’ since the departure of Niko Tsonev (Stephen Wilson), including Dave Bainbridge (Iona), Robin Boult (Fish, Howard Jones, Steven Wilson), Menno Gootjes (Focus), and Tsonev himself – all top-line guitarists. Chris Taylor provides some backing vocals. ‘Cardington’, then, boasts a deliciously enticing line-up of outstanding prog virtuoso performers.
With this highly impressive list of personnel combined with the marked success of the debut album, the expectations for the follow-up have been almost unfairly high. The performance bar was set at its loftiest, and the compositional challenges presented by Young would therefore have to be as good, if not better, than ever. ‘Cardington’ would, quite honestly, have to be a masterpiece to eclipse the first album, and to satiate the growing body of fans that have been salivating for so long. (Remarkably, the album achieved its Pledge campaign goal in a record time of less than 48 hours.) So let us, with suitably dry mouths, determine whether the album achieves its ambitious goals.
‘Cardington’ comprises seven songs, three of which are true prog epics, the other four being shorter numbers that some might describe as pop-rock.
The enigmatically-titled opus “N” opens the album, and is an immediate statement that Lifesigns intend to claim their throne as the progressive Rock Kings of Europe. Opening with an immediately brilliant keyboard riff in 7/8 and accompanying, stabbing, instrumental frenzy by the band, it is obviously long-form prog, but unsurprisingly, it is prog that you have never heard before. It has a very specific flavor. The song is complex, melodic, adventurous, thematically varied, cinematic and grandiose, in the best sense of the word. Unusually, Beedle allows himself to exploit some of the more technical and tricky percussive chops that he has up his sleeve. He really is an exceptional drummer, and this song proves it. The rest of the band are no slouches either, and they are let loose on the opening track – particularly Poole, who effortlessly keeps up with Beedle. Young’s keyboards are as always, jaw-droppingly impressive throughout, and Bainbridge‘s guitar solo is ascendant. In particular, Young seems more comfortable than ever in his lead vocal role. The song seems to be delivered effortlessly, but don’t be fooled. It is an extremely impressive and difficult epic composition that gives this fine band the opportunity to spread their progressive wings with abandon. “You are freedom”, state the lyrics in one part. Indeed.
Swathes of keyboard effects and washes open second song “Voice in my Head” and then the composition gives way to that thing that dominates all that is Lifesigns – melody, melody and more melody. It is a gorgeous unfurling of Young’s uncanny ability to hit a melodic sweet spot without ever becoming cheesy or inauthentic. There is a plaintive quality to Young’s voice that, when counterpointed against Poole’s funky bass-riffs, conjures a beauty quite unlike any other. The instrumental breaks in this slow number are immense, and counter-balance the sweetness perfectly. I might speculate that if the Beatles were recording today, they would want to cover this song, because it is deserving of that.
“Chasing Rainbows” takes the band to a more sinister place, both lyrically and melodically. It is charged with a certain delayed musical electricity. John Young is a past master at postponing the imposition of a hook until the very last possible second, after which, because you are almost pleading for it, it then arrives with even more gratification. The lyrics are introspective and daunting, and the song ends on the refrain: “I don’t want to make the same mistakes again”.
“Different” has been teased at live gigs and on the internet, but nothing will prepare you for the exposition of this track in its full recorded glory. It is progressive, but with a massive funky vibe, and it again shows Lifesign’s unique ability to deliver progressive Rock that is unlike anything else you have ever heard. Powerful, aggressive and emotive, “Different” is just fabulous in every respect, and it is with this song that I believe Lifesigns break the ground that will elevate them to a new level of success. Every second of this song brings a different musical ecstasy, and it seems to me that Young’s heart (or that of his muse) is on his sleeve: “All of my life I have played by your rules…I always play the fool. I try to be different. They laughed at me. How life can be so cruel…Destiny is changing…it’s time for us to go and be different.” Eerie guitar squeals, a huge chorus hook, expansive melodies, a rampant Beedle/Poole combination and an emotional instrumental build-up of gargantuan proportions elevate this song to a special category. The four guitarists are all featured in some way or another, and this approach works flawlessly. The middle break is packed with suspense, drama and a building staccato power that only Young could create. Lifesigns are indeed ‘different’, and their philosophical sensibilities are given full vent here. This song will leave you in awe, and if you are, like most prog fans, different, it will probably leave you in tears as well. Perfection.
“Impossible” has been a mainstay at live gigs for some time now, and the song loses none of its appeal when delivered as a studio version. It is pure power pop, but done Lifesigns-style, which makes all the difference. The bridge is possibly the least engaging moment on the album, but only because you know that it is going to give way to a chorus hook, that will, of course, be hugely pleasing. And it is. John Young is the King of calculated delayed musical gratification – he should be writing for pop stars (if he was, the pop world would be much better for it.) A scything lead guitar solo that features both Bainbridge and Gootjes, is a highlight of the song.
If music is indeed channeled to composers from another plane, then it is the Archangel of Music that spoke to Young when penultimate song “Touch” was written. It starts with a stunning marimba riff that could have been written by Trevor Rabin at his peak. After the first verse, a writhing Mellotron riff demands your attention, and soon enough, Young proceeds to deliver a keyboard solo that is simply magnificent. Poole is on fire, delivering staggering bass-lines, and Beedle follows suit. Though short in length, the song builds into a prog journey as good as any you have ever heard. The song is about the vagaries of the music industry and may well be somewhat autobiographical: “it’s not your song, so take it back where you belong, I would not hurt the hand that feeds, but it was all too much for me…I could not leave this song unsung…so when you squirm inside your chair, how does it feel when you compare the melody you’ve loved and lost, as your accountants count the cost.” A brilliant commentary on abuse of composers by the music industry, and the music behind it is of equal stature.
Title track “Cardington” is the epic song that ventilates the much-vaunted concept of this album – the legendary story of an airship that crashed in France after taking off from the Cardington Sheds in 1930. If there is a particular reason why you love prog, that reason is to be found in this song. Thematic concept, infinite melodic gratification, rhythmic complexity, startling instrumental chops, grandeur – it’s all there. Beedle is in full flight again, driving a complex, sometimes jazzy but always prog experience that proves the credentials of these veterans once again. The song channels Young’s aviation-related concept, and it is just remarkable how the music reflects that concept. It levitates, glides and floats through the air, before swooping in a mercurial way into an almost aerial instrumental swoop. It then travels on a frantic trajectory, through Bainbridge‘s guitar solo, into a climactic and frenzied collision. The airship breaks through the clouds with a veritable heavenly chorus of grandeur: “In my world I can see skies – of green.” Then a sinister mechanical sound, floating away, implies the fate of the flailing craft – a soaring, sonic representation of a sad but fascinating tale of aviation’s thrills and perils. ‘Cardington’ is something special – a scintillating cornucopia of lush, soaring sounds, embracing many emotions and delivered with impenetrable virtuosity and compositional brilliance. It is sad but somehow strangely uplifting.
At over 51 minutes from start to finish, “Cardington” is the appropriate length, but you will find yourself wishing it were longer, because it is magnificent. At this point, special mention must be made of Steve Rispin’s obvious contribution to Lifesigns. It is not often that a band will list their sound engineer as a full member, but in this case it is fully deserved, and easy to hear why. While the genius that is John Young composes, arranges, sings and performs with typical excellence, and the band are stellar performers to a man, it is Rispin that arranges the various audio components with the precision of an air traffic controller. The mix is crisp and crystal clear throughout, every lyric can be heard without imposing on the music, the vocals sit beautifully just above the band, and the production is, in general, amongst the best I have heard. You can hear the spirit of artistic and technical collaboration in every note.
Early indications (Pledge funding, pre-sales, download sales and chart presence) hint that ‘Cardington’ is likely to be Lifesigns’ most successful commercial release. This is as it should be. Without even slightly compromising their prog sensibilities, Lifesigns have created a mouthwatering progressive rock album that is undeniably listenable and accessible at the same time. One of the shorter songs like “Impossible” might even become a hit single – who knows? But at no time is the prog brilliance abandoned. This is what makes Lifesigns special. I have little doubt that this album will bring the band the commercial success and recognition it so richly deserves, and that sales will be satisfyingly high. It’s about time.
I admit, as my latest spin of the album ends, that I am slavering. I must therefore apologize to my Editor, since it appears that I have failed in my allotted task, unlike Lifesigns, who have more than succeeded in theirs. ‘Cardington’ is brilliant, it is a monumental work, and yes, it is to be salivated over by any self-respecting prog fan. If you are in any doubt, please do not be –‘Cardington’ is one of the ‘must-have’ melodic prog albums of 2017.
Released August 2017
Key Tracks: N, Impossible, Cardington
1. N (10:57)
2. Voice In My Head (5:35)
3. Chasing Rainbows (3:40)
4. Different (9:19)
5. Impossible (5:25)
6. Touch (4:00)
7. Cardington (10:40)
Line-up / Musicians
– John Young / keyboards, vocals
– Jon Poole / bass, bass pedals, backing vocals
– Martin Beedle / drums, percussion, backing vocals
– Dave Bainbridge / guitar
– Menno Gootjes / guitar
– Niko Tsonev / guitar
– Robin Boult / guitar
– Chris Taylor / backing vocals
– Steve Rispin / sound design