Returned to the Earth – Stalagmite Steeple (Album Review)

Review of the Returned to the Earth album ‘Stalagmite Steeple’

by Steve Joyce

UK-based prog band Returned to the Earth are surely poised to win hordes of new fans with “Stalagmite Steeple”, their fifth album since forming in 2014. The new opus follows their self-titled 2016 debut, 2018’s “The Best Kept Secret”, 2019’s “Erebus” and breakthrough album “Fall of the Watcher”, released in 2022.

This prolific run continues with Stalagmite Steeple, which has its roots in sessions for its predecessor and follows a 3 year writing and recording process. As before, main-man Robin Peachey has written the songs and plays most of the music. The album is produced and mixed by Paul Johnston and mastered by Steve Kitch. It’s a sonically impressive album and a magnificent listen overall.

Check out the interview with Robin Peachey here.

While this is not the place to comment on the rights and wrongs of pandemic policy and Governments’ decisions – history will judge those – I think that most reasonable people would recognise that somewhere along the line, society’s moral compass became somewhat demagnetised, if not completely bent out of shape.

And so we have opener and lead single “Dark Morality” that sets the scene for the album’s themes. Says Peachey, “I saw a story about an elderly couple who were separated during the first Covid lockdown and unfortunately the lady passed away from natural causes. I found it incredibly sad that we couldn’t find a way to bring loved ones together in their final moments during this difficult period of our history. It seemed empathy and compassion were lost but the money spent for the privilege of being in the care home facility still rolled in. I didn’t want this event to be marked by just a single song so it formed the backdrop for the whole album.”

Musically, the song showcases the very best of what Returned to the Earth is about in its seven minutes and especially Peachey’s singing. His immersive voice – imagine a blend of Tim Bowness and IQ’s Peter Nicholls – either provides a soothing comfort blanket of silky intonation or cocoons you with bleak melancholy. The song is also graced by the first of several extraordinarily moving guitar solos which punctuate the album, enhancing almost every track.

Second track “The Final Time” is a heart-rending ballad, flowing on an effortless 6/8 tempo with alternately lush and sparse instrumentation. It’s emotionally devastating – “The pain – it was too much for me” lyric is a major wrench of the heartstrings and will surely resonate with anyone who suffered the anguish of lockdown separation and bereavement.

Track three, “Stalagmite Steeple” is blessed with two exhilarating guitar solos, the first of which, as I write this (1st June), is the undoubted musical highlight of 2024 so far. The guitar solos throughout this album evoke the soulful, unhurried tones of legends like Latimer, Gilmour or Rothery – there are no fretboard fireworks here. Each carefully crafted solo uses few notes, perfectly selected to deliver maximum fulfilment, with plenty of space to let the music breathe. These are truly beautiful guitar solos!

Robin Peachey

“Meaningless to Worth”, the fourth track, is a slow-build with a powerful pay-off. The synths on this track are nicely done – Peachey, his brother Steve and Johnston all contribute synths to the album – and once again, the focus is on feel and ambience rather than Wakeman- or Rudess-style flamboyance. The song closes with another epic guitar solo which comes close to scaling the heights of those on the title track.

All the ingredients that make RttE’s music special combine brilliantly on track five, “Die For Me”, my favourite song on the album. A quietly atmospheric beginning with sorrowful strings and sparse electronica ushers an exceptionally affecting vocal by Peachey. The song’s deeply poignant “it shouldn’t be this way” coda, underpinned by yet another guitar masterclass, is captivating.

The drumming on this track is greatly effective, too, with an extended snare-driven crescendo heralding the aforementioned coda. Drummer Johnston delivers a stylish, less-is-more performance throughout this album. You’re in the wrong place if you’re expecting Portnoy-esque pyrotechnics or mind-bending Danny Carey polyrhythms, but with straight ahead grooves and sparingly-used uncomplicated fills, Johnston’s tasteful playing complements the music perfectly.

Album closer “The Raging Sea” is soul-stirring, tying the album’s themes together through plaintive vocals and yet more wonderful guitar. Like a warm-down after a five-mile run, the song eases you out of the album with a satisfying feeling of completion.

And thus, the 43 minute run time flashes by and leaves you reaching for the ‘replay’ button. It’s such a pleasure to listen to a digestible, sub-45 minute album, evoking nostalgic older days when whole albums would fit on one side of a C90 cassette. (Which 1980s teenage prog fan wasn’t frustrated when Marillion’s debut “Script for a Jester’s Tear” cut off abruptly before the epic ‘Forgotten Sons’ outro?)

Speaking of C90s…along with a battered cassette version of Yes’ Drama album (my original gateway to prog rock) and a liking for Tangerine Dream, I inherited from my late father the genetic ability to feel chills and goosebumps while listening to music. Not everyone is capable of experiencing this, and I consider myself highly fortunate. I’m delighted to report that “Stalagmite Steeple” delivers several such moments, enabling the lucky listener to fly, glide and soar with heart-bursting emotion. Chief among these, evoking the album’s themes, is an overwhelming gratitude that we are again able to spend time with our loved ones, and an earnest hope that such basic rights will not need to be snatched away ever again.

I hesitate to categorise this album as “progressive rock” – there are no mind-bending time signatures or indulgent instrumental gymnastics. This is an album of accessible, atmospheric rock, richly textured with gorgeous music and lyrics which pack an emotional punch. It’s a career highlight for Returned to the Earth, and one of the highest quality albums of 2024.

Released on June 14th via Giant Electic Pea

Tracklisting:
1. Dark Morality 7:19
2. The Final Time 5:00
3. Stalagmite Steeple 9:58
4. Meaningless To Worth 6:09
5. Die For Me 9:09
6. The Raging Sea 5:36

Robin Peachey – Vocals, Guitar, Synths, Piano
Paul Johnston – Drums, Guitar, Synths
Steve Peachey – Synths

Order ‘Stalagmite Steeple’ on CD here:
https://gep.co.uk/products/returned-to-the-earth-stalagmite-steeple-pre-order

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