by Prog Nick
Roine Stolt is a remarkably prolific musician. It is quite astounding to think that in and amongst his various other projects, Stolt and his band-mates in The Flower Kings (TFK) have already recorded and released the follow up to ‘Waiting for Miracles,’ just eleven short months after the release of the latter in November 2019.
Of course, it has been an unusual eleven months. The Global Pandemic has yielded a flurry of releases that might otherwise have been delayed due to touring and other activities. ‘Islands’, TFK’s 2020 release, may be one such album, but you should not think for a moment that it is some hurriedly-compiled collection of songs that might not have seen the light of day if not for Lockdown. On the contrary, this album is as accomplished as anything previously released by these Prog gurus.
‘Islands’ is a double CD (triple LP) release that was recorded during Lockdown with each member contributing remotely. The liner credits state that it was ‘recorded at locations in Italy, California, Austria, Sweden and Denmark.’ Stolt apparently had an interesting time producing it, having to instruct various members on matters such as microphone placement, via digital platforms. On listening to the album, the only possible indication of this is that the individual songs comprising the album’s 96 minutes are somewhat shorter than TFK fans would traditionally expect. Yet every song is linked as a constituent part to the central theme of isolation – hence the album’s title. Each song taps into a common vital force – like an inherent sense of Chi. Fans may therefore hear ‘Islands’ not as a collection of individual songs, but rather as a continuous, long-form double concept album. That choice is the listener’s to make, but other than that, there is no ambivalence here – one should expect, for the most part, another excellent double set of classic, expansive, melodic TFK Prog, as required by the band’s loyal followers.
With melody, majesty, harmonies, signature guitar and keyboard lines galore, always underpinned by the mammoth bass-lines of Jonas Reingold, ‘Islands’ does much to entrench TFK’s place as one of the altar-bearers of modern Prog. With only scattered and minor departures from TFK’s trademark sweeping melodic style, it is safe to say that fans are unlikely to encounter any ‘lockdown difference.’ They will most certainly not be disappointed. Sweden’s Swami of Prog and his international cohorts have done it again – only this time perhaps with a slightly more focused air of contemplation. Call it a musical meditation, if you will.
The music is typically varied and polished, but the lyrics deserve special mention. Evidently, many of them were created on the spot during the recording process as a ‘stream of consciousness’. Considering how polished the album sounds, this is a remarkable fact. Get ready to meditate with Roine Stolt.
The sheer proportions of the release coupled with the number of songs (21) makes a track-by-track analysis impossible. Suffice it to say that the album ventures in many directions and could well be TFK’s most intrepid to date, while conjuring just the right amount of familiarity. There are a few highlights that should be mentioned:
‘Broken’, released as first single, is just staggering from start to finish. This Prog masterwork begins with a yearning guitar line, leading to a simple but brilliant verse in two part harmony, and goes everywhere from there. It rocks and it rolls. It is progressive and jazzy. It is heavy and it is light. It is unpredictable and it is immensely satisfying. ‘Broken’ is a transcendent song that will ensnare you like a Shaman Chant from its first moment – it is right up there with the best that TFK have ever done.
‘Black Swan’ is an excellent song that sees the band channel its love of Queen. Stolt’s guitar has a very deliberate Brian May sound and the harmonies very obviously and intentionally sound like Freddie Mercury at his best. TFK in an alternate Queen universe – you will love it.
A surprise awaits in ‘Morning News.’ If you had ever wondered what TFK would sound like as a Country and Western band, wonder no more. Complete with twanging guitars and barn-dance drumming from the excellent Mirkko DeMaio, you can almost imagine Stolt singing in a cowboy hat with a piece of long grass in his mouth. Yet somehow it still sounds like TFK, and the lyrical content is highly sophisticated.
Stolt’s admiration for Frank Zappa makes itself apparent at various points, including the songs Journeyman, Hidden Angles, Fool’s Gold and Solaris. The latter, a huge, lumbering rhythm with a full choir, is a cosmic marathon about the race around the sun. Expect much musical mayhem from these Zappa stylings.
An undoubted fan favorite will be the song ‘Tangerine’. The song may sound as polished as burnished brass, but the remarkable fact is that the vocals (traded like oriental spice between Stolt and the wonderful Hasse Fröberg) were composed while recording. There could not be a better lead vocalist for TFK than Fröberg, and one of the reasons is his compatibility with Stolt. Their voices have for years combined to create a unique harmony and counterpoint – it is just something about their tonal qualities – and this song is a stunning demonstration of that fact. A moment of Zen.
Fully entitled to count Jon Anderson as one of his collaborators, Stolt is not afraid to show his affection for Classic Yes in a few songs, including the excellent ‘Heart of the Valley’. Any follower sitting at the feet of the Yes yogi will acknowledge that the devotion in this song reaches a different plane. While it sits well with the cover art, and is clearly a nod to early-70’s Yes, ‘Heart of the Valley’ is still TFK throughout. No-one channels Classic Yes with more integrity than this band.
‘All I Need is Love’ may be simpler than many other TFK arrangements but it is one of the band’s finest. There is a very human feel to it, with beautiful personal touches like a gentle Flamenco handclap during the opening chords. With a fabulous hook and soaring vocals built around the line ‘Living in a Limbo…This castle is a prison…All I need is love to get me out of here’, it soon becomes the Hasse Fröberg show – in other words, Nirvana.
The radiant ‘Man In a Two-Peace Suit’ is one of several breathtaking instrumentals, but the stand-out is ‘Looking for Answers.’ This track will take you to church with its cathedral organ and majestic Zach Kamins keyboard sweeps, all built around Stolt’s omniscient guitar. If you are looking for answers in these strange days, put this one on. You might not get your answers from the song itself, but you will feel like going to your temple, church, mosque, ashram or other place of worship to ask.
We have all become distant spectators in the world, and ‘Telescope’ makes this point with passion. Stolte watches humankind through his telescope, and then sympathises with one of his most searing and cosmic solos. This, dear reader, is what a guitar should sound like. Stolte and Fröberg observe: ‘The world is opening like a rose, I’m watching from my telescope…and its heart is cold’ – precisely.
For its sheer vocal beauty, ‘Northern Lights’, also featuring Reingold on fretless and fretted basses, is one of the year’s most beautiful and spiritual musical awakenings. ‘Serpentine,’ featuring a typically stellar appearance from saxophonist Rob Townsend, could not have been more aptly titled, with its writhing arrangement and scything social commentary.
There are many other surprises and treasures on ‘Islands.’ Cinematic moments lead to almost balletic imagery; eerie theramin wails give way to oddball Beatles-bop; technicality stands side by side with searing emotion. But always, the standard that you would expect from TFK is present, like a familiar daily meditation – only one that becomes more and more intense with every listen. From majestic Prog to quirky and catchy pop choruses, from terrifying bass eruptions and twisting keyboard runs to monastic choirs, from the sweetest melodies to the most intricate instrumentation, it is all there – and throughout, the lyrical theme of the album continues to ring true.
The production of ‘Islands’ deserves special mention. Despite its technicality and progressiveness, there is a lightness to the album that is at first difficult to fathom. It is, for a 2020 album, an unusual mix, featuring a drum sound that is lighter, more ambient and less prominent than on most albums produced these days. This allows for the detail in the vocals, keys, guitars and bass to be more fully exposed, and creates an effective counter-point to the grand arrangements. I must admit that at first, this took a bit of getting used to, but soon enough, I grew to like it immensely. The fact was that from the outset, the sound was strangely familiar. Stolt consciously decided to produce the album in this way to free up the elaborate melodies and give it a classic feel. The final drum mix is mildly reminiscent of Bill Bruford in the 70’s and, true to Stolt’s intention, it will not be long before you feel that it is as natural as a light rain in springtime. These bold production choices give the album a lightness and brightness that will last a lifetime. While my preference has always been for a big, up-front drum sound, for TFK, this is better.
The cover artwork by the legendary Roger Dean suits the album perfectly. As Kismet would have it, Dean was working separately on a common artistic theme about islands and isolation, completely independently of the album. Talk about stars aligning.
If you are a TFK fan, when you first look at the track-list, you will most likely think ‘This can’t be a TFK album – the songs are too short.’ But do not be deterred, dear reader. Everything you desire from a TFK album, and more, is present. Easily and highly recommended, ‘Islands’ is at once sublime, sophisticated, soulful and spontaneous. Stolt’s omnipresent guitar, Reingold’s intricate bass-lines, Fröberg’s range and emotion, Kamins’ extravagant flourishes and DeMaio’s technical competence, are all fully exposed not just because they are stellar performances, but because the compositions presented (by Stolt and the other members) are uncommonly good.
‘Islands’ may have been recorded remotely, but its combined soul, passion and yearning are unbridled, and there is a distinct feeling of brotherhood in its delivery. We, the listeners, are indeed human islands at the moment, and if anything will reconnect us in this strange and alienated world, it is music like this. The Sanscrit phrase ‘Namaste’ means ‘I bow to you.’ Namaste, Mr Stolt.
Released on Oct. 20th, 2020 on InsideOutMusic
Key Tracks: Black Swan, Morning News, Broken, Tangerine
Disc One (49:40)
1 – Racing With Blinders On 4:24
2 – From The Ground 4.02
3 – Black Swan 5:53
4 – Morning News 4:01
5 – Broken 6:38
6 – Goodbye Outrage 2:19
7 – Journeyman 1:43
8 – Tangerine 3:51
9 – Solaris 9:10
10 – Heart Of The Valley 4:18
11- Man In A Two Peace Suit 3:21
Disc Two (43:01)
1 – All I Need Is Love 5:48
2 – A New Species 5:45
3 – Northern Lights 5:43
4 – Hidden Angles 0:50
5 – Serpentine 3:52
6 – Looking For Answers 4:30
7 –Telescope 4:41
8 – Fool’s Gold 3:11
9 – Between Hope & Fear 4:29
10 – Islands 4:12
Roine Stolt – Vocal, Ukulele, Guitars, Additional Keyboards
Hasse Fröberg – Vocal & Acoustic Guitar
Jonas Reingold – Bass, Acoustic Guitar
Zach Kamins – Pianos, Organ, Synthesizers, Mellotron, Orchestrations
Mirko DeMaio – Drums, Percussion
Guest: Rob Townsend – Soprano Saxophone