by Prog Nick
Every vessel needs a captain, or it might drift and sail into oceanic oblivion, although it helps immensely to have a talented crew. Captain Roine Stolt, a legend in Progressive Rock, has done his fair share of steering over the years, but this time he has chosen a cohort of explorers that are each, in their own right, recognized masters of their respective crafts.
Just consider this line-up: with Stolt are legendary skin-beater Marco Minneman (also singing and playing guitar), the one and only Jonas Reingold on bass, Renaissance’s Tom Brislin on keyboards/vocals and Pain of Salvation’s Daniel Gildenlöw on lead vocal and guitar. Flying Colors’ vocalist Casey McPherson appears on three songs and will be touring with the band. Add to this already intimidating list the names of guest artists Jon Anderson (yes, him), Jordan Rudess (yes, also him) and Steve Hackett’s woodwind player Rob Townsend, and you have a list of names that will draw collective, and very expectant, breath in Prog world. Talk about an “all-aboard” line-up. Wow – (or should I say ‘Ahoy’.)
This ship is manned by the most expert navigators – that much is clear. Naturally, the result has been massive fan expectation and the inevitable rife speculation. Well, the ocean can be everything from a fun and frothy surfer’s paradise, to a terrifying, engulfing storm, from a pool of clear coral beauty to a vast abyss of deep darkness, and all that comes in between. Where do this captain and crew take us? Let’s dive in.
Opener “Ashes of Dawn” is the heaviest song on the album and certainly one of the darkest. Gildenlow’s and Stolt’s vocals are aggressive, anguished and tortured. The song is about the world’s economic chaos and is suitably weighty. Should you expect The Flower Kings? No. Agents of Mercy? A little. What you should really expect is King Crimson, 2018-style. There are no ‘spring in the meadow’ images here. Stolt and Reingold go out of their way to make the song deep, dark and intimidating – like the bottom of an ocean abyss. Townsend’s sax solo is also very King Crimson, abiding by this intended homage. Minnemann makes his effervescent mark typically early on, and ‘Red’-era King Crimson is the flavor of the moment. The vessel is weighty, laden with cargo, navigating dark waters and exploring familiar but frightening themes.
“They Know My Name” is more pensive and gentle, but no less dark in flavor. Despite this, it is not King Crimson. The band start to explore other compositional waters here, through Tom Brislin’s efforts. Based on a lurking and pensive Brislin piano intro with an interesting chord progression, the song develops in to a Minnemann-driven chorus pattern with scattered accents, accompanied by Reingold’s huge, lingering bass tone. The chorus has a Classic Rock feel, and the song develops into a pleasing, if familiar, theme, ending with an anthemic guitar passage. Brislin steers us through the dark harbor.
Calmer waters approach. Third song “The Void” is slow and pensive, but extremely haunting and captivating. One of my favorite songs on the album “The Void” has an excellent, haunting melody based on a gentle acoustic riff that sounds like the misty slopes rendered in the lyrics. There can be no doubt that Reingold had a dominant role in composing the music for this song, which is somewhat reminiscent of Karmakanic. It is a stupendous composition with miles of depth. Gildenlöw’s vocal is one of the best on the album, with a particularly anguished tone to his voice – perfect for the languid nature of the song. I did not feel the need for the Moog solo that appears in the mid-section, and thought that the song would probably have sailed even better without it. But soon enough that magnificent, effusive and tortured melody returns, to swirl around the last verse, which ends the song beautifully. ‘The Void’ is absolutely breathtaking.
“An Eye For an Eye” brings matters to a much faster, pounding pace, starting as a full-on rocker in which Minnemann is given full remit to open up his startling chops. It is no surprise that Minnemann wrote this song. His fills are, as you would expect, confounding, and the song starts fast, heavy and hard. Regardless of the trickier Prog fills and time signatures, this one could, strangely enough, have been Thin Lizzy on Prog steroids. For those who like to rock, ‘An Eye For an Eye’ will be a highlight of the live set. It features a beautiful lingering guitar solo – as good as anything Stolt has done, just rockier. Then, led by Reingold and Brislin, the song takes a turn – the keyboard solo arrives and the song suddenly becomes tight and complex jazz-rock. Intricate and neo-jazzy, the solo is brilliant, and Brislin shows that he clearly deserves his place. After the solo, a jagged pattern again exposes Minnemann’s wildly animated fills and leads into a melodic bridge, before the Rock returns to bring the song to a triumphant climax. There is a German torpedo in the water and it explodes in this song, which is a meridian on the album.
“Goodbye” is, for me, the high watermark of this album. It begins with a quirky, staccato 7/8 Prog bass-riff that is very unusual and immediately entrancing. This intriguing riff remains throughout, but also morphs into a delayed-gratification verse by McPherson, and a glorious chorus. It is hopeful, happy and fulfilling ‘Recounting my life, it wakes my soul, here I’m free, the river is an ocean, I’m a river’. There is something about the nature of McPherson as a performer that is of itself uplifting, and his voice, especially when counterpointed against the other vocalists in the band, is perfect for this varied Prog arrangement. The lead solos interspersed in the song are superb. While reminiscent of Stolt’s ‘70’s melodic Prog influences, he stamps his own unique sound on to them. At times, the song sounds like it could have been done by Yes if they had progressed compositionally into 2018 (though it is true that not even a Yes drummer has ever played double kick drum quite like Minnemann does here.) The whole song is a triumph, and the wild expectations of the band’s potential fans around the world will be fulfilled by this song. It is no surprise that ‘Goodbye’ was a collaborative composition between all five main band members. This is the compositional structure that works best for The Sea Within, and they should create more songs like this gem, which has everything. The oceans are alive.
“Sea Without” is a jagged and discordant instrumental exploration of Crimson-esque progression, with some added sonic magnitude, lasting two minutes. Reingold delivers one of his signature fretless riffs at the end. It is a decent enough meander, but one feels that more could have been done with it.
“Broken Cord” comprises the obligatory 14-minute epic. Interestingly, it was not composed by the five main members, like the brilliant ‘Goodbye’ was. The song took several days to grow on me, but ultimately did so. It has a clear Sergeant Pepper feel at the beginning, and progresses from there. Various quirky, interesting, ethereal and anthemic passages create an overall result that is excellent, though not triumphant. It drags somewhat in places until the lead solo (with Stolt’s famous sound) rescues it. I had to listen hard for Jon Anderson’s appearance, which is one of the backing vocals behind McPherson’s and Gildenlöw’s alternating leads, and his Master’s Voice is placed appropriately enough. The vocal harmonies in the chorus create an expectation of redemption, and indeed, the body of the song kicks in with Stolt and Brislin solos that redeem the arrangement. There is some further meandering thereafter, including a few redundant passages that could have been edited to create a slightly more finely-crafted epic, which I have no doubt the band will do in the future. Regardless, TFK fans will love ‘Broken Cord’ because the sweet vocal melodies so prevalent in that band are to be heard here. As a huge TFK fan, I appreciate the artistry of creating a slow, deliberate build, and I am prepared to invest in it. However, some might feel that this technique belongs in TFK rather than The Sea Within, whose line-up may have created somewhat different expectations. The song contains many great moments, but a slightly less expansive approach would have made it even more special. Either way, the song will ultimately please listeners and will certainly fulfill its ‘epic’ intent after some listens. Rudderless? No – more like a delayed and very exploratory traversing of wide-open seas.
Jordan Rudess makes an appearance on ‘The Hiding of Truth’ and one can immediately hear it, because his technique is simply unmistakable. He is on this song because of the way he plays – not because he is Jordan Rudess. The song is an elliptical Stolt pop melody that begins with swirling atmospherics, great Rudess piano work, and Casey McPherson’s outstanding vocals. It develops into a strong pop ballad. McPherson has an uncanny ability to create a hook just with the tone of his voice. Rudess’ intricate piano work sustains the song, and allows Stolt to provide a great melodic lead solo that is more about feel than notes.
The release apparently comes with a 26-minute bonus disc in all versions. The first song on Disc 2, “The Roaring Silence”, builds from nothing, through an ethereal opening, into a good, heavy, dark Prog composition that provides the listener with a crisper experience. “Where are You Going?”, a Brislin/Gildenlöw composition, starts as a piece of ethereal pulchritude. With a Beatles vocal and a misty riff, it soon then builds into a solid enough ballad, with an anguished feel. It is simple but good. “Time” is another compositional collaboration between the five main members. It is sad, dark and moody, and again reminiscent of King Crimson in an introspective mood (though admittedly with more expansive vocal arrangements). Filled with grief, the song is very emotive. Lastly, “Denise” is strange narrative of a man telling his woman that he will not be back because he is in prison, and asking her to remember him by their good times near the river. Filled with regret and remorse, it is reminiscent of a modern Prog take on ‘The Prisoner’s Song.’
Overall, The Sea Within’s first album is a highly impressive but diverse voyage. Passengers on this ship will experience expansive high sea views, daunting subaqueous emotional depth and even fathomless submerged darkness. But they will also enjoy pleasing coral imagery, aquamarine beams of musical light, frolicking waves of melody, compositional variety and, most certainly, virtuosity of oceanic proportions. If the album misses the total perfection that its line-up portends, it is only because some of it feels a little more fragmented than it perhaps could have done. There is, without ever becoming piecemeal, some exploration on open waters. The distinct impression created is that the band ought to co-compose more as a unit, rather than the various members proffering their completed compositions individually. With the exceptions of ‘The Void’ and ‘An Eye For an Eye’, the most successful compositions on the album are the fully collaborative ones. The brilliant ‘Goodbye’ is most certainly an example of this. As these superb musicians begin to tour, to gel as a band, and to work together as much as geographical distance allows, they will no doubt combine to become the great force in Prog that has been predicted. The tempest has risen, but it will become a tsunami when these winds are harnessed together.
The Sea Within’s first major gig will be in July 2018 at The Night of the Prog Festival in Germany. It will be interesting to see the frenzy with which the band, and Minnemann in particular, are welcomed there. I have no doubt that the crowd will be frothing like surf. The band intends to tour extensively, and is booked to appear on Cruise to the Edge, which will be a defining moment (not just because of the band’s name).
When there are expectations this large, it can be a little unfair on the creators of the work. Is it quite as brilliant, special and perfect as the pundits have demanded it to be? At many points, yes, though at a few, perhaps not. But this is no temporary life-raft. On the contrary, there are some songs here that already place The Sea Within at the crest of a burgeoning Prog wave. The vessel has launched successfully, and even greater oceans await. With a little editing and more consistent production, the band is destined for some very exotic voyages indeed. There are masterstrokes on The Sea Within’s debut album – more than enough to augur well, if not guarantee, a massively fulfilling voyage, now and in the future. Don your life-jackets.
Released on June 22nd, 2018
Key Tracks: Ashes of Dawn, Goodbye, Broken Cord
1 Ashes Of Dawn 5:59
2 They Know My Name 5:09
3 The Void 4:53
4 An Eye For An Eye For An Eye 7:01
5 Goodbye 5:31
6 Sea Without 2:23
7 Broken Cord 14:10
8 The Hiding Of Truth 5:35
Total playing time: 50:43
The Roaring Silence 8:04
Where Are You Going? 5:54
Total playing time: 26:32
Marco Minnemann: Drums, Percussion,Vocal, Guitar
Jonas Reingold: Bass
Tom Brislin: Piano, Organ, Synthesizers, Vocals
Roine Stolt: Lead Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Vocals, Orchestral FX
Daniel Gildenlow: Lead vocal & guitar
Jon Anderson: Vocals ( Broken Cord )
Casey McPherson: Vocals ( Broken Cord, The Hiding of Truth, Goodbye )
Jordan Rudess: Grand Piano ( The Hiding of Truth )
Rob Townsend: Tenor Saxophone ( The Ashes of Dawn )