By Nick Tate
One of the great joys of prog is the eclectic mix of styles that defines the genre. The best artists are always pushing the envelope and striving for something new — striving to progress, you might say — often by combining previously disparate types of music in surprising and satisfying ways. Few contemporary prog artists are as successful at this aim — striving for unexpected results — as Unitopia. This Australian prog-fusion powerhouse has been breaking new musical ground for nearly two decades and the crew’s latest effort, “Seven Chambers,” is a great example of what these guys do so well.
Arriving more than 13 years after Unitopia’s last album of all-original material (“Artificial”), the new album is a Columbia Record House catalog of styles artfully combined into a single cohesive musical statement.
Middle Eastern and World Beat?
Check ‘All of the Above’
And that’s all just the playbook for the first two tracks of “Seven Chambers.”
It is an understatement to say these guys are all over the map, suffering from — or maybe we should say: blessed with — a kind of musical ADD. They never stay in one place for long. Each of the seven tracks on this album hopscotch from one genre to another, changing keys and tempo with turn-on-a-dime precision. The mix keeps things fresh and evolving, leaving you on the edge of your seat, anticipating what might come next (which is always rewarding). The result is Unitopia’s most wide-ranging album to date, one that is fantastically greater than the sum of its parts and (remarkably talented) players.
Vocalist Mark Trueack and keyboard-wiz/multi-instrumentalist Sean Timms, who have been writing music and performing together since the mid-1990s, are the principal sound and compositional architects of Unitopia. But solid contributions are also delivered by new members Steve Unruh (backing vocals, violin, flute, rhythm guitars) and John Greenwood (backing vocals, lead electric and acoustic guitars, orchestration) — both of whom garner songwriting credits here. Adding to the mix are monster drummer Chester Thompson (ex-Genesis, Frank Zappa, Weather Report) and bassist Alphonso Johnson (Santana, David Gilmour, Weather Report), who make for a formidable rhythm section. Spanning more than 80 minutes of music, “Seven Chambers” took nearly two years to write and record, with each musician working out the new material in his own studio. The subject matter is dark — lyrically, most tracks are about health and illness in the era of COVID-19. But the shadowy content is balanced and leavened by uplifting cathartic passages, as well.
The album opens with “Broken Heart,” an anti-love song introduced by a dramatic orchestral overture that would give Andrew Lloyd Webber a run for his money. Then Trueack’s theatrical vocals enter over a beating-heart rhythm section. For the next eight-minutes plus, the track odysseys through symphonic rock, classical piano passages, charging heavy metal and even a multi-tracked guitar break that sounds like Brian May on steroids. If New York’s Shubert Theater had a house band, Unitopia would be a shoe-in, based on just this track alone.
Next up is “Something Invisible,” a slow-building pop-prog rocker with a funky backbeat and the prettiest vocal melody on the album. Halfway through, out of nowhere, the band breaks into a classical piano concerto that gives way to a gypsy-violin break and soaring guitar outro that races to a climactic conclusion that will leave you breathless…and wanting more.
The next two tracks — “Bittersweet” and “Mania” — are schizoid prog-metal workouts that call to mind everything from King Crimson to Frank Zappa to Alan Parsons to early Pink Floyd. Both showcase Greenwood, who delivers some of his finest fretwork on the album with solo breaks that are angular and soulful. They’re followed by “The Stroke of Midnight,” an orchestral-rock operetta that plays like a soundtrack to a Hitchcock film enlivened by an emotional and brilliantly romantic violin break from Unruh matched by Greenwood on classical guitar.
The last two tracks on the album —“Helen” and “The Uncertain” — are not only the longest pieces on “Seven Chambers,” but also the best.
“Helen” is prog-jazz workout that cuts seamlessly through a layer cake of musical styles and time signatures — 7/4, 4/4, 3/4 and 9/8 time — and clocking in at more than 19 minutes. It opens with a rousing twin-guitar attack that sets the stage for a wide-ranging suite of classical guitar/violin chamber-rock breaks, fiery flamenco-jazz excursions, a flute-and-vocal duet, Elizabethan folk finery, hardcore metal, spoken word passages (in French!), a choral fugue, a Genesis-like 12-string-guitar interlude and Stephen Sondheim-worthy musical theatricality. Spellbinding and rousing, “Helen” is a masterwork that solidifies Unitopia as one of the most adventurous and inventive prog acts in the game today. “The Uncertain” closes out the album in style, opening with a simple strummed acoustic guitar/vocal line. Over the next 18-minutes-plus, the track unspools like a mini opus that incorporates frenetic heavy metal, jazzy solo breaks, atmospheric new age and galloping fusion. It is a rousing, if haunting, piece that resolves in a sweet and hopeful melody line that ends the album on a positive, uplifting high note.
From start to finish, “Seven Chambers” is a thick slice of stylish melodic prog fusion, brimming with high drama, stirring melodies and some of the most inspiring ensemble rock performances of the year. Fans of theatrical prog masters like Saga, Queen, the Tubes and Queensryche will find much to like here. In short, this is one of those rare, multi-textured records that demands and rewards repeated listenings, with new nuances, details and color revealed with every spin.
Sean Timms also has a new album out next month with his other project, Southern Empire, as keyboardist, songwriter and producer. Check out the Prog Report’s interview with Sean here.
Released on Aug 25th, 2023.
1. “Broken Heart” (8:30)
2. “Something Invisible” (6:39)
3. “Bittersweet” (7:20)
4. “Mania” (12:29)
5. “The Stroke of Midnight” (9:38)
6. “Helen” (19:14)
7. “The Uncertain” (18:33)
Mark “Truey” Trueack – vocals, songwriting
Sean Timms – songwriting, keyboards, backing vocals, various stringed instruments
Steve Unruh – songwriting, backing vocals, violin, flute, rhythm guitars, mandolin
John Greenwood – songwriting, backing vocals, lead electric guitar, nylon-strung guitar, 6 and 12-string acoustic guitars, mandolin, programmed orchestration
Chester Thompson – drums
Alphonso Johnson – bass
Progrock.com’s Essentials (https://essentials.progrock.com)
Burning Shed (https://burningshed.com/tag/Unitopia)
Just for Kicks Music (https://justforkicks.de/en/)
White Knight Records (https://www.whiteknightshop2.co.uk/)
Unitopia’s Bandcamp page (https://unitopia.bandcamp.com/).