Sunday, 4 October 2015

Thieves' Kitchen - The Clockwork Universe

Within the world of Progressive music there are certain bands who have developed a distinctive sound all their own, and to my mind Thieves' Kitchen are one of those bands. This is why, for me, the arrival of a new collection of music from the band is always something to look forward to with anticipation.

I first stumbled across the band through their 2008 album 'The Water Road', the first of their albums to feature the core trio of Phil Mercy, Thomas Johnson and Amy Darby, and was immediately struck by their complex rhythms and unconventional melodies. I delved into their back catalogue and discovered the delights of 'Head', 'Argot' and 'Shibboleth', the latter being Amy's debut with the band. Soon after, the fifth album 'One for Sorrow, Two for Joy' was released, to much critical acclaim in the Prog world, and now their sixth - 'The Clockwork Universe' - has finally been unveiled, a kind of concept album 'exploring the human experience of a complex world' (according to their website).

Key to the band's developing sound is the interplay between the solid foundation of Thomas's keyboards, the driving flair of Phil's guitar work and the haunting lyricism of Amy's voice. All these are in evidence on the new collection. 'Library Song' is the opener, a love song that brings stuttering arpeggios from the keys into contrast with soaring work from Mercy alongside Darby's enchanting vocals. 'Railway Time' explores the response to the inexorable advance of technology and the changes which it brings to life's rhythms, seen through the lens of the coming of the railway to what I think is a Welsh valley. Whether it's the subject matter or simply the 'feel' of the song, this resonates with the work of Big Big Train for me, and left me wondering how Amy would interpret some of their canon. Evident on this track is the work of support musicians Paul Mallyon on drums, and Anglagard stalwarts Johan Brand on bass and Anna Holmgren on flute, who together add a further depth to the music.

The first of two short instrumental tracks, 'Astrolabe', follows - predominantly a gentle, reflective piano piece, with the guitar picking up the melody half way through. Then we move on to 'Prodigy', a more driving, rocky number to begin with which then picks up a lilting flute leading into the vocal section: a song which explores the pitfalls of ones star rising too soon in life.

The 'epic' on the album, 'The Scientist's Wife', has the most pronounced fusion edge to it musically of all the songs in this set, and tells the story of love struggling against the demands of a partner's career. There are some beautifully poignant lyrics here: "Oh, to be very young, his everything, his only eyes for me! Sealed in our universe, with lines of force we drew our destiny." "In this magnetic age he stands alone, a fame apart from me. Lapses of memory, the empty days, the empty harmonies. When I sing, I sing alone; I'm fading to grey." The album closes with the second instrumental, 'Orrery', another gentle, reflective work featuring piano and flute which invokes the image of the revolving spheres of this model solar system.

This is a quite stunning piece of work, which repays repeated listening, and grows in stature with each listen. I cannot commend it highly enough to those of you who like your music a little askew from the norm, but with virtuosity and inventiveness present in spades.