Issue 2010-024: Unitopia - Artificial - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: Suffocation (1:40), Artificial World (5:42), Nothing Lasts Forever (5:31), Not Human Anymore (5:22), Tesla (13:21), Reflections (3:18), The Power Of 3 (1:22), Rule Of 3's (4:10), Gone In The Blink Of An Eye (5:49), The Great Reward (6:38)
Geoff Feakes' Review
An album that received a good deal of interest in the latter part of 2008 was Unitopia’s The Garden. The main talking point, other than the fact that it was a double album, was the twenty-three minute title track which drew comparisons (in its finale at least) with Genesis’ Supper’s Ready. Australia’s finest are back with their third release Artificial which sees the song writing partnership of Mark Trueack (vocals) and Sean Timms (keyboards, backing vocals) still very much in control. They are aided by what I suspect will continue to be a fluid line-up of musicians with the services of guitarist Matt Williams and percussionist Tim Irrgang retained from the last album. A fresh perspective is provided by newbie’s Jamie Jones (drums), Shaun Duncan (bass) and Peter Raidel (saxes).
Whilst the previous two albums incorporated a diverse range of styles this release is probably less eclectic making it for my money a more focused work. Unitopia take traditional progressive rock and give it a fresh lick of paint and although this is a concept album of sorts its main claim to prog fame is the thirteen and half minute centrepiece Tesla. It’s based on the life and work of influential Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla who had an obsession with the number three, a reoccurring theme during the album. Following a moody opening with the sound of thunder and rain underscored by strings it sets flight with a glorious neo-prog synth excursion that echoes Genesis by way of IQ and Pendragon. The instrumental sections that follow incorporate every prog trick in the book utilising guitar, synth, piano, jazzy sax, violin and strings and compares favourably with the likes of Spock’s Beard and The Tangent. It culminates in a sing-along hook with a feel good factor that sits comfortably in the context of the song.
Elsewhere the music could be aptly described as well crafted and tuneful mainstream rock with proggy elements, particularly in the instrumental breaks. The low key, but atmospheric Suffocation is very reminiscent of Peter Gabriel with a hypnotic synth loop providing the intro to the album and the first song proper Artificial World. The first thing that struck me here was the excellent production that creates a spacious sound perfectly suited to the busy, full on drumming that could so easily be the work of Nick D'Virgilio. It certainly adds the desired weight to this upbeat, catchy song which contains some particularly fine and biting guitar work.
The aforementioned Telsa aside, Nothing Lasts Forever is probably my favourite song on the album. It’s a cleverly constructed homage to The Beatles both lyrically and musically with Mellotron adding a psychedelic touch in the style of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and I Am The Walrus. George Martin would be proud of the bombastic orchestrations and would surely appreciate the stirring trumpet theme and the George Harrison flavoured guitar break.
Not Human Anymore is one of three up-tempo songs on the album (the others being Rule Of 3's and Gone In The Blink Of An Eye) that combines strident verses delivered with a driving urgency and a soaring and very memorable chorus. The superbly powerful bass and drum partnership of Duncan and Jones really comes into its own here. Rule Of 3's also benefits from lush Rabin/Sherwood era Yes style harmonies and a cinematic prelude in the shape of The Power Of 3. Here the widescreen orchestral arrangement is clearly influenced by Bernard Herrmann’s suspenseful music to the classic Hitchcock movies.
The albums slow ballad comes in the shape of the sublime Reflections. Here the deceptively simple voice, piano and acoustic guitar arrangement lays bare the touchingly beautiful melody. The album concludes on a suitably majestic note with The Great Reward. The reflective piano led opening builds into an infectious coda which fades out with a stunning slide guitar solo that brings to mind Magenta’s Chris Fry. All is not quite what it seems however because following around 40 seconds of silence strummed acoustic guitar and voice briefly reappear to reprise the songs haunting main theme.
In many ways a good album is like a good book, it has a beginning, middle and an end. Unitopia’s third release certainly qualifies on all counts with a catchy opener, an epic mid section and a magnificent finale. In between is as strong a collection of tunes I have heard so far this year making this for me their best outing to date. Everything is in place including mature and finely crafted songs, superb production, imaginative arrangements and excellent musicianship. If you order the ‘special edition’ then you will receive three bonus tracks which sadly were not made available to the DPRP for review purposes. No matter, as it stands this for me is still 2010’s best offering to date.
Brian Watson's Review
Unitopia have very quickly become a big band in the prog universe since 2008’s The Garden. Indeed, this has to be one of the most anticipated, and hyped new releases since Transatlantic’s Whirlwind made landfall. As such, it was always going to fall short of the hoped for wonderfulness, but it’s still an incredibly strong album.
There is more than a hint of Transatlantic in the sound, and in the production values and some of that band’s component parts are represented here too – there are some full on Spock’s Beard and Flower Kings moments to enjoy - but Unitopia have done what is, in a very crowded genre, incredibly hard to pull off. They have crafted a sound that is all them. One that has at its heart the amazing voice of Mark Trueack. A sound that synthesises pop, rock, prog, classical and folk music with jazz, noir film scores, art rock and world music.
It really is going to be a blast listening to this stuff performed live. Here we go then.
Brief instrumental intro Suffocation leads us into the album proper and Artificial World, that starts out as a straight-ahead rocker that lyrically explores themes of (you guessed it) artificiality and superficiality. The song is, like much of the record, elevated from the norm by Mark Trueack’s sublime voice, but you also get some languid saxophone that segues nicely into a slide guitar break before the chorus kicks back in. An instrumental break highly reminiscent of The Flower Kings in their pomp finishes things off and leads into what I think will be for many the record’s ‘marmite’ track.
There will, I’m sure, be people who love this song as vehemently as others hate it. I’m not a fan, it has to be said. I don’t hate it, but, whilst the album has been on constant play in the car my fast forward finger has had quite a workout.
Nothing Lasts Forever is not just influenced by, but is a lovingly crafted homage to the “Boys from Liverpool”. And no, I don’t mean Gerry and the Pacemakers. It’s a veritable Sergeant Pepper love-in replete with vocal harmonies, distorted lead vocal, trumpets, orchestras and lyrical references (Come Together and Fool On The Hill). What redeems it slightly for me is a lovely, goose bump-inducing string synth section midway through before we’re back to more distorted Beatles-y guitar and a sing-along choral ending.
Not Human Anymore starts off as another full-on rocker that veers into Porcupine Tree territory in places and which carries on the album’s lyrical themes of loss, isolation and detachment. However, it quickly builds into a note-perfect slab of modern symphonic prog that will have fans of The Flower Kings, Spock’s Beard, Frost* et al air-synthing themselves into a frenzy. Not only that, but Trueack’s vocals sound eerily like Peter Gabriel in places too, particularly in the “have we lost part of ourselves” closer.
Next up we have the centrepiece of the album, the 13 minute plus epic Tesla. If lyrics inspired by a Serbian inventor, widely regarded as one of the greatest electrical engineers who ever lived (1856 – 1943: thank you Wikipedia) aren’t proggy enough for you, then I don’t know what is. It truly is a magnificent piece of symphonic prog that I for one can’t wait to hear played live. Hard to sum up in the space I have available, it has time changes aplenty and tips of the hat to Spock’s Beard (Tabasco anyone?), The Flower Kings, Genesis (particularly The Lady Lies from And Then There Were Three) and Yes (the climactic slide guitar solo towards the end).
Reflections follows, an emotive ballad initially with just voice and piano that builds to a Tangerine Dream/Tony Banks keyboard climax.
The Power Of 3 starts out as an orchestral piece – think The Enid interpreting the theme from Fantasia – before fantastic vocal harmonies evocative of Gentle Giant, or Spock’s Beard lead us into a jazzy freeform sax break. Things then settle down with a Kino/John Mitchell-helmed It Bites vibe to close out the track.
Gone In The Blink Of An Eye not only sounds like a Rabin-era Yes or Asia song title, it also has their pop/prog sensibilities and (yet more) great vocal harmonies. Then things get chilled and bluesy as meandering saxophone kicks in.
We end with The Great Reward, that showcases Trueack’s vocal range as the lyrical themes explored throughout the record are tied together in a song about destiny and redemption that builds and builds to what should be an amazing, Awaken - style symphonic ending but it fades out far too abruptly, like a radio edit, or a lover suddenly curtailing fellatio to go put the cat out before a (barely) hidden acoustic close that leaves you feeling strangely short-changed. Hopefully this is something that can be remedied in the live environment.
Minor gripes aside, this record will certainly help to cement Unitopia’s reputation as one of the most exciting progressive rock bands on the scene today. Whilst we only had an MP3 download to listen to ahead of the release date, the special edition CD has a second disc with three more tracks: (What kind Of World (9:36), This Time I Think We Got It Right (3:51), Relative To Me (3:01)) and the artwork, by Ed Unitsky, looks simply stunning.
Gert Hulshof's Review
The line up of the band has changed somewhat this year. Mark Trueack (lead & backing vocals), Sean Timms (keyboards & backing vocals), Matt Williams (guitars & backing vocals) and Tim Irrgang (percussion) are still present from the previous line up, while Jamie Jones (drums), Shaun Duncan (bass) and Peter Raidel (saxes) are new to the band. Once again the album artwork was designed by Ed Unitsky, who has done a terrific job.
Ever since I listened to The Garden I have waited for the follow up and therefore I was really excited when I got the opportunity to review the album. My expectations were very high, so did Unitopia meet my expectations? Yes and No. Their previous album was a real delight to my ears, a journey through the garden, with all the songs fitting together so well - a true masterpiece.
Could they excel or accomplish an album of the same strength? I started listening to the album straight after I had received it and I must admit I was taken by the music on the first spin. Not because the music was of such a high level, I seldom experience this, no, it was more like, where have I heard this before.
Already from the first notes you can determine that you must be listening to a neo-prog album, because that's what it is, and I dare say it is a good album. Well produced with just enough rough edges to attract a broader audience than the lovers of the afore mentioned musical style. Their new rhythm section works very well, they are well capable of laying down a solid fundament.
Now for a more thorough review of the album. 10 tracks this time with a total length of just under 53 minutes.
Suffocation: What can be said about the introduction track of the album, it’s an introduction to the album, a short track, a mere soundscape by keyboards and percussion, some vocals added, going straight into...
Artificial World: A neo-prog song with a certain Saga or maybe Magellan feel to it, a little rough but still a strong melody and a smooth song in the neo-prog style. Again the song flows into the next...
Nothing Lasts Forever, or how to name Beatles songs in your lyrics and I almost have the feeling I am listening to a modern day version of an obscure 70’s band Klaatu. A good song about things never lasting, like a Fool On The Hill. Going again like all the album into track four...
Not Human Anymore, a neo-prog song in the veins of icons like IQ, or may be even more Pallas. The vocals are similar to how Alan Reed or Peter Nicholls would sing a song of this nature - smooth yet a little rough around the edges.
This brings us to Tesla, the epic, if one could call it that. The song has many variations, does not get boring for a second and the high standard of music is maintained throughout. Even a saxophone is added to the musical spectrum, not to my liking, although an nice addition to the song.
Tesla goes into Reflections, a more ballad like song in the style of Fish with the sax again present. Good vocals and nice melody line, but still one of the more average songs on the album.
The Power Of 3 is next and sounds like the title tune or soundtrack of a film or TV series. Nice sounding but nevertheless not my favourite.
The Rule Of Three on the other hand is a song in which you may think of Magellan or Spock’s Beard for that matter - a rather heavy track. Vocals in Wayne Gardner style, whereas the next track Gone In The Blink Of An Eye starts out more like a Beard song - vocals remain Gardner style. The Pallas, Alan Reed influences also come peeping around the corner in the chorus.
Last song on the album, The Great Reward, typically sounding like Neal Morse or a Spock’s Beard song from the Morse era. A great song which is an easy going, smooth ballad in the true sense.
All in all Unitopia have succeeded in making a wonderful album and the theme of the concept is never lost in the entire album. It is by all means a great album to listen to and not hard to listen to it all in one session, which is a great achievement in itself.
This brings me to conclude this review. I had fun listening to the album which I like it a lot and will play it more often. Although I still like its predecessor better this is a strong album with just a little too much familiarity to get my recommendation.
Woody Harris' Review
One day while stalking the wild musical forests, past the clear channel stream, and far away from flavour free radio valley, I happened on an album of such depth and beauty that every superlative I attempted to lavish upon its jewelled exoskeleton fell flat. The beast seemed familiar having all of the normal earmarks of a good prog album; symphonic bursts of expression, jazzy underbelly complete with saxophone, meaningful lyrical poetry, and nods to all of the great prog beasts that came before. Despite these familiarities, the creature was a true original. It scuttled forth mixing prog and pop sensibilities almost naturally. I was transfixed by this specimen, so I quickly grabbed it up like the good collector I am.
The album of which I speak is Unitopia’s forthcoming Artificial. In all of the recent batches of progressive music that I have come across it has been the most in tune with my taste in progressive music. Led by the writing skills of Mark Trueack, this band has found a way to mix and match many influences into their music but still maintain a very original presence. The influences they so gloriously wear upon their sleeve range from Alan Parsons, The Beatles, Yes, Genesis, Asia, The Moody Blues, ELO and still more, yet the band never sound derivative or fake. If anything, they use the motifs of these bands in the same way a jazz musician might flourish the old “a tisket a tasket”. It is there only long enough to say “hey, do you remember this?” and then it is washed away again as the band launch into their own territories.
The combination of Mark’s writing, Sean Timms on keys, guitar from Matt Williams, and the dual percussion ensemble of Jamie Jones and Tim Irrgang combine to bring all of these influences to light. Plus the vocal performances all combine for some very nice harmonies. The stand out instrument on this album for me is the saxophone. Many bands attempt to embed the sax into their mix, but few do so with such precision. Peter Raidel brings the jazz while giving subtle nods to the likes of Steely Dan and Supertramp. The accents always seem to propel the music forward and send the band into a totally new direction, organic yet purposeful and driven. Raidel shines in the epic track Tesla but can be found making similar transformations throughout the album.
A key ingredient in my love of prog music has always been the message. I realize many come to progressive rock for the multiple time signatures and virtuoso performances. I certainly appreciate all of these things about prog, however a piece of music will rarely hold my attention for very long if it does not have something of meaning to say. Artificial speaks volumes! Whether the band is calling attention to the ways in which technology has served to separate us such as in Artificial Life, Nothing Lasts Forever and Not Human Anymore, or the fact that if we are not careful it could all be Gone In The Blink Of An Eye, each track holds a message for the adept listener. None of this is to say that the music is not similarly complex. The band slides from one mood to the next, never overwhelming us by showing off, but always spreading the message that they understand the progressive craft.
I am rarely so transfixed by a new piece of music and so I am hard pressed to turn a critical eye to this album. However, I can speak to those who do not find joy in pop based prog. Artificial is not a pompous piece of virtuosity like some progressive bands. They have truly shown throughout the album that they believe in melody, harmony, and meaning. This is not art for art’s sake. The vision of the band is set firmly into the music and lyrical content. Some might even say that their use of reference to other progressive bands makes them a sellout, since these references are interlaced throughout the album. Seriously, if you did not enjoy the bands mentioned in this review, you will not enjoy this album. They do not stray far from the mark of their predecessors. However if you do enjoy the pop side of prog music, you enjoy a good hook, and you like to sing, you will not find this album lacking. My real critique is that I wish it could have been a double album. However, for those who pick up the deluxe edition you will get 3 more tracks, so really, this album is perfect.