Album Reviews

Issue 2014-060

Pendragon - Men Who Climb Mountains - Round Table Review

Pendragon - Men Who Climb Mountains
Country of Origin: UK
Format: CD, 2CD, download
Record Label: Toff Records
Catalogue #: PEND27CD
Year of Release: 2014
Time: CD 1: 63:45
CD 2: 65:21
Info: Pendragon
Samples: Pendragon website
Track List:
CD 1: Belle Âme (3:15), Beautiful Soul (8:03), Come Home Jack (10:51), In Bardo (4:52), Faces of Light (5:50), Faces of Darkness (6:25), For When The Zombies Come (7:33), Explorers of the Infinite (11:09), Netherworld (5:47).
CD 2: The Voyager (8:08), A Man of Nomadic Traits (8:23), This Green and Pleasant Land (11:35), Nostradamus (2:47), Paintbox (4:21), King of the Castle (4:18), Indigo (5:28), The Freakshow (2:47), Masters of Illusion (2:39), Space Cadet (3:45), The Edge of the World (6:12), It's Only Me (4:59).
Martin Burns' Review
If you will bear with me a little while, whilst I take a short digression away from music and into art history! In art history there is a word for two paintings that are made by an artist to hang in pairs, in reasonably close proximity to one another. These pairs of paintings are known as pendants, and they are usually compositionally and thematically linked. Ok, still with me?

Pendragon's new album, Men Who Climb Mountains, is a series of songs (with one exception) that are grouped into pendants: songs that are cleverly linked, compositionally and thematically, through their melodies and lyrical concerns. Pendragon used this idea of two linked songs with Passion and Empathy, the opening two tracks of their previous album Passion. This idea is taken up and used to great effect on the new work.

Men Who Climb Mountains is the fourth release, in what I am beginning to think of, as Pendragon Mark II. Where they have changed in to being a guitar-led prog rock band, and less of the neo-prog band that they were initially. This change has the effect of making, especially on this album, Clive Nolan's keyboard work a series of washes and atmospheres, akin to the way that Richard Barbieri works in Porcupine Tree. I like this Mark II incarnation of Pendragon because of this change of emphasis, in bringing forward the rock guitar in the band's sound.

Men Who Climb Mountains continues in the vein of complex guitar driven prog that began with the release of Believe in 2005. It is less immediate than its predecessor Passion. Its charms grow slowly and it worms its melodic way under your skin only after repeated plays. Lyrically, and conceptually, the album is about explorers and adventurers and how their obsessions and passions separate them from ordinary mundane life, whilst at the same time, bringing into relief, that ordinary life that most of us lead.

The opening pendant of Men Who Climb Mountains are Belle Âme (French for beautiful soul) followed by Beautiful Soul itself. Belle Âme opens with a jangly guitar riff and a deep voice before adding keyboard washes. It then morphs into Beautiful Soul which extends and stretches the melody before picking up the pace. A terrific opening that moves from connecting with the earth to the compromises faced by the fact of being human in a human society.

The next pairing is of Come Home Jack and In Bardo. Reverb-laden guitar picking and one of Nick Barrett's finest vocal performances establish the song. It pushes on with layered guitars as it builds to the chorus. New drummer, Craig Blundell, uses a complex but open drum pattern that leaves spaces behind the guitars and organ. This manages to unsettle the listener and matches the lyric, where mountaineering seems to be a metaphor for the isolation of some modern working life. This moves seemlessly into, In Bardo, where Barrett's keyboard and guitar solos step this pairing up to a full-on classic.

Faces of Light begins as a piano ballad which then evolves half way through, into a noisier number, with fierce cross-cutting guitars; its pendant, Faces of Darkness, has one of Peter Gee's best bass lines and the song seems, to me, to be a new departure in the Pendragon Mark II cannon, an excellent pairing.

The only non-paired song is For When The Zombies Come, a bluesy, off-kilter waltz that has a lovely melody and is crowned by a killer solo. Nick Barrett, on this form, should be high in the end of year polls for best guitarist.

The final two connected songs, begins with Explorers of the Infinite, a call for freedom and adventure as well as a tribute to those explorers who lost their lives pursuing their dreams. Another excellent Peter Gee bass line propels the song through its initial passages, before pening up in its full eleven minute glory. This is followed by Netherworld, which is effectively a coda to the preceding track. A slow waltz of optimism lyrically and musically, where a good keyboard solo is followed by a better guitar solo; a guitar solo one suspects David Gilmour would be more than proud of. This is a smashing conclusion to the album.

If there is one criticism, it is that for an album about mountaineers, surely, this is the place for the yodelling found at the end of Passion's This Green and Pleasant Land!

With this release the Pendragon continues the tremendous run of work they have produced since 2005. If you want to investigate Pendragon you could do no better than to start here. An album to be highly recommended.

Are Pendragon now the best prog-rock band working in Britain? Discuss.

The bonus disc (Nick Barrett - Acoustic House Concert - Live at Twig's) that accompanies the studio release is a live recording of an informal acoustic gig by Nick Barrett. From the track list you can see it is a 'best of' type recording. I'm personally not a great fan of live recordings, for various reasons I won't go into here. But this one is entertaining and full of good humour. It spotlights, as does the studio album this live recording accompanies, Nick Barrett's guitar and vocal skills. The songs are strong, working well in the acoustic arena, and similarly the performance is also strong. This acoustic set of extras is, for me, preferable to extras where demos and rough mixes, tend to be the order of the day. My final conclusion is for the regular album, this bonus disc would get a 7.
John Wenlock-Smith's Review
It's been a long time since I last heard a Pendragon CD and that was window of life back in the 90's and whilst I have heard bits and pieces in the intervening years this is the first real chance I've had to sit down and actually give this group a revisit and revaluation.

So having let Pure and Believe pass me by we have this latest release to consider and my initial thoughts are that this is pretty much more of the same as I'd heard all those years back but with better production values but repeated plays reveal distinct differences, some subtle so more obvious but this group have somehow stepped up a level or two.

This is more assured and more confident, more focused and coherent there is a thread that links the album both musically and lyrically and it is definitely so much better than those earlier but much loved Pendragon albums, and really after some 30 odd years together then that's only to be expected.

Still very much the brainchild of Nick Barrett but more than ably supported by Clive Nolan and other this is a strong album by any standard. As is to be expected there is some pretty astonishing and fluid guitar playing on here and there are sumptuous and lush keyboard voicing's used throughout

The album opens very gently with a quiet acoustic and very mournful piece Belle Âme setting the scene for what follows through its various guises and balance of light and dark and powerful and intense music

Come Home Jack is a standout track for me featuring as it does two guitar breaks one being a fairly gentle and melodious one and the other being more aggressive in tone, lyrically this is a very intriguing piece, it is also rather lengthy and this gives the song room to manoeuvre and to evolve gradually into a rather epic piece.

Faces of Light opens quietly with attender and emotive guitar passage at the 1:18 mark before at the 2:30 mark the song takes a modernist twist sounding not unlike modern day U2 or Snow Patrol all jangling guitars and pounding drums, before reverting to form at the 4:00 mark. Faces of Darkness continues with weird discordant opening sounds and sequenced keyboards before more chunky guitar chords lead in the mid-section that has an almost jazz rock twist to it oddly enough this works and makes it an interesting listen.

For When the Zombies Come is suitably moody and otherworldly with odd effects in the opening but a strong vocal bring it back to a more stately form with a fine guitar break towards the end.

Explorers of the Infinite continues the epic trend, with double tracked acoustic guitar one sounds like a 12 string, the vocals enter and the songs gradually builds through the verses and choruses before a brief instrumental interlude. Then at the 8 minute mark, a lengthier passage follows that is just calling for a wild guitar break to take it up a level and this begins to happen at the 8:14 mark but this isn't a flashy one, it's a slow burning intensity one that works through the backing sounds gathering pace and continues till the vocal comes back in again and picks up at the end of the vocals to close on the same opening acoustic. Again, this works.

Pendragon are not afraid to mix up their sound and to try seek out and use new approaches, sounds and textures and that is in part what keeps them viable and valid all these years on, there is a passion and a crafting to this album and as always it is one that will only give up its secrets and treasures after several forays in to its sonic soundscapes

So ready to climb mountains then...
Geoff Feakes' Review
Pendragon have come a long way since their 80's neo-prog beginnings taking that particular musical style to its zenith with minor classics like The Masquerade Overture and Not Of This World. In the new millennium they reworked their sound adding a harder, more contemporary edge for albums like Pure and Passion. Never the most prolific of bands, Men Who Climb Mountains is only Pendragon's 10th studio album in almost 30 years and the first with new drummer Craig Blundell following the departure of Scott Higham earlier this year. Otherwise is business as usual with Nick Barrett (guitars, vocals), Peter Gee (bass) and Clive Nolan (keyboards, vocals).

Although this album has its darker moments, to my ears it's more restrained than Pendragon have been of late with a stripped down sound that pushes Barrett's guitar and vocals well and truly to the fore, emphasised by the razor sharp production. It's certainly a long way from the flamboyant and proggy arrangements of old.

The lead song Belle Âme is a prime example, forsaking any grandiose opening statements its a low key affair with Nick's familiar and expressive singing over a stark guitar backing. Stylistically Beautiful Soul is on more familiar ground, adapting the chorus from Belle Âme into a memorably yearning song that's prime Pendragon. With chiming guitar leading the way, it develops into a powerfully dramatic piece before eventually subsiding into a serene string quartet ending courtesy of keys.

Come Home Jack is a slow burning affair with a laidback but stylish guitar solo to open. As it develops it becomes very Porcupine Tree in parts, emphasised by Nick's Steven Wilson-ish vocal before concluding with another solo this time with a bluesy edge that recalls Barrett's David Gilmour influences. Very much a companion piece, In Bardo picks up from where the previous track left off although for me it's little more than an excuse for indulgent soling. Nolan's extended synth break is uncharacteristically and self-consciously guitar-like in tone whilst Barrett whose no stranger to Steve Hackett style solos this time brings the ex. Genesis guitarists current (and grittier) technique to mind. Even new boy Blundell gets in on the act with a frantic drum workout.

Whilst not strictly a ballad (but the closes this album gets), Faces of Light is tenderly bittersweet (to begin with at least) enhanced by Nolan's piano and subdued symphonics, stately guitar and female backing vocals. The mid-section is truly uplifting with a driving guitar hook and stirring choral chants. The silky smooth slide guitar towards the end is the icing on the cake.

Faces of Darkness lives up to its name with a creepily spacey intro and some muscular drumming and bass work. Blundell in particular runs rampant here, ironically bringing his predecessor Higham to mind. Barrett's menacing guitar and vocals on the other hand did nothing for me although the unexpectedly melodic guitar in the latter section has a very welcome Andy Latimer flavour.

Unsurprisingly (given the title) For When the Zombies Come continues in the same mood with another eerie intro although here a loud twangy guitar sounds like it's drifted in from an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack. The Floydian spacey effects, guitar and vocals that follow are either effectively atmospheric or sleep inducing depending upon your current mood or viewpoint.

Explorers of the Infinite just shades it as the albums longest track with the very welcome inclusion of twin acoustic guitars beautifully played and supported by Nolan's ethereal choir. A relentless, slow building bass riff threatens to take the song to a completely different place but not before a resigned Barrett sings "It is what it is, there's nothing you can do about it". At the 6-plus minute mark it really takes off with a soaring extended choral hook that eventually subsidies for the acoustic guitar reprise.

The concluding Netherworld has a mellow Pink Floyd vibe where Nolan's orchestral intro gives way to a meditative, self-reflective song with warm harmonies for the chorus and another sprawling solo from Barrett to round off the song and the album.

Recorded live in 2013, the bonus CD is precisely that and probably the closes thing to having Nick perform live in your own sitting room. Relying on acoustic guitar and voice only, he enthusiastically strums his way through a selection of Pendragon favourites to a small but appreciative audience. A fun addition to this set, but not one that will be played very often I suspect.

An observation sometimes made about Pendragon and one that I would support is that despite the obvious talents of Clive Nolan and Peter Gee, all too often it feels like a Nick Barrett solo project. If that is true then for me Men Who Climb Mountains is his most personal offering yet. Guitar purists in particular will find much to enjoy here, Men Who Climb Mountains is a virtual master class from Barrett exploring as he does every techniques and tonal colour the instrument has to offer, including acoustic and 12-string. For me however it's a solid rather than an essential Pendragon album as reflected in my final rating.
Alan Weston's Review
Some die-hard progsters are already preparing the gallows after one of our beloved UK neo-prog outfits committed prog heresy by declaring that they can't stand complex music. The High Priest of the prog brotherhood has sentenced blasphemers to hang by the neck until dead or 50 years listening to One Direction! Has the Pen Ddraig Nick Barrett put his prog credentials on the line and now taking Pendragon towards a more commercial leaning, with their cash-starved eyes focused on writing catchy 3 minute pop songs that will appeal to the masses and maybe get some mainstream radio play, leaving their prog roots well and truly behind them. Some progsters were (not all!) disappointed with Pineapple Thief's latest offering could not be blamed for thinking "here we go again with Pendragon's Men Who Climb Mountains".

Those die-hard progsters can ease off on the building of the gallows and rest easy in the knowledge that Pendragon still stand to attention each morning and salute the raising of the neo-prog flag. A good smattering of some lengthy tracks. Pendragon fans have seen changes in style over the years and this could be one of their finest efforts to date. It's not about climbers like Chris Bonington or Joe Simpson, but a concept idea based on people pushing themselves, who have near death moments or are traumatised by what life can throw at them and no doubt there is some Barrett introspection thrown in as he himself had to climb out of the abyss after going through a hellish divorce.

These guys are exceptional musicians and deliver the neo-prog goods that are needed to give Barrett's songs that neo-prog gloss so they shine out from the speakers. As expected Peter Gee never disappoints and provides some gutsy virtuoso bass lines throughout the album. His mastery of the bass is best heard in Faces of Darkness.

Clive Nolan gives us the usual mastery we associate with the Arena keyboard maestro, producing superb sonic soundscapes that are a trademark of his wizardry. However, there is a paucity of synth solos that some neo-progsters might not appreciate, which emphasises that this is more of a guitar orientated album. However there is a good proggy solo delivery in In Bardo which goes some way to making amends.

New drummer Craig Blundell eases himself onto the vacated drum stool with some solid and exciting drumming. He best showcases his talents in the jazzy-rock finale towards the end of In Bardo and in Faces of Darkness.

And Pen Ddraig Nick Barrett himself? His voice has probably never sounded better. Like an ageing whisky, he improves as the years pass by. As to his guitar playing, well he's up there with the likes of Camel's Andy Latimer , Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour and The Flower Kings' Roine Stolt. A gifted guitarist who produces sublime solos as in In Bardo where he delivers a virtuoso performance. Other great solos feature in Faces of Light, Faces of Darkness, and Come Home Jack.

We also see the return of Tiggy York who appeared on Not of this World. She adds an ethereal aspect to the sonic proceedings.

This is a fine album indeed and neo-progsters should be happy with the obvious efforts that have been expended in producing quality songs with a superb production sheen. There is a wonderful cornucopia of influences, ranging from Coldplay and Porcupine Tree through to the Pat Metheny group, which in itself should pique many progsters attention. The songs are well arranged with plenty interesting dynamics, moods and soundscapes to wet most neo-progsters appetites. For the limited edition there is a second CD; a Nick Barrett solo acoustic recording of 2013 house concert in the UK.

As to scoring on the old neo-progometer, this is worthy of an 8.
Guillermo Palladino's Review
In what was called the revival of the neo progressive rock in the early 90s, the word Pendragon came to our minds as one of the most important bands in recent years. They established some kind of founding stone alongside bands like Marillion, IQ, and Pallas, among others. Their musical style have been evolving and reinventing to give us a more intense, darker and intimate approach and several live releases shows us without any doubt a band in its best moment to date. Albums like Believe and Pure went on a new musical direction, and gave to us the opportunity to listen a less symphonic kind of music, or what we used to listen in older 90s albums. But the risk Nick Barrett took was worth it.

Three years have passed since Passion was released, an album that have marked the way back to a more symphonic influence and won the Album of the Year Award 2011 on Classic Rock Society. At that time my team mate John O'Boyle said: "smartly the band haven't alienated anyone, they have appealed to the old vanguard as well as exploring a more contemporary approach". A transition album indeed, and now Men Who Climb Mountains is the result of this exploration. With this album I find Pendragon reaching a balance between their past and present, between heavier and contemporary elements with the neo progressive and melodic style of the band. And from now I can take the risk to say that it will be again the Album of the Year by far and by the third time in a row as they did with every of their latest releases.

Another important fact is the departure of Scott Higham (who gave a highly powerful beat and stage presence to the band) and now former Frost and Dr. Oktopus drummer Craig Blundell took his place and did a wonderful job on this album. As always this is an album in which Barrett's rhythmic guitars takes the main role combined with a darker Clive Nolan behind the keys, instead of having his trademark sound in the background and his unique technique. As an overall is a vocally oriented album and a middle point between Pure and Passion.

Belle Âme is the opening track, quiet, melancholic only with a guitar arrangement that reminds me Arena's The Visitor and serves as an intro for the album's first single Beautiful Soul, a powerful track with rhythmic changes between heavier and melodic sounding in which guitars and precise keyboards interventions and a beautiful solo take the main role combined with a very nice vocal work done through the entire song and an Steve Hackett's influence and some kind of Jadis cadence at the ending. Come home Jack is a more melancholic song that begin with some kind of influence from Steven Wilson more than Porcupine Tree but quickly turns into a song appeared to be pulled out from Not of This World. A beautiful song, remarkable work in the drumming by Blundell and a guitar solo with a huge IQ influence. In Bardo is a basically acoustic song in which we can listen to a Nolan's 70s' influenced solo and piano by the first time combined with a guitar solo and a great rhythm and jamming section by Blundell, a song that show us a very well integrated band.

Faces of Light starts with a beautiful piano arrangement and turns into a crescendo which remind me about Anathema, with the same cadence and choral arrangements. Faces of Darkness appears to be the antagonist or complement song for Faces of Light, and starts with a more darker and Spanish guitar influenced arrangement. Soundscapes and distorted choruses that keep the musical similarity, mixed with an IQ characteristic rhythm on the drumming and a wonderful bass playing done by Peter Gee. Very nice one and handled well.

Many elements from Jadis and Porcupine Tree are present here. A mysterious sound starts with For When the Zombies Come like a futuristic and dark ambient with a David Gilmour like guitar intro, this is a more instrumental and spacy sound with a huge Pink Floyd influence and sound sampling that remind me Saga's Generation 13. It is a very melodic song that turned into a less mysterious of what I've expected with that title, much of Steve Rothery and early Arena influence here by the way.

Explorers of the Infinite is the longest track of this album and even being a lighter song it sounds amazing with the rhythm provided by Peter Gee on the bass in the first section. After this it twists into their trademarked rhythm from minute 6 approximately. Again Arena and Steven Wilson are present. Wonderful, sophisticated song, it demonstrates that a longer tune don't have to be a musical mess to avoid boredom.

Netherworld closes this great album, with that Watcher of the Skies spirit in the air with a melancholic mood. Perhaps a less apotheosis way to end this album which undoubtedly gives to us a more personal approach of the band. As an overall is a more melancholic, lighter album but with highlights that keep you listening to it, less experimental than Passion but keeping the heavier elements from Pure and with many musical influences and similarities. For me is a perfect balanced album and I strongly recommend it to our kindly readers. It won't disappoint either the new or old school fans of the band.

This album comes as a Single CD edition and also a Limited Double CD Edition containing an acoustic solo concert made by Nick Barrett in the UK the last year.
Martin Burns: 9 out of 10
John Wenlock-Smith: 8 out of 10
Geoff Feakes: 7 out of 10
Alan Weston: 8 out of 10
Guillermo Palladino: 9.5 out of 10
Album Reviews