Welcome to the first batch of 2021 new album reviews. I examine the sophistipop of Canada’s The Weather Station, as well as 2021 releases from two beloved neo-progressive rock acts. Supergroup Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe and Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites. As usual, the three albums are presented in order with my favourite first.
The Weather Station
Canada’s Tamara Lindeman has steadily been releasing records with The Weather Station since 2009. Ignorance, their fifth record, has raised The Weather Station’s profile considerably, changing tack from the acoustic folk-country feel of earlier releases.
Instead The Weather station mine the 1980s for a sophisti-pop sound; opener ‘Robber’ echoes elements from 1980s Talk Talk like the jazzy hi-hats and spurts of woodwinds. The piano vamps and atmospheric backing vocals in the climax of ‘Parking Lot’ recall Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 classic ‘Sara’, while the smooth sophistication of Roxy Music’s Avalon is another reference point. It’s a great backdrop for Lindeman’s poised vocals – her warm, assertive voice sometimes recalls Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny. She’s supported by a cast of Canadian musicians, including Owen Pallett who provides typically accomplished string arrangements for ‘Wear’ and ‘Trust’.
I’m so enamoured with the music that I haven’t paid much attention to Lindeman’s lyrics. But while the music is often retro-inspired, her lyrics are contemporary in scope, often focused on the climate crisis. On ‘Atlantic’ she sings “With a wine in my hand, laid back in the grass of some stranger’s field, while shearwaters reeled overhead, thinking; I should get all this dying off my mind”.
Ignorance is gorgeous, the best record I’ve heard from 2021 thus far.
The Absolute Universe: Forevermore (Extended Version)
Transatlantic are a progressive rock supergroup, plucking members from other successful neo-prog acts. Bassist Pete Trewavas has been a member of Marillion since 1982, while drummer Mike Portnoy is a former member of Dream Theater. Guitarist Roine Stolt comes from The Flower Kings, while keyboardist and primary vocalist Neal Morse was originally in Spock’s Beard. Neo-prog exists in its own little bubble, slobbered over by aficionados and ignored by everyone else, but for my money Transatlantic measure up to progressive rock’s heyday in the early 1970s. Morse is a top flight vocalist and Stolt’s lead guitar is melodic and engrossing.
The Absolute Universe is the quartet’s fifth album together, and most of the members are in their sixties. The original version of the album is 90 minutes long, but returning to the material after a holiday in New Zealand, Morse proposed a shorter version. With a group deadlock – two members preferring each version – Portnoy eventually suggested releasing the two versions separately. The shorter version has newly recorded components that aren’t in the original, so a third Ultimate Version combines everything into a 96 minute record. I’ve opted to review the original 90 minute version, Forevermore (Extended Version), as it seems to be the most well-received.
The connected suite of songs recalls the band’s 2009’s album The Whirlwind. Morse’s lyrics originated as a sequel to The Whirlwind, but ended up as a discussion of how the Ayn Rand-inspired libertarian beliefs he held in his twenties were replaced by Christianity.
The Absolute Universe has more retro-1970s Yes vibes than ever before – Stolt’s guitar licks on ‘The World We Used To Know’ could have come straight from Relayer, while Morse’s organ on the opening ‘Overture’ and Moog on ‘The Sun Comes Up Today’ are reminiscent of Rick Wakeman. There are also more hints of psychedelia than on previous Transatlantic records; the massed choral vocals in ‘The Sun Comes Up Today’ recall the Beach Boys, before Trewavas delivers an enjoyable lead vocal on the terrific psychedelic rocker. Morse’s psychedelic organ recalls Ray Manzarek on ‘The Greatest Story Never Ends’. The Absolute Universe suffer a little from a lack of memorable musical themes in its key moments. It’s shaped like a classic progressive rock concept album with its overture and repeated motifs, but the principal themes aren’t memorable enough for it to rank among Transatlantic’s best work.
The Absolute Universe isn’t an absolute classic, but it’s often excellent all the same.
The Future Bites
Kingston upon Thames’ Steven Wilson is beloved by vintage music fans, as a producer and a performer. He’s remixed classic albums like Roxy Music and Tears For Fears Songs From The Big Chair, while as a musician he’s best loved for Porcupine Tree, who mix classic progressive rock with post-Radiohead dystopia. His 2021 album The Future Bites has upset some long-term fans by straying closer to synth-pop than to progressive rock. It’s not unprecedented for Wilson – previous records like Porcupine Tree’s Lightbulb Sun also have prominent pop elements. Generally Wilson’s skillset – he’s an excellent guitarist and mediocre lyricist – is better suited to progressive rock, and The Future Bites is a mixed bag.
The most memorable track, ’12 Things I Forgot’, sounds uncannily like a track from English pop/rock band Keane. It’s tuneful, but Wilson’s most effective when he stays closest to his progressive rock roots, like the searing guitar solo on ‘Follower’. The atmospheric ‘Unself’, which feels like a Flaming Lips song, and the aggressive beat on ‘Self’ make for a strong beginning, but Wilson’s lyrics like “selfish acts…. between the sheets” aren’t as impressive. At almost ten minutes and featuring a Sir Elton John monologue, ‘Personal Shopper’ is more notable for its anti-consumerism tirade than for its music.
The Future Bites is often fascinating, but I’m confident that Wilson has made at least a dozen albums that are better.