Progressive pop is making something of a welcome revival. Alan Parsons prefers it as being a ‘better’ description of his music, pointing to the ways in which progressive rock integrates modern trends and influences whilst combining it with an ‘epic’ sound and orchestral layers. Steven Wilson likewise claims that his musical vision aims to create a ‘modern equivalent’ of the progressive pop of his youth, music which is approachable and accessible on the surface but which can engage people on deeper levels with intelligent lyrics, good production values and high levels of musicianship.
It is also the description quite deliberately used by Thomas Thielen and Dominik Hüttermann for their ‘progressive pop project’ Clouds Can. Following on from Moon (1995), Per Aspera (1998) and a hiatus of nearly twenty years, Leave (2017) sees the pair come together again to create a third studio album which marks a ‘new and bolder’ chapter in the direction of their music.
Bold it certainly is. The startling and dramatic opening track This Dream of Me is a grand and sweeping symphony of 80’s-esque sounds and resonances, deep, rich, reverberating yet still finding time to reference popular culture and literature by way of Lewis Carroll oriented lyrics: “Go down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass”. What we find there is the stuff of mad hatter philosophical contemplation, musings about who I am, who I used to be, who I may become, all topped off with a cheeky little nod to Doris Day: “dream a [little] dream of me”.
The layers become even more engaging with the sultry On The Day You Leave (Track 4). On the surface a gently rippling piano and beautifully emotional vocal laments the breakup of a relationship: “On the day you leave I’ll be fine, I’ll be at ease, I’ll be strong, I’ll stand tall, Not think of you at all”. But venture down the rabbit hole once more: all is not what it seems.
“And I won’t walk by your house except by chance and only once Or twice a day every day now, No I won’t miss you at all and no I don’t expect your call, Though the line will be free”. Exquisite layers of bitter irony mix with faux defiance and mock courage to produce a tender but comical effect. And all the while a surreptitious baseline has been kicking in, supplanted by a crescendo drumming riff that lifts a cascading vocal full of pain to an explosion of angst and protest before dying back to a simple piano and vocal once more.
Leave is an album of fascinating transitions and contrasts. The distant whispers which begin the quietly enchanting Life Is Strange (Track 3) segue to a raised echoing guitar calling in the distance before bursting into a delicious choral passage of competing voices before whispering once more, itself a prelude to a wall of sound before tapering out to the soft notes of a piano.
Insomnia (Track 7), on the other hand, is a full on frenzied outpouring of discordant and even jarring dissonance which nestles almost introspective moments of quiet solitude and tranquil harmonic interludes. Forceful, pounding drumming frames a screaming guitar, squealing sax and yet nurtures a delicate, wistful vocal and calming pastoral acoustic passages. The gentle and sedate opening of Always Forever (Track 8) paves the way for an intense climax of superbly arranged orchestral layers which harbour disconcerting lyrics, unspoken thoughts and a sense of casual foreboding.
The music is thrilling, daring and adventurous. The production values are excellent and the soundstage, which somehow copes with such dramatic contrasts and shifting levels, is absolutely remarkable. In terms of progressive pop it is, perhaps, a little too polite and refined but it does enable the undoubted creativity and artistry of the pair to receive the clarity and focus it deserves and merits.
I have often applauded Thielen’s solo work (aka, T) in terms of demanding our time and our attention and this release is certainly no different. But where Leave shines is in rewarding that attention with music which is welcoming, accessible, pleasing and engaging, all in equal measure. It is an album which meets people where they are and leaves it up to them how far they wish to go with it. And should they choose, like Alice, to allow their curiosity to get the better of them and scamper down the musical rabbit hole, the lyrics ensure the door is always open for any adventure the listener may care to undertake.
1. This Dream of Me
2. All We Are I Am Not
3. Life Is Strange
4. On The Day You Leave
5. Like Any Angel
6. A Change Of Heart
8. Almost Forever
Progressive Promotion Records
4th December 2017