Altitude is already at the top of my of ‘best of the year’ list. A prog album that avoids all of the excesses of the genre and produces many moments of brilliance and musical inspiration.
8 tracks / 54:18
I know that we’re only in the very early days of February, but I’m feeling like I’ve just heard what will be one of the best albums of the year – it certainly is the best project I’ve heard so far, and will be awfully hard to beat.
Altitude, by Lifesigns, grabs you from the ethereal, heavenly opening moments of the epic title track to the song’s reprise, which closes the album. The opener is substantial at fifteen minutes plus, but never sounds bloated or pretentious, a trap that many progressive rock projects fall prey to. Like the rest of the album, “Altitude” is grand and expansive but not at the cost of the intimacy of the performances. The aforementioned ‘heavenly’ sound is in part due to the delicately-layered back-up vocals of Lynsey Ward. The other vocal presence is the wonderful voice of John Young, who immediately calls to mind both Jon Anderson and Sting in style and timbre, never sounding imitative of either. Thankfully, Young’s vocals are mixed well up front and are an absolute pleasure in terms of phrasing, texture, and clarity. On all too many prog albums the vocals are not up to the quality of the playing – not so here. This is not to minimize the playing, which is phenomenal. The drumming (Zoltan Csorsz) is tasteful, expressive, propelling, and properly driving, the bass (Jon Poole) is alternately lyrical and often quite juicy and pumping. Young’s keyboard work is melodic and textured, with some outstanding solo moments, and the guitar work (Dave Bainbridge) is fluid, emotional, gutsy, and inspiring. This is the case throughout the whole album, but let’s get to some special moments….
The second track, “Gregarious,’ literally stopped me (and my wife, who was also listening) in my tracks. It’s a bit of classic rock-inspired prog/pop that’s about as perfect a four and a-half minutes as you’ll hear anywhere. There are hints of Beatle-esque background vocals, a hooky melody line, a clean, open soundscape with a nice, staccato section and a dramatic chorus. The synth solo is perfectly placed and Bainbridge’s guitar wails emotionally in a stunning solo, bringing the song to an end with a chord change worthy of the mighty Procol Harum for its surprising turn from minor to major against a subtle churchy organ! If there’s a radio-ready single from Altitude, this is it.
“Ivory Tower” brings things into a more ballad mode, starting out with Young accompanied by piano alone before the whole band comes in and brings this well-written song into tempo. Here again, Young shows that he’s a masterful songwriter, creating memorable melodies and creative arrangements. This is followed by “Shoreline,” with its stunning chord structure and more jazz-fusion attack. Once again, Lynsey Ward provides beautiful background vocals, especially in the dramatic “save me” hook. The jazzy opening allows for some impressive synth work from Young. About five minutes into the track the mood changes and the band plays some instrumental passages sounding a lot like late-period Focus before they really take off on all cylinders. Jon Poole’s bass propels the band through the up-tempo attack with fire and funk. Once again, Bainbridge is furious, his guitar work sounding more rock-influenced than I’ve ever heard him before.
“Fortitude” is a song full of wonderful melody ideas and an amazing vocal moment at about 6:30, where Young sings the words, “never mine to hold” in a way that’s pure genius and a triumph of falsetto phrasing. After a short instrumental bridge (“Arkhangelsk”), comes “Last One Home,” a melancholy ballad with an early change from minor to major that’s just beautiful and highlights the song’s plunge back into dark space for a haunting, gut-wrenching guitar solo. As an unashamed fan of the playing of Dave Bainbridge, I have to say I’ve never heard him create a solo of such passion and power as he does on this song.
Guests on the album are Lynsey Ward (vocals), Juliet Wolff (cello) and Peter Knight (violin). And on ‘all things sound’ – band member Steve Rispin.
“Altitude (reprise)” is the calm after the storm. And so ends a totally satisfying album – one that doesn’t need a break-in period, yet one that grows with every listen. And that’s something I intend to do over and over again.
4 1/2 Tocks
- Bert Saraco
For concert photography by Bert Saraco, visit: www.facebook.com/express.image