- Putting together the complete package
UPDATE: Upon revision of our rating system, I can’t in good faith give this album the vaunted “5 star” rating. This album caught me at the exact right time in my life, and I was swept up in the incredible concept, beautiful lyrics, and catchy melodies. But the rhythmic composition is shaky, the drums are very fake, and the Progulator staff unanimously agreed that this album’s rating should be lowered. It’s still an incredible piece of music, and certainly deserves a listen.
Let’s cut right to the chase. This album would be my runaway choice for Best Album of 2012 if Änglagård hadn’t decided to go and reunite after 20 years, and even then it’s a close call for me. If any of you are like me, you keep mental awards tagged to albums like “my all-time favorite drums” or “my all-time favorite keyboard solos.” Well, Skies Darken might have just claimed my title belts for “favorite album lyrics” and “most consistent melodies,” putting it squarely in my top 25 albums of all time with room to climb.
And yet, I’ve never been so conflicted about an album review in my whole life. You see, our past two album reviews on Progulator have had perfect scores. And well deserved, I might add. Änglagård had a lot to live up to and STILL managed to exceed expectations, while Hermann Szobel’s nearly three decade-old album is quite possibly the finest example of the Progressive Rock/Jazz fusion genre. Both feature immaculate musicianship, sterling production for their respective eras, and flawless composition. So naturally, if I’m going to award a third perfect score in a row and possibly catapult our reputation in the process, it better live up to those standards.
Citizen Cain is a U.K. Prog group that has been around for exactly 30 years, and Skies Darken represents their sixth release, and first in ten years. I have never heard of the group before reviewing this album and have only started scratching the surface of their catalogue, but their comeback offering seems to do exactly what we just saw the Swedes do in our last review: exceed their previous offerings.
I’ll get the bad stuff out of the way. It’s not the greatest production, and this site has reviewed a handful of albums this year alone that sound much better. The vocals are cool, with a definite Fish (from Marillion) sound to them, but they’re certainly not compelling. The drums are most likely programmed (Matt noticed it first, so I’ll give him the credit). There are also a few awkward timing sections written into the album that are quite noticeable.
Doesn’t sound like a perfect score, huh? Stay with me, because this album is mostly great because of what an incredible experience it is. There’s a ton of emotion behind this album, as songwriter Stewart explains:
The main influence for me in writing this particular album was the path my life has taken over the past 10 years. I was forced to come face to face with myself… to realize that everything up to that point had been the result of a lifetime of conditioning. I wasn’t who or what I wanted to be…
Damn. Believe me, that spirit is alive and well in this album. Skies Darken is HEAVY, and not in a “dark and moody” sort of way. This album manages to be incredibly brutal and mentally taxing without the use of death growls, excessive minor key tonality or dark ambiance. It draws all of its emotion from well-written melodies and well-written lyrics, and anybody who has attempted to write music realized just how hard that is.
The music is extremely compelling, utilizing a wide range of chord types and inversions, keys, modes and every other musical technique under the sun. I’m tempted to claim that there are more unique and interesting musical themes and riffs in this album than in any album I’ve ever heard, across any genre. They are beautiful, and will keep any listener worth their salt engaged in the album, and if they don’t, you probably don’t understand music. They even manage to repeat themes towards the end of the album to bring the concept full circle without it feeling like they copied.
And the music around those melodies is fantastic. I heard a lot of Genesis mixed with a little Jethro Tull, some Crimson, and even a little Oingo Boingo (Danny Elfman’s old band). There are myriad keyboard patches that are played throughout the record, and the riffs and solos are well structured. You want odd time signatures? You’ve got them. You want creative solos? They’re in there. How about great transitions and dynamic range? Check and check. It’s the right equation for any good prog album.
And let’s talk a little about the lyrics, maybe the most intriguing part of the album for me. These lyrics are extremely deep and well-written. The author, Cyrus, manages to succeed at both meter and rhyme while avoiding all of the corny words that seem to crop up in 99% or the stuff out there. The album is a concept, and an incredibly deep one at that, with talk of heaven and hell, Johnny (a recurring character in Citizen Cain albums, it seems), mythology, and fairy tales.
Skies Darken is made up of more than 3,200 words. You ready that correctly. That’s halfway to a novella, people. This band managed to craft a large and gorgeous musical story, and I got caught up in it. I asked vocalist and lyricist Cyrus if he could explain the concept behind the album. Here’s what he had to say:
Why? You like being led by the hand to the water hole to drink, how would you know whether the water is good to drink? Someone you hope will tell you! Better to find the water hole yourself and make up your own mind as to its meaning. Make up your own minds. Switch the lights off, and listen. The war between two minds.
Imagine if an infant started shooting and developing black and white photographs of old buildings in nearby towns, sipping overpriced wines and saying how they fail to “fully stimulate the palate,” and critiquing nineteenth century philosophers, then it goes and eats baby food made of duck with fondant potato and fennel. Several hours later, the infant makes an ungodly mess in its cloth diaper made of 100% Egyptian silk. What would you have? A dirty diaper filled with the most pretentious pile of shit ever made, which is the only comparison I could come up with to match the quote you just read.
I had to come to terms with something over the course of this review. This blog was built on a bedrock of acceptance, welcoming any and all obscure, artistic and pseudo-sophisticated overtones in the music we have heard. Along the way we’ve had plenty of laughs as we’ve joyfully skewered what has become the culture of “progressive music.” Believe us, it comes from a place of love; we genuinely enjoy the spirit of everything that has been published on this site.
But in Skies Darken, and possibly in any Citizen Cain release, I may have found a piece of art rock that insists upon itself so much that it’s beyond the point of even being a parody of the genre, like Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick was. And guess what? I LOVE IT!!! I don’t remember connecting to an album more than this one in at least two years, probably longer. The combination of lyrics, music and overall theme struck me in all the right ways, and I’m starting to think that this would have happened even if this album were released years ago, or even ten years in the future.
Since it’s no longer on Progstreaming and they seem to have limited distribution, it’s not extremely easy to find. But I really encourage everyone to find a copy of Skies Darken and just give in to the experience. Find a good sound system or a nice set of headphones, brew a cup of tea, press “Play” and soak in the majesty of one of the most ingenious and pretentious progressive music albums ever crafted.