- Standout Orchestral Arrangments
About a year and a half-ago The Psychedelic Ensemble (TPE) offered an incredible conceptual album in the form of The Tale of the Golden King. Well, TPE shows no signs of slowing down; fast forward to 2015 and we have yet another release to take in. TPE’s latest effort, The Sunstone, once again offers a fantastic tale with allegorical leanings. This time around he turns to medieval folklore and constructs a story inspired by sunstones, crystals that vikings used to aid them in crossing the sea. Once again, the result in both the lyrical and musical departments are stunning, bringing to the table the high caliber of symphonic rock that I have come to expect and love from The Psychedelic Ensemble.
The album opener, simply named “Prologue,” throws us instantly into a symphonic dream where darkness and magic strike the perfect balance. From the first moments of the album it’s clear that TPE continues to step up his game on the symphonic side of things, paying close attention to both orchestration and use of motif, something which is very evident early on as the brass brings in the main theme before being restated with choirs and passed around through woodwind variations. At this point the ensemble picks up the pace with pounding timpani while the strings section grabs onto the theme amidst a whirlwind of blazing guitar and keyboard runs. The intro is, quite frankly, phenomenal, setting high standards for the whole record right off the bat. From here TPE takes it into the title track, “The Sunstone.” Immediately we get all of the recognizable TPE flare: a bit of funk in the bassline, vocal lines that are separated by fierce guitar/keyboard runs and drum fills, etc. The chorus offers dense harmonies spinning all around, followed by some nice interplay between piano and synth prior to a bout of TPE’s signature soloing. Then comes the real treat, a break where chiming bells separate interweaving lines of clean guitar melodies, icy synths, and plenty of leads to create a distinctly magical atmosphere. What’s even better though is the next break where plucking acoustics under pianos are a bed for mysterious vocals singing “guide us” and doing the perfect job at setting the tone for the story.
Since the album is very consistent overall, I want to focus here on the strongest tracks. First is what I would consider as potentially the best song on the album: “A Hundred Years On.” This pieces opens up with some extremely dramatic orchestral tension. The magical feel is present once again as harps pluck and pianos interject to increase the sense of mystery. The strings bring in the first melody and then combine delicately with brass harmonic work before introducing an eerie choir. After some nods to the prologue the piece dives into some tick tension through brass dissonance before a breathe of release when a sweet melody is introduced over acoustic guitars. At this point the vocals enter and we get a slight Jethro Tull-esque vibe in the distinctly folky flavor of the rhythm and melody. The refrain, “a hundred years on,” really hits the sweet spot and will echo in your head in the best of ways. After building the piece up with, growing the dynamic under the vocal line with the support of the strings section, the drums eventually break in and we head to a theme introduced on synth, followed by brief guitar meanderings, before heading into a gorgeous interlude. This piece really stands out in its morphing of sections, the trade offs between cello, violins, and sparkly guitar. The return to an eventual repetition of the verse, stripped down to guitar and Hammond, is magnificent, and the outro that thematically recalls “The Siren’s Spell” by the return of Ann Caren’s gorgeous vocals calls for a mysterious closure where you can really imagine the screaming sirens of the sea. From here, “A Hundred Years On” directly links us into “Sun Mad,” a piece with music to really pull on your heart strings. The juxtaposition between the bluesy vocal line and a dark, melancholy piano accompaniment with powerfully arranged strings is absolutely killer. There is so much weight behind the orchestra parts here, knowing precisely when simplicity should give way to mezmerizing dynamics. After the 2nd verse the mood picks up a bit with some odd-time-play. It gets very groovy at this point and features a playful chase between guitar and keys before eventually returning to the somber mood set forth at the beginning of the track. All in all, the combination of “A Hundred Years On” with “Sun Mad” makes for one of the absolute highlights of the album.
Speaking of highlights, I’m sure all listeners will be delighted to have Ann’s voice back on this latest TPE record. She floored me with her performance on “Queen of Sorrow” on the previous album, and her presence on The Sunstone is a joy. In particular I want to mention the track “Gaze,” which I consider to be the perfect type of piece for Ann’s voice. Her sense of expression is extremely subtle and are immaculately performed. She has this unique way of singing her lines fairly straight on this piece but capturing loads of emotion nonetheless. This works perfectly with the slowly moving orchestration as the bits of weaving violin and chiming of bells add a deep sense of sorrow to her delivery. The lyrics are perfect for the mood, expressing solitude in the darkness and nothingness of the self that couldn’t be a better fit for the music. Even with the groovy drums and bass come in the piece remains quite dreamy in this track where mood is everything. Ann and TPE really nail it here.
Finally, I’d like to close off with two more standout tracks from The Sunstone: “Digging up the Past” and “The Quake.” “Digging Up the Past” may very well be my favorite track on the record and it’s hard to put my finger on why. On it’s own it’s clear that it’s a great song, but it certainly isn’t the most ambitious piece on the record. All the same, this song is ridiculously catchy, so much so that you’ll find yourself listening to it over and over, regardless as to whether or not your stereo is actually on. Objectively it’s hard to say what makes it tick. I like the light cymbal-work throughout, the constantly moving basslines during the verse, the absurdly catchy chorus, and the blend of guitars and Hammonds (plus a great solo by Steppenwolf’s Michael Wilk). In the end though, “Digging Up the Past” simply nails it in the creation of a divinely catchy melody, and that’s not easy to do (kudos to TPE). Similar to the “Hundred Years”/”Sun Mad” combo, “Digging Up the Past” dives right into another brilliant piece: “The Quake.” The intro to this one is dramatic, featuring a tone which with both desperate and mysterious, fantastically augmented by the slowly moving orchestra and soaring vocals. TPE brings in skilled references to main themes of the records before diving into a flurry of fusiony playing where guitars, synths, and piano whirl around each other with the support of powerful basslines and drum fills, recalling a bit of a Return to Forever dynamic. The piano solo that enters around 2:30 is dreamy and colorful and the interactions with the drums are just perfect. This piece features so much amazing dueling between instruments that you’ll just find yourself smiling til the end, wondering if it’ll ever let up but while never being disappointed that it doesn’t.
The Sunstone definitely will not disappoint fans of The Psychedelic Ensemble nor those of symphonic prog in general. What really catches my attention is that it has a lot of familiarity but it doesn’t fall into the trap of sounding like a repeat of the last couple of albums. While remaining distinctly TPE, The Sunstone takes on a much darker, more mystical musical direction, which I absolutely love. The balance between orchestra and band is just as good as ever, and I would say that TPE one-upped himself in terms of dynamic delivery and emotional weight. In the end, The Sunstone comes highly recommended and will certainly be a solid addition to your collection.