- Proggies Worthy Keyboard Playing!
Two years ago I was taken by surprise when I first became introduced to The Psychedelic Ensemble (TPE) through the album The Dream of the Magic Jongleur. Upon interviewing TPE I found out about his next album in the works which would feature not only all the goodness that this one man mytery exhibits, but would raise the stakes even more by including an orchestral ensemble. Needless to say the expectations were high and I’m glad to say that high expectations were met by the new release, The Tale of the Golden King.
What perhaps pleases most about The Tale of the Golden King is that it is basically everything we already love about TPE with bigger sounds, grander orchestration, and more nuanced writing. The record kicks it off with “Overture: Our Great King,” a piece that demonstrates stunning arrangements from the start, offering mysterious moods, dueling guitars and keys, and some of the best narrative vocals ever by way of the “Enter all who with to hear the tale” segment which presents some fantastic church organ and bells before diving into a nicely executed fugue. “The Prophecy of the Seer” offers great dialogue between principle and secondary vocals, a sort of call and response if you will. Additionally, the instrumentation on this piece is a real gem, with loads of acoustic instruments that are subtle yet powerful. The dreamlike section about two thirds into the piece is absolutely killer as the church organ presents descending patterns flanked by fluttering chord changes while blasting you with bursts of aggressive keyboards; one of the coolest moments on the album from where I’m sitting, and that’s saying a lot.
Those who heard the sample tracks on TPE’s webpage should be well aware of the glory of “The Golden King” and “Queen of Sorrow,” some of the absolute highlights of the album. The former shows TPE taking full advantage of the orchestra to lay down a beautiful intro followed by and an epic, almost cinematic, outro. In between we see all the melodic phrasing, weaving synthesizers, solid groove, and catchy vocal lines which have become trademarks of TPE, all presented on a superb level. “Queen of Sorrow” shows itself to be a stand out track as well, this time due to the gorgeous vocals of Ann Caren who demonstrates vocal, angelic beauty this a sense of power and melancholy worthy of the title “Queen of Sorrow.” Musically speaking, this, like “The Golden King” stands out at the top of this album, taking full advantage of piano, acoustic guitars, cello, and horns to create a distinctive atmosphere, particularly in the uber eerie middle section in Ann’s voice takes on a ghostly whisper which is highlighted by echoing strings and fading voices before diving into an agressive array of guitar and key solos. To cap it off, TPE leads us toward a final verse and chorus which opts for orchestral arrangements to back up the main vocal lines, providing a somber and majestic ending to one of the strongest pieces on the record. In a word: breathtaking.
While the middle section just described was most definitely the highlight of the album for me, the rest of the album continues in the tradition of strong tunes. “Save Yourself” and “Make a Plan” constitute a perfect complimentary duo both in terms of music and lyrics, with “Save Yourself” offering funky, jazzy basslines, solid groove, and one of the catchiest choruses around, while “Make a Plan” does it up nicely with some fine bluesy vocals and organ, and an eventual shift into a storm of scorching guitar and keyboard solos, more of which can be found on the rhythmic instrumental storm known as “The Battle.”
The closing track, “Finale: Arise, Great Kingdom” is determined to give us a grandiose closing to this wonderful tale. After opening with a fantastic, album encompassing orchestral arrangement, TPE launches us into a multi-layered vocal arrangement that recalls Yes in the most wonderful of ways, with a nicely added pastoral touch. I must also say that as so often I feel with TPE’s music, I am impressed by the delicacy of instrument treatments on this piece, both on the lighter vocal sections as well as those that might conventionally be called more busy; we simply get what seems like an infinite number of instruments coming and going, but never feeling forced or like they’re just making an appearance for the sake of it. Furthermore, unlike many artists’ albums which seek to make grand use of motifs by merely rehashing themes in the most banal ways throughout the album, this finale truly weaves together the best melodies of the album while finely portraying the spirit of the complete work. Finally, I must put in a plug for the solo sections on this piece, particularly the one that starts as we approach the seven minute mark; they’re remarkable, and capitalize not only on the treatment of leads and phrasing themselves, but are skillfully supported by the entire arrangement. After hearing the climactic closing of “Finale,” I marvel at a piece which so well captures the essence of The Tale of the Golden King and sits among the strongest of songs that I’ve heard all year.
Just in case I have to spell it out more clearly, The Golden King is a remarkable album that should grab up some great attention for The Psychedelic Ensemble. While the last album was good, this one really went all out, demanding many a thorough listen due to its complex arrangement, variety, and skillful performances. In reality, The Tale of the Golden King takes everything I love about TPE, crafts them to near perfection, and still manages to give you more. There have been a number of brilliant albums that have come out this year, and I suspect there’s still a few more to come, but as for myself I think I can safely say that this one will find its way among them as a memorable release of 2013.