Emotional, strangely inspiring and exciting…
Released by Nuclear Blast on 8 September 2017 and reviewed by Paul H Birch
Threshold has been producing records since the early nineties taking in a slow rolling cast of singers and musicians throughout their career. These days, it’s hard keeping a working band together financially so that old get out-clause about having musical differences (or getting on each others’ nerves) is less relevant than it once was. Mind you, it sounds like that what’s happened with Threshold recently; rumour has it the singer who’d been with them for the last decade found out he’d been dismissed after the effect and a second guitarist also got his marching orders. Meanwhile the band themselves are being extremely vague about the whole affair, emphasising their desire to move on and develop the more progressive side of their music.
Not having heard a single note from the band previously, I currently abstain from pledging my allegiances one way or the other to either party and can only base my opinions on the music at hand. Ostensibly a prog metal band, too much of that sub-genre is neither fish nor fowl to me, but on Legends Of The Spires I get where they’re coming from, and that’s despite the band themselves stating they wanted to pursue the progressive side of their nature further. So, having heard a couple of tracks, I wanted to hear more and signed on the dotted line to do so – I hadn’t realised there were eighty odd minutes of music to get through.
Fortunately, while the end result is a thumbs’ up it’s still going to take an awful lot of listening to get the full gist of the storyline flowing through it, for you see, Legends Of The Spires is also a concept album. Its length, availability as 2 vinyl albums, and title probably give that away. Not that it’s all hobbits and orcs; actually there’s little fantasy of any kind lyrically, more hyper-realism bordering on modern mainstream science fiction. While there’s an over reliance on the sounds of nature, radio sounds and other effects filtering in between the opening and closing of tracks, certain musical mannerisms are appropriated again in later songs that do hold the whole work together thematically.
“Legends Of The Spires is a concept album about a nation trying to find its place in the world. It could also be about a person trying to do much the same thing,” goes the band statement. The album itself can be considered to be in three acts, with Parts 1, 2 and 3 of ‘The Shire’ set at regular intervals. Shorter mellow tunes, the first is acoustic led before developing into piano based ballad, the second possesses more of an AOR flavour, and the final one recalls Camel. Lyrically they are meditations on states of mind, preparing us for the songs that will follow.
The gentle setting of ‘The Shire Part 1’ gets disrupted sharply by the introduction of ‘Small Dark Lines’ with storm chasing riffs played by distorted chugging guitars as keyboards swirl manically in between. It knocks you for six but you pick yourself up happy to get smacked in the face again. A high energy vocalist reveals he has secrets; dirty shameful ones, ones he knows his love suspects, and the inevitable revelation of them is mortifying to him. Early Threshold vocalist Glynn Morgan has returned to the fold and grabs your attention from the get-go.
With clear diction, and a vocal timbre that’s more often found in AOR or pop music than prog metal it’s that dichotomy that makes it stand out; and being given the catchiest of chorus hook lines over chord punctuations that were they not played with such grim conviction could have appeared at the cheesy end of some Chinn/Chapman bubblegum glam rock vehicle back in the 70s. Whereas there’s power, lust, drive and conviction here in this cheating heart confessional. The song branches out into brief musical interlude and changes but is no less intense for its very immediacy makes this a winner.
‘The Man Who Saw Through Time’ is more epic in scope. There is a sense of standing on the edge of some great experiment and the dangers, fears and concerns, alongside all the potential achievements that could be made if this power being sought were achieved. Is the protagonist’s ability real, dream or some post-modern existential double bluff? This listener still can’t be sure, though the character appears to surface again near the record’s conclusion. Musically it ranges from a piano lead number that evokes the insular confusion felt at times during 10cc’s The Original Soundtrack through to Tangerine Dream style electro beats playing alongside a clock ticking that prefaces a more AOR feel to the song but we also partake of a funky progressive sprawling instrumental section and epic echoed guitar solo. It’s followed by ‘Trust The Process’ wherein heavy metal merges with fusion, stretching out in instrumental melody, at times making one consider a rockier version of short-lived late 70s prog rock super-group UK.
Threshold is anchored down by the pummelling drumming of Johanne James and deep rooted bass of Steve Anderson. They’re ever present but don’t go in for indulgences here, allowing founding member guitarist Karl Groom and keyboard player Richard West to embellish heartily where appropriate. Groom attacks with passion and precision, West’s synthesisers produce warm sounds rather than the mechanical anonymity of too many modern keyboard players.
Arriving on a bouncy bass line with crushing guitars and an overlaying of keyboards we get ‘Stars And Satellites’, a euphoric number that tumbles gloriously with hooks, echoing classic Boston and Blue Oyster Cult hits during the guitar’s arpeggio moments and heavy footed rock elsewhere. Again, lyrically obtuse but charming with it; the inference being you can make of yourself what you want and we’ll each perceive you in different ways dependent on our own status. A change of pace is offered with the more mid-paced bluesy prog metal that is ‘On The Edge’.
‘The Shire Part 2’ gives way to ‘Snowblind’, the heaviest track on the album with harsh near djent riffing at one end of the spectrum and mellower sections recalling early Rush, with a lovely noodling synthesiser solo tucked in the middle. “There’s nothing in my heart” Morgan sings over the driving near power ballad that is ‘Subliminal Freeways’ and this passive aggressive attitude almost develops into a debate about mannerisms and personality on the acoustic and piano based ‘State Of Independence’ and raises its game to psychological domination with ‘Superior Machine’ as it steers between a most seductive riff and a deeper thrusting aggressive guitar sound.
Hitting the homerun with ‘The Shire Part 3’ from hereon certain previous musical themes begin to be felt again and the storyline, much as I can make it out, comes full circle. With ‘Lost In Translation’ Groom’s guitar leads into an ascending chord progression section, bass and organ suddenly bringing in a late 60s early prog come jazz roustabout before guitar and synthesisers take us into a longer instrumental section, a variation on the main verses with echoing waves of sound recalling Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and lines like “time rewards the patient” mining the same mental landscape yet with the possibilities offered rather than bland acceptance. This, then all coming to its conclusion, rather perfectly, with ‘Swallowed’.
Birds singing give way to a piano wherein reside the chords to Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. Plaintive, pastoral, and compelling lyrically with metaphors aplenty, and the line “Not sure what it says about me” perhaps striking at the heart of this album’s meaning. Eventually the full band kick in and at the three minute mark Groom takes a long winding elegiac solo in the manner of Dave Gilmour that leads the song to an emotional conclusion. Then, in its dying moments, Morgan sings: “They’re closing the doors of the farm today”. Very Orwellian.
Legend of the Spires might well be the aural reboot of Patrick McGoohan’s classic TV series The Prisoner let loose across the British landscape in search of William Blake’s ‘Jersusalem’. I remain unsure, but utterly convinced of its worth. Emotional, strangely inspiring and exciting, while also being confusing and oddly beautiful at times. Recommended listening.
- The Shire (Part 1)
- Small Dark Lines
- The Man Who Saw Through Time
- Trust The Process
- Stars And Satellites
- On The Edge
- The Shire (Part 2)
- Subliminal Freeways
- State Of Independence.
- Superior Machine
- The Shire (Part 3)
- Lost In Translation