Issue 2012-026: The Flower Kings - Banks Of Eden - Round Table Review
CD: Numbers (25:27), For The Love Of Gold (7:26), Pandemonium (6:09), For Those About To Drown (7:07), Rising The Imperial (7:52)
Bonus Disc: Illuminati (6:20), Fireghosts (5:50), Going Up (5:10), LoLines (4:40), Film: Interview with the band in the studio, Jan 2012
Jez Rowden's Review
Has it really been 5 years since The Sum Of No Evil? With two high profile releases each from Jonas Reingold’s Karmakanic and Hasse Fröberg & Musical Companion plus Roine Stolt’s prodigious workload with Transatlantic and Agents of Mercy it sometimes seems that The Flower Kings haven’t really been away. In fact Roine’s three albums with the Agents built on a rather lightweight debut into something quite special with last year’s The Black Forest making me wonder whether I actually needed the Kings to return at all so I was elated yet a little nervous when it was announced that the beast was being re-mobilised after the lengthy hiatus.
The core band of Stolt, Reingold, Fröberg and maestro keyboardist Tomas Bodin return with yet another new occupant of the drum stool, Felix Lehrmann (their 6th drummer if you include Pat Mastelotto guesting on tour), and high expectations from the faithful. I haven’t been disappointed with The Flower Kings since first hearing Space Revolver in 2000 on the back of the first Transatlantic release and being immediately hooked. The dilemma is that the peaks of the Kings’ huge output are spectacularly high but they could sometimes do with a bit more quality control and editing – ‘slightly less is often more’ would be a good mantra. Despite this the band remain my favourite from the last 20 years and I was hoping that Banks Of Eden would be an exhilarating new album to savour.
To be quite honest the first spin of the CD was a huge disappointment. It left me cold and I had visions of this becoming a very damning review. It was obvious that the band had striven to produce a quintessential TFK album that wove in familiar sounds, phrases and flourishes harking back to previous albums so making Banks Of Eden sound comfortable and immediately identifiable as a Flower Kings release. Unfortunately it just felt lacking in quality material. The epic opener Numbers seemed tedious, plodding and directionless while the rest of the album offered little in the way of excitement or interest.
The second spin, however, unveiled a startlingly different piece of work that has continued to grow with each subsequent play, getting better each time and revealing itself to be a truly fine album. And that is the real triumph of Banks Of Eden; it may not be their best album but it is far away from being their weakest and the band have re-emerged with a mature, thoughtful and well balanced piece of work which is not weighed down with filler. It certainly reaps rewards from perseverance and should not be written off too quickly.
Roine’s aim to recreate a warm, vintage sound by using original equipment is nothing new but this attempt has been successful and the result is a modern recording imbued with classic prog sensibilities. The epic Numbers opens with a “We’re Back!” flourish and evolves through its 26 minutes, taking its time and not being rushed, to become one of the best extended pieces the band have ever come up with. It ebbs and flows whilst retaining a graceful sweep with power when required, sedate lyrical passages and tricksy sections to vary the mood. Not instant but a grower and when you get into it half an hour is gone in a flash.
Numbers certainly sounds like TFK, maybe with a slightly darker hue at times, and is true to itself, self-referencing in the way all good epics should. There is an organic feel to the music which doesn’t sound forced like some of their previous material. As expected the performances are all top notch with Felix’s drums, benefiting from a very live sound, filling a space between the technical jazz of Zoltan Csörsz and the controlled power of Jaime Salazar and a worthy foil to the masterful Reingold, the two playing off each other like they’ve worked together for years. Vocally, Roine takes the verses with Hasse coming in for the choruses and becoming more visible as the track progresses. Both are in fine voice with good harmonies, the balance between the two very different vocalists maintained. One of the main contributors, and perhaps the unsung hero, is Bodin who colours, fills and takes the music in unexpected directions with some wonderful additions. No pun intended but he is key to the sound, adding more than may at first be appreciated. Roine’s guitar is simply wonderful throughout and anyone who enjoys his playing is in for a treat here as he pulls off some of the most elegant soloing I’ve heard from him.
For The Love Of Gold has a full-on prog intro led by Bodin which moves into an excellent melodic Hasse sung track with hints of Camel and Yes. This is classic TFK with great harmonies and all the bells and whistles you would expect but managed so as not to get in the way of the melody. Roine’s guitar is a much bluesier instrument on this track, filled with passion and energetic enthusiasm. In fact enthusiasm is the hallmark of Banks Of Eden and Roine has this to say about the comeback:
"It was both a scary and exciting prospect to go back into the studio after an almost 5 year hiatus. We have all been active ... so were up to speed in the playing department, but starting TFK again put some weight on my shoulders I suppose, but it's fun. Realizing now with ELP, Crimson, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Pink Floyd being history we are among the new eldermen of Prog and we feel responsible for keeping the standard up, so a lot of hard work is gonna go into the coming months.”
Pandemonium opens with staccato keys and a slow build while the guitar soars in truly epic fashion. I could do without Roine’s treated monotone vocals but it is used sparingly and elsewhere he puts in a very nice vocal performance well supported by Hasse. The rhythm section really come into their own as a unit on a swooping stop/start bass line in the second half with more fine soloing from Roine.
For Those About To Drown has a great melody line presented in typical TFK style with bizarre Stolt lyric delivered as only he can. This is possibly the least interesting piece on the album but not without its charm, particularly from the keys, the touches of Queen influence and the thrilling guitar solo to finish.
Jonas Reingold’s Rising The Imperial features a slow-burn opening and sedate verse building to a climax with a fine vocal from Hasse. Roine is again on fire and still my favourite guitarist, pitching his solos to perfection. This is a very measured and mature track from a band at the peak of their powers that ties the album together nicely based as it is on themes that previously appeared during the epic Numbers.
The whole album is classic TFK and holds up very well indeed as a single disc – maybe the need for better self-editing has been taken on board. The bonus disc features four additional songs that should not be regarded as essential, just a little extra for devotees. The instrumental Illuminati is particularly retro, led in by Bodin and Reingold with fine soloing from Stolt that builds to quite a climax before recapping the original melody. Fireghosts is light and upbeat with a strong melody that, oddly, reminds me a bit of Dire Straits! Going Up is very catchy and has a bit of Yes about it but, again, is a little lightweight. LoLines is a sort of Gentle Giant stomper with some AOR thrown in. All have a ‘live in the studio’ sound as evidenced by the chat between the tracks and are pleasant enough but overall it was a wise move to include them on the bonus disc rather than dilute the album proper. The video runs 18 or so minutes, the interview is an interesting single watch with an added tour of the studio, seemingly in the dark, with a look at the vintage equipment used by the band.
I don’t see how fans of their previous work can fail to enjoy Banks Of Eden and I’d go as far as to say that this is the finest Flower Kings studio album in at least a decade and bearing in mind that I really rate 2002’s Unfold The Future I’m a happy prog bunny.
Roine can have the last word:
“Playing progressive music to me means that you have the chance to break the rules if you want to, and if you want to stay within the rules, that's fine too... My advice is just give it time and it will be very rewarding."
John O'Boyle's Review
All good things in life are worth waiting for and what we have here is one of those moments. During their five year hiatus, idle or downtime is not in their vocabulary, the members of the band have been working with Transatlantic, Karmakanic and Agents of Mercy, but now The Flower Kings have deemed it time to re-convene, releasing their latest epic Banks Of Eden and in all honesty it’s like they have never been away.
For the discerning collector Banks Of Eden has been released in three various formats, this review is based upon the standard single disk release. For your information there is a '2CD digi-book Ltd Ed' that contains an extra four songs that has a running time of twenty two minutes, songs which unfortunately I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing; finally there is also a double album vinyl version that includes two CD‘s. They are certainly a band that doesn’t do things by halves.
As the elder statesmen of the prog world a lot rests on their shoulders, shoulders that are broad, that carry the mantle perfectly. As ever, time is the key with The Flower Kings, the more you allocate, the more rewarding the outcome is. In fact it is worth noting that the time used listening and absorbing what is on offer here will only enrich your music experience. This release is showmanship of the highest order and begs me to question how time and time again these musicians keep coming up with such majestic musical statements.
As ever we get the inimitable long piece Numbers, which lands in just short of twenty six minutes and then four shorter pieces, which initially are easier pieces to get your head around. The band have also introduced Felix Lehrmann, a 26 year old drummer whose style is slightly heavier in approach than his previous counterparts that does in actuality breathe a freshness in the music. The core members of the band are still present and in all honesty on this occasion I feel fit to raise my glass to Roine, Hasse and co for what has been created.
Numbers opens events, a song that isn’t easy listening but as it matures it definitely becomes an epic that should find place in the live repertoire becoming a firm favourite amongst their fans and the newly initiated. This for me this is the signature sound of the band, convoluted musical statements that twisted and turn, choosing to travel in varying directions, something that keeps this symphonic approach enriched and mesmerizing, cinematic parlances with depth, melody and astounding beauty. Throughout the piece power is asserted, sonic soundstages that reverberate around the room which are matched by the audacious vocal presentations, complementing the proceedings which add a feeling of spiritual cleansing.
And so we move onto the first of the so called short pieces For The Love Of Gold with its powering keyboard sequences, momentous backline and melodic nirvana that will have you repeatedly listening, a theme that persists throughout the whole album. Roine’s adept guitar style really ignites the tone as it punctuates the framework. This approach is married in perfect harmony with blissful keyboard inclusions something that makes this relationship of band members so strong; the real icing on the cake is the Yes inflected vocal phrasings that appear from time to time, moments that send shivers down your spine.
The opening sequence of keyboards on Pandemonium offers familiarity, sounding like the return of an old friend that has been in absence for years, a sound that does not emulate the tracks title, far from it. In saying that the guitar sound presented has more edge to it, powerful phrasing that scale to heady heights as its wraps its proverbial musically arms around you, layered interactions that are rhythmic, climatic and stunning. There is absolutely nothing not to like about this song.
The penultimate song For Those About To Drown presents a more sedate approach than the previous song Pandemonium, a dynamic and lyrically interesting song, but isn’t that what these guys are about, a song that paints a lyrical picture that is worth participating in. The band turns these songs out for fun, not formulaic, just fantastic musical vignettes that are a real pleasure to participate in.
The uplifting lyrics “I sit by the brook that sings your name, the voice of God and his perfect game, I still don’t know just where I’m at, I am on the road that lingers on to some place grand, worlds grow inside you, don’t you be afraid”, opens up Rising The Imperial a song that could have in all honesty been lifted directly off last year’s highly recommended Karmakanic album A Perfect World. That in its self will reassure their fans the strength of the track, being the perfect way to close an album, a song that features some rather beautiful and must be heard bass and guitar melodies. As Numbers was the perfect way to open the album, Rising The Imperial is the perfect way of closing procedures.
Anyone who knows these guys, their back catalogue, will know exactly what I am talking about, those of you who don’t, shame on you, now is the time that you should get on board and familiarise yourself, you will not be disappointed. This is a band that doesn’t care about trends; their main concern is that they keep their fans on their toes as they construct their songs. This is definitely a sonically stunning album that is going on my album of the year list and one that I suspect will be on many others too, a bold but true statement.
Brian Watson's Review
Well. What can one say about The Flower Kings that hasn’t been said already? Suffice to say I’m not going to pad this out with details of who plays what instrument, and I’m pretty sure you won’t need a band biography. A quick glance over our CD review archive will tell you everything there is to know, and then some, about these seminal Swedish third-wave proggers. Nor do you need me, if we’re being honest, to tell you whether or not to buy this. This will I am sure sell in obscene quantities, given that it’s the first proper Flower Kings album for what seems like a very long time. Because it is a very long time. It is, to use a hackneyed phrase, an ‘auto-buy’ for a great many people.
It’s The Flower Kings, for heck’s sake. They, and a few select others kept the prog fires burning in the 1990s. When buying progressive rock albums was less socially acceptable than buying pile ointment or Vagisil. I was going to say child molestation but that doesn’t seem to have done that much harm to the Catholic Church. Your beloved Radioheads and Porcupine Trees (both of whom I love, by the way) have, for years, distanced themselves as far away as they possibly could from the label ‘progressive’.
"I do get given a lot of CDs and demos, although usually I don’t like them, but mainly because most of them are old-fashioned progressive rock, which I’m not really into."
Steven Wilson, 2001
Speaking six years later, SW opined that, when Porcupine Tree released In Absentia in 2002 “it would have been the kiss of death to have promoted it using the word ‘progressive’”. Not that he cared less, he said, “but in order to survive in this industry you certainly have to be aware of what kind of prejudices there are out there”. Yet there are bands who have released, and continue to release music that they want to release. Not because they have an accountant’s eye on market trends and what’s hot (or not). It’s arguable, however, that if it weren’t for third-wave bands like Spock’s Beard, The Flower Kings, echolyn, Discipline, Glass Hammer, Izz, The Tangent and others then there wouldn’t be any glossy mags that would want to put Steven Wilson on the cover. In fact he was on the cover of a certain magazine in January 2011 and April 2012. He was featured in said magazine (you know the one I mean) in March 2012, February 2012, January 2012, December 2011… Need I go on?
The BBC, no less, did a feature on PT in September 2009. Progressive rock had, according to SW, “been legitimised again… (It’s) not immediately followed by a snigger”. Well, I don’t know about you but I never sniggered. I just bought the records, and went to the gigs. Including PT records and gigs. They often weren’t well attended. Which is being kind.
Now, I don’t go in for all this interweb forum nonsense where supposed fans badmouth albums by their ‘favourite’ bands. There are a number of bands, in my past, and in my present, whose records I would buy come what may. Blue Oyster Cult, Rush, Genesis, Yes, Marillion. To name but a few. You will, no doubt, have your own list. These would be on the turntable before I’d heard a note, or read a review. Reviews didn’t matter, to be fair, since I’d buy them despite what some music journo - who would, if the money was right, take a job with Caravan Weekly – thought. Just look at how reviled in the media Rush were in the past. Now they are feted, and respected. And rightly so.
Although I suspect the professional music journos writing today have little or no backbone and even less journalistic integrity. Who wants, after all, to piss off a record label that spends big advertising bucks? Some smaller fish are fair game, though, which is why you’ll sometimes find shoddy little attacks on hardworking bands who are not ‘cool’. Or sexy. Afraid of their own shadow, as my dear old dad would say. Often before punching someone, hard, on the nose in a pub car park. Which I would never condone of course.
You do have to, though, admire someone who expresses a contrary, unpopular opinion, if it is genuinely and honestly held. If they do it just to provoke a response, court favour or appear cool then they are, to paraphrase Billy Corgan and Matt Stone in Beyond The Lighted Stage, a dick. I appreciate that there is now so much new music out there that the opinion of a trusted reviewer can often mean the difference between listening to a sound sample on a web page and not. But there are many bands where the review plays little or no part in the buying decision for a great many people.
The Flower Kings are such a band. Now it will probably upset SW but this is ‘old-fashioned progressive rock’. They sound, well, like The Flower Kings. Some reviewers will no doubt go into every nook and cranny of each and every track. Every nuance, and each lyrical theme will be explored and extrapolated. Some may even talk about time signatures, which confuse me. But in essence reviews such as these are as much use as a telephone sanitizer. Who as we all know is going to end up on the same spaceship as all the account executives, hairdressers, TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives and management consultants.
You, dear reader, already know if you’re going to buy this. Many of you, like me, already will have done so. ‘Pre-ordering’ they call it nowadays. Now if there is someone out there, waiting to see just what rating I give this before whipping out the credit card, then I stand corrected.
I am, therefore, going to try something I’ve not done before. Which is attempt one word reviews for each track just to give you, the buying masses, a flavour of an album I’ve had the pleasure of listening to a lot recently. The fact that we get records such as this to listen to some considerable time before the general public is not lost on me. It’s an honour, and a privilege. There will always be records I get promo copies of, or downloads that I will go out and buy just to complete a collection, and/or to get better quality sound reproduction. And there are some I won’t. Banks Of Eden falls into the former category. So, cats and kittens, here we go with Brian’s one word track-by-track review of what has to be one of the most anticipated releases of the year.
For The Love Of Gold: Bombastic
For Those About To Drown: Fragile
Rising The Imperial: Anthemic
All in all this is a splendid record. Classic symphonic progressive rock music of the very highest order. Owing more to Space Revolver, Back In The World… and Unfold… than more recent work. Each track is a classic Flower Kings tune. Every song has a place in the classic Flower Kings canon. All killer, no filler. It’s one of the very best records you’ll hear all year and will top many a best of the year list. It makes my top 5, without question. And we didn’t even have the bonus tracks to listen to (which come on a second CD if you get the special edition, which I’ve had on pre-order for some time now). So, with due regard to the tried and trusted DPRP ratings guide, that makes it a: 9 out of 10 (9.5 if the bonus tracks are even remotely like the rest of the album).
Ian Butler's Review
After some 5 years TFKs (The Flower Kings) are back with the follow up album to The Sum Of No Evil. Of course in this interlude there have been many albums from their various other solo projects and bands like Agents of Mercy and Karmakanic. The album was in progress since December 2011 and is due for release of June 18th 2012. It combines the talents of Roine Stolt, Tomas Bodin, Jonas Reingold, Hasse Froberg and new drummer Felix Lehrmann. Quite a classic TFKs line up. This review doesn't contain the bonus limited CD. I am quite excited to hear this new album as side projects have recently produced some great music.
Track 1 - Numbers is 25 minutes long and opens with all the traditional 'pomp' of a TFK's record. Somethings never change. It's a long song introducing melodies and themes that you will find through the album. Being a long track as you would expect, there are many different passages from the initial complicated guitar riffing, to funky Reingold bass notes underpinning the music, to easier listening vocal melodies with a relaxed flow and an upbeat feel in places. There is a nice mix of everything. All good solid and dependable TFKs. After 10 minutes the mood changes to more of a subdued mood leading to some typical Roine guitar work. So far I think Felix Lehrmann's drumming style fits in well with intricate, never boring drumming, complimenting and accenting the music with fills and cymbal chimes/small splashes. Any new TFKs drummer has some serious work to do to live up to previous drummers! The rest of the track again builds up some solid beats and bass with keyboard and with the guitar taking the melody again, working into a solo with some nice complicated drum beats. The main theme is played again on the bass to start the closing of the track. I love the attention to detail, even the fading out of the track is superb. It's a very very good track, infact, I think it's classic TFKs.
Track 2 - is the fantastically titled For The Love Of Gold. I think it's another classic TFKs style where 'pop meets prog' which is common through TFKs catalogue, something like Chicken Farmer Song from the Space Revolver album. Proggy keyboards intro leading to a comfortable flowing song where Hasse takes the vocals, acoustic guitar and later some solo guitar over the top. Keyboards and slide guitar double up and later some some doubled vocals. It's flowing and just puts a smile on your face, like a little ray of morning sunshine. It reminds me of something from The Rainmaker rather than The Sum Of No Evil. A pleasant tune and stylistically contrasts the first track.
Pandemonium is the third track. It initially picks up the pace with fast keyboards, bass and drums before materialising into another 'nice' flowing song with Genesis-esque guitar/melody. They chose to use a voice effect on the vocals, perhaps it achieves a movement in the story of the album, or signifies something? Lovely basslines, superb drumming and piano continue until the lead guitar steps in. Turn up the volume for some great solo guitar work. Roine cuts loose! This is one thing that I noticed about this album that the guitar consistently dominates! Again like the Agents Of Mercy - The Black Forest album, it sounds like they had fun making this music!
For Those About To Drown - This track is 'easy TFKs' and for me it lets the album down a little. It's got a good guitar melody, but in the end it's just a little dull and predictable, except for the the 'outro' guitar solo. No offense TFKs, just my 2 cents worth. I realised that I haven't put many comparisons, 'sounds like band XYZ' etc. It just sounds like TFKs! They have become so slick and professional that all the influences (Genesis, Yes and bits of poppier Queen etc etc) are in gelled into one mass of TFKs sound.
Rising The Imperial - is the last track on the album. In a concert this will definitely get the cigarette lighters and hands in the air! Jonas's fretless bass and keyboards dreamily begin the track to introduce Roine's vocals and piano (where the vocal phrasing sounds ever so familiar of parts of another TFKs song City Of Angels). The main theme returns with Hasse singing. It's another example what I call TFKs 'emotional prog' where the 'heartfelt' song slowly builds up to a glorious guitar part. This track again allows Roine to show off and torcher those high notes using the whammy bar of his Parker guitar. I keep thinking of Roine standing on a mountain top next to a castle (obviously wearing a crazy shirt) with his hair blowing in the wind, ala Brian May :-). A great track in my opinion, but I am a sucker for this type of TFKs music.
Conclusion: The first few listens left me a bit unsurprised. There wasn't enough 'raw prog' throughout the album to grab the attention like you might find in some TFKs recordings like Flower Power etc. Initially it sounded too polite and normal. It didn't have any surprises from a prog perspective, nothing really new from TFKs. Not much strangeness, quirkyness, ridiculous time signatures or keyboard sounds that TFKs are capable of. I can understand if some may not enjoy the album for this reason entirely. It's also for this reason that some might actually get on with the album. Don't get me wrong, it's certainly not 'dinner party' music, unless it was a prog dinner party? (Never thought of that before, a prog listeners dinner party, sounds taboo to me!!)
So I didn't like it then? No, I really enjoyed it! Some TFKs albums have admittedly passed me by, like Sum Of No Evil, but I have really enjoyed listening to this album whilst reviewing it. It's a quality album, full of melody and real hooks that you find yourself singing. It has all the usual TFKs qualities in abundance like great song writing, strong melodies, supreme musicianship, intelligent songs. The real OTT self indulgence of some previous records isn't there in, but don't worry, indulgence is certainly present! The guitar drives the album alot with melody and solos, which I personally like and the keyboards are tasteful (nice work Mr Bodin). I would possibly say that it's lacking that real 'extra something different' that elevates it into a classic Flower Kings album, but otherwise it's excellent.
If you are a TFKs and 'spin off' bands fan, then definitely buy it. If you always wanted to buy a TFKs album, I think this is good enough to sit in most proggers collections if you like indulgent longer extended melodic prog with some great guitar solos.