Round Table Review
Southern Empire - Civilisation
Geoff Feakes's Review
This is the second album from Southern Empire, following their 2016 self titled debut and the Live At HQ DVD. Producer, songwriter, keyboardist Sean Timms formed the band in 2014 following the untimely demise of Unitopia, probably the best prog-band to originate from Australia. Timms is also a member of Damanek, an international prog collective conceived by UK multi-instrumentalist Guy Manning, formerly of The Tangent and a DPRP regular. Coincidentally, in 2014 Manning collaborated with Timms’ ex-Unitopia partner Mark Trueack in the United Progressive Fraternity project. UPF also included other ex-members of Unitopia along with Steve Unruh and Marek Arnold who both appear on this album. It's a small (prog) world as they say.
Whereas Southern Empire’s first album was an outlet for songs written by Timms before forming the band, Civilisation is a collaborative effort involving the other band members. They are Danny Lopresto (lead vocals, guitars), Cam Blokland (guitars), Jez Martin (bass) and Brody Green (drums). Instrumental support comes from the aforementioned Steve Unruh (violin and flute) and Marek Arnold (soprano saxophone) whose talents have graced numerous projects including The Samurai Of Prog. Another guest is James Capatch (saxophone and flute) who like the band is also based in Adelaide, SA.
There are just four tracks ranging from 9 to 29 minutes giving a sign of what to expect musically. For the most part, the sound is bold and tuneful with grand aspirations in the epic style of Transatlantic, Neal Morse and Spock’s Beard with a dash of Toto-style AOR, particularly in the vocal department. Elements of Unitopia remain, especially the strong melodies although Southern Empire are heavier in tone. The Yes touches are still apparent (especially the Trevor Rabin era) but the Genesis influences are less obvious, until the final song that is.
Lead track Goliath's Moon (great title) abounds with “moon” references in keeping with the cover image, including a quote from Jules Verne’s novel From The Earth To The Moon and a snippet of President Nixon’s message to the Apollo 11 astronauts during the 1969 moon landing. If that wasn't enough, the track opens with By The Light Of The Silvery Moon from a vintage 1910 recording. Once it gets going however, the song proper is off the launching pad like the proverbial rocket. Lopresto (who looks like he’s walked straight off the set of a ‘Mad Max’ movie) sings powerfully and a match for the Ronnie James Dio’s of this world, underpinned by a heavy funk riff. The Martin and Green rhythm partnership is rock solid, Timms layers the keyboards to majestic effect and Blokland rattles off an energetic guitar solo. A mellow section showcases lush harmonies with contributions from all band members bringing to mind American hard-rockers Extreme in their early-nineties prime.
The near 20 minute Cries For The Lonely is a mostly successful exercise in dynamics, alternating between the lighter and darker side of Southern Empire. The rhythmic intro is similar to Yes' Changes, elevated by Green’s explosive drumming and Unruh’s uplifting violin theme which brings a touch of Kansas. Expansive vocals and heavy riffs takes the song into prog-metal territory contrasting with a sensitive vocal from Lopresto and a memorable choral hook at the midway point. An unexpected shift into a fast and tricky Dream Theater-ish instrumental section subsides once more into a mellow Steven Wilson style song before the extended coda, a masterclass in guitar pyrotechnics.
Clocking in at nearly 30 minutes, the penultimate track Crossroads may come as a surprise (and a disappointment) to anyone familiar with UPF’s 2014 album Fall In Love With The World. There is nothing wrong with the song per se or the execution, but co-written by Timms and Trueack, it's virtually a note-for-note, word-for-word reconstruction of Travelling Man (The Story of ESHU) from the UPF album. The arrangements and instrumentation are also remarkably similar, right down to Unruh’s soaring violin which brings both versions to a close. Southern Empire’s version does have a noticeably harder edge and they’ve incorporated additional material, extending the piece by more than 7 minutes.
The best elements of Crossroads remain intact from the UPF version, namely the middle-eastern flavoured song in the vein of Stargazer and Kashmir, a classical guitar and keyboard "strings" interlude around the halfway mark and the elegiac song (recalling Onward by Yes) which builds into the rousing finale. Elsewhere, this version evokes Endless Dream (Yes-West’s epic claim to fame) to good effect although an overblown guitar solo and a jazzy sax and piano section seem out of place and do nothing to advance the piece. Lopresto’s emotional finale certainly packs a punch although for me it lacks the subtle warmth of Trueack’s voice (which alway reminds me of Elbow’s Guy Garvey).
Thankfully, the final song Innocence And Fortune is an original composition courtesy of Timms and Unruh and its a belter. A spiky guitar rhythm, lyrical flute and Genesis-like "Mellotron" washes underpin a superb vocal melody. Lopresto’s range and versatility has been impressive throughout the album and here he gives one of his most finely judged vocal performances bringing to mind the incomparable Moon Safari. The central chorus is another cracker and there's the obligatory guitar solo but the real highlight is a stunning piano sequence in the style of the late, great Keith Emerson. A memorable way to finish the album.
Despite my reservations about Crossroads, there was never any doubt that this album would receive a DPRP recommendation. It remains a great song and Southern Empire do it full justice although making it longer doesn't necessarily make it better. That said, all the tracks share superb melodies and hooks, inventive arrangements and benefit from virtuoso performances and crystal clear production. It's been a strong year so far for prog albums, and this is up there with the best.
The evocative artwork by the way, featuring a Spanish galleon suspended below an airship is by Ryan Stephens. He’s a new name to me and unfortunately I cannot find any trace of him on the internet. Also, I could not locate a dedicated Southern Empire website (and their page on the Unitopia site hasn’t been updated since 2016) so the link above will direct you to their Facebook page.
Mark Hughes's Review
After two years the follow-up to the eponymous album by Australia's Southern Empire has arrived. With a consistent line-up of Sean Timms (keyboards, guitars, backing vocals), Danny Lopresto (lead vocals, guitars), Cam Blokland (guitars, backing vocals), Brody Green (drums, backing vocals), and Jez Martin (bass, flugelhorn, backing vocals), the order of the day is very much prog on.
The only difference is that this time round it is very much more a band album with all of the members having a part in writing at least one of the tracks, notably Crossroads. This track dates back to the abandoned Unitopia album, although it has been expanded and further developed for this album. What is not in question is the contribution of guitarist Blockland to the opening couple of songs, which are guitar-heavy pieces with a harder more edgy sound which in times incorporate an almost Dream Theater sound.
Opener Goliath's Moon is decidedly ordinary with lyrics that are almost as embarrassing as Lopresto's mohican only dragged out of the mire by a layered vocal arrangement. Cries For The Lonely, for which drummer Green gets a co-writer credit, seems to be trying to be a bit too prog. The dramatic and, dare I say it, bombastic (one word that is very overused in prog circles) opening makes good use of massed vocals on the chorus. A decent guitar and violin (courtesy of Steve Unruh) interplay is followed by a very good and melodic intermezzo before it's disappearing up its own arse by, in my opinion, a totally unnecessary and distracting oddball and 'quirky' we-are-all-so-clever instrumental section that really does nothing for the song except extend its running time. The song ends with reprises of a couple of the earlier sections and a guitar solo that I suspect lasted quite a bit longer after the fade out.
Crossroads is the inevitable monster piece that begins with a recording of some native North American chanting (perhaps the inspiration for Lopresto's haircut?) before developing inevitably into a Unitopian style with Unruh adding some very nice violin and flute passages that I believe were largely recorded when Unitopia were still a going concern. Saxophonists James Capatch and Marek Arnold also add their talents throughout. An interesting piece with some sublime instrumental sections. My main reservation is, as with pieces put together by Transatlantic, the band Southern Empire are often compared with, there lacks a real cohesion to the piece, with some passages sounding like they have been shoe-horned into place.
Best of the lot is Innocence And Fortune but even this is marred by the fact that it is an inferior rewrite of Ghost Written from the magnificent Samurai Of Prog album On We Sail. I am not a great fan of Lopresto's singing style, although there is no denying that he does possess a fine set of lungs, but is more suitable to a prog metal type of music rather than a more subtle approach. One only has to compare this version with the wonderful Samurai Of Prog rendition that features singing by Mark Trueack and Steve Unruh and the difference is immediately obvious. Of course, it could be that I am more familiar with Ghost Written than with Innocence And Fortune and that has influenced my opinion, but I can honestly state that even if I had heard the Southern Empire song first I would definitely consider the TSOP version an upgrade.
A somewhat mixed bag with frequent exceptional moments combined with interminable meanderings. Definitely a case of sometimes less is more.
Patrick McAfee's Review
When it comes to symphonic prog rock, I don't have vast expectations at this point for any band to reinvent the wheel. The benchmarks of this musical style are pretty well established, so the true distinction of any new recording comes from exemplary songwriting, performance and production. Those high standards were cetainly met on Southern Empire's debut album in 2016 and I found it to be one of the better prog rock debuts of recent years.
The good news is that the band's second album matches and often expands on the virtues that made their first such a creative success. One key change on Civilisation is the total focus on epic-length tracks, but musically, the album still feels like a natural follow up. Opener, Goliath Moon showcases their significant hard-rock skills and contains a driving instrumental guitar riff that is particularly contagious. Therein lies the key ingredient that sets Southern Empire apart. The melodies that they concoct throughout this album are wholly satisfying and often, stunning. Each track has moments that I would describe as pure musical bliss.
Prog-rock bands are often accused of taking themselves too seriously, but there is an upbeat exuberance and forceful edge to much of Civilsation that defies such cynicism. Complex and challenging in the way that good prog should be, the band's enthusiasm in creating this material is clearly heard throughout. Even the more lyrically downbeat, Cries For The Lonely displays a musical zeal that somehow stil feels buoyant.
Crossroads is the longest track, but flows at a satisfying pace that defies its twenty-nine minute legnth. Full of great melodies and expert instrumentation, the song closes in a dramatic fashion demanded of the best epics. If I have one slight criticism of Civilisation, it would be with the order of the track listing. Innocence And Fortune is another great song, but feels a bit anti-climactic. In my opinion, Crossroads would have resonated more as a closer, but ultimately, that is a minimal gripe for this strong of an album.
With this their sophomore effort, Southern Empire proves their debut to be no fluke. Civilisation is an excellent album filled with memorable melodies, hummable choruses and excellent performances. This is one of those recordings that I would definitely pass on to non-prog fans to show them how good the genre can be. With enough complexity to satisfy the most demanding prog-rock fan, there is also a significant crossover appeal to their material. The bottom line is that Civilisation is an album that deserves a broad audience and hopefully, it finds its way to many listeners.
At the time of publication, there were no videos available with music from the Civilisation album. To give you some music that is only two clicks away, here's a video from the debut album, a song titled Forest Empire.
And here's another song from their first album, titled How Long.
Other videos, including covers of Hey You and Roundabout can be found on the band's official Youtube channel.