Round Table Review
Tracklist: The Black Forest (11:06), A Quiet Little Town (6:53), Elegy (6:14), Black Sunday (6:14), Citadel (7:03), Between Sun & Moon (5:04), Freak Of Life (7:57), Kingdom Of Heaven (5:30)
Jon Bradshaw's Review
Following on from last year’s excellent Dramarama, Agents Of Mercy bring us their new offering, The Black Forest. Retaining the line-up we heard last year, you can very reasonably expect to savour some top-notch and versatile musicianship and this is very much the case with this release. Combined with the collective writing talents in this group of personnel, you can very reasonably expect some stellar compositions and you will not be disappointed. Given the vast studio experience gracing their collective CVs, you can very reasonably expect stunning arrangements and an engaging soundstage delivered with clarity and precision. Check. You’re waiting for a but? There isn’t one. AOM deliver in spades and sound better than they have done so far to my ears. The compositions are tight and succinct (for prog) with only one track reaching beyond ten minutes and the rest coming in at under eight minutes. With the total album length being 56 minutes this makes The Black Forest entirely digestible and legible. Shifting through a variety of styles and tastes, it remains a banquet but I don’t feel bloated and torpid at it’s conclusion, merely satiated.
What’s more, The Black Forest is a concept album:
"The Black Forest" is a surreal journey - a mysteriously glowing metaphor for a trip thru dark, disturbing, scary times, a lifelong uncertain journey bookended by greed, lust, hunger for power & money, eternal life, mind control, and guess what? ...we're the prey !!
We navigate thru dark dreams of the immortal, dark waters, eerie topics hinting at death & dreams, forest ghosts, blood countess Elzbeth Bathory's life, a freak parade of monstrosity galore, a quiet tidy town with hidden horrors, the touring circus of freaks, dark realms of endless wars and lost kingdoms, the unwanted dark towns of our minds …”
As bold as this may be, it doesn’t really come across lyrically. Musically, there’s a distinctly dark and netherworldy feel. It’s the stuff of childhood nightmares and things that go bump in the night or perhaps a kind of Tim Burton soundtrack. Maybe so, maybe not. It’s difficult to be precise because any label I choose to apply simply isn’t sophisticated enough. This is characteristic of the album as a whole. As soon as you think you’ve got the measure of it, something new and surprising will emerge to challenge your thinking.
This is evident from the off in the startlingly good title track. This broods and leers and is brilliantly theatrical. It blends moments of pastoral folky calm with gloriously symphonic bombast, nowhere more so than in the opulent vastness of the grave pipe organ heard in its conclusion. There are also passages and motifs that Flower Kings fans will find contain echoes of Roine and Jonas’ ‘home’ band. I want to draw a line under that though. It’s only natural that Roine’s signature compositional style will manifest itself, but this is not a Flower Kings album. It’s an Agents Of Mercy album and, with The Black Forest, I think they have laid down a marker and discovered their own identity. Another thing that struck me very quickly is Lalle Larsson’s amazing keyboard work. His contribution is supremely textured and diverse adding colour and wave and depth at every moment.
Black Sunday and Citadel reveal a move towards a harder, rockier sound for AOM with the guitars and drums pushed forward in the mix. Roine’s wrenching distorted guitar sounds great in these two tracks and the driven, heavy rock of Citadel’s verses would sit reasonably comfortably in Deep Purple’s canon. Similarly, Freak Of Life uses this harder, rockier edge but it contrasts and blends with symphonic elements and playful, creepy verses. The instrumental sections and solos from Roine and Lalle in all three of these songs underline the combined prowess of the band and demonstrate musicians at the height of their prodigious talents.
Elsewhere, Elegy is gorgeous, aching and beautiful and again, very theatrical. A silky arrangement of piano, strings and oboe provide the spine for the plaintive theme which is steadily layered with bigger and more open instrumentation: cavernous drums, Jonas’ fluid bass and earth-shattering Taurus pedals, and one of Roine’s elegant, majestic, weeping guitar solos. The impressive and catchy, A Quiet Little Town combines funk/fusion elements within a dramatic, bustling framework that is beguilingly ‘metropolitan’ in tone and belies the title of the track. I like this one a lot. Between Sun And Moon is the apple among the oranges, an upbeat piece with a characteristic ‘Roine’ vibe. Blending simplicity and complexity, melancholy and joy with élan, this is an utterly infectious ray of light amidst the shuddering blackness of the invisible sky inside AOM’s Black Forest.
I’ve not mentioned Nad Sylvan yet as I’m singling him out for special praise. His is a stunning performance on this album. The songs are dripping with theatre and drama. There are some very clever vocal parts, in a range of styles, which deepen the dramatic impact of each song. From sacred choral moments to Negro Spiritual and gospel choirs, to MGM romantic choruses and odd outbursts of harlequin colour, listen out for the shifting, twisted-fairytale aura of the vocal arrangements. This AOM is so theatrical, so dramatic, that it is almost (I stress, almost) tipping into rock-opera territory and it is Nad Sylvan’s superb work that makes it so. Not, I might add, that there is anything wrong in that! I love Stephen Sondheim and Les Miz and some of Rice and Webber’s work as well as the classic MGM musicals of the 40s and 50s. Prog Opera? Now there’s a thought, Roine.
All in all, this is an excellent album that often touches brilliance. Certainly fans of Jonas Reingold and Roine Stolt’s work in all it’s guises should be buying this. It plays with the kind of energy and accessibility that could open the ears of prog virgins and prog neophytes to a world of rich musical wonders. Equally, I think it could prick up the ears of even the most jaded and bitter of the Prognoscenti to warrant an appreciative nod of dismissive, sneering approval. What’s fantastic, and ultimately what makes this record a triumph, is how deftly AOM tread the line between the-gone-before and the-not-yet-done. It proves to be a dazzling tour-de-force in both sonic and stylistic terms and it’s very, very difficult to complain about that.
Jez Rowden's Review
As a dyed in the wool fan of The Flower Kings I have always felt a bit let down by Agents of Mercy, despite both of their previous albums having some enjoyable moments, particularly 2010's Dramarama. Roine Stolt possibly felt that after the last couple of TFK albums were generally not as strong as some of their earlier material he needed a break from the band and he certainly appears to be enjoying himself with the Agents’ more song-based and less excessive approach. However, as time has passed I, for one, have been hoping that the Kings would re-emerge to produce an album to rival their majestic creative highs but with three albums in as many years AoM are beginning to feel more like a full-time gig than a sideline. The Black Forest, an album I honestly have not been looking forward to with a huge amount of enthusiasm, is a concept album no less that makes a more than convincing step towards bringing Roine’s two worlds together. In short, this is one hell of an album.
The concept of The Black Forest, which disappointingly does not involve any sort of cherry stuffed gateau as far as I can see, deals with a surreal journey through a scary forest as a metaphor for a lifelong journey. Whilst the world we travel through can be beautiful you can’t see what dark and disturbing times may be waiting around the corner.
An epic to start? That sounds promising and the title track sets things up nicely and doesn’t disappoint. I’ve never been comfortable with Nad Sylvan’s vocal style but his idiosyncrasies seem a better fit here and he doesn’t grate at all. Walle Wahlgren on drums is a real find and he has certainly developed over the course of the two Agents’ albums he has appeared on while Lalle Larsson is simply spectacular behind the keys.
A Quiet Little Town is awesome with fabulous bass from the master Jonas Reingold adding a Gentle Giant twist and elsewhere there is Genesis influence in the writing. Sylvan picks up writing credits on this track and Freak Of Life, Stolt contributing the rest.
Black Sunday opens with epic church organ and choral vocals before turning into a stomper driven along by Wahlgren, Roine adding fine guitar. Larsson displays his talent with a typically dextrous and quirky solo and the interplay between all concerned is tremendous. Overall things are looking very bright indeed and you can almost see Roine smiling. Perhaps.
Elegy is exactly that, a mournful piano led piece with a great vocal from Sylvan and a guitar solo dripping with emotion as only Stolt can provide. Roine takes some lead vocal on Citadel, a real rocker containing some extended instrumental breaks that will no doubt translate well into the live environment. Overall the music has more balls than previously and this goes a long way towards redressing the balance of expectation against delivery. The tracks are also longer and more symphonic in their outlook with influences from jazz and folk and this can only be a good thing.
Roine again takes lead on Between Sun & Moon with Sylvan coming in for the chorus and this sounds more like it could have come from a Flower Kings album with its embellishments and ebb and flow, stop/start feel. Freak Of Life starts with a sinister circus side show before deploying some great keys and crunching bass through a number of changing cycles with more Genesis influence and an impressive performance from Nad. Kingdom Of Heaven is very airy and hypnotic with Larsson’s keys swirling behind Stolt’s quality extended soloing, the track building to a crescendo and finally falling away to silence.
From a prog perspective Agents Of Mercy have often looked like a talented bunch of musicians that aren’t stretched enough but here they have finally produced the album that should have been their debut. This would probably have been expecting too much but now all concerned have clearly settled into the environment and there is no telling where they will go from here and what wondrous music may be out there in their future. The Black Forest is succinct and holds the interest without wavering and disappearing up its own arse. It is over the top, in a good way, but with a considerably shorter running time than either Dramarama or Fading Ghosts Of Twilight it follows a definite “less is more” approach which is to be commended.
For the first time in a bunch of years I am not missing The Flower Kings as much! It is not just that I am happy with this release, more damned surprised as I really wasn’t expecting it to be this good. This is a quality album and an easy recommendation for anyone missing Roine’s symphonic tendencies and the quirkiness of TFK but with their excesses toned down slightly.
Ian Butler's Review
AoM are a new band to me, so for this DPRP RTR I am approaching this album without hearing any of their back catalogue. I also listened the first few times without any information about the band. I did know that Mr Roine Stolt was involved and it was prog, so I anticipated a certain style of prog. I am sure that my other DPRP colleagues will give some further background about the band and their works.
The Black Forest - opens the album. It's darker and harder edge than I expected, but it's full with melodies and intricacies from the start. I am instantly impressed by the many changing passages in the music. Lalle Larson comes to the forefront with a good old fashioned sounding keyboard solo, over a 'prog' time signature, text book prog! The initial darker passages make way for quieter Camel-esque parts with flutes, acoustic guitar and church organ, all courtesy of the modern keyboard I assume. Midway through this track, the music goes very quiet, builds back up steadily with mellotron, in a real early Genesis end of Suppers Ready style. It's a good piece to start the album, very interesting and diverse. This track reminds me about Discipline's superb album Unfolded Like Staircase. The more I listen to this track, some theatrical elements creep in.
Nad Sylvan delivers most of the vocals on the album I believe and I think he sounds unique. If I were to try and describe his voice, I hear shades of Bon Scott, Peter Hammill and Peter Gabriel all in one! Now you have to buy this album to hear this right?
A Quiet Little Town, is punchy funky prog, ala Gentle Giant and Ritual, even down to the same bass sound! Trying to resist the volume control is useless, I just hoped the neighbours weren't at home! Walle Walghren (drums) and of course Jonas Reingold (bass) play superbly together throughout the album as you would expect. This track, like the first, has many passages and the middle part of this song is totally different from the start.
After forming some initial opinions I went to the website to get some more information about the release. It's supposed to be more of a prog than symphonic album, where the sounds of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zep more common than references of Yes and Genesis, but with the caveat, still expect moog and mellotron! To be honest, I don't really hear much harder rock in the styles of the forementioned groups in this album. To me it sounds more in keeping just with other heavier The Flower Kings moments, or actually Spocks Beard's heavier moments on their SB album. A quick look at the personnel on the album reveals that it comprises many musicians from the that remarkable Swedish musical gene pool, with family members of Karmakanic, TFK's etc..
Black Sunday, is a harder rocker and starts with Queen-esque vocals, church organ and moog which makes way for a solid head knodding drums beat accompanied by heavy guitars, with Roine's wailing wah wah guitar over the top. I can see how this is more rock influenced, but the doubled guitar lines and keyboards are still there, rooting it firmly in prog land!
Elegy is the fourth track and begins with a pleasant piano and vocal intro. This is where Nad Sylvan's vocals really shine. Even the use of the phrase 'the winner takes it all' makes it futile to try not think about Abba, terrible I know! The track advances and in true classic prog style, drops into a minor key and launches into a descending progression with a carefully crafted and emotionally executed guitar solo. Jonas compliments with some high fretted melodic bass playing. At this point it struck me that there is always something new on every listen.
Citadel is in direct contrast to Elegy, a more upbeat song. For me the short guitar riff is a bit too easy and common, but its there. The great part about this track is that they appear to cut loose towards the end and it sounds like jamming with keyboard and guitar interchanging solos. Its all quality indulgence and they sound like they were having fun in the studio! Heaven forbid!
Between The Sun & Moon initially brings out that TKF's 'popier' side with a friendly beat and melody. This one could actually be radio friendly, it even appears to have with a 'chorus'. It initially reminds me of a few tracks from The Rainmaker, like City Of Angels by TFK's. As soon as you think that it's a more relaxed song, it then turns on you and goes crazy scoring maximum prog points with further Gentle Giant and Genesis passages. Scrap that radio comment, it would frighten people if it was played on 'normal' radio, but not DPRP web radio of course:-). Brilliant.
The sound quality is very good, even on our DPRP official download. I didn't have the CD in time, but Roine informs us via the web site that it was recorded in fat analogue, and that shines through. I'll buy the CD just for this reason. My only observation is that perhaps it too polished and clean, the music on this release lends itself to being a bit 'dirtier' to really drive, especially with the Moogs and Wurlitzer/heavier organ sounds etc..
Freak Of Light follows and is an up tempo flowing concoction of driving drum beats and dominating vocals. It's faster and more frantic with some Yes style doubled vocals in the middle.
Kingdom Of Heaven closes the album in an epic fashion. It's a beautiful song, it's classic text book 'emotional prog'. It has mellotron and acoustic guitar from the start with slow, meandering bass with solo guitar over the top. It reminds me of Three Stories from TKF's Alive On Planet Earth live album. It's my favourite track on the album, it magically takes you away from the place where you are at the time.
Overall it's a real grower, with every listen there is something different to discover. I also enjoyed the differing styles from harder rock, delicate flutes, the occasional violin and fantastic use of time signatures. There's also real delicacy and melody here too. If you like the TFK's, but find some of the noodling too much sometimes, this is a little more direct and harder. I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album and recommend it to prog fans who like the classic prog flavour of TFK's, Karmakanic, Ritual, Gentle Giant, Tangent, Yes and (earlier) Genesis, to name but a few. Perhaps it might be too much 'hard prog' for the Neo-proggers or later Marillion fans only etc. Actually, if you are on this web site as a prog enthusiast, I think it's genuinely one of the best albums in a ong time.