Round Table Review
Pendragon — Love Over Fear
The pattern of the last few Pendragon albums has been an alternation between an experimental album, where new styles and sounds are explored, followed by an album where all the new elements crystallise, and the band reaches a new plateau.
We saw this pattern with the stripped-down rock of 2005's Believe, after which the rougher-edged sound was perfected in 2008's Pure. The pattern continued with 2011's Passion, where Pendragon again experimented, this time with drum loops, rapping, and even yodelling, followed by the mature statement of 2014's Men Who Climb Mountains.
2020's Love Over Fear breaks from that pattern, and is instead a dramatic shift in mood, leaving behind the raw anger of Pure and the resigned darkness of Men Who Climb Mountains, for ... wait, could this really be ... a happy Pendragon album? Love Over Fear finds writer/singer/guitarist Nick Barrett finally exploring his positive side. It's an unexpected treat to hear the familiar Pendragon elements in an uplifting context. One track, 360 Degrees, with folksy mandolin and Celtic violin, is so jaunty that it could easily be found on an Arjen Lucassen or Ayreon album.
On Love Over Fear, Barrett, a long-time surfer, writes extensively about the ocean, which he clearly finds deeply comforting, and which speaks strongly to this Californian surfer as well. The piano ballad Starfish And The Moon lets us hear the delicate piano touch of Arena keyboardist Clive Nolan, over which Barrett sings in a higher range than we've heard in years. His singing on this track is youthful, effortless, and clear as turquoise waters.
The meditative Soul And The Sea is a recitation of affirming words, (breathe, live, love, believe, forgive, swim), with the message that: "The soul and the sea can believe." In true Pendragon fashion, it eventually transitions into a searing lead guitar section, and I was reminded yet again of what a gifted guitarist Barrett can be, in a context which inspires him.
Water is similarly lyrical in stating: "I go to the water when the wolf is at my door/She throws her waves around you and makes you feel loved once more", before Barrett blows the roof off in what may be the guitar highlight of the album.
The penultimate track, Who Really Are We?, ties together the last 20 years of Pendragon's albums in a single track. Long-time bassist Peter Gee and new drummer Jan-Vincent Velazco navigate the shifting rhythms of this piece from a hard-riffing Deep Purple guitar-and-organ intro, through an acoustic guitar section reminiscent of Pure's Comatose Part II. Space Cadet, into a phenomenal solo full of guitar harmonics, leading to the song's dramatic, half-time feel vocal conclusion.
The uplifting final track, Afraid of Everything, urges you to: "Believe in who you are again." I can't help but think that, in the years leading up to Love Over Fear, Barrett has found new belief in himself, making this Pendragon album feel like one of healing and new-found harmony. Love Over Fear's positive themes and accessible songs, I hope, may allow fans of softer prog, including fans of Pink Floyd and David Gilmour, to finally appreciate this group, and especially Barrett's extraordinary guitar abilities.
I am not a long-standing Pendragon fan, as I only became aware of them after the release of Passion, and then I only played catch-up as far back as Believe. I am very happy that they have at last followed up on 2014's super Men Who Climb Mountains. The question, is will it continue this run of great albums they have released through this millennium? (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.)
The core of Pendragon remains similar with Nick Barrett (lead vocals, guitar), Clive Nolan (keyboards, backing vocals) and Peter Gee (bass, bass pedals, backing vocals, keyboards) but with Craig Blundell replaced by the equally talented Jan-Vincent Velazco (drums, percussion). And what a sound they make on Love Over Fear. It feels like a band, altogether in a studio, bouncing ideas around and feeding off each other's playing.
The band kick off Love Over Fear with thumping drums, bass and organ; no gentle pre-amble or fade-in here. Everything's stinging indictment of all things on-line not really being knowledge, is matched by a signature Barrett guitar solo but it is eclipsed by Nolan's synth solo that rises majestically from the mix. It is a great opener. You feel immediately in safe hands and that Pendragon will not let you down.
The lyrical concerns of the album are evident from the album's title, plus the notion that water provides a truth and an escape not to be found elsewhere.
Pendragon then move into ballad territory. Starfish and the Moon featuring just keys, guitar and vocal might lead you to wonder if this style will leave Barret's voice exposed, but he takes on the challenge well, showing a vulnerability that is rather winning. The slow pace continues into Truth and Lies. This, however, builds though a clever arrangement, layering on the instrumentation, to give a dynamism that is not established by tempo alone. There is a blistering guitar solo that adds to the slow-motion punchiness that Pendragon achieve on this track.
Then comes what might be the most divisive Pendragon track since the 'rap' section on Passion's This Green and Pleasant Land. 360 Degrees is a mandolin and violin romp through a terrific folk-rock melody, that sounds like a non-Celtic Waterboys playing with prog. Pendragon move from the folky opening section into a rocking second half. It is engaging and has an almost pop melody. As Barrett sings: 'All aboard the Carpe Diem' you can't help but be swept up in the joyful bravura.
Violin and piano make a return on Soul and the Sea, a track that switches tempos and dynamics between the gentle and the fierce to great effect. This is followed by a real gem. Eternal Light has swathes of keyboards and a great guitar solo (it's about time that Nick Barrett's guitar playing is recognised as the equal of, and as individual as, other classic prog guitarists like Hackett, Gilmour et al). There are sly nods to Genesis in Peter Gee's bass pedal section.
Pendragon follow this with a sharp left-turn into the jazzy harmonies and slinky fretless bass of Water, which suddenly switches direction with a guitar solo that would exorcise demons. Whirlwind's piano balladry is as delicate as it is affecting.
The multi-part Who Really Are We? ups the heavy quotient with the full band thundering along, before dialling it down for the vocal melody section. The arrangement is terrific, with Clive Nolan channelling Jon Lord's organ sound a highlight. The closing song asks us Don't be Afraid of Everything to choose love over fear, its ballad structure featuring one of Nolan's loveliest synth solos.
Pendragon's Love Over Fear has a fabulous balance between the instrumentalists, and it feels like a band that is glad to be back making new music. The melodies are superb. If I were to be hyper-critical, I could argue that there is one ballad too many, but honestly I couldn't choose which one to leave off.
For readers with long memories, record companies, especially American ones, used to put on the back of the sleeves of vinyl releases: 'File Under': rock, soul, blues whatever genre would help the record sell. For Pendragon's Love Over Fear, 'File Under': Compelling.
It's taken six years for Pendragon to release a follow-up to Men Who Climb Mountains, an album which in hindsight seems to be of a transitional nature. Not that they've been idle all this time, celebrating the 20th anniversary of their landmark album, The Masquerade Overture, as well as 40 years as a band, both with their corresponding tour and live release to immortalise the festivities.
This celebratory mood certainly imbues the first bars of opener Everything, in which most of the main motifs and recurring themes that pervade the whole of Love Over Fear are already present. It definitely makes for an excellent first track, and it packs quite a lot of punch, even if it's relatively short.
Speaking of recurring themes and motifs, the knack of this band for beautiful, instantly memorable melodies is again one of the main strengths of this album, along with Peter Gee's exquisitely elegant bass lines and Nick Barret's soaring guitar solos. Speaking of Barrett, it should be mentioned how much his singing has improved over the years. He's never been one of the greatest vocalists in prog (he knows, I guess), but much like one of his idols, Steve Hackett, his vocals have grown from being barely serviceable, to genuinely appropriate over the years. This is none more evident than on Starfish And The Moon, a gorgeous ballad with truly beautiful lyrics and vocals.
Love Over Fear offers a well balanced compendium of the many facets that make up Pendragon as a creative entity. So there's some of the Genesis' A Trick Of The Tail on Truth And Lies, the same way Water would make David Gilmour proud.
Also, being a 40 year old band you could forgive Pendragon for referencing themselves, and that's what they (seem to) do on Eternal Light, which harks back to some of their classics such as Paintbox. The more modern, punchy Pendragon is represented by Who Really Are We, one of the highlights of the album and somehow reminiscent of the style developed on Pure and Passion. There's also room for new and more subtle elements, like the saxophone present on Whirlwind or quite striking as on the surprisingly catchy Pendragon-does-the-Waterboys sound of 360 Degrees.
I've mentioned transition before, and the band seems to be heading towards a more concise, sparser sound. The spacious, uncluttered production is indicative of this, and it generally works wonders, but there are other choices which I believe are detrimental to the emotional impact of the band's music, and have been present as "symptoms" for quite some time now.
For instance, Clive Nolan's keyboards have been progressively relegated in favor of guitars, guitars and more guitars (I know it's Barret's baby but...), and likewise Jan-Vincent Velazco's drumming is so restrained it doesn't really get many spots to shine. Not that Vinny isn't a capable drummer, as I guess this is more a matter of arrangement and composition rather than performance, it's only that some passages definitely needed to be more intense and complex.
Also, many of the eight-minute tracks included here would benefit from a bit of trimming. This was already obvious to me on songs such as Come Home Jack and Explorers Of The Infinite from the last album, and if they're moving on from longer compositions to be more concise, then some editing would make the new songs stronger and more memorable.
Overall this is a beautiful collection of songs, wrapped in beautiful artwork (courtesy of Liz Saddington). That said, I'm sure the music included in this album will benefit from the energy and rawness of performing it on stage, and some of the tracks even have the potential to become live staples.
Ahh, Pendragon. An ageing, vintage Rick Wakeman clone on keys, alongside a frontman I can only describe as a favourite garden gnome. But I love this band. They combine pastoral naivety, eccentric Britishness, and a refusal to move on from the neo-prog formula they have pedalled since their inception 42 years ago. And why should they; the formula works. “Cringe-worthy Dad-music”, opined my teenage daughter hearing this. There can be no higher praise.
So, don't except anything on this, their 10th studio release, to break any new envelopes. The drums are plodding, the keys atmospheric and occasionally cheesy, the vocals often hilarious in a way that they are probably not meant to be (360 Degrees), and of course in Nick Barrett there are the soaring, over-driven, lengthy guitar solos with which you could convince the unwary metropolitan elite “David Gilmour is the best guitarist of all time” possé, that they are indeed listening to their hero. Check out the emotive, uber-Floyd climax to Water par exemplar.
I'm eight listens in, and I am pleased to say I am not yet bored. Some tunes are ingraining themselves into my musically-fatigued brain. It's the uplifting stuff, that title suggests that it will be. It makes you smile without realising it.
Nick Barrett seems to have emerged from the seeming misery evident during the Pure era, and become infused with a tad more transcendental leaning. Eternal Light suggests a kind of bucolic awakening on a par with Anathema's conversion to the light side during We're Here Because We're Here. All the better for it.
Indeed, although I may be stretching the interpretation somewhat, on Who Really Are We? Pendragon seems to perform an exercise in genuine self-enquiry. It's possible that Barrett's apparently almost-schoolchild lyrics, may at heart reveal an emerging understanding of the nature of non-duality. Maybe I'm guilty of spewing a back-of-60s-jazz-vinyl-style over-interpretation of the sounds on offer, but it is some achievement for a grossly unpretentious band to convey what may be some hardcore profundity. Try this from Whirlwind:
“oyster catchers on some lonely beach in winter the house on the hill with the raging log fire burning I see through their window, they love each other still what you're looking for is not of this world.”
There is a nautical theme throughout, to help visualise whatever is the real intended message. I'm still trying to pin down the concept but suffice to say Nick and crew are drawn to the waves in the same fashion as many prog acts these days. Maybe it's a middle-aged calling, invoking the image of Reggie Perrin strolling to his demise, or release.
Suffice to say this is one album I will be actually be buying with real money this year, not least for the pulchritudinous artwork by Liz Saddington.
Pendragon — Love Over Fear (Deluxe Edition 3CD Book)
Pendragon should be a familiar name to most, if not all who read this. Since 1978 they have crafted their unique brand of progressive music rather consistently, and while they've never reached the popularity I feel they very much deserve, since The World in 1991, they have released a long string of studio and live albums that have been critically acclaimed. Their line up has also remained mainly unchanged, save for new drummer Jan-Vincent Velazco. Mainstays Nick Barrett and Peter Gee have been on board since 1978 and long-term collaborator Clive Nolan has been in the band since the mid eighties.
Love Over Fear is the band's eleventh studio album, and the version I'm reviewing is the 3CD artbook, available from The Merch Desk. This release contains the full studio album, a reworked acoustic version (although it is much more than that, as we'll see) and a full instrumental version of the album. The whole thing was produced and mixed by Karl Groom, of Threshold fame, and the entire thing sounds absolutely glorious as you'd expect. There are a couple of guest appearances from Zoe Devenish, who contributes some backing vocals and some beautiful violins, and Julian Baker, who adds some haunting saxophone.
I'll start with a run through of the main album. I'll admit at first this took me quite by surprise, as I was expecting the band to very much continue with the hard rock approach of their previous album, The Men Who Climb Mountains. But instead we have an entirely different beast. You see, Love Over Fear seems to be a newly refreshed Pendragon, and the sound of a band who are eager to embrace a more traditional progressive rock sound once again. Gone are the big riffs and almost metallic approach of their last three albums, replaced by the twangy guitars, lush keyboards and haunting string sections that you've heard previously on albums like Not Of This World, except this time it's all presented very differently.
The first playthrough of the album for example, didn't particularly grab me at all. I initially thought it rather boring. However after multiple plays I have found this to be far from the case. THIS album is a very slow burner. THIS album reveales its secrets very slowly, and THIS album might just be Pendragon's best yet.
Opener Everything, after it's quirky organ-led intro, is a fairly solid but fairly run of the mill prog rock anthem, nothing bad here, but nothing stood out. Starfish and the Moon however, contains one of Nick's best vocal performances in years. He sounds like a new man, full of inspiration and void of the negativity that has often been the subject of Pendragon lyrics in the past. One of the best things about this record, is just how uplifting and positive it sounds, not just lyrically, but musically as well.
Truth and Lies is the first of the longer tracks, and once again it was a very slow burner. It's a mainly acoustic affair with some fabulous vocal melodies from Nick. The song builds into a long guitar solo which is the first part of the album that gave me those same goosebumps as the first time I heard Not Of This World. The song has a huge, emotional ending with some great keyboard lines from Nolan, I still like this song more each time I hear it, but it still took a while to sink in.
But now we get to the part where the album starts to really shed its skin. 360 Degrees is one of the best songs I've heard in ages. It could have been taken straight from any Genesis album you'd care to mention, pre-1990. This is the closest thing to a hit single I think we'll hear in prog this year, but it's also full of charm and features just about everything I've come to love about Pendragon, great vocal melodies, huge, lush keyboards, strings and some fantastic piano playing.
Soul and the Sea is a more sombre affair. Another track that took ages to sink in, it really doesn't open up until around halfway through when it transitions from a quiet piano piece into one of the album's more rocking moments. It offers the best guitar solo thus far and some incredibly impressive dueling between Nick and Clive. This song is going to be a live favourite for sure.
With the impressive 360 Degrees still on my mind, I was wondering during the intro into Eternal Light if we'd see anymore moments of genius on this album, unaware I was about to experience what is possibly the best chorus this band has ever written. Eternal Light, like most songs here, starts slowly and builds up, but it builds into one of the most beautiful synth melodys I've ever heard, with Nick's emotional vocals pouring all over it, while the lead guitars wail and echo in the background. The song then trancends into one of the best guitar solos Nick has ever recorded, as it gradually pulls the chorus melody back into the frame. It's majestic stuff, this was the one song that did hit me on first listen and I was left thoroughly impressed.
After this the album firmly goes back to its slow-burning nature. The next track, Water, features some very interesting arrangements and some beautifully poetic lyrics. It seems that living by the ocean has had a profound effect on Nick Barrett's songwriting. The theme of water and the ocean are discussed many times throughout the album, and usually in very positive ways, as if he looks at the ocean as a saviour of sorts. Whirlwind begins with a gorgeous and haunting piano and features some of the softest vocals I've ever heard from Nick, it's a lovely little piece that serves as a nice barrier between the album's epic middle section and its final two songs.
Who Really Are We? is by far the album's hardest rocking piece and is more similar to the material found on the albums Pure, and Passion. Structurally it's very similar to the song Indigo. The song moves quicker than most of the others and doesn't feel as long as it is. There are more interesting vocal melodies here, with some great strings in the background. Another phenomenal guitar solo leads the song into its second half, where a dark acoustic passage slows things down a little, before the track's triumphant-sounding end section. This sounds like it's going to be another favourite of the upcoming tour.
The album closes with the absolutely excellent Afraid Of Everything. This is the only other song on the album that I immediately liked on the first listen. Its got some of the album's best melodies, and slowy but surely builds up with layers of keyboards and guitars to an utterly unforgettable climax. Clive Nolan's closing keyboard solo is one of my favourite parts on the whole album; it's simple, but hugely effective, and he chose the patch perfectly.
It took me a long time to decide how much I really liked this album. At first I was worried that it just wasn't very good, but as it revealed itself to me over many, many listens, I am happy to say it's easily going to be an album of the year contender. It's not as consistent an album as Not Of This World, but it contains some of the best things Nick Barrett has ever written in the band's 40-plus year career.
When it hits you, this album really hits you. If you're already a fan of Pendragon then you should, eventually, feel right at home here. As a starting point with the band, I probably wouldn't suggest this particular album, although 360 Degrees is probably the most accessible thing they've ever done. Overall this is a wonderful record and a highlight in Pendragon's already monumental discography. And you know what? If you buy the 3 disc version, it gets even better....
Love Over Fear's second disc is an acoustic version of the album, but it's also so much more. After serious consideration I actually think the acoustic version of the album is even better than the original, and here's why: Everything that makes the first disc great is magnified here, despite the songs being stripped down, it's the soundscapes that we are now introduced to that we couldn't hear on the first disc that really make this whole thing shine. Nick's vocals are also noticeably more emotional here, he sounds like he's just feeling the songs a bit more in these versions. Maybe it's just the way it's mixed, but it certainly sounds like he's just putting more of himself into it here.
There are also multiple reworkings of songs here that I wasn't expecting. For example, Starfish and the Moon is now totally instrumental, with the vocal melodies being replaced by a David Gilmour-style guitar solo. It's a beautiful way to change up a simple song. The album tracklisting has also been changed, unless it's a pressing mistake, but I think it makes the acoustic version of the album flow better. Eternal Light's epic chorus has had its driving synth melody replaced by a gorgeous piano, but Clive alters the melody just slightly, adding an extra note and making the whole chorus sound even better.
But the main thing that elevates this acoustic album above the original, is the huge amount of incredible orchestral parts that have been added, or accentuated in the songs here. Clive Nolan has managed to conquer these huge soundscapes. In tracks like Truth and Lies, they just add a whole new dimension to the melodies and make the emotional impact of these songs all the more prominent. This happens multiple times throughout the disc and I absolutely love it. It's not just an acoustic version of the album, it lets you hear it from a very different perspective, and is essential listening if you've heard the first disc.
I won't go too much into the instrumental album, as it is exactly that. It's a nice touch and it's often great for people like me who play guitar, to have an instrumental version of an album to play along to. I actually wish bands would do it more often.
So as a whole package this is thoroughly brilliant. The artwork from Liz Saddington (a Cornish artist local to Nick) is beautiful and perfectly captures the theme and the majestic music within. It all comes in a stunningly beautiful 11” x 11” hard cover book featuring Liz's paintings to illustrate all the album tracks plus a wealth of photographs. At £45.00 I would say this is an essential purchase for any Pendragon fan, or any progressive music fan. The acoustic album compliments the original SO well and I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
For a band to have been going 40 years and to still sound this relevant is amazing in itself. I wish Pendragon every success with this wonderful album and I hope it's not long until we hear more from them.
(Ed: The album is also available as a double-vinyl and as a digital version.)