Album Reviews

Prog-Tober 2020

Issue 2020-095: Day 25 — The Flower Kings

October 2020 sees the 25th anniversary of DPRP.

A quarter of a century of uninterrupted reviews, interviews and features across the progressive genre is quite some landmark. To celebrate the occasion, we shall publish one review edition every single day during this month - 31 editions!

Welcome to Progtober!

In addition to our usual in-depth, independent reviews, our team has compiled a collection of interviews, artist features and several of our ever-popular Duo and Round Table Reviews. Over 40 different albums will be covered.

As ever, thank you to all our readers for your ongoing support, as well as all the artists and labels who create the music we love, and not forgetting the hundreds of people who have written and contributed to this website over the past 25 years.

The Flower Kings. Promo photo courtesy of official website.

Round Table Review

The Flower Kings — Islands

The Flower Kings - Islands
CD 1: Racing With Blinders On (4:24), From The Ground (4.02), Black Swan (5:53), Morning News (4:01), Broken (6:38), Goodbye Outrage (2:19), Journeyman (1:43), Tangerine (3:51), Solaris (9:10), Heart Of The Valley (4:18), Man In A Two Peace Suit (3:21)
CD 2: All I Need Is Love (5:48), A New Species (5:45), Northern Lights 5:43), Hidden Angles (0:50), Serpentine 3:52), Looking For Answers (4:30), Telescope (4:41), Fool’s Gold (3:11), Between Hope & Fear (4:29), Islands (4:12)
Geoff Feakes

In November 2019, The Flower Kings (TFK) released Waiting For Miracles, their first album in six years. Due to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, preventing touring and other distractions, the successor Islands follows sooner than expected.

With the exception of his brother Michael, frontman Roine Stolt maintains the same excellent line-up, namely Hasse Fröberg (vocals, acoustic guitar), Jonas Reingold (bass), Zach Kamins (keyboards) and Mirko DeMaio (drums). Guesting on soprano sax is Rob Townsend, who Stolt became acquainted with when he toured with Steve Hackett in 2015. Islands also marks the 25th anniversary of the debut TFK album Back In The World Of Adventures.

TFK are no strangers to double CDs, having previously released five studio albums in the same format. However 21 tracks is a lot of music, particularly as Islands follows the previous album by just 12 months. Although not strictly a concept album (there is no linking narrative) it features recurring themes including isolation and loss, partly inspired by the current pandemic. It also prompted the album title and Roger Dean's superb artwork, which depicts five figures (the band members?) standing on the edge of a precipice with two other figures on a distant floating island.

Disc 1 gets off to a cracking start with Racing With Blinders On, one of the album's best offerings. The opening staccato rhythm is reminiscent of Yes' Mind Drive, although the joyful instrumental sequence that follows is quintessential Flower Kings, with Stolt's ringing guitar underpinned by Reingold's thundering bass.

In contrast, From The Ground has a sunny, laid-back vibe with Stolt and Fröberg harmonising delightfully, and it could almost be Jon Anderson on backing vocals. Kamins' majestic keyboard strings provide the intro to Black Swan which morphs into a Queen-type track with guitar harmonies echoing Brian May's distinctive tone on songs like Killer Queen.

The quality and stylistic diversity continues with Morning News, a jaunty, country-rock-flavoured tune with a shuffle rhythm, sweet harmonies and Mellotron embellishments. Broken is the album's first single release and boasts a suitably uplifting instrumental hook. The central guitar riff and strident organ solo put me in mind of Refugee's Grand Canyon Suite, one of the overlooked prog epics of the early 70s.

Goodbye Outrage is a short but poignant song, with Stolt's sensitive singing backed by Kamins' orchestral keyboard arrangement. Likewise, Journeyman is a brief, but supremely played, fusion instrumental that harks back to Frank Zappa. With its syncopated rhythm, Reingold and DeMaio are in their element.

Despite its nimble, jazz-funk vibe, Tangerine is probably one of the album's more forgettable offerings. The near 10-minute Solaris, the album's longest track by some distance, is also disappointing. Although Kamins pulls-out-all-the-stops with cinematic orchestrations and sampled choir, the vocal melody could be stronger and the instrumental mid-section is sluggish.

Heart Of The Valley takes a turn for the better and could easily be an Anderson / Stolt collaboration with a soaring melody and lush vocal harmonies. The superb guitar and keyboard exchanges are a welcome throwback to The Flower Kings of old. The closing track on disc one, the wryly-titled instrumental Man In A Two Peace Suit, tips its hat to Focus. Stolt cuts-loose with a rambling guitar solo, accompanied by sublime organ chords.

Disc 2 opens with All I Need Is Love and the gloriously-retro sound of Mellotron strings. It's a memorable, mid-tempo song with Fröberg's assured lead vocals. And am I the only one who believes that, these days, he sounds like Andrew Fairweather Low? A New Species owes much of its near six-minute length to some off-the-wall instrumental sequences. With little in the way of a strong melody to distract, one can sit back and marvel at the instrumental dexterity which harks back to Bill Bruford's solo albums of the late 70s.

Northern Lights is not to be confused with the Renaissance hit of the same name. As songs go, it's a slow-grower with shades of Yes in both the vocal and instrumental department. Hidden Angles is an all-too-short opportunity for Kamins to shine, with a piano and synth instrumental that owes a debt to the late, great Keith Emerson. Led by Townsend's soprano sax, the sprightly Serpentine is a catchy showtune-type song that would not be out of place in a Disney musical. In contrast, Looking For Answers is a stately guitar and organ instrumental in the style of Gary Moore and the aforementioned Focus.

Like the first CD, the final tracks on disc 2 are not as strong as they might be. Telescope is another guitar tour de force from Stolt, although the accompanying vocal melody lags in comparison. Fool's Gold picks up the pace a little, although by TFK standards, it sounds suspiciously-like filler.

If I'm not mistaken, lyrically Between Hope & Fear addresses the coronavirus head on. Musically however, it's a lightweight affair with a chugging, Ukulele-led rhythm, and atmospheric keyboard effects. The instrumental bridge recalls the original Star Trek TV theme. To close, the title track Islands is a sprawling guitar-driven instrumental, clearly intended as an epic finalé. But despite the stately pace, a decent tune and choir embellishments, somehow it lacks the requisite grandeur.

With the members of the band living in Sweden, Italy, Austria and the USA, the album was pieced together by exchanging music files over the internet. While this is common practise these days, it doesn't always ensure satisfactory results, as Yes' Heaven And Earth testifies. Given the circumstances, Islands is a solid effort, but such is the band's high standards over the past 25 years, for me it's an average, rather than an essential TFK release. Beneath the sheer weight of this 21-track double album, I can't help thinking there's an even better single album struggling to get out.

Héctor Gómez

Let's see: Yes released Talk, King Crimson did so with Thrak and Genesis were on the heels of a very succesful tour promoting We Can't Dance. These are only a few examples of how healthy (or not) some of the big names of the first wave of progressive rock were, around their 25th anniversary.

How healthy are The Flower Kings, a quarter of a century after their first release Back In The World Of Adventures? Well, I'd say they are in pretty good shape. Perhaps not as they were in their heyday, which would be between Stardust We Are (1997) and Unfold The Future (2002), when along with the likes of Spock's Beard and Porcupine Tree they spear-headed the third (?) wave of prog. They are still capable of making dynamic music nevertheless.

Islands is yet another double album, and it follows the short four to five-minute song pattern of recent releases. This means no epics. Solaris is the closest you get, and certainly its nine minutes are quite enjoyable. For the most part there are no crazy, extended instrumental detours.

Actually, the two things I miss the most, are the epics. It is a format they've always excelled at, from Garden Of Dreams to Numbers and everything inbetween. I alo miss Tomas Bodin's signature sound. Don't get me wrong, Zach Kamins is a wonderful keyboardist in his own right and he contributes some great orchestral passages and evocative textures to the band's music. However he lacks most of Bodin's quirkiness and (for lack of a better word) eeriness, which were such an integral feature of the band's identity.

Also on the downside is how quiet Mirkko DeMaio's drums are mixed, an issue already present in last year's release, which occasionally prevents the listener from fully appreciating the powerful, yet refined, drumming on display. You needn't worry though, as the performances are obviously of a high standard and both Roine Stolt's guitars and vocals as well as Jonas Reingold's bass lines are as brilliant as they've ever been. Hasse Fröberg is his proverbial rockstar self and can get a bit annoying and overdone here and there, but he's fine for most of the time.

At 92 minutes and 21 songs it is quite difficult to highlight anything in particular, though there are some tracks which stand out, such as the energetic opener Racing With Blinders, the Queen-like Black Swan and the ethereal Tangerine. Roine Stolt gets to shine in "showcase" guitar pieces such as Journeyman, Man In A Two Peace Suit and the title track. There's also room for some trademark adventurous instrumentals, from which the best one is A New Species, which harks back to pieces like The Unorthodox Dancinglesson or Flight 999 Brimstone Air.

Also worth mentioning is the breezy jazz of Serpentine, complete with some tasty saxophone. Elsewhere, the Zappa-esque Hidden Angles shows a lot of promise, but unfortunately its 52 seconds don't let it grow and develop.

Both singles From The Ground and Broken are, let's say, standard melodic TFK fare; pleasant enough but nothing to write home about. The middle section of Broken is quite exciting, it's only that that I'd rather they explored their more adventurous side, than keep writing four-minute pop songs, even if they also happen to be quite good at that.

With a typically outlandish Roger Dean landscape gracing the cover, this album would be excellent had it been 25-30 minutes shorter, but it is still quite enjoyable. I definitely think it's the best of the Alchemist/Miracles/Islands trilogy, and that's no small feat considering it was made remotely during lockdown.

Matt Nevens

The Flower Kings have been an unusual omission from the majority of my progressive menu over the last 25 years. They were featured on the first ever prog rock cassette I was sent back in the late nineties, which introduced me to my first listens of many important bands in the genre: Spocks Beard, Enchant, Pendragon and Pallas to name but a few. Despite this, their material at the time didn't grab me like the others, and consequently I've given them something of an unfair miss over the years. Thankfully, my full re-introduction after all this time just happens to be one very, very wonderful record.

As far as I can find, Islands is the band's 14th studio album and like many of their previous works, is a double disc made up of 21 songs which are designed to flow as one long piece of music. The band's tried-and-tested formula of psychedelic, blusey-infused prog rock remains intact, but with a fresh sense of optimism this time around. Ronnie Stolt and company seem to have embraced the confinds of the recent lockdown, and created an album from multiple different corners of the world that sounds fresh and uplifting, despite its conceptual themes of isolation, loss and disconnection from the outside world.

The first disc is simply a masterpiece from start to finish, and contains some of the best material the band has released. Opener, Racing With Blinders On, sets the scene perfectly. The song builds slowly then ebbs and flows beautifully. It is a track that features multiple layers of synths and keys, something which the band use throughout the album to create a large, bright sound.

The vocal harmonies of From The Ground are very reminiscent of something you might hear from Glass Hammer. In fact the whole song is very much like something the American prog legends might put out, which is no bad thing at all. Broken, the first single from the album, is something that I thought Ronnie might have saved for the next Transatlantic release, yet it fits perfectly into the center of this disc and is one of the album's strongest tracks.

There are some other songs that creep up on you more slowly, Black Swan is a good example, the chorus here is just magnificent. The whole song has a heavenly sound to it, easily one of my favourite tracks The Flower Kings have ever released.

Heart Of The Valley is another contender for my new favourite Flower Kings song. With another incredibly melodic chorus and a huge atmosphere, this is another highlight of the album and one of the catchier tunes here. Solaris, the album's longest track, is another marvelous journey. It's by far the most cinematic song here and builds up much like an opening to a movie, then slowly moves through various different stages until its beautifully-epic ending. Ronnie's guitar playing is particularly impressive throughout this track. His blues influence is extremely prevalent, also he picks the perfect spots to just "let go" a little. The curiously named, Man In A Two Peace Suit, brings the first disc to close with some more amazing guitar work from Stolt. His signature sound simply washes over this song so very well.

However, it seems that these talented Swedish lads have fallen into the all-to-common "double album trap". The second disc is just not up to the standard of the first.

That is to say that the first disc is simply SO good, it would have been a miracle if they'd kept it up for the whole 90 minutes. It's by no means bad, or even average, it just doesn't have the majestic highlights of the first disc.

There are some great tracks. Opener All You Need Is Love is a fabulous song, and a slight change of sound from the rest of the album. This song is slightly more pop-prog, and features some great vocal melodies and a superb blusey solo towards the end of the song. The penultimate track, Between Hope and Fear, is another great song, and another really catchy piece. The closing instrumental title track plays the album out in all the epic style and grace you would expect.

The tracks that let the record down just a little, for me at least, start with A New Species. It starts off well enough but gets a little too far into noodling territory for my liking. Also Northern Lights has just never grabbed me at all, much like The Flower Kings' earlier material. Fools Gold is another skip-able track for me. I just found this song particularly uninteresting and slightly irritating.

Still, these are minor complaints in the grand scheme of this album and I'm sure that hardcore TFK fans are going to rate this as one of their best-ever releases. There is so much to love about this album. I do feel that if they had taken out three or four songs and kept it a single disc affair, we'd be looking at another album of the year contender.

Overall, this is a must-listen for any self-respecting reader of this website. TFK have shown, time and time again, why they are premier league prog rockers, and this album contains some of their best material yet. My complaints are few and far between. This album has made me wish I'd got into this band many, many years ago, and I'm looking forward to checking out many of the records I've missed. Great stuff gentlemen.

Eric Perry

Last years's Waiting for Miracles was a spectacular return to the form that delightfully freshened this band's sound, whilst still capturing all the grandeur and symphonic elegance of their peak. Could such heights be achieved again, in the current world of isolation and cancellation?

The answer is an emphatic, yes. In fact guitarist/songwriter Roine Stolt has utilised the circumstances to maximum effect, to turn around new ideas quickly, setting a high benchmark on prolific creativity and slick production.

The result is that Islands is a triumph of songwriting and performance.

From the off, there is an instant charm and a recognisable sound that is boldly epic, yet softer and more intimate than their previous release. A comforting blanket wraps you up with familiar, uplifting tones. It is everything you expect and need from a band that feels like a reliable old friend from the moment the needle hits the first groove.

Opening with the bouncy, groove-laden Racing With Blinders On, it immediately harks back to the days of Space Revolver for pace and quirky prog that has a sense of adventure about it.

Musically the songs are shorter for the most part and are designed to link together into a unified epic, spanning the one-and-a-half-hour-plus run-time. It's a departure from the trademark Godzilla-sized numbers that have peppered most of TFK's history.

The magnificent, spacey opening of Black Swan that segues effortlessly into hints of early Mercury and May is a triumph that really shows off TFK at their best. Complex, yet playful and accessible, there is sense of Stolt purposely nodding in reverence to his influences.

The variety is broad across the album; from a charming blend of Paul McCartney and Paul Simon in the foot-tapping shuffle of Morning News, to the symphonic, swirling dance of Goodbye Outrage. Nothing is out of place here. Jazz is, as always, a core component and Journeyman is no exception. Throw in a Latino vibe with All You Need Is Love and a cinematic narrative at the start of A New Species, and you have a melting pot of styles, underpinned with a progressive rock backbone.

New Species also highlights the blistering combination of Jonas Reingold's precision-wandering bass, with the vintage keyboard excellence of Zach Kamins which has solidified to form a superb foil to Stolt. The guitar always sings with its own voice, and none more brighter than on this album.

The old saying of “saving the best until last” really does apply here, with the closing title track. A towering guitar solo burns brightly over a gorgeous, ascending melody that peaks with a choir. Its magic lies in its ability to rise above the gloom and shadow that pervades modern life. It's exhilarating and hard not to love.

Islands is something else. It's hard to find a more satisfying and passionate album that looks at the state of humanity with such a uniquely-crafted style. It's certainly a slice of what we all need right now.

Album Reviews