Cosmograf — Heroic Materials
Of the seven Cosmograf albums that I own, this has to be the finest in Robin Armstrong's enviable catalogue. Let me tell you why.
Heroic Materials is a concept album like no other. Its story involves the life of a World War II pilot whose life has reached its zenith at the ripe age of 99 young years. At this delicate time of his life, he looks back with anguish at what has gone before and what is yet to come for the world. It's an amazingly-emotional and descriptive look at how we have abandoned common sense and general decency by allowing despotic fools to hold the world to ransom and leave few options for our world leaders to pursue to ensure that global harmony surrounds us all.
Robin really says it better than I can, so I will let him tell you the story as lifted from his promotional material.
At the time of writing this, Putin's Russian forces have invaded Ukraine and are currently levelling the country with indiscriminate bombing, causing the largest refugee crisis since the second world war. It seems we have learned nothing about war. Robin Armstrong
In 2022 we are still the same flawed species that cannot put aside our differences, or our naked ambition, to exploit the world for our own aims. We still fail to understand the value of human life and the fragility of the human environment, and we seemingly still have no answer to protect ourselves against the despotic ambitions of a single individual, other than the collective will of the many to protect those values."
Heroic Materials will I'm sure be seen as a direct reference to the bravery of the men and women that fought across all the nations involved in the second world war. It is this, of course, but as with previous albums, my vision of the concept has extended far deeper than the apparent story presented by the cover. It is also about the existential threat caused by ourselves and our own individual inability to change.
I had this idea of a character whose life was defined by a short period in his late teens, which proved impossible to transcend. He looks back on his life at the age of 99 and realises the world has completely changed since he was a young man put into an impossible scenario, defending his country from the air. His life appears to be pointless once the war has ended, his purpose fulfilled, and the following eight decades see him watching the world and wondering how to fit in. He realises that humankind considers the earth to have endless resources. Like everything else in the modern world, he is also disposable. We consume and throw away, rather than cherish and preserve, and he realises the terrible cost that we are bringing to future generations.
Our brief introduction to the story starts with a very melancholic and serene piece with soft piano and plaintive vocals, whereupon Robin then embarks on the major song on the album. Here, he explores the full, underlying theme of the album. He does this convincingly well. At over 13 minutes duration, it really covers a lot of territory, slightly reminding me of John Lees from Barclay James Harvest when Robin's vocals hit the higher registers. The swirling organ in the background helps make this a really anthemic piece and just adds so much atmosphere to the album. A really good song.
British Made is a very pastoral song, replete with uplifting, grandiose keyboard and piano elements alongside some soaring lead guitar reminiscent of Camel, Genesis, Druid, and even Starcastle.
Mary is a gentle, balladic style of song which recognises the importance of his love who was sadly lost in a plane crash during the war. It's a very emotionally charged song and fits the album's concept perfectly.
If Things Don't Change, reminds slightly of some of Stephen Wilson's softer ballads as found with Blackfield or Porcupine Tree. It is equally at home with the other softer pieces. At times, it also recalls the falsetto vocals by Jon Anderson on the many albums he has contributed to over the years. It reminds us of our duties to fully acknowledge climate change and not let our personal ambitions and objectives hinder the views and entitlements of others, however inconvenient that might be. With softer acoustic sections, interspersed with some soaring lead breaks on guitar, it is one of the highlights of the album.
The Same Stupid Mistake also reminds us that even after the incredible destruction as evidenced during both World Wars, we still have not learnt to accept other people's differences and insist on our own perspectives being more important than those of others. Failure to embrace this important facet of our daily lives could lead to absolute chaos in the future. Musically, it is also a softer piece, with lilting singing and gorgeous melodies.
Regretful Refrain begins with a slowly building lead guitar and distant keyboards before the vocals tell us of our hero's regrets during life and what may lie ahead. Another beautifully constructed lead break adds full depth and charisma to yet another excellent track.
The closing song, Better World, also begins with highly-pitched vocals, then adds impetus with strong drumming, more stratospheric lead guitar and powerful keyboard accompaniment before bringing everything to its ultimate conclusion.
Robin's exemplary storytelling skills are on display here, as he allows us into the inner sanctum of his mind, encouraging us to explore every subtle nuance of his impeccable writing style. There are not too many musicians alive today who can achieve such a high level of penetration. But when all is said and done, this is one album I am sure will leave an indelible mark on those willing to listen carefully and fully absorb everything that is contained within.
This remarkable album has my highest recommendation as it seems to have already done with other reviewers. It's hard to believe that there are only three musicians involved with this album, including Kyle Fenton on drums, while Danny Manners adds piano on the title track. You would think a whole ensemble of players was at hand but then again, this is what makes this outstanding effort so special. If only more musicians could tackle their own projects with such brilliance in all areas of songwriting, lyrics and arrangements, then the entire world would be listening to prog instead of discussing the next war.
This album has easily earned a place in my top 5 for 2022, ousting worthy contenders such as The Flower Kings, Kaipa and Pineapple Thief. Really, really well done. Hats off!