The Flower Kings — Look At You Now
If proof were needed, The Flower Kings provided it themselves on their tour in May 2023. There wasn't a single song on the setlist that had been released later than 2006, and with just nine songs, that filled the evening wonderfully. The long-track portion was appropriately high. That song selection, which was limited to the albums Back In The World Of Adventures (1995), Retropolis (1996), Stardust We are (1997) and Paradox Hotel (2006), didn't include a single failure, and lined-up highlight after highlight.
It proved to me that in their heyday TFK made a lot of great records with many outstanding songs. But unfortunately it also reminded me that the band, after the forced breaks prescribed by mastermind Roine Stolt, have been unable to regain their earlier highs. The albums are good, but not very good. The songs are worth listening to, but just without the swings to the top. The Flower Kings delivered their last masterpiece with Unfold The Future in 2002. That was quite a long time ago.
This new disc doesn't change anything. It fits exactly into the pattern of its predecessors, Waiting For Miracles (2019), Islands (2020) and By Royal Degree (2022). There is the small difference that this time there's no double album (or triple LP) delivered. But even a single CD from TFK offers a stately 68 minutes playing time.
It is another very nice album, which is a pleasure to listen to. It furthermore scores with great artwork by Joey Tessier. But it does not deliver another classic for a best-of-setlist in 20 years time. This may be complaining on a high level, but still clouds the joy of the music. At least a little bit. However, other bands would be happy to be able to deliver on such a consistently high level. It's all a question of perspective, isn't it?
Beginner's Eyes, a piece that Roine Stolt says he composed back in the nineties, but has only now put the finishing touches to, opens the album with sounds that are expected, familiar, but also dearly loved. If you need the comparison, The Flower Kings have a sound based in the 70s bands like Genesis, Camel or Kaipa, the Swedish prog band in which the then just 17 years young Roine Stolt earned his first spurs from 1975 onward.
But that's not all. Over and over again, a jazzy note is noticeable, which gives The Flower Kings a good push of independence. And there is the tendency towards smooth melodies, which makes you think of the more positive sides of the Beatles, next to a sympathetic hippie note that transports love, peace and happiness.
This is perhaps something on which to fault the band. It transports a lot of euphony, forgetting the rough edges that are sometimes simply necessary. In The Light in your Eyes there is this moment, in which Hasse Fröberg, who shares the lead vocals with Roine Stolt (and also plays the guitar live, but does not do so on this album), finally unpacks his somewhat scratchy rock voice. While much of the album flows gently, so that one listens with pleasure without being completely gripped. Here, the opposite is the case, and makes it an album highlight. Also credit to the supporting voice of Jannica Lund, which comes a little more to the fore and gives the music a new note. As later does the anthemic Day For Peace, in which Marjana Semkina (iamthemorning) has a highly impressive guest appearance.
The disc presents some shorter songs with a length between three and seven minutes. Only the title track is the exception with twelve minutes. There are eleven Roine Stolt compositions (only in the chamber music-like instrumental Dr. Ribedeaux is drummer Mirko DeMaio named as co-author). There are two songs (Mother Earth and Father Sky), which were composed and texted by Roine's brother Michael Stolt (bass, vocals, keyboards, guitar) and the aforementioned Jannica Lund, but these fit into the overall context without a break.
On the whole this is a good album, but unfortunately not a new late-career masterpiece.
Tastes shift. Bands stop and reunite. For a number of reasons it has been many years since I heard some The Flower Kings music. It was about time for a re-acquaintance.
From the opener, you can hear that there is an emphasis on offering a blend of several styles. Especially the mix of typical neo-prog elements (keyboard melodies, not too complex song structures) with classic rock elements is clear in Beginners Eyes, Father Sky and several other songs. I realise I can't think of other bands that do this; making it a true TFK sound. I can hear references to Comedy Of Errors, who have also been blending different styles into their sound.
Another different and slightly unexpected element in this blend is the vocal melodies, which are reminding me a lot of Yes or Starcastle. The fact that several are sung by the rough voice of Hasse Fröberg, provides a rather untypical style prog, which is a very good thing.
Especially Scars goes into darker territories, which is something that I like a lot. Here, the duelling of guitar and keyboards is excellent, and brings back some of the psychedelic layering I remember from the early TFK albums. Fröberg's voice may be an acquired taste, but you have to admit he's pretty unique in the prog world.
Dr. Ribedeaux is another track like that, as is the following Mother Earth. Here, some crazy breaks and tempo changes make it an exciting four minutes of music. The fierce guitar breaks contrast nicely with the happier keyboard lines.
It's not all good, though (to my taste, of course). The mixing of folk-prog with symphonic prog and a more classical-inspired section in The Queen sounds a bit forced, and fails to move me. Day For Peace sounds like a mix between a gospel and a christmas song with some forced vocal melodies that do not gel or move. It doesn't shine. It's the other side of the aforementioned psychedelic influence in the band's music, and that is when it becomes a bit too happy-hippy sounding. This is a good example. The longer title track as well, as it starts with a long section of this. For someone whose taste has become heavier through the years, this is taking quite a while before something is happening.
Roine Stolt is shining in several places here, which is to be expected. However, fortunately, it is definitely a song-based album, not a guitarist's album. I admire his musicality and the way in which he determines his place in the whole sound. A host of excellent musicians, both the band and the guests, make for a well-balanced sound.
Even with the aspects that do not do it for me, there's enough to enjoy on repeated listenings, save skipping a few songs. I might even be inclined to dive into the discography of the years I have not followed them. I hear enough here that I remember from the early albums, so I have no expectations that the middle years will be very different; either from back then or from this new album. I do know therefore, that TFK fans will be delighted with this wonderfully mixed and produced album.