In a remote cabin, at the base of some foggy mountain, lived a hermit, who knew only two things in life: survival, and progressive rock. One morning, he looked through his collection, in reverse chronology – Spock’s Beard, Dream Theater, Marillion, Van der Graaf Generator – and settled on a record by Egg, which he dusted off and began to place on his turntable. Just then, a quite unexpected knock came at the door. Answering it, he saw a man much younger than himself, panting breathlessly from his journey.
“Are you the prog guy? You’re him, right?!”
Silently, the man beckoned his visitor into his home and poured him a cup of water. He then motioned to his guest to proceed.
“So…I’m in this class on the history of prog rock, from like 1968 to the modern stuff. But I kinda slept through most of the classes, and now the final exam is coming up, so I need some magical wizardry to help me cram. Can you give me, like, the whirlwind tour of prog real quick?”
A strained look came over the old man’s face – a complex mixture of pride for the visitor’s desire to learn the ways of prog (and his recognition of the man as the authority on it) and disappointment that he had not taken his education seriously prior to this. He rose and ambled toward his enormous array of shelves, lined with records, cassettes, and compact discs. Carefully, he began to extract key selections – In the Court of the Crimson King, Foxtrot, Thick As A Brick, Close To The Edge, Dark Side of the Moon – and the visitor began to stack the records on his lap. Several albums later – Hemispheres, Tales from the Lush Attic, Misplaced Childhood – the increasingly nervous guest had accrued a stack a foot high. Without pause, the frenzied hermit pressed on – Operation: Mindcrime, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, Stardust We Are – before the visitor finally shoved the heap of music aside. “Um, I probably should have mentioned this before, but…the test is in an hour.”
The hermit glared in disgust. Who would dare approach him with the infantile naïvete to think the whole scope of prog could be summarized in an hour? But, after pondering for a moment, his countenance was replaced by a warm smile. He gathered up the records he had previously offered, sat them at the foot of his cabinet, and reached high to procure a single disc. He placed it into his CD player, and then handed the package to the young man. On the cover was a single word: Shamblemaths.
In 2016, there are several great acts carrying the torch of progressive music in ways that continue to push the envelope. Transatlantic’s supergroup approach turns up the bombastic, arena-captivating style to 11 as they pump out long-form slabs of heavy-tinged traditional prog. Big Big Train have refined themselves from 1977-Genesis-frozen-in-carbonite into pastoral minstrels of Britain’s days of yore. The Tea Club have captured the spiritual ethos of the ‘70s and unleashed it in a decidedly modern compositional framework. But progressive rock, while always indebted to its forebears, rarely looks back so purely and clearly as Shamblemaths have on their stunning self-titled debut.
Shamblemaths come from somewhere (namely, Norway) yet also came out of nowhere. Biographies insist that the two core members, multi-instrumentalist Simen Ellingsen and bassist Eirik Husum, played together in a band called Fallen Fowl, a band whose last.fm listenership currently resides in the single digits. So, colloquial pedigree aside, it’s safe to say nobody knew these guys had an album of this caliber in them. And, indeed, despite being out almost five months, Shamblemaths’ full-length has not yet vaulted their name onto the lips of the broader prog community as it should have. This masterful work, which employs far more musicians than just the two men credited as members, is nothing short of a love letter to the whole history of progressive rock, carefully penned with the finest ink and parchment.
The album’s three tracks (arranged in Goldilocks order: “too long”, “too short”, “just right”) span almost a full hour of music, and one look at the titles (and subtitles!) should immediately dispel any doubt that we’re dealing with bona fide prog here. They begin with the aptly titled ‘Conglomeration (or: The Grand Pathetic Suite)’, a ten-part song which cosplays as ‘Supper’s Ready’ when it goes to ProgCon. They pull out one of music’s ballsiest moves: the cold-open to insanity, front-loading the most challenging and avant-garde material in order to scare off anyone approaching this album as a casual listener. After a gentle sprinkling of piano keys, part a (‘Bloody Racket’) kicks in with a mixture of King Crimson’s most intense days and some of the more unhinged sensibilities of an Unexpect or Diablo Swing Orchestra. Dual tapping leads spin vividly over a crunchy foundational rhythm before things open up to a cinematic spread of vocal layers. Two and a half minutes in, a guitar solo enters the frenzy, revealing another facet of the band’s musical mastery. The guitar bows out and a saxophone suddenly takes over – hey, there’s jazz in here too! Then a synth lead gets the spotlight for a moment, which shifts over to mellotron to check off another box on the prog requirement list.
If you’re still around, not alienated by the musical barrage of the opening overture, part b (‘Your Silly Stare’) brings in the true vocals – a very IQ-like, British-flavored timbre – over a classic acoustic rhythm. After a quick verse, the psychedelic jazz reenters in part c (‘A Mockery in the Making’), which gives free reign to that sax we glimpsed earlier. Part d (‘The Different Tastes of Sick’) takes things down a notch, with sparkling guitar and soft organ laying the basis for another clever verse, one that would feel right at home as a calm segment in an Ayreon piece. The rollercoaster ride continues with part e (‘A Mockery Well Made’), with more emphasis on the jazz-fusion elements, and the bass standing out more prominently here than before. Attentive listeners will be able to detect subtly repeated themes from parts a and c here – thematic reuse being, of course, a staple of prog composition. In turn, each component of the band’s sound demonstrates its capability – a brief dual-synth interlude here, a sax run there.
The structural pattern of alternating heaviness and lightness continues, as part f (‘Life is Tough (When You’re Me)’) brings back singing and calm music – shades of Pink Floyd and Genesis are eminently detectable here. Part g (‘Saucy Tiara Woman!’) deviates a bit; rather than a riff-heavy instrumental passage, we get a more technical acoustic section in 7/8 which the band openly divulges contains musical homages to ‘Sossity, You’re a Woman’ from Jethro Tull’s 1970 album Benefit, so, I don’t think I need to tell you which classic prog band this part evokes. The acoustics, piano, and horns are subdued with great effectiveness here, until that shrieking lead guitar jumps back in and the music amps up. This remarkable solo hits a sweet spot blending feeling and technicality, somewhere between “Roine Stolt on cocaine” and “John Petrucci if he experienced human emotion”. Part h (‘Another Pear of Ice’, har har) keeps things steady, hitting on something a bit more Fish-esque and introducing a melodic theme that will form the basis of the song’s next few minutes, including part i (‘Con-girl Omen Ratio 1’ – say it fast, remember the title of the song), which gets back to the more urgent antics of previous parts. This is really the first proper heavy part with vocals; everything else so far, save the unique intro, has been either one or the other. This part also has the most modern sound so far; referential touchpoints enter the ‘90s, with flavors like Fates Warning and The Flower Kings. Finally, part j (‘Overture’) wraps up the band’s massive opening statement by recapitulating lyrics and themes from every previous section, fading out on a vocal-and-acoustic reframing of part b. It is perhaps a deflating ending for what was an exceptional prog opus; typically, you would expect such an anthem to end on a note of grandiosity, like the aforementioned ‘Supper’s Ready’ or ‘A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers’ do. But, of course, this is not the album’s closer, so perhaps such a sense of finality would be premature.
Acoustics and vocals return to gently guide us into the album’s second, and shortest, song, ‘A Failing Ember’. Twinkling keyboard runs accentuate part a (‘Never Innocent Again’), which I would again compare to IQ. Abrasive synth and quirky bass signal the shift to part b (‘The Winding Stair’), which gradually adds layers of sax and percussion before launching into full-blown heavy-fusion territory. This lasts only a moment before the dulcet acoustic jerks us away into part c (‘Three Flowers’), which contains some elaborate picking and back-and-forth vocals, then introduces a western-klezmer bounce that contrasts sax with…jaw harp? Sheesh, what won’t these guys put on the album? A baby? Yeah, they probably wouldn’t put a ba–oh, look, there’s a baby doing vocals on part d (‘Deus Caritatis’). This section has a bit of that brooding, epic outro quality I was anticipating on the first track, although it dies down to let the vocals close the song.
Finally, we reach what would be the longest song on many bands’ albums but is positively tame by prog standards, the 20-minute ‘Stalker’. For the first minute, carefully crafted acoustic chords and lilting vocalizations ease us into the darkness to come (this is part a, ‘Stalker Begins’). Part b (‘Bad Conscience Underneath Your Gown’) enters with a more upbeat fusion part that fades into a tranquil, piano-driven verse. The first “chorus” enters (“I’ll sink to Hell through high water…”), a motif that will be revisited and tweaked as the song goes on. After the third iteration of this section, an abrupt shift to crunching guitar takes us to part c (‘Stalker: Persistance’ [sic]). Right around 7 minutes, this builds to a melody shared between synth and guitar over relatively intense musical backing; but, naturally, this recedes to usher the vocals back in. The song maintains a noir, unsettling atmosphere throughout, expressed next by the pulsing bass beneath wandering sax breaths. At the 10-minute mark, things kick up again with synth leads and dramatic pad swells leading the way. This part concludes with quite a punch before ebbing to an organ transition and the acoustic intro to part d (‘Stalker’s Lullaby’), a mellifluously-modal melodic interlude that re-conjures the spirit of Jethro Tull. The second half of this part recaps the first half but with grander instrumentation, the sax carrying the melody. The 50-second part e (‘Stalker: The Harrowing’) turns the instruments loose for a moment of disorienting chaos, but part f (‘Stalker: Inevitable Anticlimax and Fade-Out’…hmm) brings the piece toward its conclusion with a series of melodic vignettes that, naturally, include some musical callbacks to previous parts, one final chorus, and a reprise of the introductory theme of part b, this time at full power, with a synth squeal providing the cherry to this sundae.
Reflecting on that experience leads to a few summary thoughts. First of all, despite the tremendous amount of verbiage I just expended describing this excellent work, the truth is that you didn’t need my exposition to form an opinion about it. There are two possible responses to Shamblemaths’ self-titled debut: “Ugh, more of this” or “Ooh, more of this!” Like I said at the outset, these guys haven’t reinvented any wheels, they’ve just plucked out four awesome ones and slapped them on a prog-rock Cadillac. If you enjoy prog rock, there’s nothing here to turn you off, and plenty of appeal to suck you in; but if you don’t enjoy prog rock, there’s nothing here that’s going to suddenly make the lightbulb go off and cause you to appreciate this particular album above and beyond the rest. Really, you already know if this is for you or not.
The most novel component of Shamblemaths’ shtick is the seamless and prominent integration of saxophone and jazz-fusion elements. It’s very natural and doesn’t feel forced, and most prog bands either don’t attempt that or don’t get it just right. The rest of what makes them great isn’t new, it’s just classic stuff with solid composition, production, and execution. There are some valid critiques; the long songs don’t quite seem to resolve their internal narratives, making the clever lyrics somewhat tangential, and the drumming is serviceable given the intricate music but at no point does it really shine or wow you.
Out of curiosity, I went back to check out that previous project, Fallen Fowl, that morphed into Shamblemaths. Their 2006 EP Do They Love You Now? is actually quite polished and interesting. It’s a bit lighter, less jazzy and less intricate than Shamblemaths, but you can clearly hear the parallels in composition, especially in the latter two tracks of the new album, which use refined material that was initially written in the Fallen Fowl era. Their penchant for dark and brooding tones is evident on pieces like ‘Happy’, ‘Someone To Abduct’ and ‘Advent’, while their higher-energy skills aren’t developed quite as much. ‘The Silent Gaps’ does contain some sax riffing that foreshadows the fusion that would become a hallmark of Shamblemaths. It certainly doesn’t sound like ten full years of musical growth happening all at once between the two releases.
But I don’t want to negate the massive praise I’ve heaped on the album so far. It should be obvious at this point that I really do think it’s something special. If you aren’t going to be great by being unique or innovative, then you have to take some genre and do it perfectly. My favorite album of last year was Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, a three-hour tour de force of jazz. When you talk to real jazzheads, they will sometimes criticize Kamasi for not pushing the envelope. But they will confess that he’s an excellent bandleader, and that his breadth of styles is commendable. I could write a similar story about some jazz-expert hermit recommending The Epic as a summary of five decades of jazz. As you listen through the album, you go “Oh man, that’s McCoy Tyner…that’s Ornette Coleman…that’s Eric Dolphy…that’s Wynton Marsalis…” and so on and so forth. Kamasi isn’t great because he pushed jazz forward, he’s great because he put together the single most comprehensive and accessible backward-looking jazz compilation ever assembled by one group of musicians. Shamblemaths is, in a slightly less impressive sense, a prog rock version of that: a pristine distillation of the best that prog has to offer. Truth be told, they’re less like a CliffsNotes study guide for a prog class final exam and more like a final project that would be handed in at semester’s end. Their talent is unimpeachable; I will be curious to see if, now that their foot is in the door of the prog world, they break through with a more personal and innovative statement with their next masterpiece.
1. Conglomeration (or: The Grand Pathetic Suite) (26:54)
a. Bloody Racket
b. Your Silly Stare
c. A Mockery in the Making
d. The Different Tastes of Sick
e. A Mockery Well Made
f. Life Is Tough (When You’re Me)
g. Saucy Tiara Woman!
h. Another Pear of Ice
i. Con-girl Omen Ratio 1
2. A Failing Ember (9:27)
a. Never Innocent Again
b. The Winding Stair
c. Three Flowers
d. Deus Caritatis
3. Stalker (19:55)
a. Stalker Begins
b. Bad Conscience Underneath Your Gown
c. Stalker: Persistance
d. Stalker’s Lullaby
e. Stalker: The Harrowing
f. Stalker: Inevitable Anticlimax and Fade-Out
Total running time 56:16
Filetype listened to: MP3
Bitrate: 320kbps CBR
Sampling frequency: 44,100 Hz, 2 channels