Year of Release: 2011
Label: Music Theories Recordings/Mascot
Catalog Number: MTR 7337-2
Total Time: 61:58:00
When Alan Reed, the voice of Pallas for some 25 years, left, the main question on every fan's mind, and perhaps to some degree on the minds of the rest of the band, what would happen next? What would a change in vocalist mean to the established Pallas "brand"? Are Pallas alone in this dilemma? Oh gosh no. The list of bands who changed frontmen is long. In fact, Pallas were already on that list, as Reed had taken over from Euan Lowson. So, it was with some trepidation that fans anticipated what had long been waited for - the follow up to the band's epic 1984 Sentinel release. Especially as it would be rendered with a new voice, that of Paul Mackie. Point of fact, of course; it wasn't Reed but Euan on The Sentinel.
I try withhold judgment on a "new guy" until I've heard the new guy - I needed to give it many spins so I could judge it on its own merits and not "how would it sound with Alan Reed on vocals?" -- that wouldn't be a fair assessment. My impressions of Paul Mackie are favorable, not that I'm truly comparing. It's a different kind of voice from Reed; in many ways, Mackie has an ordinary voice. If one were to have a vocalist for a heavy prog band, well ... Mackie would be what you'd imagine. But make no mistake, I like Mackie's voice.
When Pallas were described as a metal band by Niall Mathewson (guitars) some while ago -- I forget when, where, but it was in some interview I read* --, I was a bit skeptical of that description. Heavy prog, yes, but metal? Nah... Sure there were some metal elements on The Sentinel and albums that have come in between, so it's not really that I never got why the band felt they were metal, I just didn't really think of them in that way....
That changes for me with this release. XXV (as it'd been 25 years since the release of Sentinel when this was written) churns and throbs, rumbles and screams, sometimes pummeling, sometimes measured. It is a deeply pessimistic album - man is doomed. And even in the lighter moments, it is fatalistic ... it doesn't look good for or speak well of us... This album gives Pallas an even tougher look - the album cover artwork truly reflects what can be heard here - a mix of steel and fire...
The centerpiece is "XXV Part 1 - Twenty Five Good Honest Men." It's epic - the intro is awash with keys, a smattering of drums -- an orchestrated opening that pulls back to spat-spoken vocals, churning bass, and haunting, ethereal female vocalizations. As we get on other tracks, there is a smoldering fire that threatens to burst into full conflagration, rendered via a demanding, marching rhythm, All to underscore the explosive nature of the story, which itself is a fraught with tension. What I like here too is the keening effect that streaks through the arrangement like meteorites coming down from the sky (also portending something...). As is this a concept album, there is a narrative thread that runs through, as you might expect. But also there is a musical thread that also runs through, all keyed in on Graeme Murray's bass.
The opening salvo of XXV is "Falling Down," where the squonky, throbbing bass pulses like a living creature, the engine that drives the song, seeming to give up control during the piercing guitar solo at around the 4-minute mark, only to reveal during the at first shrill then widdily keyboard solo that bass is still firmly in control. There's a searing guitar solo on "Crash And Burn" that just kills. It's a track that also reveals some of the most angry drum work I've yet heard from Pallas, There's the imposing, angry churn of "Young God;" it is a looming behemoth, dangerous and ready to explode, like a volcano. Interestingly, the illustration in the booklet for "XXV" shows a lava flow, whereas the illustration for this is bank of televisions in a calming green while our protagonist/antagonist stares out (and, as elsewhere, looks a lot like Mackie). There were a few moments where I thought of Pink Floyd's The Wall, especially in the deep-toned descending notes.
A more measured pace comes in "Monster," a slinky rhythm is given a dark cast with the deep, rich tones while the whole thing smolders around the edges... all reflecting the impending danger the lyrics paint ... "I feel a monster .... I feel a monster coming," Mackie sings. I do think here, during the soloing at the 4-minute mark or so underplays the energy that has built up so far. You think, when this point arrives, it's going to be far heavier and crushing than it is. The song doesn't fall apart because of it, but I kept expecting more of an exclamation point here, something with a more power to it.
"Sacrifice" is a bit more rock 'n' roll than other tracks on the album, reminding me a bit of classic Rush in a way, mostly in the bass. "The Alien Messiah" is a stomping, marching, vaguely martial track; a natural follow-on from "Monster," not just thematically as it moves the story forward, but also compositionally, as the same smoldering, warning pace of "Monster" is carried through into "The Alien Messiah" (a track that also wouldn't seem out of place on an Ayreon release, by the way). One might note a bit of ceremony in the parpy, Emersonian keyboards - more akin to latter day ELP rather than the classic period**.
And just to provide that necessary contrast, there's the atmospheric "Something In The Deep;" as the title implies, it is gives you the sense of both watery depths and vastness of "outer space" (though the illustration in the booklet suggests the ocean.) And we have also the mournful, yet romantic (in a fashion) pairing of "Blackwood" and "Violet Sky;" the former an atmospheric instrumental, the latter a mellow, acoustic guitar/piano based ballad where dark-toned keys and light percussion also feature. It has moments that don't represent Mackie's best vocal performance, but it strengthens as the song progresses.
As you might expect, given that I said this was a sequel to Sentinel, it is also a concept album. And it also deals with war, and is as much a commentary on Earth 2011 as I believe The Sentinel was on Earth 1984, though I don't really think it was as broadly drawn as it is here. The conceit here is that we've f'd up Earth (and you need only look around to know that's true - our environment, our battles amongst each other... it's there staring us in the face every day) and we'd better get our act together. What better motivator than a common "enemy" or "threat" from some external being - I mean aliens, not deities, but... well, maybe our gods of myth were alien beings? Who knows?*** So, while the alien's intent isn't, necessarily, domination or nefarious ... it comes to a point where he must decree - get your act together or you're finished.***
Pallas's XXV is a solid progressive metal album, all the more remarkable for its consistency - it's a complete package that truly defines a concept album. Not that they are the only ones to do so, but I appreciate how completely this creates a world in word and sound. There is no way in hell they will ever be called "neo-prog" again, that's for sure (although some guitar and keyboard parts still retain a "neo-progian" quality... parpy/widdily or emotive, respectively). As I said, they may have thought they were metal before, but this time they mean it, pulling no punches (well, one, as I note above in "Monster"). However, the band hasn't given up any accessibility. There are melodies, there are /choruses that will remain with you -- "Falling Down," "Monster." Excellent release and certainly to remain near the top of my best 2011 list.
If you get the special edition (which I did, ordered as an import), there is a bonus DVD which contains 4-tracks from the album recorded live at Loreley ("Falling Down," "Monster," "Young God," and "Violet Sky."), plus a photo montage of the band performing live called "Night On The Rock" and a video/photo montage called "Day On The Rock."
Alan Reed's departure, it must be said, wasn't necessarily his deciding to leave, but rather a decision by the band to... make a change. I'll leave out all the details however, since it's now in the past...
*I'll venture to say it was inProgression
** I'm thinking of the Black Moon period, or even when it was Emerson, Lake and Powell. I footnote this especially, since Pallas did a cover version of "Black Moon" for the planned and aborted tribute CD Classic Rock Presents Prog was going to include with a special on ELP; Pallas have released their recording as a free download, as of this writing.
*** Well, I don't think so personally, but I also don't think the deities existed either.... but that's a topic for another site.
**** I must admit, I often thought this would be the only way humans would set aside our petty differences -- and believe you me, if you really look at them, they're petty... we just make them loom large and then act in ways that just escalate the implications of those "differences" -- was if we had a predator to face. We're sitting pretty as the "big fish" on the planet... bears, sharks, whatever might pick us off on a time, but we pick them off at an alarming rate... ...
Falling Down (7:29) / Crash And Burn (5:28) / Something In The Deep (6:50) / Monster (6:21) / The Alien Messiah (6:50) / XXV Part 1: Twenty Five Good Honest Men (6:08) / Young God (5:18) / Sacrifice (4:22) / Blackwood (2:02) / Violet Sky (5:07) / XXV Part 2: The Unmakers Awake (6:00)
Ronnie Brown - keyboards, vocals
Colin Fraser - drums, vocals
Paul Mackie - vocals
Niall Mathewson - guitar
Graeme Murray - bass, vocals
Arrive Alive (1981)
The Sentinel (1984/2000)
The Knightmoves EP (1985)
The Wedge (1986/2000)
Knightmoves To Wedge (combo reissue)
Beat The Drum (1999)
Live Our Lives (2000)
The Cross And The Crucible (2001)
Blinding Darkness (2003)
The Dreams Of Men (2005)
Blinding Darkness (DVD) (2003)
Live From London (DVD) (2008)
Moment To Moment (DVD) (2008)
Genre: Progressive Rock