Year of Release: 2011
Label: Madfish Music/Snapper
Catalog Number: SMACD971
Total Time: 54:48:00
I think we can safely say that the age of "neo-prog" is well and truly over. Oh, not that the bands that came out of the UK in the 80s are gone, far from it. The leading lights of the movement -- if you could call it a movement and not just a series of happy coincidences -- IO, Marillion, Pallas and Pendragon are still going strong. Each have gone through personnel changes, some more than others, but the bands endure. (Not to discount the existence of all those who were influenced by these groups who still carry on the "tradition.")
Along with change comes age. It's been nearly 30 years since these bands released their first album (some less than 30, some more than 30), which just makes me feel old, frankly. To think that Pendragon released their first CD 1985 (aside from an earlier EP)... wow. Has it been that long? I know; it's been 40 years since Yes' first album; even longer for the Rolling Stones... But for a genre little regarded by the mainstream press and mainstream listening audiences, to have these bands keeping at it, to have influenced others (including imitators), and to continue to grow, is something.
And grow Pendragon have. They could easily have been content to remake Masquerade Overture over and over, or Window Of Life (or pick your highly regarded album prior to 2005)... But instead they've chosen to do what we'd expect of all progressive artists ... progress. That isn't to stay that Pendragon have gone experimental or anything -- it's still recognizable as progressive rock -- but that, as I listen to Passion, I can say that it bears no resemblance to Masquerade Overture, which I mention because that has been my favorite CD of the pre-2005 period**. And if memory serves me, their most popular and highly rated, at least at the time of its release.
Pendragon 2011, or even of the last few years, barely resembles Pendragon of 1996. Pendragon have gotten harder, edgier; there's more bite to their music, a shift that started with Pure (or really, starting with Believe, but taking full form with Pure). It is a mature sound; not that past works were immature... but it suggests a cynicism toward the world that can only come from experience. Which is not the soft way of saying "getting old," but it is true to stay that Barrett, Nolan, and Gee are no longer the spring chickens they were when their first CD came out... and you well know, life happens and shapes your opinions, attitudes and outlook. And I find we get more cynical the older we get. The promises of our youth become our disappointments of later years; we aren't who we wanted to be, the world isn't what we wanted it to be or how we fondly remember it... as Barrett comments upon in "Green And Pleasant Land." It isn't a wistful look at the past, it's a bitter look at the present; it's a eulogy of sorts for an England that Barrett feels is gone; as he says in his notes, it's become an overregulated, overly politically correct England. At first I was taken a bit aback about a line in this song, viewing it as a racist comment... but, perhaps it's not meant that way, but more making reference to a religious philosophy that is quite restrictive and the religion of choice is timely** and basically saying "how restrictive/regulated are we going to get?" At least I'd like to think that Barrett wasn't making a racial slant. There is an exquisite guitar solo in this track, and in comparison to the whole Pendragon oeuvre, this is probably a track where the Pendragon of old remains most strongly.
I recall a few years ago, it seemed every heavy progressive rock band was having a crisis of faith. Now, given the times we're in, it's not about faith or loss of it, but having lost it, how crappy the world is (cf my review of Pallas' XXV; as with my review of Glass Hammer's If, posted last month, the fact that these CDs are being reviewed together is mere happenstance). There's quite a bit of analysis one could make with the lyrics here, not only in commenting on what Barrett says about them at the Pendragon website, but just one's own interpretation.... but by now I'm sure you saying: yeh, but is it good? And what does it sound like?
As I was scribbling down thoughts and impressions on first hearing the CD, though not necessarily on the first play-through, I wrote this: If they hadn't been in the business for some 20 or 30 years now, you might suggest they were influenced by Porcupine Tree, just to name one. I was thinking of In Absentia when I wrote that. But with the keyboard work, guitar work and bass, plus the drum work of the newest addition to the quartet, Scott Higham (who debuted with 2006's Pure), it still is recognizable as Pendragon, no less because of Barrett's distinctive voice.
They may be older, but there is an energy here that belies that. Having said that, however... while you might think this tougher Pendragon would thus kick off the album with a crescendo, the title track "Passion" begins instead with an digital-sounding drum sample and light piano, leading into an acidic, fuzzed guitar and Barrett's husky vocals - the same distortion of the guitar is applied to most of Barrett's vocals, too, giving the track a rawness. The companion track is "Empathy" (which, reading Barrett's notes, we learn once was a single track). Here's where the crescendo comes in as this second part stomps and throbs beneath an aggressively keening guitar. It musically takes you to a dark, dark place; a place that feels it's without hope. And in this paring, you also get a dash of an element common to some extreme metal... so called cookie monster vocals, but this very brief, and to me, the appropriate application of that device, as it were. You'll also find a bit of rap going on here, but it's not really rap, per se; more like, rap light in that there's none of the thuggish bravado associated with rap (and it's not a bit... twee, as on Rush's "Roll The Bones" (though I do love that album anyway). It's here (though not only), around the 6-7 mark, that the familiar Pendragon comes through, in a gently swaying rhythm, intertwined guitar phrases, in a section that recalls also early Genesis in structure and feel. And we get another look at Pendragon in the orchestral section that comes at the 10-minute mark (ah, but we had that too in Pure, as I'm listening to that CD again), Nolan's chance to shine more brightly. It's an epic minute and a half that stands in contrast to the rest of the album. If the rest of the album is "ugly," this is a respite of "beauty" (though another moment of musical respite, though not in content, comes at the end of the album)/
"Feeding Frenzy" is frenetic ... and a bit creepy. It's like entering the heart of darkness, entering to find something quite sinister ... oh think about some of those improbable horror films Hollywood churns out... The Hills Have Eyes or something like that, I guess. I don't watch those films, so... you know. It's just an impression.
"It's Just A Matter Of Not Getting Caught" starts quite cinematically... like it were a film out of the 40s, including what sounds like harp. Later sound effects include a dramatic organ blast, like that out of a B-horror film. In between we get grungy bass and guitar, churning like a buzz saw, while Barrett delivers a vocal that mixes a drone-like delivery with something quite melodic. Swirling about, one also detects a bit of theremin (or a keyboard mimicking a theremin). It's a track that most made me think of Porcupine Tree in feel. A dark yet arty track.
It's followed by "Skara Brae" which is chunkier than "It's Just A Matter..." but there's still a bit of buzz saw-drone aspect to it, linking these two tracks together as with "Passion" and "Empathy." "Skara Brae" is a bit more aggressive, bringing in some alternative metal aspects, and, with Nolan's keys at the 5-minute mark, something very industrial -- squeaky/chirpy machinery in need of a bit of grease, given the staccato rhythm as if gears are getting stuck.
"Your Black Heart" is light and lyrical with snickering percussion, tinkling piano (Barrett), ringing guitar - and sounding very Beatles-esque, more the latter-day arty material of Lennon rather than the accessible pop of their early days. It's a surprisingly mellow track, given the heaviness of the rest of the album, but it also provides a respite from that heaviness, as I said above.
What do they retain of their progressive rock roots and influence? Oh, those dynamics that much of the UK prog bands (of certain vintage) employ, going from light to dark, though here its more going from hazy to rusty. And naturally Barrett plays some beautiful soaring guitar solos (one in "Skara Brae" happens to be playing as I write this) which can be found throughout. There's a particularly affecting one that closes out "Your Black Heart" and closes out the album -- it's simple (as guitar solos go), but quite emotive; less is more.
I can't say yet whether this is another master piece, it is a great album. Passion is filled with passion, as you can hear it every note - as grim as this album is thematically, you can take hope in the fact that this band is still making wonderful music, is not content to sit on their laurels. Sometimes change is bad, such as when band tries to get away from who they truly are in trying to be someone else. Here change is good. It's still Pendragon, and everything you love about Pendragon is still there, only it a bit edgier.
The special edition includes a bonus DVD that includes a 80-plus minute documentary, mostly Barrett discussing the making of Passion -- giving you insight into a few of the songs and goals for the album -- as well as answering more general fan-submitted questions, plus footage inside the studio recording Higham's drums parts, small sections that document tour stops (some through stills, some through snippets of live footage). It's quite intimate, as find all the documentary videos from Pendragon to be ... well, those I've seen thus far. You feel as if the band and you are just having a bit of a chat.
One minor complaint about the deluxe edition... the jewel case fits way too snugly into the outer sleeve, making it quite difficult to pull out the CD. Your experience may vary... but as minuses go, I think it's great it's not anything to do with the music.
* Why 2005? Well, the band's style started to shift with Believe, which came out in 2005... and I've yet to form an opinion on that release...
** Since the web is fond of cataloging instances of words and phrases, and sometimes out of context, I'll leave the actual lyric unmentioned, lest it become associated as some opinion of PW and not the lyric being quoted. Paranoid much? you ask... not much, but sometimes.
While I didn't want this to be part of the main review, in listening to "Feeding Frenzy," I thought of Genesis' "Domino"
Passion (5:27) / Empathy (11:20) / Feeding Frenzy (5:47) / This Green And Pleasant Land (13:13) / It's Just A Matter Of Not Getting Caught (4:41) / Skara Brae (7:31) / Your Black Heart (6:46)
Nick Barrett - lead and backing vocals, guitar, keyboards and keyboard programming
Peter Gee - bass
Scott Higham - drums, backing vocals
Clive Nolan - keyboards, backing vocals
Fly High Fall Far (ep) (1984) (OOP)
The Jewel (1985)
9:15 Live (1986)
The R(B)est Of Pendragon (1991) (incl. Fly High... ep)
The World (1991)
The Very, Very Bootleg - Live In Lille, France 1992 (1993)
The Window Of Life (1993)
Fallen Dreams and Angels (ep) (1994)
Utrecht... The Final Frontier (1995)
The Masquerade Overture (1996)
As Good As Gold ep (1996)
Live In Krak&owuml;w 96 (1997)
The Masquerade Overture (digi-pack w/bonus trk) (1999)
Once Upon A Time In England Vol 1 (1999)
Once Upon A Time In England Vol 2 (1999)
The Round Table (1985-1998) (1999) (Sth Am. mkt)
The History: 1984-2000 (2000) (Polish mkt)
Not Of This World (2001)
A Historia (2001)
The Round Table (1985-1998) (2001)
Acoustically Challenged (2002)
The Jewel (remastered) (2005)
Concerto Maximo (2009)
Out Of Order Comes Chaos (2013)
Live... At Last! (VID) (1997)
Live...At Last And More (DVD) (2002)
And Now Everybody To The Stage (DVD) (2005)
Past And Presence (DVD) (2007)
Concerto Maximo (DVD) (2009)
Out Of Order Comes Chaos (DVD) (2012)
Genre: Progressive Rock