FEARFUL SYMMETRY (UK) The Difficult Second
This is the project of Suzi James, a British songwriter, multi-instrumentalist (guitars, keys, bass) as well as a vocalist (Suzi - "not true!") and by all accounts a rather awesome person. I never met her online or otherwise, so one can only rely on the type of music she proposes, in order to see what she is like. Well, based on a first spin, the Difficult Second is an upbeat, groovy, at times intense but generally optimistic serving, with world class chops to boot. Progland has a plethora of dark and doom-laden acts, as well as the other extreme in lighter, cheerier accessible artists, each with tons of variations in style and substance. This is a trio with James relying on the mellifluous Yael Shotts on lead vocals and the incredible Sharon Petrover on drums (who is a revelation throughout this disc). I also noticed in the credits a thank you to prog entrepreneur Pat Sanders of Drifting Sun fame (we are good friends, eh, Pat?) for feedback, assistance, and advice. No one better suited….
The set list contains an hour of music, spread over 10 tracks but its really more of a sonic travelogue, with each stop being a separate little paradise of sound, from quirky, to jazzy, exotic to epic, all the ingredients need for quite the progressive buffet. The instrumental prowess is top notch, as Suzi can play that the 6 and 4 string fretboards with zeal, her splendid keyboard work is an eye opener.
Early San Francisco-inspired psychedelia on the opener “Mood Swings and Roundabouts”, a stage for Suzi to show off her playing skills, rumbling bass, screeching guitar, organ fills while Petrover tightens the beat, and Shotts singing like a Slick Grace. It’s a breezy, jangly, and somewhat happy go lucky tune with precise soloing that has that slight hint of Canterbury ‘laissez-faire’. They are having fun.
The title track begins playfully enough but this time in a jazzier fusion realm, paced with tic-toc drumming, technical guitar phrasings galore, showing that they can serious fun as well. Stir in some fine electric piano and that raucous bass into the mix and you will be conquered. Tic-toc indeed.
A modest pop song, with a striking chorus and a delightful pace, “Light of My Life” has a natural, organic , easy-peasy way about telling a lovely story , until the arrangement kicks in with sweeping orchestrations, a delicately insistent piano settling with a suggestive bass partnership , before rejoining the comfort zone. Finished off with a soaring guitar foray, all sunshine and spirit. Hummable, drummable, memorable.
Quick flight into the Atlas Mountains of Morocco as the overt Saharan strains are unmissable on the undulating “Shifting Sands”, an oasis of progressive creativity, conjuring vivid images of arid wilderness, a caravanserai of ululating choir work that takes the breath away. This could be a soundtrack for a remake of Casablanca, LOL. Second stop on the journey, the mystical “Eastern Eyes” fixates on the Sphinx, a slightly rawer effort, with Yael singing her story, highlighted by Sharon’s masterful and masterful percussive display. Suzi channels her snake charming guitar playing with both a ‘pungi’ flute and a cobra, as the arrangement adds some wicked e-piano work as well. Three Cleopatras at work, musical pearls dissolved in vinegar.
Two shorter pieces, and speaking of alluring women, “The Song of the Siren” is a return to a more conventional though insistent style, tight as clam, motivated and engaging. Ornate piano motif, great vocals once again from Yael. “Hope” is a companion piece, jazzier in an almost Californian American style but offering solace and understanding after a few years of bunker lifestyle solitude. Upbeat and most welcome panacea.
A return to the North African feel, with two more consecutive tracks, both absolute highlights: “Sandworm” and “Shukraan Jazilaan”. The first shifts clearly into a more complex, technically demanding exercise in craftsmanship, the instrumental display is elaborately exuberant, as best expressed by a whopping synth solo, followed by the axe, then in tandem, while the four-string monster bellows in the foreground. All nailed in place with hermetic Petrover drum work. The second gives Suzi the opportunity to utilize Arab instruments (oud, darbouka) along with her usual arsenal, and the combination is dreamy, explosive, and very, very prog. Her e-guitar solo is simply outstanding.
Finally, keeping the best for last, the epic nearly 15-minute extravaganza “Warlords” which stamps the complete prog credentials on this sophomore release, laden with grandiose keyboards, sublime guitar wailings, bruising bass undertow and muscular percussive power, all within overtly melodic confines. Bombastic, technical, playful, it possesses all the comfortably numb attributes that make prog often so exhilarating, the contrasting speeds, juxtaposed with sizzling twists and bold turns, change of pace and mood variations. Add some very angelic Yes-ish vocals, with historical lyrics, this is a killer piece that should be heard to be believed.
All in all, a very pleasant foray into a band that should draw the admiration of many. Three hugely talented musicians.
4 Terrified Equilibriums