Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Greetings, fellow hominids! A few of you may know me from my weekly Thursday facebook music posts, known as PLAT (Progressive-music Look Ahead Thursday). In this glorious year of 2021 I am now, fearlessly, or foolishly (not sure which yet) going to be diving into the waters of longer form music reviews. I'll still be focusing each review on the incredible new progressive music that is coming out all the time, but now digging much deeper into what makes this amazing music tick. To start things off with a sonic boom, I'm going to take a look at the brand new Sonus Umbra release, A Sky Full of Ghosts.
Sonus Umbra (roughly translated from Latin as sound of shadow, or shadows made of sound) began their story in Mexico, initially known as Radio Silence. After breaking up in the mid 90s, a few of the core members moved to the United States. A reunion of sorts, resulted in three full-length albums in the 00s.
Reforming again in Chicago in the early 2010s, spearheaded by original member, bassist and creative force Luis Nasser, two wonderful albums took flight with 2013's Winter Soulstice and 2016's Beyond the Panopticon.
All of which brings us to the album in question, A Sky Full of Ghosts, released on December 22nd, 2020.
Like many good bands, the sound and style of Sonus Umbra is diverse, and difficult to pin down. At times reminiscent of Jethro Tull with flourishes of acoustic guitar and flute, they can also turn up the crunch and get heavy with a ferocious guitar attack. Then again, with more than one member adept at keyboards, there is a symphonic quality to the music at times. And you want avant/RIO type of flourishes? That is in the mix, too.
Currently operating as a 7-piece, and with several multi-instrumentalists in the band, the collective options for stretching out and filling in multiple musical spaces are immense.
Things get off to a roaring start with opener Antidentity. A blistering instrumental prologue brings many band strengths to the fore. There is some mercurial flute work from Steve Royce and supportive cello playing from newest member David Keller. Then we switch to some heavy riffage, led by Rich Poston on electric guitar. Holding it all together is some solid rhythm interplay with Luis Nasser on bass, and Andy Tillotson on drums. After this sledgehammer start, the table is set by a haunting acoustic guitar line from Tim McCaskey, bringing a dark and folky ambience with it.
Tim's predominately acoustic playing on the album, is one of the things that sets this band apart. Very few acts feature acoustic guitar regularly mixed in with so many electric instruments. It's expertly blended, to become a part of the whole, as opposed to making an occasional appearance, as you would get from the majority of bands.
Just after the 2:40 mark, we get our first taste of vocals. One aspect of this album that I find quite appealing is the unrushed, free to stretch out, organic nature of the music. You won't find wall-to-wall vocals here, but a smooth ebb and flow, of whatever elements the song calls for. This provides a very welcoming sense of immersion, making each song its own flowing, self-contained story, that is part of the album's whole.
Singer Roey Ben-Yoseph's emotive voice is in fine form throughout. Possessing an expressive, yearning quality, it sits nicely in the expansive bed the music creates. A number of subtle studio effects are used to bring out several interesting, enhancing qualities to Roey's voice, while never obscuring the immediacy of it. A good thing too, as the lyrics on the album are of a very evocative and thought-provoking nature. For example:
'Eye and I an illusion
A dream of skin; a flesh collusion
A glitch in the code;
a Mobius node
To a fractured brain
Let me fly
On death's head moth wings
Let me pull the strings
Looking to find
A way out of my mind'
Heady stuff, and the sort of thing that encourages repeated listening and provides a doorway into a deeper appreciation of the music itself.
Second track Bleary-Eyed People opens with a pastoral sounding strummed acoustic guitar, supported by dreamy flute. Then enters a treated vocal that creates a strange, otherworldly vibe of bizarre beings literally crawling out of the woodwork. A stunning change into some heavy, crunched out riffage, yanks things in a different direction, before returning to a second verse of the opening theme. From there, it's a rollercoaster ride of riffs and changes, punctuated by a story of a seeming nightmarish reality, until returning to the opening riff, and a pledge to a battle for survival.
Desolation Dreams, one of the shorter tracks, is a well-crafted, spirited number, enhanced by flute and cello, and lots of tasty harmonics on the guitar. The lyrics have a plaintive quality to them, and seem to evoke a tale of trying to find one's home and place in a troubled universe.
And then...it happened! The epic centerpiece of the album, Hidden in the Light. Clocking in at just over 20 minutes, this is a winding, twisting, serpentine journey with layer piled upon layer, of musical exploration and aural goodness. Exotic riffs flow, Roey Ben-Yoseph delivers some earnest vocals, and keyboards make their first welcome appearance, all contributing to the majestic, at times demented, grandeur of this track.
Another noteworthy facet of this album, is the expert sonic sculpting provided by band members Andy Tillotson and Luis Nasser. Like two kids in a science lab (which, as adult scientists, they basically are), extreme thought and care has been lavished on the arrangements and sound design of the music.
At about seven minutes into Hidden in the Light, this is brought to the forefront. A tour-de-force instrumental section that is best described as a sonic maelstrom of dizzying proportions, featuring all sorts of odd, menacing sounds swirling all around, darting from side-to-side, mixed together in a brain-melting stew of seismic proportions. A great disc to listen to with headphones on, indeed.
After all that chaos, we slip into another lyrically intriguing shorter song, under the aptly named title, Losing My Insanity. Some expressive Roey vocals, and some choice, quick solos by (flautist/keyboardist) Steve Royce on flute and (guitarist/keyboardist) Rich Poston on organ, further showcase the diversity this line-up brings to the dance. Tasty.
The Last Menagerie is a heart-felt plea, about humankind's seeming relentless capacity for destruction of this, and by extension, any other planet's flora and fauna. Some wonderfully melancholic keyboard lines support the plight, followed by some blistering instrumental band interplay.
The last three tracks couple together quite nicely to form a strong finish.
First up is Time is Running Out. Back in the day, this would be the 'single' from the album, and it features some absolutely beautiful guitar chords, ably supported by a stunning vocal melody. The impact is strong and immediate.
The Waves Will Devour the Sea, is a crazy, instrumental tour-de-force. Polyrhythms, insane drum patterns, turn-on-a-dime changes...it's all here. Andy Tillotson really brings it on this one, on both drums and guitar and Luis Nasser digs in hard on bass, with a plethora of Dark Glass insanity, at his fingertips.
Closer Apogee, an ethereal and poignant shorter number ties it all together nicely, even featuring an appearance by the Lorelei herself, Mara Kovacevic, thus completing this phase of the journey, begun on predecessor Beyond the Panopticon.
Final verdict? This is a rich and layered album. It's the kind of record that invites you to investigate and delve into it more deeply and it amply rewards repeated listens. Further exploration into the thoughtful lyrical content and the meticulous production, provides a gateway to a more intense and intimate listening experience still.
Sonus Umbra-A Sky Full of Ghosts is a wonderful way to musically cap off the otherwise, much-maligned and troubled year of 2020 and help point the way forward to more great music, and hopefully a better day-to-day world experience, for all of us, in 2021.
Neil Baxter Folkard