On one hand, it’s bizarre that there hasn’t been more music about the lockdown. On the other hand, studio time was hard to find for awhile, and many musicians are playing their cards close to the vest, fearing that they’ll lose part of their audience if they dare question the brainwashing and fear propaganda that the corporate media unleashed on us in the spring of last year.
British band Mostly Autumn are one of the few and the brave. Their new album Graveyard Star – streaming at youtube – is a throwback to ornately catchy 70s bands like Renaissance and Supertramp, and most obviously, Pink Floyd. The lyrics are straightforward and thoughtful: the characters in these songs long to be free, under the sun, out in the fields, and hold their ground as the walls crush in against them. The melodies here rise from a somber restraint, through dirges and black-sky ambience to a thunderous, stadium-worthy stomp. And ultimately, the band’s message is optimistic, notwithstanding the visceral pain and longing that pervades this vast and in many ways visionary album,
The group comprises Olivia Sparnenn-Josh and guitarist Bryan Josh sharing lead vocals, with Iain Jennings on keys, Angela Gordon on flute, keys and vocals, Chris Johnson on guitars, Andy Smith on bass and Henry Rogers on drums.
Solemn synth chromatics give way to a baroque-tinged, gothic organ melody as the album’s epic, twelve-minute title track gets underway. A Floydian spacerock tableau unfolds into a steady anthem, then the guitars kick in: it’s a metal symphony but with a more focused, Gilmouresque attack.
“I hedge my bets on stormy seas, it’s a long way home tonight,” Josh sings grimly over looming, cumulo-nimbus orchestration in The Plague Bell. The loping, moody spaghetti western rock of Skin of Mankind, an existentialist lament, comes as a real surprise: these guys are a great surf band! Guest Chris Leslie’s violin solo peaking out in tandem with Sparnenn-Josh’s vocals is one of the album’s most spine-tingling moments.
“Voices like a ghost calling history up again, if I wasn’t growing up I sure as hell am now,” Josh reflects over a lush bed of acoustic guitars before the electrics kick in mightily in Shadows, a bristling commentary on lockdown alienation and solitude.
“The deeper that you bleed, the further you will reach…the harder you love, the harder that you hurt,” Sparnenn-Josh muses in the stately, jangly ballad The Harder That You Hurt, but even here, she refuses to concede to despair.
She reflects on escape throughout a long, desolate drive in Razor Blade, the music lifting from a piano-based dirge to Floydian majesty and wrath as Josh moves to the mic. When Sparnenn-Josh intones “Hang me on a satellite,” the irony is crushing – as is the desperate coda.
Sparnenn-Josh speaks to the interminable hopelessness of the early months of 2020 in This Endless War, as the music slowly reaches up from a dirge to a shrieking, vengeful Gilmouresque guitar solo.
The border closure and “x-ray town” in Spirit of Mankind raise the ugly specter of what we’ve been battling since the spring of 2020, but the song is a tribute to the indomitability of the resistance against it, “A phoenix rising through these flames.”
Back in These Arms starts out with allusions to a famously mechanical Pink Floyd theme and morphs into a Celtic-tinged stadium rock anthem. Josh sings defiantly of how, if we all join forces, we can reclaim our world from fascist domination: “Freedom’s burning in our veins, never let it go!”
Sparnenn-Josh sings Free to Fly with a delicate, restrained hope over Jennings’ gentle piano lullaby and eventually a web of synth that reaches orchestral heights. The Diamond is the most opaque song on the album, but paradoxically one of its catchiest, a wistful reflection of rebirth from a bankrupt system “pre-designed to fall apart.”
Josh sings Turn Around Slowly, an endlessly shapeshifting, circling, metaphorically loaded seafaring anthem that makes a towering coda:
Is there any danger when love blows a fuse
There’s a clown in the looking glass, a world full of fools…
We’ve been locking down, slow, too far, too long
In its meticulously composed, breathtaking and sometimes charmingly retro way, this might be the best rock record of 2021.