Wednesday, November 20, 2013

album review: 'desolation rose' by the flower kings

It shouldn't be any surprise to, well, anyone at this point that I'm a big fan of progressive rock. Bearing its roots in the psychedelic rock, classical rock and early metal of the late 60s, it was a genre known for concept albums, virtuosity in instrumentation, complex and cerebral themes and lyrics, and off-beat experimentation that defied commercialism. The genre definitively peaked throughout the seventies and declined with the rise of punk, but that doesn't mean prog rock has gone away. Far from it - it still exists in the form of prog rock harkening back to the golden age, prog metal in the vein of acts like Dream Theater, Ayreon, and late-period Porcupine Tree, and even what has been described as nu-prog like Coheed & Cambria and the Mars Volta. 

And really, there are great acts in all three categories, but today we're going to be talking about a favourite act of mine that fits closest into the group of prog metal calling back to the past, yet with enough a modern touch not to brand them as a throwback. Yes, I'm talking about The Flower Kings, a Swedish prog rock group that began in the early 90s and have continued releasing albums for the past two decades. And yet, they've never really had that critical breakthrough single that would have propelled them to anything close to chart success, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a huge following for the band - which is really disappointing, because they're awesome, a cerebral act that often goes for broke with interesting concept album ideas and some great instrumental segments to back it up. I got into The Flower Kings first through their 2006 album Paradox Hotel, which acts as an exploration of various paradoxical situations with breathtaking variety. 

But it might have been an inopportune time to get into The Flower Kings, because after their 2007 album Sum Of No Evil, the band took a five year break to recharge, coming back with their exceptionally strong 2012 album Banks of Eden. And thus, I was overjoyed to hear that they had released another album this year, titled Desolation Rose. The band has made the statement that they consider this album their 'most involved, important, and interesting album ever', designed to make the audience 'question the mainstream media and rethink your whole world view'. Now I always get skeptical when prog bands become political, but to be fair, prog rock might be one of the few avenues where political music works well, assuming they put the time and intellectual nuance into articulating their points of view. And really, The Flower Kings have proven in the past that they are capable of doing this, so I went into Desolation Rose with more than a little excitement. How did it turn out?

Well, it turned out pretty damn well, all things considered. Desolation Rose is a very, very good album, possibly even a great one from a prog rock band who really does deliver here on both instrumentation and big ideas. Is it flawless? No, but it's still quite strong and I feel in terms of political albums released this year, The Flower Kings released one of the better ones, even if the ideas they're bringing to the table aren't exactly revolutionary.

Let's start with the instrumentation and production, and if you've been listening to The Flower Kings at all throughout the past decade or so, you know what to expect. Spacey, measured guitar work, bass that's always memorable but never obtrusive, and striking keyboard melodies across a variety of tones. For me, the surprise standout came from the drummer Felix Lehrman, the newest addition to the band, mostly because he's got a good touch on his snares and cymbals and he reminds me of former Porcupine Tree drummer Chris Maitland, which is only a plus. The guitars of Roine Stolt and Hasse Froburg also deserve mention because this is one of the biggest hidden strengths of The Flower Kings - although they don't really have the jawdropping virtuoso skills of a band like Dream Theater (which I think has hurt them a bit in the prog scene), they have an uncanny knack for great simple melody lines that do wonders for anchoring their songs. And despite the band's reported shift towards darker music on this album, The Flower Kings have always been a lighthearted act, and the band's fondness for octave-spanning crescendos hasn't gone anywhere. There are a few slip-ups in terms of tonal choice - the keyboard tone on 'Desolation Road' feels a little too blaring in the mix - and there are a few moments where the band tries to be technical and it doesn't feel as cohesive as it should, but overall, I have very few complaints. This also ties back to the vocals by Stolt and Froburg - they've always worked very well together and they have a great, well-practiced harmony that adds a lot to The Flower Kings' appeal. Like James LaBrie, I don't think either man is great in their harsher vocal range, but for the most part they know their limits and they stick to them.

But now we need to get into the lyrics and themes, which have a fair amount of meat on them this time around and are definitely worth some analysis. Stolt's songwriting, in my opinion, has always been technically strong, with a solid grasp of meter and rhyme, and while the lyrics have never been all that complex, the addition of subjects demanding nuance have added some layers to the writing on this album. As was stated, this album is largely a critique of mainstream culture on a broad basis, attacking the military-industrial complex in 'White Tuxedos', the separation between intolerant faith and true love in 'The Resurrected Judas', the mainstream media in 'The Silent Masses', the rise of pockets of hard-right fascism across Europe and general ambivalence towards it from the majority in 'Dark Fascist Skies', anti-intellectualism in 'Desolation Road', and even regression towards beliefs better left in the past in 'Last Carnivore' (which could easily be interpreted as men stepping away from progressiveness towards alpha male bestial nature). And all of it is tied together with the opening track 'Tower One' which frames all of these themes and the bookending tracks 'Sleeping Bones' and 'Blood Of Eden', the latter two taking first a pessimistic and then an optimistic view on humanity's place on Earth and in the Universe, inquiring into the cosmic plan.

 Now keep in mind these are big topics which some bands would build entire albums discussing, and the fact that The Flower Kings plow through them efficiently does leave one wishing that the band spent a little more time elaborating beyond the songs themselves. That's not saying they don't bring a fair amount of nuance to tracks like 'The Resurrected Judas' or 'The Silent Masses', because they definitely do, but the songs can't help but feel a bit arch and broad, not quite with enough detail or enough of a personal touch to really grip the audience. The thing is, The Flower Kings have always been a band that works in heavy symbolism and broad strokes. They don't do small or character-focused, instead going for big emotions, which definitely helps their populist appeal and can make songs like 'White Tuxedos' come across as rallying instead of preachy, which was the trap The Knife fell into with Shaking The Habitual

That being said, I can't help but feel the band could have given some tracks more of a chance to breathe or articulate more detail, because songs like 'White Tuxedo', which attempts to tackle the military-industrial complex, nationalistic fervour, foreign intervention, and drone strikes all in one song, can run the risk of losing nuance and sounding simplistic. On the one hand, the simplicity is tolerable because the entire album deals with arch symbolism and stereotypes, which can work in this environment - but on the other hand, it doesn't exactly excuse filling the background of 'White Tuxedos' with clips of Nixon. I mean, I have a hard time taking that sort of broadside remotely seriously, even if I do agree with the sentiments behind it.

And on that note, I can't say I'm the biggest fan of the record's ending. Don't get me wrong, I really like 'Blood Of Eden', but the album should have ended there, especially considering 'Silent Graveyards' repeats lyrics and themes already hammered in previous songs and feels tacked on. Additionally, I don't especially like the inclusion of the bonus disk here as well - as bonus material, it's decent enough and some of the instrumental segments are pleasant enough, but none of it fits with the theme of the main album and it never quite does enough to stand out on its own.

So what do I think about the album as a whole? Honestly, Desolation Rose is very strong for what it's trying to be. Is it broad and occasionally oversimplified? Well, yeah, but it makes up for that in great instrumentation and a ton of passion in the delivery, and it never reaches the point of jargon or buzzwords. Every point The Flower Kings make is at least articulated with some nuance, even if they come across as heavy-handed at points. And I can't lie and say that the combination of nuanced argumentation, great instrumentation and melodies, and a generally optimistic and hopeful tone of the album (it might be accusatory, but it never really gets sour) really does a lot for me. With that in mind, Desolation Rose gets an 8/10 from me and a recommendation, and if you're a big fan of progressive rock, particularly that inspired by the 70s with a modern touch, it's definitely worth a look. 

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