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Monarch Trail - Sand CD (album) cover


Monarch Trail



3.98 | 147 ratings

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Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
5 stars Three years ago, Canadian trio Monarch Trail delivered a strong and well-received debut `Skye', a rich and quietly dynamic keyboard-dominated symphonic work that called to mind the early works of Glass Hammer and Pendragon, the vocal-focused melodicism of Izz and even the romantic longings of Camel. It was a top-notch first effort, but to say that the band has stepped up in a big way here would be an understatement! 2017's sci-fi concept tale `Sand', which sees the trio backed up by contributions from three different guitarists, offers a larger canvass of symphonic grandness and stronger instrumental themes, as well as delivering a more polished production, smoother vocals and more naturally flowing harmonies that instantly improve on those from the debut, and it quickly reveals itself to be one of the finest Symph-prog works of the year.

The album launches reliably with `Station Theme', an overture-like introductory instrumental full of Ken Baird's whirring synth themes and rousing piano by way of Rick Wakeman-like pomp as well as some eerier little fleeting gothic touches, as Dino Verginella's chunky bass grumbles through the background alongside Chris Lamont's bustling drumwork. `First Thoughts' is the first gentle vocal piece, Ken's placid voice sweetly sighing alongside soft symphonic keyboard caresses and sparse acoustic guitar, and it reminds of both the last few Comedy of Errors discs or the unashamedly romantic classic period Pendragon albums. `Back To The Start' instantly calls to mind I.Q's mysterious and melodic approach with the snaking bass over crystalline synth washes, and the touch of heavier guitars will excite fans of Arena and the earlier male-fronted version of Flamborough head. Loaded with crisp electric guitar themes and slow-burn soloing piercing through rambunctious drumming (listen to Dino's tantrum-like burst at about the 3:20 mark!), the second half in particular lifts to the highest of instrumental symphonic-prog heavens and is sheer prog bliss wrapped up in a mere seven minutes!

A nice change in direction, the lyrically reflective `Missing' might deliver a sparkling piano and cascading Mellotron introduction, but at heart it's a strong and tasteful pop tune, not unlike some of those simpler moments that show up on most Glass Hammer albums, and it holds a catchy joyful chorus that would make E.L.O green with envy - but don't worry, prog-snobs, you get to overdose on the frantic keyboard delirium solo in the middle!

But then Monarch Trail drop `Charlie's Kitchen' on us, a sumptuous instrumental feast of keyboard-slathered symphonic rapture in the tradition of bands like Trion, Willowglass and classic-era Genesis. Offering the most infectious of twinkling jazzy piano, assisted by some majestic Mellotron flutes, sweetly murmuring bass, peppy drumming and Steve Hackett-esque ringing guitars, it's a frequently whimsical slice of romantic prog that symphonic fans will adore. The group then spoil us that little bit more with `Another Silent World', a tasty final standalone spacey instrumental interlude.

And then, as every symphonic-prog album should have, we reach the `side-long' epic, the near twenty-five minute closing title- track `Sand'. While it similarly holds all the same wistful vocal passages with lengthy instrumental bursts fuelled by colourful whirring keyboards and welcome acoustic guitar breaks, it also refreshingly incorporates plenty of heavier drama and darker segments from moodier cinematic synths that shimmer with danger. The climax has guitars and keyboards reaching in unison to the heavens to end on as grandiose a note as possible, but extra special is the instrumental passage that runs from about the 4:45 mark for a full ten minutes, a truly exceptional all-out prog moment.

If bands like Comedy of Errors, Druckfarben and Barock Project have all moved up over the last few years in status with their most recent efforts in a symphonic prog style, then Monarch Trail have done exactly the same thing here with `Sand'. The first album was a great success, but here the arrangements, playing and production are all far superior than that initial effort, meaning we can only wait and see the amazing places the band head to from here! Also, here listeners will be witness to one of the most outstanding currently active keyboard players in action in Ken Baird, hopefully one to eventually be thought of in the same league as Clive Nolan, Fred Schendel, Andy Tillison, Neal Morse and Robert Reed of the modern prog era.

Chances are we're looking at potentially the greatest pure symphonic prog album of 2017 right here with Monarch Trail's `Sand', but we've definitely been handed one of the standout progressive rock releases of the year overall.

Four and a half stars.

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 5/5 |


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