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Colin Masson - The Southern Cross CD (album) cover


Colin Masson


Crossover Prog

3.58 | 33 ratings

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5 stars Navigating across vast symphonic oceans on a masterful expedition aboard The Southern Cross.

Colin Masson's "The Southern Cross" has a distinct atmosphere of nautical mystery with tales of sailing across vast oceans and exploring. The music really has the power to hook the listener and transport them to far away places. In this sense there is a true sense of mystique about the project and it is an original approach that works on many levels. The album cover boasts some fine art work of Tall ships floating across Saturn's rings, reminding me of the Kansas cover "Point of Know Return" where the boat sails off the edge of the world. The story is easy to follow and a very compelling journey takes place told in Colin's lyrics.

From the beginning the album provides a unique style with sea shanty flavours and whimsical seafaring atmospherics. 'Never Come Back' sets the scene as the devilish captain and the crew set sail aboard The Southern Cross. The portentous lyrics explain the fate of the crew and all that is left is for us to experience how the vessel meets her doom.

The instrumental 'Sails of Silver' retains the atmosphere of sailing, featuring some lovely acoustics and melodies that float along with synth strings and quirky keyboard notes. The lyrics focus on describing the vessel and how the intrepid crew feels; "we never ask the questions though the reasons are not clear, the maidens miss the sailor's kiss but they'll be back next year". The flute tones and the way it is orchestrated feels very much like being on a Clipper ship setting sail for a treacherous journey. The minimalist acoustic at the end is delightful along with the exquisite strings, and I am already hooked into the atmosphere.

'South Australia' really peaked my interest, being based on my homeland, and it begins with a Mike Oldfield style guitar tone, played with skill and emotion. Once again the melody is like a classic old sea shanty but with a modern touch. The brass embellishments lend a decidedly majestic yet foreboding feel. There is a menacing aura of darkness as we sense an ominous occurrence will fall our seafaring crew as they encounter the hazards of oceanic exploring. The lyrics are based on the Halyard sea shanty of legend, almost verbatim though not as long; "In South Australia I was born, to me Heave away, to me Haul away! South Australia round Cape Horn, And we're bound for South Australia, Haul away you rolling king, to me Heave away! To me Haul away! All the way you'll hear me sing, And we're bound for South Australia." The shanty has been recorded by numerous artists over the years, such as folksters The Clancy Brothers, and Rolf Harris, but you have never heard it like this. In fact I would never have considered this shanty a suitable lyric to be heard on a prog album, but here it is, and with the dark textures of the doomed journey, it is ironically fitting. I like the way the album takes such risks and it really seems to work in context on the story being told. For me the real drawcard is the instrumentation which is incredible, such as that section of layered guitar fingerpicking and crescendos of orchestra that rise and fall like waves splashing up on the deck. One can imagine in the mind's eye the boat being battered by ferocious waves and stormy weather.

'The Wreckers' has a Twilight Zone type intro except in reverse. The guitar melody is strong and then a real surprise as pristine operatic vocals chime in from Cathy Alexander, a voice also heard on Masson's "The Mad Monk and the Mountain". Perhaps it is a Siren calling out to cause the destruction of the vessel. It is the strong presence of impending doom that pervades the song, and it builds at appropriate times as the storm grows worse and the fate of the oceanfarers is sealed. The lyrics are poetically beautiful and my favourite on the album; "the stricken vessel lurches like a hound that has been brought to bay, the storm a fearsome hunter that has bloodied out the light of day, a trap is sprung the teeth are bared, the granite tears the keel away, the long boats down and broken and her rocky coast will have its prey." The songs are constantly employing maritime language and phrases one may read in a maritime poem such as; "on the cliffs they stand and wait, for the waters to abate, they bless the storm and set to sharpening their knives, they leave the rest to wind and fate". The tale tells of how The Southern Cross encounters pirates, the treasure full galleon of the Spaniards, who battle it out with "greed or slavery or pain, off course and lost all hands are drowned, the Spaniards lose, the Wreckers gain, and God have mercy on their souls". These ideas reminded me of course of Coleridge's infamous 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner', already legendary thanks to Iron Maiden, but I did not hear any phraseology from that poem on this album. It certainly is a nice touch to hear some female vocals as they bring a romantic flavor to the banquet; "oh lord eternal set me free, this is not where I want to be, I pray for life against our savage enemies on land and the cold, uncaring sea". After a few listens this track wrapped its tentacles around me until I was completely held captive by the powerful atmospheres. It is one of the strongest tracks of the album, and asserts the most spellbinding part of the tale of the 18th century vessel, and this is where the story ends for this particular ship.

'Compass Rose' is a guitar solo played over sustained orchestral key pads. The symphonic ambience is pleasant and constantly traverses in new directions, like a Clipper vessel as it were battling the storm. The 'Intermission with Moon Cycles' is humorous with narration about how vinyl albums used to have two sides and it had a profound impact on the music; "whole edifices of the imagination were constructed around the fact that an album must have two sides", and he makes it emphatically clear that now "this is side two". I applaud the addition of this as it makes you remember the importance of correctly structuring the vinyl album's content. One only has to remember Genesis' "Foxtrot", Pink Floyd's "Meddle", or Caravan's "In The Land of Grey and Pink" to realise the essential placing of vinyl tracks where space is limited, and tracks thjat were designed to fill a whole album side. And I was brought to remembering also how artists used to brand sides of albums by creative names and each track then fit the concept, such as The Doors' "Morrison Hotel" with side one titled 'Hard Rock Café' and side two titled 'Morrison Hotel'.

The second side is a different tale of another vessel called 'The Southern Cross', but this vessel is a space craft that actually meets its fate at the explosive power of a black hole. the liner notes tell us this though it may not come across on hearing the album. So we enter side two of this digital vinyl album thingy with a wonderful excursion into funkadelic basslines and retro guitar sounds that swell with pride over a robust beat. 'The Heart of the Machine' actually sounds more like a song that one might hear on the radio, than previous tracks. In fact the whole of this side is definitely a departure from the 70s feel because now we have been beamed out of the 18th century on a space excursion in the future. The melody is strong and it has some innovative time sig shifts. The rock feel with distorted guitar is a welcome change after all the ambience previously. The lead solo is excellent with hammer-ons, string bends and speed picking. The chorus is infectious with some idiosyncratic lyrics; "I believe in everything they tell me, everything they tell me must be true, I believe that paradise is waiting in the shadows, I could put the finger on you." The middle lead solo is the best so far on the album, a very loud raw whammy bar dominated sound that has a crunching riff as a background. It fades out eventually but I would like to have heard this go on for a longer time. This track is a great blast of rock to kick off the second side, and it really grew on me.

After this bright spark of exuberance, the atmosphere goes dark as cloudy synth effects draw like curtain blinds over sunny skies. We are now in space and the storm is coming in, an 'Ocean of Storms', and at first it feels like clouds closing in slowly, patiently awaiting their hour of glory when the heavens will burst. The keyboards are played with finesse, exuding a depth of emotion that has the power to draw one in. There is a depth of tension in the air, augmented by the echo of Cathy's angelic vocal intonations and a harmonious recorder. The anticipation of the chaos of the black hole ready to break out is prevailing. The Pink Floyd sound, especially from "Animals" or "Meddle", is enhanced by a wonderful percussive guitar lick and bass drone. I love the sensuous melancholy wailing vocals sounding as though the storm has found a voice and is crying out for the explorers. Eventually a time sig change locks in with keyboard sweeps that wash over spacey synth textures and electronic effects. It is close to the work of Jean Michel Jarre's synth soaked electronic works. There are estranged voices heard on the soundtrack adding to the atmosphere. One can immerse themselves into the music and it seems to breathe and expire with the tension of dark beauty and the release of bright guitar tones. The music constantly builds higher up the scale till it releases into the grandeur of a spacey soundscape, enhanced by swathes of string pads. The lady of the ocean cries out "there's nobody there, is anybody there? Answer me". We feel that the explorers have been lost in the black hole and are doomed. This may be a metaphor for isolation, as may be the whole album; an allegory for loss of identity, searching for answers and the experience of alienation among the storms of life.

'The Southern Cross' has a kind of Robert Fripp like picking style on twin guitars that drives the track along. The guitars dominate and become increasingly more aggressive as the track moves along, similar to Andy Latimer at times. The duel lead guitar playing is well executed and delivers some excellent themes and melodies. It builds to a rockier feel mid way through with loud staccato keyboard blasts and a strong guitar hook that dictates proceedings until it breaks into a gentler approach with Spanish guitar style fingerpicking. The style changes several times, even launching into metal guitar riffing and then finally Colin's vocals return to end the tale. He has an aggressive style as the lyrics clearly confirm how the journey culminated as the ship is lost on the other side of the black hole; "we hold the course we do not choose, we sail the Southern Cross, can you hear us calling, no one is left to save us now, save us for we are calling". Some of the lead guitar here is the best I have heard from Colin. I love the heavier playing with some fierce riffing and elongated string bends harmonised by two lead guitars trading off, echoing the melodies. Some of the keyboards remind me of Wakeman's style, at least with the majestic melodies. This track is a masterpiece, clearly the best on the album, and what a way to end the expedition. The journey has come full circle, both ships are doomed on polar opposites of the time scale, one taken by the storm of the ocean and one taken by the storm of the universe. The album ends where it began with 'Never Come Back', the prophecy foretold in the opening lyrics; "if she goes to sea than she'll never come back, she's a wreck from the crack in her keel to the holes in her deck." Both vessels are doomed and their fate is in the hands of the gods.

So we come to the end of the one hour journey completely satisfied and this is far superior to "Mad Monk and the Mountain" as it simply delivers from beginning to end, never feeling like filler, and not ending with all instrumental works, but with every section adding to the whole experience. The dynamic content continues the line of thought that has been a constant companion on all of Masson's albums, especially on his previous release that focused on lighthouses and insanity that isolation can bring, and storms that rock our world till we cannot find our way back. It is an album to be listened to in one listen with the headphones on so you can be uninterrupted and indulge in the pure escapism on offer. By the end of the journey, we have been treated to an emotional exploration of ambience and innovative progressive soundscapes. We have discovered new territories along with our adventurers on both Southern Cross vessels, navigating along treacherous oceans and weathering intense storms.

Each track offers something completely different, from straight AOR to instrumental symphonic prog. Side two is definitely a different diversion on the journey as it is almost entirely instrumental. The story is really left to our imagination in these sections and we can surmise that the explorers were able to circumnavigate around various obstacles, as the music rises and descends, till they finally meet their fate. The instrumental sections are a spectacle of musical virtuosity with some inspired Oldfieldian guitar playing and gorgeous monochrome synthesizer nuances of beauty. This is an album that I took an instant liking to, and on repeated listens it did not fail to cast a spell with it's buoyant melodies and nautical themes. An album with a concept like this is in danger of becoming clichéd with all the maritime language and thematic content, however I did not feel that this was the case with "The Southern Cross". There is no pretension because the music and vocals encompass a genuine method of mixing concept with dazzling musicianship. Once you become immersed in the music, the experience has the power to take over and you are held captive by the enchanting parallel tales of the explorers navigating on their way across the immense oceanscapes of time and space.

AtomicCrimsonRush | 5/5 |


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