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XII Alfonso - Charles Darwin CD (album) cover

CHARLES DARWIN

XII Alfonso

 

Symphonic Prog

3.83 | 74 ratings

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Aussie-Byrd-Brother
Special Collaborator
Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
4 stars XII Alfonso's 3CD, 3 hour concept album based on the life and beliefs of controversial naturalist Charles Darwin is an eclectic collection of 30 instrumental pieces with 22 vocal tracks, performed by over 50 musicians alongside the core band members. Over 70 instruments were used in the recording of the album, creating a very rich and colourful work full of emotion and mood. All the music is very accessible and easy to get in to without being simplistic, and it's carefully arranged, full of original ideas and clever variations. It covers virtually every genre progressive rock crosses over into, and there will surely be something for everyone here. Reference points might be Mostly Autumn, Pink Floyd (Dark Side-era onwards), Andreas Vollenweider, the romantic prog of Camel and Rousseau, and even a more sophisticated Alan Parsons Project on some of the vocal pieces. There's a heavy acoustic and classical sound, epic guitar solos, lots of synth/keys/Mellotron, male/female vocals and folk influences, with frequent world elements too.

Assume all tracks in this review are instrumental unless vocals are pointed out.

Vol 1: 1809-1835 - 60'14

`Collection One' is a gorgeous low-key piano and bass intro, while `Earliest Recollections' is a folk influenced rocker with female vocals in a similar style to Mostly Autumn. It has the same plodding beat as that band, with tasteful acoustic guitar and electric solos throughout. `Stolen Fruits' is a moody dramatic instrumental highlighted by cello, mandolin, classical guitar and recorder. `Physics and Hunting' is a very upbeat accordion driven folk jig in the tradition of Malicorne and Mostly Autumn again, with killer synth and guitar runs. `Silent Battle' is my least favourite track on this disc - a semi schmaltzy Beatles influenced ballad with a forced Fish-like vocal that is a little too cute for my liking. `Collection Two and Three' brings us back up with a gorgeous acoustic guitar solo backed with striking clarinet. The first longer cut `The Bump Of Reverence' is a jammy fusion improv full of evocative sax/flute and acoustic guitar, with a wailing but melodic electric guitar solo. The band are very relaxed and loose on this one! The two part `Leaving England ' begins with a short classical guitar interlude, then grand male vocals join in the heavier second half to continue the narrative. `The Letter From Henslow' has a quirky Mellotron/synth/keys heavy sound amongst some funky bass and percussion, with slight Canterbury influences in the flute. `HMS Beagle' has a very full-of-life male vocal in the chorus, with an upbeat dreamy quality to the acoustic playing. `Collection Four' is a 30 second reprise of an earlier musical theme played on glockenspiel. From here the album heads in a very different direction! `Captain Fitzroy' has a world-music style wordless sighing female vocal behind Gilmour-like guitar licks and Fender jazz-bass. `Straights of Magellan' has a very moody intro before electric piano, triangle and Spanish guitar rip into something Andreas Vollenweider might perform. Tasteful acoustic instruments, castanets, flute and strings weave throughout the dancing melody. After narration, the longer `Terra del Fuego' has an atmospheric and spiritual quality with drifting sax and percussion and delicate acoustic guitar. Then the drums and majestic electric guitar enter, with contrasting male/female vocals floating through the music with a choir at the end. An album highlight! `Darwin's Finches' is a nice come-down, a near-ambient Vollenweider-styled piece with female Oriental vocals in the first half, before an unexpected fusion-styled groovy bass, drums and electric guitar explosion in the middle! The disc wraps on `Homeward Bound', a short and pleasant ukulele and sax instrumental.

Volume One stands as a wonderfully varied and balanced combination of instrumental and vocal pieces that would stand as a successful single progressive album any artist could be proud of.

Vol 2: 1836-1858 - 60'05

The more vocal/narrative heavy Vol 2 begins with another acoustic variation of the main `Collection' theme before mid-tempo acoustic rocker `So Many Years' kicks in, with a catchy melody and raspy male vocals. `Strange Fossil' is a mysterious ambient piece with flute and cello. `Emma and Charles' is an emotionally sung if somewhat overwrought duet. While it has an admirable lyric about accepting and loving another despite different beliefs and opinions, it's full of awkward clunky lyrics that are admittedly very difficult to work into a catchy and accessible song. Lovely acoustic outro though. `The Coral Of Life' is an experimental piece highlighted by disorientating keyboards and sax, stream-of-consciousness rambling vocals with a groovy middle section, the bass mixed nice and upfront too. A brief accordion reprise of the main theme, then the wordy and slightly overambitious acoustic ballad `Down House', full of warm playing and a passionate vocal. `The Island of Devil's Riding School' is a world-music Vollenweider-styled piece, with lots of xylophone and other obscure instruments! The two part `Annie' has evocative French vocals and delicate cello, before another interpretation of the main theme on sax and flute, dirty bass and guitar over a simple programmed beat. `Beloved Cirripedia' is a whirling instrumental piece in grand symphonic prog style, full of endless variety and stunning playing. `An Ordinary Day' is sumptuous mid-tempo adult vocal jazz with a lovely accented female performance. The dark jazz on instrumental improv `Salting The Seeds' has lonely wailing sax, urgent percussion and exquisite piano. `Lenny' is an upbeat acoustic jig with the voices of children over the top. `It's Time To Write' is a somber acoustic ballad with male vocals and a nice Mellotron/sax instrumental in the outro that sounds not unlike Pink Floyd. An Oriental variation on the main theme closes the disc with the darker acoustic `Missing Links' sounding almost like the sophisticated female fronted pop/prog of Magenta.

Volume Two is still a very strong piece, with several stunning instrumental passages, only sometimes let down by trying to incorporate difficult concepts into workable song lyrics on some of the vocal pieces. Still endless things to enjoy on here, though.

Vol 3: 1859-1882 - 60'15

After a strangely vaudeville interpretation of the main theme, the semi-comical vocal track `Round Together' has a quirky and playful sound with a wonderful sax solo. A complex concept is attempted to squeeze into a poppy upbeat track in a fairly successful manner. `Descent With Modification' is a dark and moody jazz instrumental. Except for some brief vocals from Huong Thanh throughout, the classy Oriental based `Origin of the Species' is a mysterious and subtle instrumental with more of that evocative sax and lovely piano. `Controverse In Oxford' is a brief droning choir chant with almost middle eastern elements. A classical reprise of the main theme, then the band rips through `Slave Makers, a super-proggy spacey instrumental fanfare not unlike early Camel! One of the albums highlights, filled with gorgeous Mellotron and piercing Gilmour-like slide guitar! `L.H.C.A' is a somewhat repetitive interpretation of a traditional Irish piece, however it's beautifully performed by female vocalist Sand Roman Garcia. The lyric heavy `Somber Thoughts' is a reflective acoustic ballad with accented male vocals. We now hit a big stretch of instrumental pieces! The flute and acoustic guitar combination of `Collection Eleven' would not have sounded out of place on Camel's `Snow Goose' album. `Mysterious Illness' has contrasting somber passages with uplifting lead guitar and dramatic saxophone, and a synth/Mellotron heavy blowout in the middle, powerful drum-work too! A knockout track, possibly the best on the album! Again that Camel sound can be heard on the lovely flute and classical guitar of `The Copley Medal', then the funky `Vision of the Indian Mound' has middle eastern elements/synth-orchestration, classical guitar, fluid bass and spacey keys, while an endless melodic electric guitar solo weaves it's way around the entire track. Dripping with so much emotion and feeling, it's an amazing piece. `The Descent Of Man' has male/female vocals with more complicated lyrics crammed into a slightly awkward poppy song with a very wordy chorus, but it's full of terrific guitar solos. A final cello/guitar variation on `Collection Twelve', then the very strange loopy electronics, gloomy bass and piano racket of `Struggle For Existence' comes out of nowhere! The album finishes on the Flower Kings and Genesis-like uplifting and thoughtful `Darwin's Burial' with warm vocal harmonies and a soaring guitar solo. Despite a very abrupt finish, it's a very nice way to end the album, and one of the best vocal pieces on the album.

Volume 3's quality level is still very high, though perhaps by now we've heard all the real surprises the album has to offer. But the late run of several instrumental pieces and lovely finale really brings the album home.

Special mention must go to the stunning hardback 76 page book that houses the three CD's, filled with endless photographs, illustrations and lyrics, as well as further explanations of Darwin's beliefs and studies. It helps the listener understand the man's motivations and discoveries, as well as touching on some brief elements of his family life. It really raises the bar in how original and special progressive rock can be presented.

As someone who has followed strong Christian beliefs all my life, I was concerned I was going to find an insulting and negative album with `Charles Darwin'. However, with a musical experience as rich and sophisticated as this, full of outstanding progressive rock music presented in an intelligent and thoughtful manner, put together with so much devotion and skill, I am perfectly happy to accept the album for what it is. Other listeners with religious and spiritual beliefs will have to decide whether it's for them or not.

I'm sure there will be some arguments that the album might have made a better double album than a triple, but overall most of the music is of such a high quality, full of truly stunning playing, arrangements and performances, that the 3 disc format is justified. Perhaps it might have been even better if each of the three discs had a unique sound of it's own, other than being three volumes of endless varieties and genres overall. Although the vocal pieces are all generally effective, you really notice how much the album picks up and comes alive in all the incredible instrumental tracks. But if you are a fan of thought-provoking, intelligent and lush symphonic progressive rock, and you have the patience to persist in giving the 3 hour album repeated listens, you'll find a hugely satisfying and rewarding listening musical experience.

Four and a half stars.

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 4/5 |

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