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Mostly Autumn

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5 stars UK melodic prog rock band, Mostly Autumn, release a powerful and evocative new album, documenting their experience of the pandemic over the last year or so. It has all the ingredients of a classic Mostly Autumn album, but soaked with the raw emotion of personal loss, despair and finally hope for the future.

Mostly Autumn are a band not averse to showing their emotions on their sleeves when it comes to the subject matter of their albums. Dressed in Voices (2014) had the dark concept of a killer forced to witness the full weight of all he is taking away from his victim and 2019's White Rainbow was shaped by the death of former member Liam Davison. So, it is maybe not too surprising that the COVID 19 pandemic and the effect that has had on everyone, is the linking concept behind their post-lockdown album, Graveyard Star.

As Bryan Josh says in the liner notes: The album is:

"A real-time documentation of living through 2020/21 and a strong reflection of how we were feeling as this time passed. Although very personal to us. I can only imagine many of you can strongly relate to this journey."

As a result, you get all the elements you would expect from a Mostly Autumn album; angelic vocals from Olivia Sparnenn-Josh, consistently strong guitar work from Bryan Josh and a stable line-up of musicians seamlessly blending elements of melodic rock, prog rock with Celtic folk overtones. However, add a deep lyrical content and a diverse range of compositional styles, and you have one of the most impressive releases in the band's 26-year history.

The opening epic, Graveyard Star, begins atmospherically with Iain Jennings' keyboards and intimate and haunting vocals from Bryan and Olivia before violin and flute appear and then Henry Roger's drum picks up the strident beat prior to some great ensemble playing by the band. This is a song of loss, even if it dates from January 2020 before the first lockdown. Lyrics of mortality and loss dominate, with Olivia's yearning vocals emotionally charging lines such as "Goodbye sun from another sun", "I was the lamp beside your head, I was the diamond in your head" and "A spark in heaven's crowd" amongst others, while Bryan's darker vocals complement the mood. Discordant electric guitar then shifts to a gentle acoustic guitar-led interlude with poignant violin accompaniment from guest artist Chris Leslie (from Fairport Convention), before an expressive guitar solo soars above the heaviness and tiredness of the background tempo. A final rally fails to lift the sadness. It is clear that this journey into the dark has only just begun.

There are Floydian elements to Bryan's weary vocals on The Plague Bell as he states, "It's a long way home tonight" and the image of death as a "white rag ghost" stepping on board the ship, takes us back to the first lockdown in March 2020. It is effectively the introduction to Skin of Mankind - where Olivia's dramatic vocals are joined by a deep guitar riff echoing a Western theme or an Enrico Morricone soundtrack, with a trotting rhythm from Henry's drums and Andy Smith's bass. The spritely, folky violin is strikingly at odds with the dark lyrics of a changing world and the need to now isolate to survive.

Shadows starts acoustically, but soon develops into a driving, mid-tempo rock song. We are well into isolation at home by now (April 2020) and Bryan's vocals and lead guitar over Chris Johnson's rhythm guitar emphasise the monotonous routine of it all. "Shadows cut the grain of the thunder and the rain." The Harder That You Hurt continues the struggle against it all. Olivia's gentle vocals emphasise the weariness, "The stronger you are, the weaker you feel" is countered by "Counting days till we are back on the road again." The band build up the power in typical Mostly Autumn fashion from a sleepy Knopfler-style guitar pattern to full-blown ensemble instrumentation.

Written in May 2020, Razor Blade is another very personal track on the album. Dedicated to Val and Tracey, it starts with Olivia's melancholic vocals over strummed acoustic guitar, as the lyrics hint at wanting to be away from it all. "Take me off the razor's edge" - get out me out in the air and space and away from the darkness and the loss. Nice piano from Iain heralds another build-up, with keyboards taking flight and Bryan's and Olivia's contrasting vocals intertwine heartbreakingly. This Endless War continue the theme of loss and the need for support in those dark times to continue to fight and is a stunning slow burner of a track. Olivia wrote the lyrics and they resonate throughout "I would have been the answer to your call, You'll always be the answer to my call. I'd chase the wolves right from your door, I'd bring you home from this. Endless war..." The music is initially sad and pensive, with gentle piano before the full band come in. Bryan's closing solo is the best on the album for me and Olivia's passionate vocals at the end are scorching!

Spirit of Mankind takes us to January 2021 and the second lockdown, and that feeling of frustration and sadness as we returned to isolation and the closing of the borders. "We're on the ropes again" and the days filled with "the best of us" and "the worst of us". There is a pulsating beat, epic keyboards and some well-pitched electric and acoustic guitar runs, and possibly the most catchy refrain on the album - hinting that there is light at the end of the tunnel and the promise of "a phoenix rising through these flames."

All of the sudden we are in July 2021 and Back In These Arms signals the change from the dark to the light as the final lockdown ends. The subdued keyboards open up into a dynamic slab of anthematic group playing, with optimistic, joyous and defiant lyrics chanted out as life begins to return to normal. "I can hold my mother!", "Yes we cry so hard cause it feels so good". Andy's bass pushes the song towards the end, with proggy keyboards from Iain adding to the lighter tone along with pipes and whistles from returning guest musician, Troy Donockley (Nightwish). This optimistic mood continues with the beautiful Freedom to Fly. Largely piano-led over Olivia's wistful tones - the sense of a new beginning is clear to hear and is an enlivening change of tempo.

Chris Johnson's song The Diamond is also a refreshing change, with his acoustic guitar driving the song through as it builds up and his soft vocals, joined by those of Angela Gordon, produce a wonderfully ethereal and hypnotic soundscape. I was interested in how it fitted into the whole concept (Bryan alluded to a link to the diamond in the title track), and Chris gave me a very revealing explanation:

"It was about being in lockdown and feeling an intense longing to go the beautiful places in the world. For me that's mountains and I imagined them still stood there, the nature unaffected by the pandemic. I wondered if you could compress all the hurt and sadness we were feeling. Compress it down and down until it was just a hard stone and throw it into the beauty of a deep mountain lake to get rid of it. But then, we need the sadness. It's part of us and we wouldn't be the complex things we are without it, so the song explores this kind of separation. The idea of wanting to get rid of a part of yourself, and then really missing it when it's gone. I feel we have all changed from who we were before the pandemic, and maybe we're searching to feel whole again."

Turn Around Slowly is the epic conclusion to the album and really brings all of the strands of the concept together, with repeated themes and lyrics. Starting with gentle musical passages, the first half has a poignancy as the lyrics look back on the long journey we have all took. "The Lady" is a fitting reference and tribute to the work of Dame Sarah Gilbert and the Oxford vaccination team and whilst the tone is optimistic, Bryan's vocals make us remember to "sweep up the roses that bent in the Sun". Another epic guitar solo takes us into full prog rock mode but then there are alternating changes in tempo prior to a defiant reprise of Skin of Mankind, over powerful riffing. Bryan's lyrics now have a combative tone, as he is talking to the virus and saying your time is now up! Troy's pipes add a Celtic edge, with his low vocals building up the drama before Olivia reprises Graveyard Star and another quality guitar solo concludes the album as the band hit top gear. This track will be a real highlight when played live and links the whole album concept in true prog rock fashion.


The 2000 who brought the limited edition of the album as a pre-order with the bonus disc, have another 9 strong tracks to enjoy - many of which would have fitted on the first disc if space allowed, or if the double album option had been pursued. The Show Is On is an exuberant celebration of a return to live music, and Into The Valley of Death Rode The Six Hundred is a proggy Iain Jennings instrumental. Check In Your Eyes is typical, driving Mostly Autumn, whilst Side Effect is a gentle, piano-led Chris Johnson ballad. Swallows is a moving and expressive composition about a woman following the return to swifts and swallows in spring (another reference to the departed Tracey) with a poignancy added by some beautiful violin playing before an epic conclusion; definitely one to see live in the future, perhaps? Heading For the Mountains is an acoustic folk/country number by Bryan and Mountain Highway is another flowing Iain Jennings penned instrumental. This House (dedicated to Val) starts off almost C&W-like and is a bitter-sweet reflection of loss, but with an uplifting spirit at its heart and a moving, epic conclusion.

GRAVEYARD STAR is another great album release by Mostly Autumn and adds to the consistent run of quality recent albums. Its topical concept about lockdown and the pandemic is deeply personal but never feels forced. It hits immediately, but also grows with repeated plays. As a result, the deep lyrics gradually speak stronger to the listener themselves, as well as documenting what Bryan, Olivia and the band went through themselves. Their prog-infused melodic rock with soaring guitars and evocative vocals is as engaging as ever.

In all honesty, if you have not succumbed to the band's charms on recent albums, the new album is unlikely to change your view. However, existing fans are going to lap up this impressive and mature release and I would urge those less familiar with Mostly Autumn's work to give Graveyard Star a good listen or two and reflect on the journey we have all travelled in recent years.


Report this review (#2591297)
Posted Wednesday, September 1, 2021 | Review Permalink
5 stars I read somewhere previously that Mostly Autumn was the best band that nobody ever heard of. Here in the States, I would most certainly agree to that statement. In recent years I myself have purchased most of their catalog from 2010 starting with "Dressed in Voices" in 2014 while also obtaining the compilation set "Passing the Clock". This band is the total definition of Processive rock! In my 60 years of listening to great music, this is one of the few bands that have totally "blown me away" taking me on a different level. They have now been added to my list that includes Genesis, Kansas, Rush and Yes as "THE ULTIMATE" in music! Between Bryan Josh's genius (and others) and Oliva Sparneen's vocals, this particular album is unsurpassed. With use of a wide variety of sounds, including a "Ghost Rider In the Sky" guitar and Scottish Bag Pipes on the same track, this album is definitely their Magnum Opus. I could go on and on about this album but I'll just sum it up by saying unbelievable! It's a "must" for all prog rock connoisseurs. I so wish this band would come to the Northeast States as part of their next tour. This is the only band left on my "bucket list" to see live.
Report this review (#2593055)
Posted Wednesday, September 8, 2021 | Review Permalink
4 stars I am familiar with this prog septet (founded in 1995) from the very first beginning, and experienced during the years how they turned from an obviously Pink Floyd inspired band into an unique highly acclaimed folk prog formation. It's a while that I listened to a new studio-album, but I read raving reviews on the Internet (including PA), and I decided to do do a few listening sessions, I am blown away!

The album opens with the epic titletrack, within a few minutes I am carried away! First a wonderful orchestral keyboard sound, then tender vocals join, the combination of a melancholical male voice and angelic female voice is awesome. Next a very compelling build-up featuring fat synthesizer drops, soaring flute and slow drum beats. Gradually the music turns into more lush, culminating into bombastic, topped with exciting fiery and howling guitar runs, thunderous drums, and majestic keyboards. Halfway the atmosphere shifts to mellow with twanging acoustic guitars and warm duo vocals, then a long moving guitar solo in a slow rhythm and bombastic climate, goose bumps! The final part delivers soaring keyboards, propulsive drums and guitar riff, again very compelling prog, Olivia shines with her powerful and emotional voice! These musicians know how to push the right prog buttons, what a majestic epic composition!

The next 10 melodic and harmonic tracks (between 2 and 7 minutes) deliver a lot of variety, my highlights. Skin of Mankind : A catchy beat, blended with a typical Sixties R&R guitar sound and beautiful female vocals, and embellished with an intense violin solo and emotional female vocals.

Shadows : This song alternates between mellow with warm vocals and acoustic rhythm guitar and sumptuous eruption with sensitive guitar and howling Gilmourian runs.

The Harder That You Hurt : Another track with strong emotional undertones, from dreamy vocals and fragile guitar work to bombastic with powerful female vocals.

Razor Blade : First mellow with tender piano and guitar, halfway more lush with spacey synthesizer flights and moving guitar, topped with again that strong voice from Olivia.

This Endless War: This track contains a dreamy, melancholical female vocals, culminating in a fiery guitar solo, goose bumps!

Free to Fly : The atmosphere is dreamy with tender piano and female vocals, then soaring keyboards join, simply wonderful!

The final composition Turn Around Slowly is the second epic track. It starts dreamy with acoustic guitar and keyboards, then a slow rhythm with male vocals (evoking David Gilmour), turning into more bombastic, and culminating in a fiery and moving guitar, in the 24-carat tradition of David Gilmour, supported by majestic keyboards, goose bumps! Halfway the mood shifts to a propulsive beat with powerful male vocals, joined by a bagpipe-like sound, this sounds as a another strong musical idea. Finally an exciting accellaration, topped with powerful female vocals. I love the sumptuous and compelling atmosphere with fiery and moving guitar, high- pitched female vocals, trademark Mostly Autumn, what a splendid grand finale.

Mostly Autumn have sublimated a rollercoaster of deep and dark feelings and emotions into music in an awesome way. To be honest, I am not familiar with all Mostly Autumn albums, but to me Graveyard Star sounds as the most captivating and elaborate effort I have listened to in all those years, perhaps their best album?

Report this review (#2597307)
Posted Monday, September 27, 2021 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Aside from the occasional country-western lead guitar or female vocal stylings, this is no Prog Folk album. Over and over, I find myself reminded of PINK FLOYD--especially the way in which soft and hard power chord sections/riffs with David Gilmour-like searing lead guitar soli are used to offset each other, time and time again. Choosing Coronavirus pandemic themes to sing about explains a lot of the gravity of this album, yet the music is usually quite pretty, engaging, and compelling.

1. "Graveyard Star" (12:05) opens with synth strings banked in orchestra-formation but then, in the second minute, everything switches to eerie Danny Elfman-like. Bryan and Olivia enter, singing alternately in soft, whispery voices. This is IQ! Drums enter at the end of the third minute and Olivia begins singing in a full voice before being joined to sing side-by-side with her husband. As Olivia ramps up to full-power I get a Simone Simon kind of feel. She's got some pipes! COLLAGE-like keyboard work beneath the fiery electric guitar solo before we break down to solo acoustic guitar for Bryan to sing over. He's got a voice and vocal style similar to those of Roger Waters. The song might earn higher marks were I drawn into the lyrics--or if there weren't so many riffs/sounds that seem "borrowed" (including the David Gilmour guitar soloing in the tenth minute). The song then finishes with an odd Peter Schilling "Major Tom (Coming Home)" race toward the finish line. (20/25)

2. "The Plague Bell" (2:00) the title pretty much tells all. A kind of Roger Waters song. (4.25/5)

3. "Skin of Mankind" (4:32) using straight C&W stylings and themes--reminds me of 1987 when I first heard British band IT'S IMMATERIAL's "Driving Away from Home." Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns also come to mind. Even with the addition of traditional Celtic instruments, I still don't get the choice of this style. (7.5/10)

4. "Shadows" (4:14) a song that seems to fall into the BRYAN ADAMS school of Rock though the vocal is more akin to that of Robbie Robertson. Solid and well produced if familiar. (8.75/10)

5. "The Harder That You Hurt" (4:32) quite lovely--though it sounds as if it could have come off of the 2016 MANTRA VEGA album, The Illusion's Reckoning, if slightly more Countrified. Olivia has a pretty awesome voice--she can really hit and hold a note. My favorite song on the album. (9.25/10)

6. "Razor Blade" (7:09) a wonderfully spacious song almost in the TALK TALK/BLUE NILE vein--at least, until the heavy rock instruments burst in at the halfway mark. That's when the lead vocals switch from female to raspy male (not unlike Guy Manning). Musically, this is very powerful; vocally it is neither performed or mixed as well--though Olivia hits some awesomely piercing sustained notes during the "let me go" finish. Another top three song. (13.5/15)

7. "This Endless War" (6:52) is it Floyd or Airbag? The sonic scape at the opening here is interchangeable with both--though probably more with the latter. Piano and C&W twangy female vocal enter in the second minute. Her voice is so delicate, so fragile sounding, you think she's gonna break down and start crying. For the chorus slow drum travel signals the entrance of power chords and the amping up of Olivia's voice. She has some pipes! Reminds me of Joanne Hogg. A solid song, perfectly performed, though nothing really new is introduced here other than standard touchstones of drama and perhaps a topic. Very nice "raunchy" Gilmour-like solo in the instrumental section--very emotional, not unlike the "Comfortably Numb" impact until he starts running with some speed beneath Olivia's voice. A solid song made better by Olivia's power singing and Brian or Chris's awesome solo. (13.5/15)

8. "Spirit of Mankind" (4:58) more simple song structure and palette over which Olivia sings in a Heather Findlay tone--until the chorus at which time she belts it like Pat Benetar. The lyrics are a bit banal and cliché-filled, as the music travels a very white bread classic rock path. Even the guitar soli (acoustic and electric) are by the numbers. (7.75/10)

9. "Back in These Arms" (6:27) anybody for a little "Wish You Were Here"? Until the disco-programmed drums and organ sequence begin, that's what I'm flooded with. Then Bryan and Olivia sing in tandem like Martha and the Muffins or Robbie Robertson. Another solid, if Bryan Adams-like song. I'm happy for the newlyweds. I love the pipes in the instrumental passages after the "let it go" power phrases. Then the stripped bare passage over which Bryan recites his lists. Kind of anthemic in a pop-C&W way. (8.5/10)

10. "Free to Fly" (3:59) lullaby-like piano piece over which Olivia gives a nice plaintive performance. (8.25/10)

11. "The Diamond" (6:01) percussive acoustic guitar strumming like Edison's Children used on Silhouette in 2013. Olivia offers a whispery, sensitive, controlled, vocal performance--kind of Annie Haslam-like. A few instruments are spaciously added as is a second vocal track from Olivia before the whispery choral chorus is performed. Sounds like the Cranberries or the Indigio Girls. A fairly fresh and original feeling/sounding song--with an Anathema finish! My final top three song. (8.75/10)

12. "Turn Around Slowly (12:40) opens like a Renaissance/Magenta song with piano and electrified acoustic guitar playing off each other. I love the fact with a long-playing song a band can take its time to develop themes and palettes with nuance and subtlety. When drums and bass come bursting forth Bryan's Robbie Robertson-like voice comes with it. The song, then, develops like another BRYAN ADAMS/BON JOVI song. Nice guitar work in the middle solo section. The pulsing march/anthem section sounds like a cross between Roger Waters and Guy Manning. This lasts about two minutes before we rush off into another PAT BENETAR theme over which Olivia belts it out like Simone Simons. The music then finishes with everybody running toward the finish line. (21/25)

Total Time 75:29

There are no complex time signatures or complex mutli-track polyphonic weaves; the music is most often quite formulaic in either a classic (Southern) rock or stadium-filling era Pink Floyd. The sound and performers, however, are quite solid, quite confident and talented--especially the guitarist and female vocalist. And the band does not use a ton of cheap 1990s keyboards (thank god!) I guess the thing that bothers me the most about the music here is how derivative it is and how little new/fresh ideas (musically) are expressed.

B-/low four stars; a pleasant, solid run through pandemic themes using many musical styles and themes from rock history (especially the 1980s). Upgraded for exceptional talent, cohesion, persistence, as well as for excellent sound production.

Report this review (#2597323)
Posted Monday, September 27, 2021 | Review Permalink
4 stars MOSTLY AUTUMN is this group discovered in 2005 with the album "Storms over still water"; a progressive rock band formed in 1995 playing covers of PINK FLOYD. Brian JOSH is the backbone and breathed a FLEETWOOD MAC sound, BLACKMORE'S NIGHT. Heather FINDLAY leaving, a burst of emotion opened with the arrival of Olivia and her angelic voice; this 14th album smells good reminiscences of Karnataka and Magenta opening on folk, bluesy, celtic folk, a real musical "dream theater" finally. Powerful modern rock, artisanal because not sufficiently recognized in the prog universe, passionate, sincere and emotional music leading to wander in atmospheric universes; the combination of the voices of Josh and Olivia being a plus giving contrast to some tracks; texts on the pandemic with loss of hope and necessary renewal.

"Graveyard Star" on a dark atmospheric intro with association of 2 voices and a keyboard organ à la PENDRAGON, ARENA, crescendo with choirs and orchestration, it goes up; acoustic break and a big 6 'guitar solo accompanied by thunderous drums; we find WATERS at that time then the violin of Chris LESLIE (from FAIRPORT CONVENTION), the second spleen solo, plaintive, for me the most beautiful of the album leading to reverie one autumn evening; metronomic final with Iain's keyboard and the dreamlike rise. 'The Plague Bell' for the interlude voice at COHEN, text on confinement associated with death, its vibrant contemplative with end of storm. "Skin of Mankind" and hop The SHADOWS land or CASH for a spaghetti country western à la MORRICONE, folkloric atmosphere of the CORRS in the background for the agreed rhythm; Irish pipes from OLDFIELD melt the irreducible sailor in addition to the fickle violin; Olivia here shows the full extent of her vocal cords and gives emotion to support the confinement. 'Shadows' to an aria reminiscent of JETHRO TULL, vocal and rhythmic guitar in phase before the gilmourian solo which kills; punchy mid-tempo rock title emphasizing the time that passes slower, blocked at home. "The Harder That You Hurt" opens live acoustic with Olivia's calm voice, soul, folk a la KNOPFLER; beware of danger because this association and the sustained vocal explosion can capsize as well as the classical rise and orchestration and a bluesy aerial solo. 'Razor Blade' where the classical symphonic, piano and acoustic guitar go hand in hand; slow rise of Olivia swimming on the clouds, intimate dreamlike break then the rise can be guessed on a tune à la "Division Bell", Bryan's synth is divine; Josh speaks then Olivia joins him, the delicate solo to reach the end with this voice which is the centerpiece of the group. 'This Endless War' throbbing, soaring intro, intense spleen; the majestic HODGSON piano gives Olivia the opportunity to decide which 2 or 3 diehards she will lead us to victory in this never-ending war; a crescendo in itself simplistic that gives all the power to his vocal cords; minimalist title whose solo (the best of the album) has an overwhelming rendering, title to listen to live !!. 'Spirit of Mankind' changes tone with rhythm, more dynamic title for its powerful keyboards, the world is once again cloistered and must come together; shorter title, rock; Soothing acoustic solo that surprises before the real one that melts, Josh is indeed the second mind of the group. 'Back in These Arms' Floydian intro, it has its eye on ANATHEMA, magic that should not be forgotten, guitar, synth and flute; It starts with a jerky rhythm that heats up gently, a nod again to PENDRAGON for this enjoyable crescendo and the association of 2 voices, the joyful and glorious Irish flute tinged with folk gives hope in addition to the whistles of Troy (NIGHTWISH), hope to curl up in arms again? 'Free to Fly' piano and lullaby melody, Olivia gentle with her words for the country ballad, emotion of harmonies, dreamlike symphonic prog that leaves you speechless, simple and beautiful again with this nostalgic divine crescendo, hallmark of the group. "The Diamond" acoustic intro followed by hypnotic percussion; Chris Johnson and Angela Gordon take us to the most overrated but hopeful title, pandemic release. 'Turn Around Slowly' for the end with piano, acoustic guitar; classic pastoral progressive intro, well that's not SUPERTRAMP but almost ; Josh's voice suddenly wakes up, it smacks of GILMOUR there with a hymn to hope regained, ah a long solo that flows and reassures; break at the early GENESIS too good, I plunge back into the 70's; IQ suddenly then mounted in battle order to fight and defeat this damned virus; note the ephemeral cover of "Skin of Mankind" then that of "Graveyard Star" with Olivia who returns after highland flutes accompanied of course by the 3rd most beautiful solo of the album; epic, musical glory, bombast, ending. Note on the limited edition 9 other titles for more than 40mn of bonus and two instrumentals; this album has two remarkable long tracks with melodic solos but we should not forget the other melodic, linear ones that highlight the orchestration of the group. Its progressive, soaring, melodic and symphonic research combined with Olivia's magnificent voice make it an album of great value even if I got a little lost in the second part.

Report this review (#2605915)
Posted Wednesday, October 20, 2021 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars Mostly Autumn has the rather unique reputation of a rather sandwich career, starting off with 4 great albums (For All We Shared, The Spirit of Autumn Past , The Last Bright Light and Passengers) winning plenty of fans with a delightful take of epic symphonic prog, liberally spiced with prog-folk tendencies and massive Floydian guitar interventions from band leader Bryan Josh. Together with Heather Findlay's immense voice and Iain Jennings' keyboard work as well as contributing compositions, the band was quite the revelation. A slight decline for the next four releases in terms of inspiration (Storms over Still Water, Heart Full of Sky, Glass Shadows and Go Well Diamond Heart), very good albums but missing that WOW effect. By that last one, Heather Findlay left, and many predicted the end of the band as some deemed her irreplaceable (no one ever is, though). In stepped Olivia Sparnenn who contributed harmony vocals on 'Heart Full of Sky' as well as vocalizing brilliantly on Iain Jennings' offshoot band Breathing Space (arguably as good as Mostly Autumn at the time). Now Findlay has a great voice but Olivia? Holy molly! When she took over the main microphone duties on 'The Ghost Moon Orchestra' album, two important things happened to the band: the quality of the songs improved noticeable, and Olivia really raised the bar from her previous debut on 'Go Well', literally elevating the songs to immense heights. The second aspect is that she and leader Bryan Josh fell in love, always a great source of inspiration, which undoubtedly led to the subsequent 4 albums (Dressed in Voices, Sight of Day, White Rainbow and the new masterpiece Graveyard Star) to be viewed as an upward vortex of ever improving quality and presentation. Not surprisingly, profound inspiration came from the purest emanations of humanity: love, the untimely passing of long-time member Liam Davison, which explains the sorrowful feel of White Rainbow and the Covid-19 pandemic that has forced many of us into contemplating our entitlement.

In the forced lockdown, the band had the smarts to hunt down one of Britain's premier drummers and one of my true favourites Henry Rogers, who had graced many albums by Final Conflict, Deeexpus, Touchstone, Shineback, Edison's Children, Heather Findlay solo (well, well), Cairo, Alan Reed, Mark Kelly's Marathon and John Holden. He is a superlative talent, not just technically brilliant but has the uncanny ability to thump hard when needed. Comparisons to the incredible Paul Thompson of Roxy Music fame I had previously mentioned in other reviews remains quite the compliment, Henry being a resolute drummer's drummer. "Graveyard Star" is quite the well of material as the single album edition clocks in at nearly 76 minutes, while the 2cd version adds another 41 minutes! I have the single version and, it simply has blown me away on first listen. Not everyone in Progland is as incurable romantic as yours truly, as I am a sucker for heartfelt emotion, sweeping melodies and gut-wrenching atmospheres but even the most rigidly technical prog fan will succumb to the beauty on display here, as this amazing album is a very strong contender for album of the year or maybe of the last decade.

From the opening grim symphonics announcing the imminent bunker lifestyle we have all endured, the tone is set for some serious melodic moments, with both husband and wife exchanging whisperingly aching vocals, the electronic keyboards painting a dreaded future and in comes Henry with a binary beat as the track takes shape, Olivia revving her lungs in anticipation. And when she starts belting out the plaintive lament, doing her best version of Ann Wilson of Heart, and if this leaves you unaffected, you are not normal! A patented Josh guitar rant is followed by a suddenly gentle and raspy Josh vocal dueling with Olivia's heavenly interference. Another fluid guitar run raises the hairs, dripping and gripping with unabashed emotion (yeah, he loves Gilmour, who doesn't?). Rogers beats this one mercilessly into the horizon, Olivia forcing the golden buzzer, hitting the notes with masterful control.

There are a plenty of stylistic variations as the sombre 'The Plague Bell', the Sergio Leone-inspired 'Skin of Mankind' and the classic rocker 'Shadows'. 'The Harder That You Hurt' is a killer ballad, typical of other past examples that made Olivia Sparnenn such a talent on those Breathing Space albums, her voice being a thing of beauty, perfectly modulated, pitch-perfect and devastatingly stunning. A succulent bluesy guitar flick of the wrist is just what the doctor ordered as the level rises to incredible heights, sweeping synths and organ in tow, as Henry thumps along. Right behind is another epic marvel, 'Razor Blade'. Incarnation of beauty, forlorn sadness, and an almost mystical atmosphere full of restraint and yet, immense pain waiting to explode. The drums, the synths and the guitar are all holding back until the arrangement gets raunchier and angrier. Olivia seizes the moment and unleashes a vocal for the ages, a what a voice finale!

Can this ride keep on giving, you ask? Yes, and in fact, it even has the balls to raise the bar even higher! 'This Endless War' sounds like a classic prog tune right from the very first listen, grabbing the listener by the heart and squeezing tight, never letting go. It brought me literally to tears, as intense a performance you will not hear in a long time. Gorgeous and overwhelming are the 2 words that come to mind. When Josh lets it rip on his white Fender Stratocaster, it screams, it howls, it cries, flush with utter pain and desolation. If by this time you are not slain, well get yourself tested!

The shorter 'Spirit of Mankind' is a rocker very much in the vein of classic anthemic rock songs, except Olivia sings like a tornado wanting to be a hurricane (try imitating her voice, good luck). Rogers bashes boldly as only he can, propelling this piece effortlessly. A welcome diversion from all the previous emotions and as such, works perfectly. Another dense track with the initially moody 'Back in These Arms', a keyboard intro with electronic atmosphere but truly inspired musically (the backing string synths are delicious). When the drums kick in and the arrangement takes shape, the emotions get ratcheted up to a potent main riff that sticks like the finest epoxy, Josh can bellow convincingly but when the wife adds her grain of salt, clearing the board, here comes the convincing 'let it go' as that Celtic riff just keeps hammering away at the brain nodes, a bruising Andy Smith bass pushing things along forcefully. Superb build up and ends up as a classic anthem for the ages. Oh my, such pleasure!

A moment of reflective calm, 'Free to Fly' is a sweet piano/vocal duet that proves that simplicity can be the purest form of elegance, a heartfelt piece of shimmering loveliness, showing Olivia's ability to do the fragile thingy. An amazing talent ?. A serious challenge to Annie Haslam for the greatest female prog vocalist of all-time. 'The Diamond' is a remarkable change of style and pace, a highly modern take quite far from classic prog, perhaps closer to an indie option, that nevertheless showcases the band's immense talent, compositionally, creatively, and instrumentally. Angela is all over this one, showcasing her own range and her conviction factor, raising this to a paroxysm of feelings. Very upturned eyebrows.

One more, please! The epic 12 minute + 'Turn Around Slowly' uses a patient intro that exudes their recent confidence, a male vocal centrepiece, current social commentary on patience and a whopping axe solo, aided by a pulsating rhythm on both bass and drums, shoving this one along. A gentle bridge with some Genesis-like acoustic guitar/flute interplay veers this again in another direction (as the title implies) before going back to the male gruff vocal, heavy riffing and Celtic tinge. and then a rockier reprise of 'Spirit of Mankind', with heavier symphonics and a marshalling beat, Celtic flutes aglow in the night. As the ever-mounting tension increases (hello guitars), Olivia reprises her massive vocal onslaught but this time even faster, harder, higher and crazier. Sheer genius.

Ridiculous masterpiece, the number of times I giggled nervously at the sheer brilliance of their music, which I do when intimidated by talent. The second time through, I was in shredded tatters. This happens very rarely.

5 cemetery solar fires

Report this review (#2607102)
Posted Saturday, October 23, 2021 | Review Permalink
siLLy puPPy
PSIKE, JRF/Canterbury, P Metal, Eclectic
4 stars MOSTLY AUTUMN has been around for quite a few autumns now having formed all the way back in 1995. That's a total of 26 years and was one of the earliest prog bands to join the revival scene of the 90s although the debut album "For All We Shared" didn't see the light of day until 1998. Still though, that's a long time but the band's sound has remained relatively consistent by fusing prog era Genesis with Pink Floyd space rock all the while adding a bit of Renaissance symphonic prog, Jethro Tull-ish folk and Camel to the mix along with a bit of traditional Celtic folk.

Out of the roughly 24 musicians and vocalists who have come and gone, only guitarist Bryan Josh has remained with the band every step of the way so it's safe to assume that this is his baby and the passion never seems to die as after a quarter of a century MOSTLY AUTUMN seems to be getting better rather than burning out. Here we are in 2021 and MOSTLY AUTUMN is releasing its 14th studio album with the current lineup of vocalist Olivia Sparnenn-Josh, guitarist Chris Johnson, keyboardist Iain Jennings, flautist / keyboardist Angela Gordon, bassist Andy Smith and drummer Henry Rogers.

While the team members may have changed substantially over the decades, MOSTLY AUTUMN has remained true to its unique hybrid of melodic prog that borrows heavily from the 70s bigwigs but has always managed to stand in its own world of melodic prog folk laced with the best influences that the 70s had to offer. Another victim of the 2020 pandemic inconveniences, MOSTLY AUTUMN did what any sensible team of musicians would do and that is to spend the time fine-tuning their craft and taking advantage of the time allotted due to a lack of touring schedules. The result is a beautiful collection of 12 tracks that deliver beautifully vocal led melodies with crescendoing choruses, neo-prog inspired keyboard textures, emotive space rock guitar solos and nice pacing of slower and faster tempos.

This is a lengthy album that clocks in at 75 1/2 minutes! Add to that there is also a limited edition that offers a bonus CD with eight more tracks that add another 41 minutes of playing time! Whoah! I am only reviewing the original 75 minute album since i find that to be a sufficient dose of MOSTLY AUTUMN's unique display of catchy emotive spacey folk prog. This is really one of those bands that delivers everything you expect with no true surprises. There are no twists and turns into avant-prog, death metal or anything fans would cringe upon. This is just sweet and sensual prog folk that offers a bit of rock heft, atmospheric spiciness and excellent instrumentation. Add to that a nice soft production and there's nothing you could really complain about listening to GRAVEYARD STAR which continues the band's classic sounds.

I guess when it comes to bands that deliver albums with such a consistency, you have to be someone who expects more of the same and MOSTLY AUTUMN does just that! What will set this album apart from those that came before is mostly in how much you can relate to the melodies, the compositions and the variations in the instrumentation. Olivia Sparnenn-Josh has never sounded better and it was a wise decision indeed to promote her from backing vocalist to the lead a decade ago however Bryan Josh does offer his vocals as he has done since the beginning with some songs even taking over as the lead as heard on the album's lengthiest track "Turn Around Slowly" which ends a beautiful mostly divinely feminine album in a more masculine manner. I can't say i've kept up with this band's massive canon but if GRAVEYARD STAR is any indication of what to expect i guess i've been missing out!

Report this review (#2608913)
Posted Friday, October 29, 2021 | Review Permalink
5 stars For a band who were originally well-known for their love of fantasy epics a la Tolkien and early releases which contained more than a few Celtic and Norse mythical references, latter-day releases by this superb York outfit have been well and truly grounded in the real world. Witness the incredible dying moments story of Dressed in Voices and the achingly sad tribute to Liam Davison in White Rainbow.

Now in 2021, we are presented with a paeon to the Coronavirus pandemic in Graveyard Star, and, thankfully, it is not nearly as depressing as that brief description alludes to.

When I reviewed Big Big Train's Common Ground, I remarked that the lurgy track The Strangest Times seemed a wee bit out of place for a band who dealt primarily with English and Classical history. I have grown to like that track over the passing of the months, but, right from the outset, I had no such qualms about this album. Indeed, this album, to me, marks Mostly Autumn, and Bryan Josh as the driving force behind the collective, as one of the finest modern folk outfits the UK has produced, and by folk I do not mean the narrowly defined definition of prog folk on this site, but a genre, a way of making music and producing thoughtful and relevant lyrics grounded in the collective consciousness of a nation. This entire album is one which millions of people can relate to from bitter experience.

The title track (January 2020 in the Covid timeline) bursts into life with a deep and heavy energy. At over 12 minutes long, though, the moods swing, especially in the thoughtful passage which recalls "so much time, so long ago" pre- pandemic. The Josh axe in this passage simply sings out to us, and throughout the vocal interplay between Bryan and his wife Olivia drags us into the shared emotions of the story. In the heavier passages, Henry Rogers blasts his drum kit perfectly in resonance with Andy Smith's bass, and behind all this the sweeping panoramas of Iain Jennings' keyboards. Olivia blasts out the closing section with an energy and force which takes the breath away, and this segues into the distinctly ghostly The Plague Bell, in which Josh tells perfectly of the darkness of the emotions we all felt as lockdown descended on us.

Skin of Mankind is a wonderful track, commencing with what can only be described as a type of rockabilly meets The Shadows guitar riff ? don't be put off by that. I have fond memories of playing the cd for the first time on a journey back from visiting my son, with my wife exclaiming it was "the best she had ever heard MA!" The body of the track has at its heart a delicate and thoughtful vocal by Olivia, who continues to prove that she has a huge range, power to ballad, but always thoughtful and deeply emotional. This track is the first to feature as a guest the wonderful Troy Donockley on his range of wonderful instruments, with some fine violins being provided by Chris Leslie.

Shadows is a more "traditional" MA track, but one which all of us will relate to in its description of not being able to see our loved ones during an enforced absence and its nod to the real heroes of the pandemic, namely the frontline healthcare workers who deliver despite the worst efforts of their leaders. Nobody in modern rock music does a soaring guitar riff better than Josh, and he delivers again here.

The Harder That You Hurt is the first joint writing effort on the album between Olivia & Bryan, and it returns us to the more delicate mood. The lyrics are insightful and knowing, the stronger you are, the weaker you feel, the deeper that you bleed. The track counts the days before getting back on the road. Your breath is taken away with this when Olivia hurls out the final vocal passage, which follows a very introspective guitar solo, a change of mood which can only be described as stunning, and the power of the track at the denouement is incredible. A stunning performance.

Razor Blade is dedicated to the memory of Val & Tracey in May 2020. I am not familiar with the relationship between the band and these individuals, but it was clearly close. This is a beautiful song, dripping with emotion both lamenting lost loved ones and the desire to be able to be free to mourn. Jennings and Josh set the mood perfectly throughout, and just over three minutes in the former produces a keyboard solo which leads into the emotional vocal interplay of Josh & Olivia. The closing passage soars with the collective producing a wondrous symphonic rock noise.

This Endless War is written by Olivia, and it is rather prescient in how we all feel (no matter what our opinions on measures taken against Covid this past couple of years have been) with the dawn of Omicron. When will it all end? Once again, Iain Jennings' work is critical to the feel of this piece with a thoughtful piano chord accompanying Olivia's vocals perfectly at the opening passages. When she and the band once again open the noise in the mid- passage, the emotion comes flooding out ? "you have to let it go!" and as ever, Josh on lead guitar provides us with the lilting riffs enabling Olivia and us to do so.

Spirit of Mankind brings us to January 2021. Jennings ponds out his keys to introduce this heavy track, with the rhythm section adding dark lustre. Bryan's lyrics are extremely knowing again. He is spot on that those dark days of lockdown two brought out both the best of us and the worst of us, your reviewer most definitely included. We do take for granted all the beauty of normality, and when Olivia sings that "you stole our precious time, no chance to say a last goodbye, this ends now" she speaks for all of us.

Back in These Arms brings us to July 2021, so-called (prematurely one fears) "freedom day" in the Johnsonian parlance. This is a love song, but not merely to loved ones, but to a love and zest for life, holding one's mother and watching children playing standing in the sun. The drumbeat is pivotal to moving this track along, and the interplay between all the band members produces a foot-tapping, head-nodding ode to the joy of simply being alive and free. Donockley makes a welcome return with his trademark Celtic pipes (oh, to see Iona back!) before the closing passage frees all the senses in a joyful explosion of emotion.

Free To Fly is co-written by the wonderful Jennings and Bryan. It is a short ballad with more of those delicate piano notes and then soaring synth backing Olivia emotionally singing of the winds of change when we can be free to fly. This is quite simply sumptuous, beautiful.

Chris Johnson who replaced Davison takes the helm in co-writing and providing male vocals for The Diamond. The female (main) lead is taken by the extremely talented flautist and vocalist, longstanding collaborator in the band Angela Gordon, who struck me as being quiet up until now on the album. She provided the lead vocals for my personal favourite of White Rainbow, namely The Undertow. She has a wonderful voice, and, despite my admiration and love for Olivia's vocals, I would like to hear more of her. The denouement of the track is a joy, with Angela pounding out a lead vocal and Josh closing with a mournful guitar.

The album closes with Turn Around Slowly, the longest track at just over 12.5 minutes. As a closing piece on such a work should, it ties up all the strands and themes of the album and does so to powerful effect. Indeed, only Josh and Mostly Autumn can combine so many elements of power and soaring emotion. Witness Gordon's lovely short flute solo to a gentle acoustic guitar before Josh packs a vocal punch to a searing rhythm backing, alongside those pipes accompanying Jennings once again lifting his keys to the sky. The close lyrically takes us to the main theme and is as heavy a piece as you will hear all year.

What an album this is. What I love about this is not only the superb musicianship and production, but the way that the lyrics and themes touch me. This is achieved by the band producing a work which connects on the human, and not the political, level. Not for Mostly Autumn a rant. Instead we have a wonderful album which soars in many places, and comments in foreboding dark keys elsewhere, but never fails to forget that the period it comments upon have had a human impact, something forgotten in all the noise and data one sees, hears, and reads about in the media. That is what I mean by this being a true English Folk album, a work which has at its very heart a human and community led vision.

Five stars for Graveyard Star, one of my top three albums of a mightily impressive year for progressive rock music.

Report this review (#2656113)
Posted Tuesday, December 28, 2021 | Review Permalink

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