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Honorary Collaborator
5 stars Veteran Australian prog band Unitopia is back with a new studio album after a very prolonged period of silence, as "Covered Mirror Volume 1- Smooth as Silk" was their last in 2012 (a tremendously stimulating set-list of famous prog cover songs!). A considerable amount of excitement is now travelling around the community as a new crew joins keyboardist Sean Timms, flute and violin maestro Steve Unruh and lead vocalist Mark Trueack, namely a revamped rhythm section featuring two outright American legends in bassist Alphonso Johnson (Weather Report, Santana, Shorter, Hackett, Collins) combining with his longtime cohort, drumming guru Chester Thompson (Zappa, Weather Report, Genesis, Collins), as well as bringing in British guitarist John Greenwood. "Seven Chambers" refers to the seven ventricles located in the human heart, a rather inspired source to use as a concept for a prog album that has, you guessed it, seven whoppingly tasty and well-developed epic tracks. Gorgeous cover art and a running time of over an hour and 22 minutes makes this already an utterly desirable package.

From the very first seconds into the audition, it becomes abundantly clear that the book matches the cover. Settle into your comfy chair, close your eyes, relax, breathe, and soak in the cynosure of this experience, and make sure you check your cardiac rate regularly so as to quantify your pleasure. The compassionate introduction piece "Broken Heart" settles in with seemingly eloquent simplicity until the pump kicks in with a zesty rhythmic transition and the unexpected arrival of a colossal chorus that drives the ECG monitor into the red zone. Waves of mellotron stress the substance considerably, with aesthetic piano in tow, but the Greenwood guitar riffs on 'something is happening to me' suddenly raises the core volume, as Alphonso and Chester keep the blood flowing through the arteries. Mark's voice and delivery are paramount in the execution of the arrangement, a story told convincingly. As befits the title, "Bittersweet" is a sorrowful lament, a delicate flute fluttering in profound melancholia as Mark sings 'like a broken-down engine.' The violin colours the rainbow in the sky, all very pretty and accessible until, a surprising coronary transition shuffles into a sensational chop-chop tick-tock, a rhythmically chaotic argy bargy of funk, jazz, poetry, hip-hop allusions, and eternal smiles. Brilliant passage from one comfortable extreme to a wholly alternate zone is what makes this really stunning. The exuberant "Something Invisible" reaches out and grabs the listener with a plethora of attributes, from Alphonso's generous bass carving deep, Chester's intricate percussive display thumping unmolested, a scorching piano, delirious violin, dense grooves, and a fiery electric guitar solo all contributing to the sanguine flow.

By the time the gigantic 12-and-a-half-minute mammoth "Mania" appears, it becomes clear to anyone in the OR that this is a quintessential album that just keeps on beating, though resuscitation might be needed as this is a monster track. Powerful and grandiose as the verses are, slashed with razor guitar riffs and blasted with cannonading drums, the transitioning into a pure chorus makes the appeal immediate and profound. A reflective mid-section puts the spotlight on the lyrical content, perhaps to relaunch the vivid chorus once again to our utter enjoyment. Chester does a mini romp before Dr. Greenwood (he was a surgeon in a former life) insists boldly with a raging guitar onslaught, channeling some acidic sutures through his axe, as the menacing Vocoder counts out the cardiovascular time. A complex form of intricate prog surgery this is, and a highlight track for sure. "I am flying" he shrieks.

With a title like "The Stroke of Midnight", there may be a suggestion of some kind of mellower evolution towards another soporific realm, and as such, a temperamental expanse awaits the elegant piano to set the stage for a new consciousness. 'Numbness here, a twitching there' an awakening from a state of comatose indifference, as the melancholic violin roams along, a sensational solo easily among one of the finest ever heard in a prog piece. There is hope amid the pain, a welcome recovery room opus to soothe the trembling.

Two massive coronary tracks finish off the package, as "Helen" clocks in a whopping 19 minutes +, thrusting this into a wide panorama of passion, atmospheres, and melodies, with pleading lyrics on loneliness and gentler acoustic contrasts and surges to highlight the shadows of despair. There is an extended 'breathing machine' effect that expands into a wonderful mellotron-laden torrent of sound, quieting down to an almost playful baroque feel. Steve Unruh unleashes another dazzling violin like a scalpel slicing out a tumour, as well as providing some comforting flute panacea.

The 18 minutes of "The Uncertain" comes in at the terminal stage of the entire operation, a hospital discharge of both ambiguity and faith, as the anesthesia wears off and the psychological pain begins. The disease is beaten but the rehab is the long hard road ahead, urging for a positive mindset. The opening bars sound like an apotheosis from a long journey, orchestrations, a simple guitar, and a heart felt (excuse the pun) vocal from Mark, who dares to toss in some ELO/Beatles harmony vocal snippets. The cool arrangement then decides to raise the dosage and the blistering Greenwood barrage kicks the gurney into the parking lot, colliding with an ambulance for good measure. The voice gets assuredly insistent and a snarl or two can be discerned, followed by various vocal and sound effects that add to the enigma. A blood curdling organ, a carving violin and an injurious e-guitar splurge, each entering like a horde of interns, nurses and orderlies intent on seeing how its done in the OR. 'Beauty and Frailty' announces a glittering violin solo, the capering bass in unison with the drums, and piano remedies to soothe the stitches. Outside, the urban sounds of bongos and tin whistles clash with the surefooted fretboard sputter (with a colourful solo to boot), as if dropped back into the hustle and bustle of our daily routine, veering back to that Jeff Lynne singing El Dorado feel, full of cautionary optimism.

Love this epic album, and its fascinating subject matter but can someone please unhook my IV, please? My private nurse awaits my return ?..home.

4.5 repaired compartments

Report this review (#2947142)
Posted Thursday, August 24, 2023 | Review Permalink
Heavy / RPI / Symphonic Prog Team
5 stars Unitopia is a well-known established band that has been around for almost 20 years. The music is accessible and melodic prog rock with symphonic structures. The band stuck through the years to the same formula. "Broken Heart" starts with a classical intro before Mark Trueack shows his unique voice. It's near the end that the band breaks loose with some heaviness from the guitar riffs of John Greenwood. "Something Invisible" is an atmospheric piece that is not a departure from their previous albums. "Bitter Sweet" starts with the flute, the piano, and the violin before a break near the end with cool percussion/vocals parts into a mixture of jazz and pop. The song has taken a big turnaround. "Mania' is the first little epic divided into two parts with the second displaying some vocal effects and some metal-style passages in the end. "The Stroke of Midnight" is an 8 minutes breather ballad showcasing the violin and piano. "Helen" is a 19 minutes track starting in the acoustic mode before getting into a full symphonic style with some long instrumental sections. "The Uncertain" is the heaviest song of the album with some classical arrangements, some huge guitar riffs, and many tempo changes, some fast ones showing a darker atmosphere.

This album shows a more adventurous style of the band. I never heard the band playing some musical crescendos of that nature. They added a bit of heaviness and a darker edge to the music which is related to the themes of that album. They have reached a high level of quality here in their songwriting by keeping their talent for beautiful arrangements and excellent production. This is the great modern prog album that fans have been waiting for.

Report this review (#2950532)
Posted Sunday, September 10, 2023 | Review Permalink
2 stars I enjoyed "Artificial" so I thought this could be worthy of a listen, especially with the rhythm section of Chester and Alphonso, and many praising this a prog masterpiece. The music is okay, some parts are even decent, but it is ruined by the lyrics. The band write about the frailty of human life. Topics include heart attacks, cancer and strokes. Depressing stuff that could be interesting if written by a good lyricist. Yet, these lyrics sound as though they were written by toddlers and are atrocious. "Bittersweet" is about diabetes and they sing a grocery list for over a minute about foods that can be good or bad for you. The lyrics mention soda pop, ice cream, hot dogs, fries, salmon, nuts, tofu, yogurt. And if we don't eat better... "we need to find another way or we're lost". What a profound statement. I hope those people who don't follow can be found.

If this were an instrumental album it would be close to three stars, but the cringy lyrics ruin the music for me, so as is two stars is generous.

Report this review (#2950703)
Posted Monday, September 11, 2023 | Review Permalink
Heavy Prog & JR/F/Canterbury Teams
4 stars Unitopia is reborn! And what a line-up! Chester Thompson! Alphonso Johnson! Steve Unruh! John Greenwood and Sean Timms! Not to mention their fearless Aussie leader, Mark Trueack. My expectations, needless to say, are high.

1. "Broken Heart" (8:31) solid NeoProg--perhaps a bit on the heavy side--with some pretty banal lyrics. (17.3333/20)

2. "Something Invisible" (7:20) I like this vocal range much better than Mark's low voice used on the previous song; for some reason it makes a big difference. Great second half with all of Mark's friends putting together a beautiful folky- pastoral soundscape. A top three song. (14.25/15)

3. "Bittersweet" (6:39) another song that feels too pretty for prog, but, here it is! Great sound engineering; great performances by all! A song about diabetes and our addiction to junk food, even the odd (and rather pedantic) rap of grocery lists in the second half seem to work. (9/10)

4. "Mania" (12:30) nice music with lots of interesting individual brandishes and flourishes but, again, the lyrics are just dull and awkwardly 'forced hip.' Also, the music never really climbs out of its opening pace and rhythm. (21.25/25)

5. "The Stroke of Midnight" (9:39) interesting, quirky music reminding me of DEAD CAN DANCE and THE FLOWER KINGS--especially with Mark's singing. As we move into the middle of the song the style shifts to more classically- oriented pop music (like The Raspberries). Steve Unruh is given a spacious amount of time in which to perform some of his violin magic over gentle piano, drums, and simple bass. Then classical guitars (two) take a turn. At 7:50 we return to full spectrum prog--this is nice. Mark's vocal melodies are nice (if somewhat familiar) and his lyrics a little more filled with imagery instead of spoken vernacular. (17.75/20)

6. "Helen" (19:14) a great 1980s PETER GABRIEL-like soundscape and great song construction supports Mark's impassioned singing using medical pioneer Helen B. Taussig as its muse and subject matter. A pastoral classical section at the end of the fourth minute sets up a very BIG BIG TRAIN-like section, but then in the seventh minute the entry of Spanish-style classical guitar play creates a shift back to a more classical-oriented musical style. At the 8:40 mark we make a transition to a more contemplative yet tension-filled instrumental passage that is completely driven by two bass beats coming from the bass instruments repeating themselves while other gentle instruments flit and fly around in the soundscape--until 10:12 when full-chord strums from electric guitars amplify the same two beats as the rest of the sonic field escalates its foment. This tension quickly dissipates and morphs into a delicate classically- influenced chamber weave of mandolins, flutes, and piano (and, later, mouth organ) over which Mark sings in more staccato than usual voice. Female French passages are woven into the mix a couple of times. The music then slowly builds with the sixteenth minute being one of the ultimate peaks of the entire album. Mark & co. sing in an intensified realm in seventeenth and eighteenth minutes sustaining the heights attained by the previous section. With the eighteenth minute the piano-based music moves more into the style and sounds we're used to hearing from John Young's LIFESIGNS, Dave Longdon's BIG BIG TRAIN, or even THE PSYCHEDELIC ENSEMBLE. Sublime! Great ending! Definitely a top three song for me. (38.5/40)

7. "The Uncertain" (18:34) opens like a Indie-Folk pop song with happy-go-lucky strumming of acoustic guitar coupled with Mark's singing giving this a happy-go-lucky feel. In the second minute things ramp up into what feels like a weak attempt at a heavy prog passage: the rhythm tracks are pretty solid and convincing but the keys and vocals are just too light and happy. Very cool rhythmic music takes over at the end of the fourth minute as some British medical voice is listened to for a half a minute. Then things try to revert to the "heavy" theme without any vocals. Not great until 6:35 when Steve Unruh's violin swoops in to try to salvage the day. As this section ends things get loose and fractured before a seismic pause is filled by some acoustic guitar picking. Mark rejoins with his singing voice--this one the lower one. The background "incidentals" are cool as Mark sings about the minuscule insignificance of the human being. This is a pleasant section. At 10:30 the band kicks in with some commensurately pleasant landscape music, Steve's violin reappears for a bit, then a "forty days" kind of chorus section ensues. Again, there are enough apocryphal religious undertones to make me squirm just a little. At the end of the 13th minute we get a cut and dried transition into a new MIDNIGHT OIL-STYX-like instrumental passage in which the intermittent vocals are more background accents and fills as several musicians get their chance to shine. At 15:20 we move into a new passage in which a five-chord descending progression for Mark's singing to continue but then we calm down to basic strumming acoustic guitars for Mark to finish with a delicate if-resigned voice. Overall, I find nothing very exciting or refreshing musically about this song. Were I more attuned to the lyrics I might gain more but, alas! that's not how my brain works. (34/40)

Total time: 82 minutes

Would that every prog band had such a solid, dependable rhythm section: It makes it so easy for the composer to build something special over. My main problem, as always with Mark's compositions, is not with the music but with the vocals, vocal melodies, and especially with the wording of the lyrics; the lyrics are all well-intended--as usual, addressing major world issues (often climate-oriented)--its just that the vocabulary used is so pedestrian and jejune.

B+/4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece and wonderful addition to any prog lover's music collection--especially if you're into pristine NeoProg music. The best Unitopia album I've heard.

Report this review (#2950989)
Posted Wednesday, September 13, 2023 | Review Permalink
5 stars UNITOPIA 5th album.

"Broken Heart" begins fast, symphonic and Truey slides his voice over a Genesisian, Arenasian air, with a languorous keyboard; the reminiscences arrive, IQ first, it's well done, it seems like we've already listened; the melodic break that follows with a typical MAY sound for this spleen guitar and the crystalline piano before the final heavy riff where you have the impression of riding in the middle of nature with your hair blowing in the wind. "Something Invisible" now, softness more pop than rock with the guitar in the background; a riff, heavy, it's good, it's fun and it prevents you from falling asleep like in a good but soporific vintage prog band; in short the voice is well placed, well practiced; a funky jazzy tendency emerges leading to an acoustic break flute and classical piano sympho from sympho; a gypsy violin now and a twirling violin-guitar hardos finale which reminds us that this group is much underrated and worth much more. "Bittersweet" plaintive nursery rhyme title just enlightened enough to keep spirits up; it draws on ALAN PARSONS, the second version of GENESIS, it's bucolic, refreshing, the violin can suggest KANSAS, I would rather think SOLSTICE; the synth break suddenly for a surprising ZAPPA-style escapade, heavy then jazzy, swirling in any case; we feel that there is fun in the ranks with an airy violin from Steve at the end. "Mania" from the start with this majestic and struck air sending me back to ARENA; yes it's not ARENA but there's some British sound flowing there; from the 3 minute mark the keyboard and the guitar show the end of their notes; John shows that a prog band must have a very good guitarist to melt the atmosphere, this is the case; playful prog metal with symphonic waves; halfway through and tribal pad before the flight, the vocoder voice, it leaves again to leave a violin solo and another break where the guitar riff seems to spurt out of the speakers; no rest before the finale, a quarter of an hour has just passed, the slap in the face. "The Stroke of Midnight" on a consensual dark ballad ideal for regressing, notice to the basic progues of the 70s and 80s; the romantic violin break that will make you cry with joy, like a bottle of white rum at sea, yes I heard the tune at one point; in short, a versatile composition full of emotion with the addition of classical guitar music and Truey irremediably standing out from the voice of the Archangel.

"Helen" arrives and takes us on board, the first of two great titles; changing musical times, that's for the fan musician in his spare time; a latent atmosphere, of UNITOPIA, a sound which irremediably takes you towards pop-rock, folk, jazzy shores, on nervous beaches, well I heard a note of 'Kashmir'; it's long but it's good, the melancholic violin matching ideally with the bucolic ballad on the sand; a one-shot flamenco break that fits perfectly, violin and piano crystalline, delicate, enchanting; it increases, choirs, a heavy riff, the break that sinks you and bam a voice-over in French that puts you on alert; the crescendo gets the boat going again, the sound becomes heavier, there is a plot, a framework, there is art; captivating and catchy yes but immense, timeless, it's rare that I vibrate from the first listen; in short, there is everything in musical theatricality, in emotion, in exquisite notes. "The Uncertain" go a few minutes and I find tunes from the BEATLES, XTC, ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA, archaic musical line; Hurry up because it's moving suddenly, the nervous prog metal that comes tumbling, makes you sweat suddenly down your back! The riff, the voice, the bass, it's a bit like SONS OF APOLLO, but it's definitely UNITOPIA; the beep beep and the pad remind me of the B-52's, an anti Alzheimer's dictionary that title; the sublime flight of keyboards and violins and we are only a third of the way through. The break arrives, take a breather after this epic, refreshing and dreamlike hard prog moment; oriental, world, latent, spleen with this magical violin looking towards the atmosphere, a very American AOR ballad atmosphere to take shoulders to shoulders and merge; last third and MINIMUM VITAL vocals on the heavy riff with a video soundtrack synth that leaves me amazed; and a South American return which accelerates and which puts prog fusion rock in the spotlight, still immense.

Report this review (#2951122)
Posted Thursday, September 14, 2023 | Review Permalink

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