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Sean Filkins - War And Peace & Other Short Stories CD (album) cover

WAR AND PEACE & OTHER SHORT STORIES

Sean Filkins

 

Crossover Prog

4.07 | 385 ratings

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Trollheart
4 stars Most of you will probably know of this man. He was with Big Big Train for six years, but only featured on two of their albums, 2009's incredible The Underfall Yard being released after his departure. This is, to date, his only solo album but on the strength of what's here I'd be willing to lay down serious money it is not his last. Working with friends and fellow musicians Lee Abrahams from Galahad, John Mitchell from Arena and It Bites, Dave Meros and Gary Chandler, Filkins has come up here with an album that will, in fairness, take some beating when he gets around to writing a follow-up.

In typically English eccentric style (presaging the second track indeed) the album opens with "Are you sitting comfortably?", which is basically an organ rendition of "Jerusalem" played against the sounds of someone making a cup of tea and settling down. The perfect way to set the scene I guess, and it quickly moves into the first "proper" track, which as I mentioned above is called "The English eccentric". It kicks off with a big squealy keyboard intro with hammering drums and then settles down into a song that reminds me of very early Supertramp, especially the Indelibly Stamped album. It's not my favourite on the album to be honest, and made me reserve judgement until I got past it, but on repeated listenings I've come to quite like it. Still, everything else on the album was a hit with me first time around, so that says something in itself. Filkins' voice will be familiar to anyone who's heard Gathering speed or The Difference Machine; strong, clear with a definite English tinge that marks him as from the same vocal school as the likes of Gabriel and Hammill, but he has his own style and identity.

Most of the keyboard parts are played by John Sammes, who also helped flesh out some of the musical ideas Filkins presented him with, but the man whose name the album bears is no slouch when it comes to playing instruments either, adding guitars, blues harp, even didgeridoo at one point! "The English eccentric" (surely a coincidence that BBT's last two albums were called English Electric? Wink) is a long enough song, about eight and a half minutes, but that pales when compared to "Prisoner of conscience", which is divided into two parts and runs to an immense thirty minutes between them. Yeah, I said thirty. Part one, which is subtitled "The soldier", begins with effects: a man walking through a forest, birds singing, then the sound of a jet aircraft flying overhead. Some dark synth and flute merge with a fast guitar, almost Classical guitar with what also sounds like sitar to create a very eastern feel as the soldier awakes in a hospital, voices mentioning "Oh good, he's coming around". Mind you, it's almost four minutes into the track before that happens. Then we're off on some very Yes-style guitar as Filkins confirms he has amnesia: "Please don't ask me who I am/ As I for one just don't understand."

The Yes comparisons grow even stronger when a lush keyboard backs him and he really channels Anderson as he moans "I'm haunted by the ghosts / Of all the innocents/ That I betrayed along the way." Cue a flurry of keyboard madness taking us into the seventh minute with bombastic drumming from Meros. It's hard to figure out precisely what this song is about, but I feel it's the tale of a soldier, possibly a pilot shot down over the country he was about to bomb, recovering from his wounds after being taken care of by the very people he had intended to destroy, and realising the country (unnamed) is a beautiful place he had never dreamed of it being before. From being just a target it has become so much more, and he is now questioning his orders, his career, the very reasons for whatever war he is engaged in. That's what I get from it anyway. Some superb guitar playing fleshes part one out, with a grinding fret workout that just leaves me stunned, Filkins executing a buildup vocal that rises to a tortured crescendo as he realises "I don't want this/ I don't need this/ I can't have this"...

Suddenly, in the twelfth minute, the unnerving, eerie sound of the voices of all the people he has killed in his role as pilot (let's say) come crashing like waves against the cliffs of his head and he yells out, unable to face the truth they batter him with. The music gets heavier and more frenetic as he wrestles with this knowledge, that he may have - probably has - killed so many innocents whose names he did not even know. Everything flows then back into the guitar motif that runs through this part and into a soaring solo that puts me in mind of John Mitchell, though whiel he does play on the album details on who plays what and where are almost impossible to come by. A Spanish Flamenco style passage then gets underway as part one moves towards its conclusion, sliding into another emotional guitar solo, some lovely bright piano and pealing bells with choral voices before it ends on a very Gilmouresque solo, taking us into part two.

"The Ordinary Man" opens then on soft organ, a much gentler vocal which again betrays traces of Anderson, bringing in some really nice vocal harmonies too. A rippling keyboard passage takes the third minute with choral vocals in attendance, into the fourth with a swaying rock rhythm bringing in Genesis influences, then another extended keyboard romp takes the tune, almost an Irish reel at times. In the sixth it changes to a rolling soft piano and oddly enough reminds me of The Beautiful South on Blue is the colour, then back to Yes for some really superb vocal harmonies and another rising guitar solo as we move into the eighth minute. The triumphant resolution of the song (both parts) is really moving and attended by one more expressive guitar solo before we exit.

And yet, this massive epic is not the standout. That's to come, and is up next, in the slightly shorter but somehow even better "Epitaph for a mariner", which opens on Abigail Filkins singing the old hymn "Eternal father, strong to save" with only church organ as accompaniment. The piece is broken into five sections, the first of which, "Sailor's hymn", has just been sung, the second, "Siren's song" is characterised by a long piano and synth instrumental with effects and moaning guitars and a rising, mournful chant from Abigail Filkins that follows the music perfectly and does indeed make her sound like a siren luring sailors to their doom. Who could not follow that seductive voice? A sort of electronica piece next takes over, as the music gets faster and more urgent, guitar breaking through with a powerful voice, percussion hammering away like the wind battering a ship at sea.

In the middle of this compelling instrumental we suddenly hear a voice muttering about his wife and child, and part three, "Maelstrom" has begun, as a sailor, who has chosen to stay on land while his wife gives birth, worries about his comrades fighting for their lives on the harsh seas, as he accepts "The sea's no friend to man." We're now almost halfway through the piece and things begin to calm down (calmer seas?) as "Ode to William Pull" brings back in Filkins' vocal against a gentle, pastoral background of organ and guitar. A dreamy, drifting keyboard line takes the song as the vocal swells then descends and we pass into part five, "Epitaph", the vocal continuing on as the keyboards get harder and more insistent, the piece building towards its climax now with guitar sailing in majestically, joining the measured drumbeats of Meros. The vocal fades out in the seventeenth minute, its work done, and a superb guitar and keyboard ending brings this amazing epic to its conclusion, leaving me breathless. A slow passage on the piano sets the final seal on the song.

And yet there's one more track to go before the album wraps up. It's pretty amazing to think that in reality we've only had four actual tracks so far; it sounds like about ten, but the closer is a short (in comparison) little gentle ballad, as "Learn how to learn" is about as simple as they come. And yet it carries the full authority of what we have come to see as Sean Filkins' worldview in its seven-minute-plus length. Another very Yes-like song, it rides on gentle piano and acoustic guitar with a soft vocal, as if Filkins is reinforcing the lessons he has learned, and in turn passed on to us, through the run of this wonderful debut album.

To think I might never have heard this album! I should have been alerted to how good it is by the fact that it was placed high on this website's top albums for 2011, but so often these lists turn out to be just one person's choice and don't chime with what I believe are the pick of the bunch. Here though I definitely have to agree with them. As I said, I did not even know who Sean Filkins was, and had to check his pedigree to get an idea of what kind of music (I didn't even know it was prog) I might be listening to.

Now, all I can do is hope that he doesn't leave it too long before gracing us with his next composition. I'll be waiting.

Trollheart | 4/5 |

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