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Thinking Plague - Hoping Against Hope CD (album) cover


Thinking Plague


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kev rowland
Honorary Reviewer
4 stars Fast forward to 2017, and Thinking Plague show no sign at all of compromising their ideals. Mike Johnson is the only person who has been there throughout, but he is steering this ship on a very clear path. The line-up now is Mike (guitar, samples, midi instruments), Mark Harris (soprano and alto saxes, B-flat standard and bass clarinets, flute), Dave Willey: (bass, drums, accordion), Elaine di Falco (voice, accordion, piano), Robin Chestnut (drums, percussion) and Bill Pohl (guitar). Now, I have come across Bill quite a few times previously, having reviewed his solo album 'Solid Earth' back in 1994, plus some other of his bands since then such as The Underground Railroad, so I was intrigued to see his involvement. He has always been a fine guitarist with a passion for music that can be somewhat different and difficult to listen to, and here is being allowed to give that full rein.

In many ways, this is a more melodic and easier album to listen to than some of their others, but that isn't to say that they have moved away from their core purpose of RIO, just that it has a slightly different flavour. There are times when the different woodwind instruments take the lead, repeating motifs, but this just allows the guitars to break in and out of the song with extremely quick runs. Elaine doesn't have the same natural other worldliness displayed by Susanne on the classic 'In This Life', but fits in perfectly with this adjusted style of music.

Thinking Plague may have changed somewhat in the intervening thirty years between these two albums, but hasn't everyone? But, they are still true to their roots and this could never be any other band. Exciting and enthralling, there really is no-one else quite like them. They will only ever appeal to a select few, but those few will be greatly enriched by hearing this.

Report this review (#1704664)
Posted Friday, March 24, 2017 | Review Permalink
5 stars I really don't have the words for how well crafted and amazing this album is. Full of strange beauty and subtle intricacies, this is an album to listen to loud, at night, when you can focus on every note and allow yourself to be completely captivated. Every note seems perfectly placed, and whereas fast runs are usually found in solos, here they are found in subtle and almost delicate, yet intense forays of composition, which to my ears is a much more effective and appealing way to demonstrate one's chops. But chops are not really what this is about. I have to apologize, I so rarely write a review, and don't want to bungle it up with repetitive adjectives, but don't know how else to explain this. This album, furthering the sound of their previous album, is in a world of its own. I know of nothing else out there that sounds quite like this. A touch of King Crimson, yes, but only a touch. I tend to think, how can one listen and not be blown away, but in a world we have to hope against hope in, for many reasons, I think it will be truly appreciated only by the relative few. Too bad. This deserves so much more. Even among the prog communities.
Report this review (#1734586)
Posted Friday, June 16, 2017 | Review Permalink
Mellotron Storm
5 stars The last THINKING PLAGUE album I enjoyed this much was "In Extremis" and while I don't rate this one quite that high this has been such a pleasant surprise for me. I found the previous album "Decline And Fall" difficult to digest but this one was love at first listen and that love continues to grow after many listens. My first listen of this album was like meeting an old friend, I was pretty happy. Elaine Di Falco is back on vocals and we get the usual dark atmospheres with plenty of horns, mostly sax and clarinets of different varieties along with accordion, bassoon, flute and the usual "rock" instruments.

"The Echoes Of Their Cries" opens with a dark atmosphere as piano, bass, drums and more come and go before vocals and a steady sound arrive a minute in. Some nice guitar follows as the vocals step aside quickly. Soon drums, horns and many intricate sounds fill the air. A calm before 2 minutes then Elaine is back singing. Her vocals are stronger at 3 1/2 minutes, love the instrumental work here. So good. A dark calm around 4 1/2 minutes but then it kicks back in quickly, vocal melodies too. I like the accordion in this one from Elaine.

"Thus Have We Made The World" is dark and atmospheric until it kicks in with bass and drums. Man this sounds amazing, really powerful as horns and many intricate sounds also help out. So impressive! Outbursts of sound come and go 2 minutes in before a calm arrives at 2 1/2 minutes. It kicks back in before another calm arrives at 3 1/2 minutes. Love these contrasts. Eerie sounds before 5 minutes and beyond and check out that bass.

"Commuting To Murder" starts off sounding too light to be THINKING PLAGUE then Elaine arrive singing followed by a more typical THINKING PLAGUE sound after a minute with the bass and drums kicking in. A calm follows then check out the bass 2 minutes in! Sax follows then guitar before the vocals return. Accordion after 3 1/2 minutes as the vocals stop. Such an impressive instrumental section here. It's lighter again around 4 minutes like the intro as it ends like it began.

"Hoping Against Hope" is an incredible track. Again heavy and dark is the way I'd describe the start with oboe over top I believe. Vocals after a minute and when she stops singing we get an amazing section beginning 2 minutes in. She's back but whispering this time then singing a minute later. She doesn't sing for long each time and again I love the instrumental passages on this one. It picks up after 4 minutes with piano, horns, bass and drums. It's building as we get some excellent guitar, drums and more. Another calm 6 1/2 minutes in and soon bassoon arrives(yeah it does!). This is dark as vocals return before 8 minutes. Shuffling drums, flute and more end it. What a song!

"The Great Leap" features Simon Steensland on bass which is very cool. Another melancholic piece with vocals. Gloomy is the word. Some power before 2 1/2 minutes but it's brief as the vocals return.

"A Dirge For The Unwitting" is the almost 14 minute closer and it doesn't deviate from the sound that has gone on before thankfully. Yes "dirge" is a good description of a lot of what we hear on this album. This is fairly slow moving with some outbursts. Nice bass work and I like the sax. It calms right down at 3 minutes and it doesn't start to build until after 6 minutes then it kicks in before 7 minutes. It settles back again quickly. Vocals arrive 8 minutes in followed by some avant guitar lines before 9 minutes. It settles again with vocals and eerie sounds. It picks up again 12 minutes in with a lot of depressing sounds(haha). I love it!

This is where I start to compile my "best of" list for 2017 as I was waiting for that first 2017 album to really wow me. I am almost giddy about this one, just how dark and atmospheric it is. Yes the best since "In Extremis" in my opinion. Mike Johnson is so freaking talented but then so is the whole band. Check out the album art as well. This is first class all the way.

Report this review (#1775991)
Posted Sunday, August 27, 2017 | Review Permalink
siLLy puPPy
PSIKE, JRF/Canterbury, P Metal, Eclectic
5 stars Oh my gawd! This is the kind of stuff that gives me progasms! Colorado's coolest mutilators of pop melodies have once again delivered six intriguing tracks freshly collected from the meat grinder and shipped off to market. THINKING PLAGUE has been the nightmares of bubblegum pop addicts for over three decades now and continues to ratchet up the tension and complexity levels on every "whenever they get around to it" release. HOPING AGAINST HOPE is only the seventh studio album released since their debut which came out all the way back in 1984 when Madonna and Michael Jackson were ruling the world on the pop charts. Fast forward to 2017 and the sound that was established on the debut "A Thinking Plague" has kept the same formula of putting the extra helping of avant in the Rock In Opposition styled prog that takes what predecessors like Henry Cow and Art Bears began and put it all on steroids. HOPING AGAINST HOPE is one of the densest and most angular releases of the year and is guaranteed never to be played at wedding ceremonies or birthday parties for moppets.

At this point in the band's career, Mike Johnson is not only the founder but the only member to have been constant since album number one and what makes THINKING PLAGUE rise above the ranks of the ever growing list of avant-proggers out there is his unique classical and electronic music studies that have afforded him the luxury of crafting out an exquisite and decorative compositional style that actually pans out to be bona fide alternative arrangements rather than just striving to be weird for weird's sake and on HOPING FOR HOPE these talents have only grown into some of the most sophisticated and complex with a new sense of bravado. One of the sources for the more complex sounds emanating from my speakers is the addition of a second guitarist in the form of Bill Pohl which allows more colorful expressions of tangled counterpoints that take systems borrowed from the most convoluted jazz sounds and somehow sift them into a gnarled imbroglio of competing anti-melodies that avoid collision like a clever colony of ants. Phrasings, time signatures, tempos and timbres compete for dominance but ultimately cooperate to demonstrate the most alien of soundscapes possible.

Once again Elaine Di Falco joins the team on vocals with her avant-prog standard type of delivery which keeps the leash on the boys who seem like their chomping at the bit to fully blast off from the Dagmar Krause antecedents that allow some sort of logical placement of this intellectually challenging musical puzzle. The atmospheres are thick and intense like Holst's "Mars" segment on "The Planets" which warns of impending warfare of the world as the sax, clarinet, oboe and flute conspire to weave a web of startling counterpoints that inspire as much awe as a faux missile attack threat appearing on your cell phone text. Another factor that seems to have developed is a more sophisticated King Crimson sort of heavy guitar bantering which adds a major sense of heft to the established unnerving anti-melodies that ratchet up the tension and then successful bombard the ear canals with a sense of bombast on top of the sense of impending dread and apocalyptica that always hints at but never quite attains a logical resolution.

Stylistically HOPING AGAINST HOPE is very similar to previous THINKING PLAGUE works with four shorter tracks swimming amidst two bloated behemoths that extend over the ten minute mark. Also the tracks straddle around in the predictable unpredictable manner with only Di Falco's vocal trails providing some sort of thread that ties all the disparate counterpoints together, however the compositions have taken on a new sense of urgency like a village that has taken root next to a volcano about to erupt and the anxiety beckons a more vehement response. While placidity isn't unknown on HOPING AGAINST HOPE, it's the violent aftermath that sets this release apart from earlier albums and the compositions have taken on unthinkable complexities making the peregrination to a top ranking of a 10 on my personal progometer scale of complexity. While most prog bands well into their fourth decade show signs of wear and fatigue or at least complacency in their craft, Johnson and his THINKING PLAGUE seem re-energized and ready to float off to the next world without one little iota of compromise. If anything, a determination of creating the most mangled melodic complexities seems to be of a most exigent priority.

Once again THINKING PLAGUE creates another successful soundtrack for an alternative universe with cleverly crafted precision that leaves me gasping for air after the multiple series of prograsm inducing exaltation. While it's never a sure bet that Johnson and friends will ever deliver a new album filled with the usual suspects of highly-developed and subtle musical configurations, one thing is a given at this point and that is the fact that when they finally do arise from the PLAGUE cave under the cover of surreptitiousness, they are guaranteed to leave jaws gaping as they perform the avant-prog equivalent of Cirque du Soleil styled performances that always lead me to wonder how far the whole avant-prog thing can go. Apparently it's in no danger of running out of steam. This has probably reached the ranks of "In Extremis" in my book with its sheer audacity to unapologetically develop and drift in any direction seen fit. Stunning and utterly unique THINKING PLAGUE continues to dazzle as they effectively build upon what they've done before yet with the paradox of doing so in both logical and illogical manners. The only problem is that this is exhausting music but well worth the workout.

Report this review (#1867196)
Posted Tuesday, January 16, 2018 | Review Permalink
2 stars Hoping Against Hope finds Thinking Plague in their third album in a row of failing to make an impression on me. Solid though I consider their work up to In Extremis to be, their albums since then have felt a little too much like regurgitating the same-ol' Thinking Plague sound as developed on those albums rather than appreciably developing it further. For some fans, that might be exactly what you want; the band can hardly be accused of betraying their roots if they never develop away from them, after all. At the same time, the lack of novelty wears on me and I find my attention wandering whenever I try to listen to the album.
Report this review (#1915833)
Posted Friday, April 20, 2018 | Review Permalink

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