Let’s get one thing straight. America is a big place, right? You’d expect there to be loads and loads of great bands coming from the U.S. – and indeed there are – but not a huge number of them really speak to me. As life regularly teaches us, however, there are always exceptions and in this case echolyn are one of those who continue to hold my attention through the years.
They could be the dictionary definition of what a band should be, a great example of a group of friends all working away on the same page to create art on their own terms, breaking boundaries, developing and pushing forward whilst keeping their feet rooted on the ground. Flights of musical fancy pepper their albums but they always have a purpose, and these days that sole purpose is to service the songs at the core, each of the performances aimed at lifting those around it to get the best out of the material. There is no showboating, the songs given a sprinkling of magic via the individual contributions which are allowed to stray from the well-trodden path, but only to enhance the album as a whole.
I’ve used the word ‘songs’ a few times already. These are songwriters who write songs, uniquely individual ones that soar and hold an emotional resonance, embellished certainly but only to underline the structures and meaning of the songs themselves. As a result, recent echolyn releases hold a more accessible ground that would no doubt appeal to larger numbers of people, should they be allowed the opportunity to hear them and have the open-mindedness to allow the band to work their magic. The Gentle Giant references of earlier works such as 1995’s As The World are all but gone, as are the lengthy pieces (and you can’t get much lengthier than 2002’s Mei). Even the more traditionally prog sounds of 2005’s The End Is Beautiful are jettisoned. The transformational shift that started with the self-titled release in 2012 has now reached fruition and i heard you listening is a wonderful album that handsomely repays the attention of the listener.
It is unsurprising that a band as idiosyncratic and downright wilful as echolyn would eventually succeed but it has been a rocky road. Formed at the tail end of the ’80s they seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough when they signed to Sony’s Epic label, but sadly they just didn’t know what to do with As The World, the resulting lack of promotion and interest causing the band to call it a day. After a few years of trying other things they reconvened but have really hit their stride over the last two releases, both recorded with the original line-up, which have seen echolyn go from strength to strength and deliver a pair of truly special albums. i heard you listening is the slightly better of the two as far as I’m concerned.
There is something almost everyday about echolyn, a blue collar Americana that colours their music, shot through with unusual choices, counterpoint and flights of dexterity that highlights both the quality of the band and the music they collectively create. It is indicative of the camaraderie involved that all of the music on this latest release is credited to the band as a whole with lyrics supplied by singer Ray Weston or guitarist Brett Kull, sometimes in collaboration. This is a group of musicians who work together supremely well, it is all about ensemble performances and harmony vocals, the unity they display quite uplifting.
The results here are sublime. They don’t currently appear to favour capitalisation in echolyn-world but this is certainly music that deserves shouting about with the caps lock firmly depressed. This low-key sense of place is quite refreshing, a group of musicians going quietly about their business and creating works of true quality that have clearly sparked the interest of the many enthusiasts who pre-ordered i heard you listening.
i heard you listening is certainly an album that fits snuggly within the prog genre but you’d be hard pushed to find many of the standard traits of what prog actually is, as defined within popular consciousness, and that is one of it’s greatest strengths. Unlike many bands, echolyn don’t wear their influences too obviously on their sleeves these days, but you are more likely to hear Bruce Springsteen or The Beatles than some of the usual prog fayre and it’s like a breath of fresh air. They no doubt worked long and hard to come up with such an effortlessly enjoyable selection of songs and the album makes for a well balanced homogenous whole, the moods and tempos ebbing and flowing beautifully to complement each other and create a collection with no dips or dull moments. It captivates the attention from start to finish, wonderful songs just dripping with emotion. There are much worse ways to spend an hour!
Each and every track has moments to savour and the performances throughout are top notch. Messenger of All’s Right is the perfect way to start, sweeping in to tick all the boxes for me and capped off with a beautiful vocal from Ray. The individual parts come together superbly well as the track undulates from low-key to forceful at a sedate pace. Towards the end Chris Buzby’s piano entwines with Ray’s voice – and then the harmonies kick in. Marvellous. Piano is clearly Buzby’s weapon of choice on this record and prevalent again through the beautiful Empyrean Views, a striking song with the skittering syncopation from Paul Ramsey marching to its own beat.
There are drastic changes of pace and temperament, the thumping and aggressive Warjazz more akin to As The World material but fitting like a glove in the way it is presented here. Buzby’s piano is again a focal point with great work from the rhythm section. Likewise Different Days is amongst the proggiest songs, a rampaging intro giving way to a slow-burning build with real energy. The choices made are spot on and the harmony vocals are, as always, a key element. Hammond gives the edge to the rockier sections but there is plenty of space to work the song through properly and the transitions are exemplary, the way they change tack so effortlessly a complete joy.
The lyrics throughout are thought provoking yet often hard to get the full meaning from so to help the band have produced The Listeners Guide… on their website, a fascinating background read that is very illuminating regarding some of the inspirations and meanings, like for the downbeat Carried Home. Flavoured with life experiences it is just lovely, put together with complete care and attention to detail, the unusual rhythms coupling with Beatles-like harmonies in the chorus. Sound of Bees is as delicate as can be, Ray’s fragile voice wringing all the emotion out of the words, chiming keys giving way to organ and a brief solo from Kull as the piece grows before your eyes to a huge finale.
A darkness inhabits the pacey Once I Get Mine, organ and a harsher edge to Ray’s voice leading the way. With more superb harmonies, the latin section of handclaps is unexpected but works a treat and the race towards the end opening out into epic is exhilarating. From the initial sigh that kicks it off, All This Time We’re Given shows a real deftness of touch in the ensemble playing. A captivating performance from the band as a whole, Kull and Busby adding simple but very effective solos, and finally Vanishing Sun gives a suitably rocking finish whilst moving through some fascinating changes to a great singalong ending.
As intensely interesting as anything they have released previously but, like their last album, showing a more subtle sophistication, the older references are now absent with the corruscating imagination of As The World (one of my favourites by anyone) now developed through time into an idiosyncratic style of songwriting that is an engrossing experience. This is not prog for prog’s sake, the songs take on a unique vision based on the personalities and interactions of the players involved.
i heard you listening is a great modern prog album that even towers above triumphs like echolyn’s 2012 release, the kind of collection that in a better world would be a crossover success and open the band up to a wider audience. As it is we lucky few get to bask in its glory. A long time after they originally came together echolyn are in the midst of a rich vein of form that you’d be foolish to ignore. An essential purchase for anyone who values true talent and a spankingly good song.
01. Messenger of All’s Right (6:24)
02. Warjazz (5:16)
03. Empyrean Views (9:18)
04. Different Days (7:47)
05. Carried Home (5:10)
06. Once I Get Mine (5:40)
07. Sound of Bees (6:58)
08. All This Time We’re Given (7:59)
09. Vanishing Sun (7:34)
Total Time – 60:03
Ray Weston – Lead & Backing Vocals, Bass (3)
Brett Kull – Guitars, Lead & Backing Vocals
Christopher Buzby – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Paul Ramsey – Drums, Percussion, Backing Vocals
Tom Hyatt – Bass, Guitar (3), Backing Vocals
Jacque Varsalona – Backing Vocals (1,3,5)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 31st January 2015