Tales from the Silent Ocean is the first solo album by Steve Hughes, former drummer of Big Big Train, who has crafted a remarkably complex and diverse album. This work is also marked by the significant lyrical and inimitable vocal input from another former Big Big Train member, Sean Filkins. Conceived initially as an instrumental album, Hughes subsequently sought his former bandmate’s involvement with some vocals, and Filkins eventually worked the main concept into imaginative shape and wrote the majority of the powerful, hard-hitting and sometimes poetic lyrics.
The album opens with a remarkable trio of songs beginning with the startling Will We Ever Be Free?, the sampled pipe organ and mechanical sounds evoking a Merry-Go Round cranking into action over a tinkling piano. This is an album aiming to take us on quite a ride. Filkins’ excellent vocals evoke a desperate man on the edge of sanity, before the song explodes in a percussive avalanche of multi-layered instruments and echoing voices. Hughes lays down a bewildering and breathtaking wall of drumming and percussion that is no mere backing for the other instruments. Then the emotive voice of Filkins exclaims in unhinged tones:
“A Fragment of the Man I Used To be, How Wrong Could I Be?
Politicians wash Their Hands, Big Brother Watching Over Me (A Twisted Ideology)”
This heralds a suitably fragmented and spasmodic musical phase with pulsing synths over a driving rhythmic beat, which gradually drift off into a series of voices before the main theme of this great song returns with J.C. Strand’s guitar combining with Hughes’ keyboards and final church organ tones, and the return of the initial winding effect. This very unusual and twisting, turning song certainly feels like the sound of a desperate person on the way to a break down.
The theme of mental fragility continues with 50/50 Zone which opens with a Tears for Fears 80’s pop/rock feel, so beloved of Hughes. The chiming rhythmic piano rolls along over another percussive musical canvas as Steve Hughes takes over main vocals with Filkins in support. The use of two different voices is an effective device to convey the split within the main figure. This dichotomy is further underlined by the sudden shift from the intense percussive rolling rock of the first half into the more laid back softer more acoustic second section with violin. Hughes reveals in his interview with TPA that apparently it was initially intended for this section to have vocals, but it feels right to have this instrumental interlude as the lyricism on the album is intense at times.
The album’s remarkable opening triptych continues with the longer Tapestry of Change, a bewildering and haunting musical journey, apparently about the break up in the main character’s family, which weaves various strands of music and lyrics together. This is a striking song which shows many of the strong aspects of the album, but is also not without it’s flaws. The gentle opening piano and ambient sounds move into a short line of floating guitar before we hear the return of Hughes’ agile, adept and stylish drumming driving the song along. Rippling synth lines and soaring guitars interweave over the percussive musical backdrop. The tapestry of music changes again as the song morphs into a keyboard drone section with delicate violin and Filkins’ forlorn voice floating through the piece. The vocal duties are then taken up by Ezzy Anya and Angie Hughes to convey the loss of the female character in the concept. Whilst this may sound like an apt idea one is left wondering whether the song benefits from such a multitude of different voices, particularly as yet another voice appears as Hughes ends the song. Filkins has revealed in an interview that originally he thought he was to sing the whole album, but somewhat to his surprise this changed as it progressed. Whilst Tapestry of Change is an impressive musical collage, apt for it’s title and theme, one cannot help thinking that this is also a piece in which there may just be too much happening within the song, including multiple vocalists, which dissipates some of its impact.
It is to be hoped that when he feels ready Sean Filkins himself produces his own next solo album follow up to the excellent War and Peace and other Short Stories so we can hear the full range of his impressive and emotive vocal and lyrical talents.
One Day keeps the momentum going with a song of love which culminates in a possibly over extended section that echoes the more progressive moments of Tears for Fears again. Secretly She Still Loves Him follows with the contrasting female vocals of Ezzy Anya and Natasha Chomyn over an emotionally laden violin from Maciej Zolnowski, with Filkins’ plaintive voice in the background. The song then strangely transforms with a percussive break and synth lines leading to Strand’s agile guitar playing. However, sustaining the initial more subdued and plaintive feel for the song may have been a more effective approach. Sometimes less really is more, as shown in the following short haunting piece The Days without You.
However, despite his best efforts this song possibly also reveals Hughes’ inexperience with more subtle vocals. This part of the album felt weaker for this reviewer, as shown in the meandering Gonna Make It, lacking the dramatic and musical power displayed so effectively on the opening four songs.
Free Fall, featuring Ezzy Anya, is a short elegiac song of loss and memories over lilting keyboards and violin that feels like the preamble for the ‘epic’ climactic brace of songs, Sunshine Willow and Willow’s Lament. This closing section resonates more with the drama of the early part of the album as Filkins’ powerful lyrics evokes the suicidal desperation of the album’s main drowning character:
“Already Dead Inside the Coldness of the Coming Tide,
Enveloping Darkness Green to Black Before My Eyes”
These are pieces with strong lyrics and a fascinating if bleak concept, but in this reviewer’s view they are a little stretched and over ambitious and may not always hold one’s attention. Nevertheless, there is plenty to admire musically in it’s multi-faceted sections, particularly Hughes’ swirling, rolling keyboards and Strand’s guitar playing. After such a roller coaster ride of musical dexterity and lyrical bleakness it is soothing to hear Natasha Chomyn gently sing the coda song Goodbye My Love over a delicate backing from Zolnowski, Strand and Hughes on violin, guitar and keyboards. Half Ukrainian singer Chomyn provides the last line of the album, “Do Zustrichi” meaning ‘See You Soon’ in Ukrainian.
It is to be hoped that after such a promising and surprising début album that we do indeed see Steve Hughes producing another album soon to build on such solid foundations. This is an album marked with some truly impressive songs which certainly repays repeated listenings to unveil much of it’s complexities and subtlety. Whilst this is a not a fully consistent album, there is much to appreciate in it’s drama and bleak beauty at times.
[In conjunction with his review Leo has also interviewed Steve Hughes and Sean Filkins regarding Tales From The Silent Ocean and other aspects of their career. You can read the interviews with Steve HERE and Sean HERE.]
01. Will We Ever Be Free?
02. 50/50 Zone
03. Tapestry of Change
04. One Day
05. Secretly She Still Loves Him
06. The Days Without You
07. Gonna Make it
08. Free Fall
09. Sunshine Willow
10. Willow’s Lament
11. Goodbye My Love
Steve Hughes – Drums, Percussion, Bass, Acoustic & Additional Guitars, Penny Whistle, Percussion Bass, Keyboards, Programming, Lead & Additional Vocals
Sean Filkins – Lead & Additional Vocals, Lyrics & Vocal Arrangements
J.C. Strand – Electric & Acoustic Guitars
Maciej Zolnowski – Violin & Cello
Stu Bell – Additional Electric Guitar (tracks 2 & 3)
Gavin Sparks – Electric Guitar (6), Additional Electric Guitar (3)
Jools Slater – Saxophone (4)
Sarah Feeney – Voices (1,3), Screams (5)
Ezzy Anya – Vocals (3,5,8), Telephone Voice (7)
Angie Hughes – Vocals (3)
Natsha Chomyn – Vocals (5,9,11), Backing Vocals (4)
Huyen Dinh – Backing Vocals (4)
Record Label: F2 Music
Year of Release: 2015