Hello readers and welcome to a new feature where we reviewers scour our vaults for some unearthed gems that you may have missed the first time around. These are antiquities, shrouded in obscurity, that nevertheless have all the lustre of the classics. It simply didn’t feel right for me to kick off this feature without sharing with you one of my all-time favourite albums: Pictures by the short-lived Swiss progressive rock band Island.
If you Google “Island Pictures”, you’ll probably get something like this:
You’ll probably want to add the date, 1977, if you wish to dig up any info. This just goes to show how obscure – or perhaps just how badly named – this album is. Fortunately, there are dedicated YouTubers sharing full progressive albums to give listeners a taste of this sumptuous treat that is nearly impossible to find in physical form – I’m personally still looking.
As if the H. R. Giger adorned-sleeve hadn’t done the job already, the eerie minute-and-a-half Introduction sets the Gothic tone perfectly with a crescendo of unintelligible voices and instruments. We are launched straight into the six-minute instrumental Zero, an incredible showcase of the band’s talents. Far beyond being phenomenally skilled at their respective instruments, the members of this group have developed an extraordinary synchronicity. Their most unique and powerful ability is being able to simultaneously change the tempo of their music whilst still keeping in sync with each other. This creates some mind-bending effects that leave you thinking “How did they do that?”.
Astonishingly, it’s the less frenetic middle section that leaves me wowed every time; a delicate dance between Güge Jürg Meier’s drums and Peter Scherer’s keyboards and bass-pedals. The pattern is so complex that it seems unbelievable that there are only two people playing – it almost seems more likely that Scherer managed to link up the drums to his keyboard somehow!
Shockingly, there are only three songs left, but they are all over twelve minutes in length, practically an album’s worth. The title track Pictures stands at seventeen minutes, and proves the band’s ability to create stunning compositions in long form. We also get our first glimpse at singer Benjamin Jäger’s vocals. English is clearly not his native language, but surprisingly this works well for the sinister tone of the music as Jäger adds emphasis to parts that normally wouldn’t be emphasised, giving a more alien feel to the music. This does also result in a lot of misheard lyrics, but the 1996 CD booklet will soon set you straight. Easily the most memorable part of this piece is the phrase “Gastric juices…” repeated over the rapidly undulating tempo. When you begin to pick apart just how complicated this part is, you’ll realise just how amazing these musicians are.
Over on Side Two, we begin with Herold and King / Dloreh. The more observant of you might immediately notice that ‘Dloreh’ is simply ‘Herold’ spelled backwards, and this gives a clue of what’s coming next. After a melancholy piano intro, we are slowly brought into a dark dungeon of atonal sounds and Jäger muttering what sounds like gibberish. The CD booklet once again gives the answer: he’s actually pronouncing English lyrics backwards. Moreover, he does it with such aplomb that they actually sound meaningful. There’s an incredibly memorable a cappella section, which sounds quite out of this world, followed by a blistering instrumental that still sends electric shocks down my body when I listen to it. After the band reach another crescendo, the final part of the song is something of a let down; a slow repetitive section which lasts nearly four minutes. While the eerie factor is still there, it does start to drag on towards the end.
Here and Now has the same exact length as Herold and King / Dloreh but has an opposite structure, dynamically speaking. This time there is a quieter, slower middle section, titled The Stillbirth of a Harvest bookended by two frenetic parts. It’s no surprise which parts I enjoy more, but there are some well-executed musical experiments carried out in the centre of the piece, including Sprechstimme in German from Jäger. The end of the song, despite mentioning “Ibiza sun”, is no less Gothic than the rest of the group’s canon and brings the album to an exciting close.
You don’t often associate Switzerland with progressive rock but this album, alongside Circus’s Movin’ On from the same year, proves the Swiss aren’t neutral when it comes to amazing music. Unfortunately, like so many bands of that era, Island was a flash in the pan group that only released one album before disbanding forever; as a result, there’s precious little information about the group to be found. However, if your ears are crying out for more Island, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a 23-minute jam included as a bonus track on the CD (if you can find it), as well as a demo/live release of the band’s unpublished 40-minute opus Pyrrho, exhibiting an earlier version of the band which included a guitar player. Pictures is a dense, dark, challenging album that demands plenty of relistens, but the band’s unique musical talent and creative vision ensures that each listen is a pleasure from start to finish.
01. Introduction (1:27)
02. Zero (6:15)
03. Pictures (16:53)
04. Herold and King / Dloreh (12:16)
05. Here and Now (12:19)
Total Time – 49:06
Benjamin Jäger – Lead Vocals, Percussion
Güge Jürg Meier – Drums, Gongs, Percussion
Peter Scherer – Keyboards, Pedal-Bass, Crotales, Voices
René Fisch – Saxes, Flute, Clarinet, Triangle, Voices
Record Label: Round Records
Country of Origin: Switzerland
Year of Release: 1977
Pictures – Progarchives