A Tower Of Clocks is the much anticipated second album by Yorkshire progressive rock band This Winter Machine. They came out of nowhere in 2016 as an unknown band who produced the highly regarded and increasingly popular The Man Who Never Was album, full of finely crafted and catchy songs. As a debut it was a truly impressive piece of work displaying remarkable assurance and maturity in the quality of the songs and performances. Therefore, there are high expectations for their second album amongst their growing fan base, drawn by the high quality of their debut and a series of increasingly polished and entertaining live shows around the U.K. This anticipation has been further fuelled by a short delay as the album had been expected to be released before the end of 2018, and one started to wonder whether this was a case of the clichéd ‘difficult second album’!
So what have This Winter Machine pulled out of the bag?
Well, it’s quite a journey, and it’s very clear right from the start of the album that their current fans will NOT be disappointed with the new material. From the evidence of this album it appears that This Winter Machine were justified in taking a little more time to ensure this was an album worthy of release, not just maintaining but clearly surpassing their initial, already high, standards… and the numbers of fans will surely multiply.
The album opens with the hooting of the owl Herald, whom Al Winter has shared is the “overseer and part narrator of the story” threading through the album. He explained that the owl is like an Angel who stores all our feelings and memories in the titular ‘Tower of Clocks’ – thereby ensuring that nothing really dies while it can still be remembered. That’s an interesting and beguiling thought and concept upon which to base an album. The Herald Owl features on the striking and rather lovely album artwork by Tom Robertson. As the instrumental Herald develops, Mark Numan paints an atmospheric musical background with a keyboard drone and then a delicate piano run before an eerie guitar embroiders the soundscape. This whole piece feels like a cinematic curtain raiser as the guitar spells out a captivating riff and then the fanfare opens out as the rest of the band joins in the melody. What becomes immediately obvious is that this is a band confidently right in the groove with class drumming from Andy Milner locked tightly with Pete Priestley on bass, underpinning the whole piece superbly. Listening to this for first time there was immediately, for this listener, a sense of ‘Relax – they’re right on the button from the start’. This is a truly impressive and engaging opening, solidly and unashamedly in the neo-prog vein of melodic progressive rock, and they do it so well. Flying is the first vocal song and feels like a prologue for the whole album, with Numan sensitively playing piano with a synth background, giving Al Winter a fine framework within which he sings with clarity and emotion.
Symmetry And Light may well be one of the most interesting and diverse pieces on A Tower Of Clocks, showing that this is also a band willing to stretch their boundaries and blend musical ideas in an intoxicating mixture. Starting with a light tripping beat, not unlike the sort of rhythm used by The Police, this is a song displaying that This Winter Machine want to draw in the listener with accessible hooks, sometimes even of a pop-like nature. Al Winter sings in a skilful and flowing manner over an insistent guitar line, and then the song steps up with some rock power in the chorus before settling back to the tripping verse rhythm. The song then takes a dramatic turn as Numan snakes a synth run over the beat, perhaps indicating we are definitely taking a left turn here. A short percussive interlude presages a return to the anthemic Rainbow-like rock inflected chorus. Pete Priestley thunders in with a lithe bass run as the precursor for a great Gothic section with the band roaring along heavily. Mark Numan maniacally soars above the piece with sinister and mighty synth runs, strangely similar to his namesake Gary Numan, like some sort of crazed Dr Frankenstein… “It’s Alive, Alive…!”, and it is when played live, as it was at a recent show at the Fusion Festival which witnessed a particularly titanic and pulsating rendition of this song, where this fascinating song really takes flight. It’s an unusual and ambitious song which strangely but successfully melds pop sensibilities with straight ahead rock and touches of theatre.
Justified and In Amber take the album to altogether more gentle and straightforward territories with In Amber acting as an ideal showcase for Al Winter’s excellent vocal skills, emotively singing the memorable words with great feeling over Numan’s finely judged piano and keyboard backing. After the relative sonic respite of these more restrained songs, This Winter Machine propel the album in a much more dramatic direction with the story of The Hunt. This is pure ’80s Fish-era Marillion in style with the twin attack of keyboards and guitars. This Winter Machine make no secret that Marillion have been a major influence on them, and one short lyrical part even sounds a little like The Company by Fish, but this is no lame pastiche as this band stamp their own identity on their particular take on this tried and trusted style. A sinister keyboard drone drenched opening with spooky guitar chords and subtle percussion underpins the spoken word intonations of Al Winter and then The Hunt gathers power and pace as Winter mentions “the sound of a horn”, presumably representing the gathering pace and terror of a fox hunt. Priestley and Milner yet again excel on bass and drums, and this is clearly one area in which This Winter Machine have moved on considerably from their debut album, when they had a different drummer. Milner is clearly a very skilled and classy drummer who has formed a marvellous partnership with Priestley, providing power and solidity along with subtlety as a solid base for the whole band. The Hunt is almost literally quite a ride, imaginatively portraying the hunting experience from the fox’s perspective in a thrilling musical journey. Al Winter shared at the Fusion Festival that the fox at the centre of the story does successfully elude the hunt, introducing the song thus: “We don’t do political… but if you hunt for pleasure you’re a dick” – no more need be said.
When We Were young is a touching piece, which Al Winter revealed in the recent interview with The Progressive Aspect had the working title The Widower, which features his emotion filled vocals over an acoustic guitar backdrop, joined by Numan on keyboards, who later adds a violin sound to emphasise the melancholic feel of this sad observation on loss. The Herald keeps her memory alive in the Tower of Clocks, presumably as long as she is remembered by the widower.
Carnivale is the final relative epic (although no song exceeds 10 minutes on this album) which will have some fans salivating with Prog pleasure. The mixing and engineering by Dom Richmond and the production skills of Al Winter are in evidence right across the album, but they are particularly showcased in this dramatic soundscape. Carnivale is introduced with the pipe organ noises of the circus which morph into a gentle piano and guitar intro and then BANG – the song briefly explodes with keyboards and drums before an acoustic guitar kicks back in with Winter intuitively singing image filled and regretful lyrics. The song is punctuated with a stirring refrain with versatile Winter singing with power and control. This weirdly spasmodic but successfully dramatic piece throws in some Genesis-like acoustic guitar before keyboard ring master Numan sets a very Gothic scene with eerie synth sounds over a mid-section which evokes a Grand Guignol atmosphere. The band add layer after layer as the song builds with a spectacular and heroic sounding chorus, and the finale features the whole band in overdrive with a seeming guitar duel between the two equally great guitarists, Graham Garbett and Scott Owens. A real strength of the band is their two pronged guitar attack which gives the band different guitar textures and sounds which complement each other perfectly in their different styles throughout the album.
Carnivale is a remarkable finale to a fine album, but in my view it is surpassed by a very special song in Delta, which is musically outstanding but also has a powerful message. The piece commences with a keyboard backing before the drums, bass and guitar chime in powerfully and Numan leads with an infectious keyboard melody ear worm which will burrow into most listeners’ brains. It’s stirring and memorable stuff. Al Winter then sings some impactful lines about a young woman called Delta, in a song based on a touching true story. She wanted to ‘come out’ to her parents, but she was very worried about their reaction, even though they are great, tolerant parents. So she decided to tell them on April Fool’s Day so if it did not go down well she could pretend it was a silly joke:
“I feel ugly on the inside and I can’t stand the pain
Cos I’m always so lost and so broken, I can’t do this to them again
I’ll tell them on the first of April, and if they start to cry,
I’ll tell them it was all a joke, a funny kind of lie.”
The conflicting emotions are portrayed in the contrasting musical passages and the stirring keyboard led fanfares give way to a starkly beautiful piano and vocal section with a subtle electric guitar chiming above them. Delta may simply be one of the best melodic progressive songs of 2019 as it skilfully and sensitively weaves infectious and often triumphant sounding progressive rock melodies together with emotion-drenched melancholic passages and intuitively crafted and powerful lyrics. It sounds incongruous but it really does work, and in a live context this song blossoms even more beautifully. This song has a personal resonance for this listener whose own son ‘came out’ when he was 17, and later revealed his anxieties in telling his Mum and Dad how he felt – thankfully, like Delta, it all turned out very well, but for some it does not sadly. Al Winter clearly feels these issues deeply and shared that the message of this song is that if you share your story and your feelings you will find people more compassionate than you think – which is a fine message to give out.
So what’s the final conclusion on A Tower Of Clocks?
It’s not perfect – few albums are. In my view having two instrumentals in the first three songs is a bit of a mis-step, and Spiral does not really add anything or stand out as a piece for me. Justified is a pretty good soft rock type song, but it may not be ideal sequencing it with the superior and more subtle In Amber. However, in the wider context of the album these are minor quibbles from this perspective and they are certainly not poor songs. This Winter Machine are developing into fine exponents of a pleasing brand of great rock songs with an eye for memorable melodies and hooks. They wear their influences proudly on their musical sleeves, but they do not slavishly copy other bands and are not afraid to meld together unusual mixtures of styles, such as Symmetry And Light. This Winter Machine do not do ‘avant garde’ or experimental music (which is fine for other bands!), they focus on writing and performing high quality crafting catchy melodic rock songs (which is no mean feat). Whilst they are not breaking new musical frontiers (a rare occurrence for any artists in reality) they are very skilled in expressing their musical and lyrical ideas with flair and imagination.
It’s still early in the year but this outstanding album will deserve to be remembered as one of the best melodic progressive rock albums of 2019. Let’s hope the good memories and feelings associated with such a fine release will be preserved somewhere… say perhaps in a Tower of Clocks?!
[You can read Leo’s interview with This Winter Machine HERE.]
01. Herald (8:48)
02. Flying (3:31)
03. Spiral (2:17)
04. Symmetry & Light (7:29)
05. Justified (4:39)
06. In Amber (3:57)
07. The Hunt (7:22)
08. Delta (8:26)
09. When We Were Young (5:16)
10. Carnivale (9:10)
Total Time – 61:05
Al Winter – Vocals
Mark Numan – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Graham Garbett – Guitars, Backing Vocals
Scott Owens – Guitars, Backing Vocals
Andy Milner – Drums
Pete Priestley – Bass, Bass Pedals
Record Label: Independent
Country Of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: April 2019