Last year’s studio concert Ocean Sounds felt like a line drawn under Iamthemorning’s first three albums and, on its release, the band announced that 2019 would see the arrival of their fourth full studio album. That brief wait is over and the album, entitled The Bell, is now with us. Iamthemorning are one of the most talented progressive bands currently recording and delight the listener with their mix of chamber classical, prog and folk. With three excellent recordings preceding it, my hopes for The Bell were very high indeed.
Singer Marjana Semkina, has described their latest effort as a paean to human cruelty which draws on 19th Century ideas, both lyrically and musically, with the album’s structure a modern take on the song cycles developed by Franz Schubert, in particular. The album itself is divided into a part one (songs 1 to 5) and a part two (songs 6 to 10). Each piece is distinct but nevertheless linked and lends to the listener the notion that the album should be heard from start to finish.
A quick listen to Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise reveals musical, not just structural, relationships with Iamthemorning’s latest recording in the exquisite playing of Gleb Kolyadin and the hauntingly beautiful singing of Semkina. Add to the melting pot rock and folk sensibilities, alongside their own unique creative flair, and this all results in something really rather special. Whilst the notion of a song cycle has long been a part of prog’s heritage in the concept album, few acts can explore its classical origins as well as Iamthemorning.
The album kicks off in spectacular fashion with Freak Show, a track which, at just over seven minutes, is surprisingly on the long side for the band. It’s a blistering affair with the accompaniment of the full backing band behind it. Flitting between an angular time signature and an easier-to-follow compound one, the track begins with that dark ‘music box’ melancholy fans have become so acquainted with. Something approaching flamenco then plunges us into a string-driven rocker. In its latter stages, a sax bursts into life with an Eastern-style solo. There’s a breathless urgency to the whole thing that is even greater than the sum of its diverse parts.
The rest of part one is more stripped back and musically of a much softer texture. Sleeping Beauty is a gentle ballad with a very strong chorus; Vlad Avy does a great job with the understated guitar parts and Kolyadin’s piano solo is a one of the album’s best. Blue Sea will be familiar to anyone who picked up a copy of Ocean Sounds. It’s a simple, delicate and short piece; just featuring the duo themselves and featuring Semkina on acoustic guitar. Black And Blue is similarly light musically, but its lyrics give it a sense of menace which threatens to erupt at any moment. The track ultimately plays out with a repeated piano theme. Six Feet is another gentle number which then builds up in the final minute and a half to a crescendo with the drums and strings before returning to voice and piano to conclude part one.
Part two begins with the lead single, Ghost Of A Story, which I must say isn’t just my favourite track on the album but one of my favourite Iamthemorning tracks ever. The combination of the melodic piano and underlying strings with a catchy vocal melody over the top has been a trademark of the band at their best. The balance of the instruments is perfect, and the crowning glory is the repeated guitar refrain which follows the chorus and forms the track’s lead out. If I hear a better track all year, I will be very surprised.
The musically jaunty Ghost of A Story is followed by one of part two’s two softer pieces, Song of Psyche which is very pleasant but doesn’t really seem to go anywhere in its three-minute runtime. Much more impressive is Lilies, the track that brings Kolyadin most to the forefront. After last year’s solo effort, it’s nice to hear a track which allows him to flex his muscles, particularly in the solo which makes up the song’s closing section.
The album’s other seven-minute track, Salute, might be even better than the impressive Freak Show. I really love Semkina’s vocals on this and the guitar and piano parts are delightfully melodic; especially when repeated back in a fairground style. The track builds into a musical crescendo with drums and electric guitar leading out into what I think should have been the album’s closer. The last song, and the album’s title track, The Bell, is the better of part two’s softer pieces with an achingly beautiful chorus. If I have one reservation about this album, though, it is the order of the tracks. Given that tracks 2 to 5 are all on the softer side, a better balance would have had Lilies or Salute splitting them.
Overall, The Bell is everything I hoped for and more from the band. There are songs on here that already rank among my favourites from the previous releases and this is a recording I will keep coming back to. I’ve no doubt that fans and critics will love this as much as their previous efforts.
01. Freak Show (7:09)
02. Sleeping Beauty (3:42)
03. Blue Sea (3:08)
04. Black and Blue (3:58)
05. Six Feet (3:56)
06. Ghost of a Story (3:58)
07. Song of Psyche (3:20)
08. Lilies (4:28)
09. Salute (7:27)
10. The Bell (5:04)
Total Time – 46:10
Marjana Semkina – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar (track 3)
Gleb Kolyadin – Grand Piano, Keyboards
Vlad Avy – Acoustic & Electric Guitars
Zoltan Renaldi – Bass, Double Bass (tracks 1,2,6 & 9)
Svetlana Shumkova – Drums (tracks 1,5 & 9)
Evan Carson – Drums, Percussion (tracks 2,5 & 9)
Andres Izmaylov – Harp (tracks 1,6 & 9)
Grigory Osipov – Marimba (tracks 2 & 9)
Dmitry Tsepilov – Saxophone (tracks 1 & 2)
Ilya Leontyev – Trumpet (track 9)
Mr. Konin – Bells, Accordion, Clapping
St. Petersburg Orchestra ‘1703’ – String Ensemble (featuring 1st and 2nd violins, violas and ‘cellos)
Record Label: Kscope
Country of Origin: Russia
Date of Release: 2nd August 2019