Let’s kick off my first review for The Progressive Aspect off with a disclaimer: I know Pat Sanders, the prime mover in Drifting Sun, and get a name check on the album. Make of that what you will and read this with open eyes, and heart as well.
Album six in the ongoing saga of Drifting Sun, beginning in 1996, and another variation in line-up for this studio-based project designed as an outlet for Pat’s compositions. This album is actually triangular in many ways with three distinct vocalists replacing Peter Falconer who left the band at the inception of the project, and also three different types of song on the album. It moves from the deeply emotional on one side to worldly politics and ancient history on the others. There is plaintive sadness, out and out rocking and introspective reflection, all bundled up into a complete package that feels like a whole and complete project, rather than a group of guest musicians jamming out a session with no real identity. The core of the band, Pat, Manu Michael, Will Jones and Mathieu Spaeter, are a solid unit in the studio who know each other’s playing well enough to retain that DS feel, and they interpret Pat’s music excellently.
The music on Planet Junkie is rich and varied; from the melancholy and simple beauty of Night Time Sorrow, a piano and vocal piece of isolated emotional pain, to the out and out “Prog” of Diogenes, which uses the story of the philosopher who founded the Cynicism school of thought to reflect modern social ills. This album has pushed the envelope for Drifting Sun, given the problem of following up the last album, Twilight, which received critical praise when it came out in 2017, when they could have been placed in limbo by having to seek out a new vocalist or wait for Peter to recover.
Each vocal performance brings a different texture to the album. Marc Atkinson, he of Riversea, Nine Stones Close and the Human Juke Box, occupies the first block of tracks and plants his identity on the music from opening track Within Your Bones onwards, where a Rush-like ’80s keyboard intro drops you into a deceptively accessible but complex song, complete with a superb sax solo from Sarah Skinner over layers of keyboards and one of many soaring guitar solos from Mathieu. All three tracks are songs of solid melody and structure highlighting Marc’s vocal strengths and lyrics.
Colin Mold, who has been an anchor for quite a few projects including Karnataka, Iona and others for some time, is next up to bring his talents to the microphone. With wonderful melancholy piano he adds his voice to Night Time Sorrow, but is also able to hold his own and then some in the full band pieces Stay With Me and To Tame A Star where he thrives and adds to the Drifting Sun history with aplomb. He has a rich tonal quality that slots into the sonically filled landscape of these two tracks.
Joshua Corum of Head With Wings, a U.S. based band of musical storytellers, is last up, but definitely not least. Like the other vocalists, he adds lyrics as part of his contribution and thus adds his character to the three songs he is part of here. Born of A Dream is a track with a deceptively simple sound, and the addition of Eric Bouillette of The Room and Nine Skies on violin gives a new dimension to the music. The use of simple piano with acoustic guitar with the violin to play the solo adds in a positive way without losing the overall character of the band. Diogenes, as I said earlier, is very “Prog”, a full-on and in your face mini-epic with a superb guitar solo to close from Mathieu. The closing track, which is my personal favourite, is Everlasting Creed, with the addition of Ben Bell of Gandalf’s Fist and Broken Parachute for a wonderful Hammond organ solo which will delight the classic prog fan no end. It encapsulates the whole of Planet Junkie very well, acting as almost a coda or précis of this release.
Overall this album could have been a holding marker for Drifting Sun while they figured what to do next. Instead it has set a new level for the band and shown that Pat can work well as a composer in a tight musical spot. The rich variety of keyboard sounds from the purest piano to Hammond and the synth tones which have been a trademark of the band from day one seem to stand out more, but do not drain from the rest of the band sound. Planet Junkie has all the elements I look for in the central core of the Classic Prog tradition; song, melody, and story. Once you have those nailed then you have the foundation to show your skills as a writer and musician, with a solid substance being first and foremost over style. I said at the start that I get a name check and know the band, but I also listen with my heart and look with my eyes before judging. Music is always subjective and critics are rarely objective.
01. Within Your Bones (4:16)
02. Planet Junkie (5:47)
03. Missing (4:10)
04. Life (1:30)
05. Night Time Sorrow (3:07)
06. To Tame A Star (8:23)
07. I Will Be King (4:35)
08. Born Of A dream (3:56)
09. Diogenes (6:38)
10. Everlasting Creed (10:09)
Total Time – 59:29
Pat Sanders – Keyboards
Mathieu Spaeter – Guitars
Manu Michael – Bass
Will Jones – Drums
Sarah Skinner – Saxophone
Eric Bouillette – Violin, Strings
Marc Atkinson – Vocals (tracks 1,2 & 3)
Colin Mold – Vocals (tracks 5,6 & 7)
Joshua Corum – Vocals (tracks 8,9 & 10)
Ben Bell – Hammond Organ (track 8)
Conrad Cheng – Clarinet (track 11)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 20th September 2019