Sometimes assumptions can lead us down blind alleys. This was the case for me with Abandoned, the third album from Canadian melodic progressive rock band Huis (pronounced ‘House’), featuring the renowned guitarist and songwriter of Mystery, Michel St-Père. It was his inclusion which made me assume that this band would be a clone of Mystery, one of my favourite bands. This assumption influenced my initial perception as I swiftly concluded ‘This doesn’t sound like Mystery!’ … so I put this album aside for a while. However, more recently I decided to revisit it – after all, if someone of the class of Michel St-Père is involved it must have something of quality and perhaps I needed to listen anew. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? However, we are all too often subconsciously influenced by our assumptions and suppositions about how an artist or band may sound… or perhaps more the way we might want them to sound! I needed to rid myself of assumptions and listen again with an open mind.
As the title suggests Abandoned is an album with a sombre subject matter about loss and alienation, but ultimately there is also a sense of rebirth and hope. (As an aside, one begins to wonder why so many progressive rock albums appear to be inspired by the sadness of loss.)
The opening title track sets the tone of the album, and also initially dispels the sense that Huis is similar to Mystery. A throbbing synth slowly opens up to plaintive vocalisation, leading into Sylvain Descoteaux’s distinctive vocals, somewhat reminiscent of Colin Vearncombe’s voice on Wonderful Life, a UK hit for ’80s band Black. This a slowly building song, more in the form of a developing sound collage rather than a conventional melodic piece. Guitars, bass and drums add to the keyboards as the piece rolls along powerfully, the final lyrics letting us know we are in a bleak landscape:
“I’m alone, abandoned
A long road stretches before me
I have no choice, I have to go
I’ll do it for you, I will do it forever.”
The song then takes a distinctly more ‘proggy’ turn with an extended but understated synth solo in the finale with powerful drumming and even banks of Mellotron sounds – although one wonders whether the piece needed that finale.
Somewhat incongruously after such a distinctive opening, Huis launch into straight-ahead rock on The Giant Awakens with harmony vocals and chugging riffs. Descoteaux shows great versatility to present a full-on ROCK vocal and Michel St-Père peels off a short guitar solo, but in truth, it’s an unremarkable but competent straightforward rock song. In contrast, Caducee takes us on a far more adventurous musical journey, and on this track the shadow of Michel St-Père’s main band is a clear influence. The Mystery musical genes are especially writ large on a fine piano intro which blossoms into a dramatic keyboard and guitar fanfare, before settling down into a classy dual keyboard and guitar melody. Johnny Maz on keys is particularly outstanding on this number as the piece marches on majestically, William Regnier pounding out a thunderous beat on drums. The meaning of Caducee is not immediately obvious, although research reveals that the ‘Caduceus’ in Greek mythology was a rod around which two snakes twisted, the symbol of the messenger of the Gods, Hermes, and became associated with eloquence, trade, negotiation and wisdom. Perhaps there is a sense of growing wisdom for the main protagonist as they come to terms with their loss:
“A new way of seeing the light, losing shreds of consciousness
Blinded by useless fights, at the door, the truth I profess
Did I notice that the burden of years, lightens when I let go?
Did I notice that salvation will come to me, only if I really face it?”
Alternatively, the Caduceus has also (somewhat mistakenly) become associated with medicine and healing in the USA so perhaps there is also an association with healing in the song? Who knows? Who cares? It’s a good song with quality vocals evoking emotion, supported particularly effectively during the piano and acoustic guitar coda.
Stolen seems to be a turning point in the story of the album. After a deceptively restrained chiming synth and guitar intro it opens up titanically with a tidal wave of synths, bass and drums before St-Père cranks in with an uncharacteristic dirty guitar sound, all evoking the sense of desolation felt in the story. A staccato mid-section, with chopped riffs and despairing vocals, plumbs the depths emotionally, concluding with a flowing guitar and synth solo exchange. At the seeming lowest point in his spirit, the tempo and volume recedes plaintively and the flute of Mystery’s Jean Pageau takes us into a much more contemplative setting as the person at the centre of the song opens himself up to some form of redemption:
“I open my arms, totally destitute, here is my heart, with all my doubts
In the distance, I hear a flute, perhaps the sign of appeasement
My head between the jaws of a vice, it will be hard to overcome
Don’t worry, I will succeed, your confidence is all I need.”
Stolen is an impressive synthesis of rock power and more subtle melodic passages to convey a significant moment of transformation in the story.
Airport tannoy sounds are softly underpinned by piano and guitars in the opening of Chasing Morning Glory and the song’s melody rises optimistically as the main protagonist literally and figuratively ascends into the clouds of a new perspective on life, reborn with hope. A pulsing synth and drum led interlude with references to “climbing the corporate ladder” hark back to his empty former life which “no longer matters”, but we are soon aloft again, borne on the wings of a soaring St-Père guitar line. (As an aside there is a reference to the ‘Kangolgi’ at the end of the lyric which is the Aboriginal name for the ‘Morning Glory, a spectacular cloud formation that occurs in North-Eastern Australia.) This is an impressive, flowing ensemble piece, with some subtle bass playing from band founder Michel Joncas, in the softly gliding preamble to a more celebratory conclusion.
This redemptive piece feels like a climax to the album so moving on to the well-played but highly derivative ’80s ‘neo-Prog’ of instrumental Haunting Days seems a little redundant, apart from a showcase for Johnny Maz’s fine keyboard skills. We Are Not Alone feels like an emotional coda to the story of rebirth from loss. A softly lilting piano, alternating with a delicate guitar and emotive vocal alternates with more ‘rock ballad’ histrionics, and one cannot help wondering whether a little more restraint here would conversely have had more impact. Album finale Oude Kerk III is difficult to fit into the storyline without access to the lyrics. Very similar song titles have appeared on previous Huis albums. There are curious echoes of Rainbow at times. In some ways this final song is indicative of the whole album – there are some interesting passages and the playing is excellent, but ultimately, to me, it also feels a little disjointed. It does not seem to gel as a piece and feels ‘nailed’ together.
The concept of the album is conveyed well in parts, and the standard of playing is very high, particularly on the stand out more ambitious songs Stolen, Caducee and Chasing Morning Glory, but much of this album is fairly standard formulaic melodic rock. Abandoned as a whole does not settle on a consistent style or sufficiently hold the attention with a compelling narrative or lyrical thread.
Upon reflection, I had to come to the conclusion, after putting aside my ill-judged comparisons to Michel St-Père’s main band, that another reason that I had put this album aside for some months is that something about it just did not ‘click’ or hang together for me, even with some good quality songs present. Put it this way, I doubt I shall return much to this album.
Exactly why will probably remain a Mystery.
01. Abandoned (8:23)
02. The Giant Awakens (5:26)
03. Caducee (12:50)
04. Stolen (11:41)
05. Solitude (3:04)
06. Chasing Morning Glory (9:49)
07. Haunting Days (5:38)
08. We Are Not Alone (6:18)
09. Oude Kerk III (9:26)
Total Time – 72:31
Michel St-Père – Guitars
Michel Joncas – Bass
Sylvain Descoteaux – Lead Vocals
Johnny Maz – Keyboards
William Regnier – Drums
Jean Pageau – Flute
Gabby Vessoni – Vocals
Serge Locat – Harmonium
Eloise Joncas – Vocals
Record Label: Unicorn Digital
Date of Release: 1st May 2019
– Despite Guardian Angels (2014)
– Neither In Heaven (2016)
– Abandoned (2019)