Published on 12th May 2020
Sky Cries Mary – Secrets of a Red Planet
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I listened to a band called Low Pop Suicide, formed by Dave Allen (Gang of Four and Shriekback), and released by Allen’s record label, World Dominion. I loved Low Pop Suicide and wanted to hear more from the World Dominion label. The first, and it turned out, only other band from the label I did listen to was Sky Cried Mary. That band was nothing at all like Low Pop Suicide, but they were incredibly impressive. I ended up owning three World Dominion releases from Sky Cries Mary, and their first on Warner Bros. For some reason, that WB release (Moonbathing on Sleeping Leaves) was the last I heard from the band. It is only after picking up the latest Sky Cries Mary album that I’ve found out the band released one more album on Warner Bros. and a further album in 1999 before breaking up. The band have had an on-again, off-again career since then, and this is their first full album of new material since 2007, as far as I can tell.
So, not having listened to Sky Cries Mary for many years, and not having heard how their sound may have changed since Moonbathing, what do I think of 2020’s Secrets of a Red Planet? Well, I was initially quite shocked on first listen, but I’ve actually come around to thinking this is probably my favourite Sky Cries Mary album yet. And if this is a signal that the band is back, then I’m happy to go along for the ride and can’t wait to hear what’s next on the journey! Or, should I say trip, for Sky Cries Mary remains a glorious progressive mix of psychedelic and trance. I admit I’ve never taken drugs of any kind, other than those prescribed by a doctor, but for my non-addled mind (at least non-addled by drugs, as I’ve never been known as “normal”) this is a trippy delight, and it’s so easy to get lost in the music. I can leave this album on repeat very happily.
The first thing I noticed when listening to the album, is that the upbeat electronic and trip-hop elements of the earlier Sky Cries Mary albums I know and love are almost entirely absent, or at least, subdued. This, I guess, is why I found the sound, as aforementioned, rather shocking. However, there was no doubting that this was the same band – even though, once again the membership has changed. Like many bands that play this sort of psychedelic music, Sky Cries Mary are less of a band and more of a collective. There has always been a revolving door of members coming band going (including for some years, a certain Jon Davison who found more fame singing for Yes), but in this incarnation are still founding members, Roderick Wolgamott and Ben Ireland, so there is some continuity.
Also present, even if the female vocalist is different, are the wonderful male/female vocal harmonies. I really like Debra Reese’s vocals, which I find very reminiscent of Norma O’Malley from seminal Dunedin (New Zealand) band Chug. From my experience of the band, Waves of Mourning started in an incredibly relaxed manner, but as soon as those characteristic dual vocals kicked in, in an almost ethereal chanting manner, I knew I was listening to the same band. The same, but different, and it’s a difference after several repeated listens that has completely won me over. The song beguiles and enchants as the psychedelic factor increases over its seven and a half minute duration.
The following song, Die of Laughter, is even longer (almost twice the length), and this gives it ample opportunity to change throughout. It sounds almost chaotic and was born of improvisation, but it’s an incredibly clever and almost structured chaos, if that makes sense. There’s a lovely collision of the English psychedelia of Pink Floyd and American psychedelia of The Doors, wrapped up in the more modern psychedelic sounds of Porcupine Tree. The guitars of Kevin Whitworth and Jack Endino can be quite intense, with lots of meanderings into quirky and spacey noises along the way. This is definitely another trip, with only the drums of Ben Ireland seeming to keep things in check. There’s an awesome extended instrumental passage that comes in about halfway through which crescendos then falls away with only two or so minutes of the song remaining before it rises again for the final vocals. In fact, because of this instrumental passage alone, Die of Laughter might be my favourite song.
The short Intermezzo that follows is an entirely necessary comedown. I say short, but at three and a half minutes that’s a fairly lengthy interlude. In no way is it filler though, and I definitely enjoy it. After the pounding of Die of Laughter, the more subdued sounds of Intermezzo are a welcome relief. It’s not a track that would necessarily work in isolation, but in context it is perfect – like the sorbet that cleanses one’s palate between courses at a restaurant. In addition, it helps bridge the gap perfectly between the quite disparate sounds of Die of Laughter and Trapeze Dancer.
Now here is my biggest surprise. Trapeze Dancer is easily the song most similar to the Sky Cries Mary that I was used to. For that reason, it was the first song that really took my fancy when I initially listened to the new album. And if you’re listening to the band for the first time and wanting an indication of their earlier sound, this is a good place to start. And yet, as much as I still definitely love this song, it’s gone from being my favourite on Secrets of a Red Planet to my least favourite! But if this is my least favourite, that only goes to show the overall quality of the album as this is still a great song. The vocals of Debra Reese soar over the top of those of Roderick Wolgamott, taking the song with her as the listener floats away with the psychedelic guitar runs and drum fills. It’s another long number, so again expect quite a few changes along the way. I’m reminded again of Porcupine Tree with this song, particularly the second half, which is somewhat reminiscent to Voyage 34 (to me – your mileage on this trip may vary), before the chanting of the final minute or so.
I suspect Drunken Pilot may be too much for a lot of listeners. Not because it is too heavy or brutal (this is psychedelic trance, remember), but because it is so minimalist, and if anything more indicative of a bad trip than a good one. The vocals become more and more manipulated, and less and less harmonious. The instrumentation, what little of it there is, becomes equally more and more desperate and disturbing. I have a feeling it’s not meant to be an entirely pleasant listen, but I guess I may be a masochist because I love it!
The final track, Born From My Mouth, is far more appealing though, and Curt Eckman’s bass introduction to the song, while still fairly minimalist, is entirely groovy. And if you were not already aware of the more upbeat nature, some birdsong is added, and it’s a lovely touch. From there, we are slowly and steadily taken into the æther. The vocals are the softest and most ethereal so far. I’m reminded of So Gently We Go by I Mother Earth, and it’s definitely a gentle, if very spacey, groove. This is probably the catchiest song on Secrets of a Red Planet, and the most accessible. But just in case you were wondering why it wasn’t the opening track for that reason, the song blasts off at the halfway mark, jettisoning any pretence of gentleness. This is a perfect closing number, and the crescendo and climax provide a truly glorious final passage.
And it’s straight back to the beginning for me. When Born From My Mouth ends, I find it incredibly difficult not to hit play all over again. Once I’m in the groove, I really don’t want to leave it. And as much as I’ve enjoyed previous Sky Cries Mary releases, I’ve never felt that compulsion before. There’s something terribly addictive and enjoyable about this release. It’s a more mature Sky Cries Mary, but aren’t we all after 30 or so years? I suspect I wouldn’t have enjoyed this so much in the 1990s, but I love it now. I also suspect many people probably still get more enjoyment from Sky Cries Mary with a little assistance from certain illicit substances, but I find my mind enjoyably bent with the music alone. More where this came from, please!
01. Waves Of Mourning (7:31)
02. Die Of Laughter (12:35)
03. Intermezzo (3:50)
04. Trapeze Dancer (11:45)
05. Drunken Pilot (9:23)
06. Born From My Mouth (9:14)
Total Time – 54:18
Roderick Wolgamott – Vocals
Ben Ireland – Drums
Jack Endino – Guitar
Curt Eckman – Bass
Debra Reese – Vocals
Kevin Whitworth – Guitar
Record Label: Trail Records
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 25th March 2020