The ‘Bright Ambassadors of Morning’ of Pure Reason Revolution broke up 10 years ago, seemingly burning out after shining brightly over a brief 5 or so years, therefore, it came rather as a surprise when they appeared out of the blue at the Midsummer Prog Festival in the Netherlands in June 2019 and reportedly stole the show. Eupnea is their first new album since 2010, and it is a remarkable rebirth for this unique band… and maybe rebirth is an apt description as it is inspired by the emotional turmoil Jon Courtney and his wife experienced when their prematurely born daughter, whose lungs had not yet fully formed and could not properly breathe, was in a high dependency unit and intensive care for weeks. When you know that background it adds even greater emotional impact to this album. It also explains the reason it is called rather strangely Eupnea, which means ‘normal, unlaboured breathing’ – something we all do so easily with no conscious volition, but rather terrifyingly was beyond the incredibly fragile daughter of Jon Courtney in those precarious early weeks of life. One can only imagine the stress and anxiety felt by her parents, and understandably Courtney touchingly dedicates Eupnea to his wife and daughter.
In a recent interview with the Prog Report, Jon Courtney described Pure Reason Revolution as a “contemporary rock band” with “no limitations”. Starting out as a project band at the University of Westminster in 2003 (and even having an early single released by the Oasis impresario Alan McGee), Pure Reason Revolution never really fitted into any pigeonholes. They announced themselves rather brilliantly with first EP Cautionary Tales for the Brave in 2005, including the heady cornucopia of The Bright Ambassadors of Morning. This modern epic referenced lines from Pink Floyd’s ethereal Echoes, amidst a kaleidoscopic and intoxicating mixture of samples, dance beats, psychedelic flourishes, hints of prog ambition, some crunching rock and glorious harmony vocals… it certainly turned a few heads. Here was a young band who drew from the wells of classic rock and psychedelia but were contorting and framing it in a fresh and innovative style. Their debut album The Dark Third expanded on that recipe, but after that they leaned increasingly towards a more techno and dance-oriented approach on their next two albums, with a sense of decreasing returns, until their break up… and that seemed to be that.
Eupnea can trace its feel right back to those earlier roots, with a lot more emphasis on a rock-oriented approach than their later shift towards a more overtly techno style. Like many good things this surprise re-emergence and reconnection with those earlier days came about almost by accident. Jon Courtney had released an album with his new project Bullet Height in 2017, and he was devising demos for the next Bullet Height release. However, he gradually realised that these demos just did not feel like Bullet Height and had to acknowledge that they bore a great resemblance to Pure Reason Revolution. Meeting up with Chloë Alper, they decided to re-form as a duo, and they set about creating a new album.
The opening pair of songs on Eupnea were made with early band member Greg Jong, who had left in 2005. Perhaps tellingly, he was also involved with their seminal early EP, including the aforementioned and remarkable Bright Ambassadors track. New Obsession and Silent Genesis can trace a lineage back to those roots. New Obsession immediately immerses us into the traumatic experience of a parent having to watch their baby fighting for survival in hospital with the sounds of monitor bleeps, beeps, respirators and a baby. The lyrics poetically describe the experience, without the need for obvious narrative, conveying the feelings of a helpless man looking at his child and partner in distress:
You’re dead calm and the choir’s so soft tonight
Then rapture falls and all’s decreed divine, The silent dances in mother’s glances
Our love has lasted, Now can you bring help?
In an interesting recent article in Prog magazine, Jon Courtney explained some of the background to the songs. Regarding New Obsession, he observed “We all have little obsessions, drives to do things that overstep the mark of the ‘norm’… We lose track and then get back to what’s important, reality, and the obsession’s gone… it’s lifted”. Understandably, Courtney’s experience with his child would have clearly reminded him of what is fundamentally important in life. However, ironically, he also shared that this opening song became a ‘mini-obsession’ in itself, and you can certainly hear just how meticulously he and Jong worked on formulating a magnificently layered and sonically fascinating piece of contemporary rock with a hard electronic edge. This thrust is softened with delicate piano, Chloë Alper’s gentle vocal interlude and great harmonies. It’s a great track, but Pure Reason Revolution continue to underline their class as a buzzing ominously segues in Silent Genesis and the journey continues.
Courtney and Jong harked right back to their university days in composing this epic piece, which has clear echoes of the Cautionary Tales… EP whilst breaking new ground for the band. When they created Silent Genesis, Courtney has shared, they had no preconceived ideas or plan, but “soon enough the chemistry erupted”. He wasn’t wrong. This is a truly outstanding song which fuses together an atmospheric instrumental opening with a more straightforward vocal melodic passage. This morphs thrillingly into a more expansive, almost cinematic instrumental section with eerie synths interweaving with an almost funky electric piano and bass, with echoes of Pink Floyd. Geoff Dugmore’s Bonham-esque drums are of the highest quality, powerfully driving on this thrilling and titanic song further and further with manically thrashing guitars. Just when you think it may all implode under all its own weight, the vocal melody flows back in, before one last descent into a maelstrom of drums, bass and guitars. This is another contender for me as ‘Song of 2020’. The jarring relationship between love and helpless desperation never sounded quite so powerful and yet so strangely… attractive? :
You rattled hell but so heavenly, No harm, we’re numb
After such an intense track it is a relief to go into the relative calm of the next song, even if it is called Maelstrom. Dugmore’s resonant drums introduce Chloë Alper’s sweet voice, describing the turning point for the baby when the storm was over for the child and her parents. The turmoil of anxiety and the soft solace of relief are evoked over interchanging heavy driving guitars and softly chiming piano. This is a clever and melodic piece capturing those conflicting emotions, culminating in the wonderful moment when Courtney was able to hold his fragile daughter, still wired up to the incubator, and hold her tiny hand;
When the maelstrom turned, So calm as I leave, Now the maelstrom turns
As it turns out, Maelstrom is just the calm before the storm (excuse the pun) as Ghosts and Typhoons, after a deceptively gentle beginning, plunges us into a vortex of bewildering beats and powerful rhythms, driven on by the awesome Geoff Dugmore. In the Prog Report interview, Courtney explained that for their first album they heavily used a drum sample CD called Brutal Beats, featuring Dugmore playing John Bonham grooves. Therefore, Courtney was delighted to have Dugmore play in person for Eupnea, and utilises his dextrous percussive skills to thunderous effect, especially on this absolutely titanic track. By the end you almost have to take a deep breath, such is the intensity of the sonic attack.
The influences on Pure Reason Revolution seem wide and varied. Courtney himself acknowledges they are big Floyd and King Crimson fans, but alongside that he also references Muse, Mew and Air as influences. The Smashing Pumpkins also seem a fairly obvious influence on elements of their sound… but at the end of the day what is special about Pure Reason Revolution is that they have synthesised their own very distinctive and inimitable style – there’s no-one quite like Pure Reason Revolution.
Courtney explained Beyond our Bodies in the Prog article: “It’s about when our bodies overcome incredible things – disease, ill-health and we come out the other side – we go beyond our bodies and achieve the unimaginable. It highlights the fragility of life. In intensive care we witnessed such wonderful, but also heart-breaking moments…”. This fragility is delicately conveyed by Courtney and Alper’s perfect harmony vocals over a gently strumming acoustic guitar and gradually building strings from Johanna Kellerbauer. The tempo and instrumentation builds but the central sweetness remains constant in a lovely song.
The lyrical and musical themes of this whole album are brought together again imaginatively and almost overwhelmingly in the concluding extensive title track. The intro fuses together synth drones with the sweetly harmonised vocals of Alper and Courtney. This is a tour de force of majestic keyboards, sweeping cinematic strings and wildly distorted guitars… and Dugmore’s depth bomb drumming, all used to describe the dramatic life and death struggle for a little life. Like a sun breaking through clouds the walls of sound drop and Alper’s lovely voice repeatedly chants softly:
Eupnea brings this remarkable story and the whole album to a close in a glorious and joyous wave of throbbing and fizzing guitars, thundering bass, volcanic drumming and multi-layered magnificent keyboards… and the last sound you hear is entirely and poetically perfect, but I’ll let the listener discover that for themselves.
Pure Reason Revolution have returned with an absolute bang and have undoubtedly produced the best album of their career, brimming with creativity and energy. This is a band which is truly progressive, fusing together musical elements imaginatively with no limitations. However, this album is not just about style, technique and production (which is impeccable.) What makes this album standout is the depth of the emotions which imbue this music. The shadow of trauma, palpable sense of relief and most of all undeniable LOVE permeates every note and beat of Eupnea, giving this release a real sense of heft and authenticity. Perhaps in a year beset with concerns for so many about serious respiratory illness it is oddly appropriate that purely coincidentally an album with such a resonant theme and hopeful outcome should emerge as one of the best albums so far in 2020.
Welcome back Pure Reason Revolution – please do NOT take another 10 years until the next album!
01. New Obsession (5:07)
02. Silent Genesis (10:20)
03. Maelstrom (5:44)
04. Ghosts & Typhoons (8:46)
05. Beyond Our Bodies (4:28)
06. Eupnea (13:23)
Total Time – 47:49
Jon Courtney – Guitar, Keyboards, Programming, Vocals
Chloë Alper – Vocals, Bass, Keyboards, Guitar
Geoff Dugmore – Drums
Johanna Kellerbauer – Strings
Greg Jong – Instruments, Programming & Vocals (with Jon Courtney, tracks 1 & 2)
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Catalogue#: IOMLTDCD 545
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 3rd April 2020
– Cautionary Tales For The Brave [EP] (2005)
– The Dark Third (2006)
– Live At Nearfest 2007 (2008)
– Amor Vincit Omnia (2009)
– Hammer and Anvil (2010)
– Valour [EP] (2011)
– Eupnea (2020)