Let’s face it, 2020 has been a totally CRAP Year… it will not be remembered fondly by most and will be the cause of much sadness for too many. In times like these we really need special things in our lives. We instinctively seek what is enjoyable and engaging, but we also yearn for art that expresses some of our deepest emotions… and somehow Abel Ganz have managed to achieve both in this truly remarkable album. This is a perfect synthesis of music and theme in which the band ‘explore our relationship with memory and loss’ through finely crafted but intuitive songs in a beguiling musical journey.
It has been six years since their previous well-received self-titled album, which remains one of my most favourite albums of all time (yes, really!). Indeed, drummer and producer for this album, Denis Smith, has revealed that the band honestly believed that eponymous album would be their last so they threw everything they had at it, and were very pleasantly surprised at the positive reaction it received in some quarters. However, they had no material left to commence a new recording (a mistake he assures us they have not done this time as they have kept some material back for a much quicker follow up – which is a GOOD thing.) Nevertheless, if it takes six years to produce something with such quality and resonance then let them take as long as they need!
It is evident that this is a real labour of love, with great care and attention paid to the impeccable sonic production by Smith, perfectly mixed by Simon Vinestock (who has worked with the likes of Texas, Blur, Robert Plant and Simple Minds), and skilfully mastered by Jacob Holm-Lupo. Abel Ganz have clearly lavished significant time and love (and quite some money I would presume!) on this album in so many ways, and this has been repaid with a product which shines out with sheer class. Quite aside from the music, the artwork is truly lovely. They seem to understand the whole package needed to present their art.
The opening title song perfectly captures the essence of what works so well for Abel Ganz on this and their previous album. They have an uncanny ability to meld different styles of music together in one song with transitions as smooth as silk, giving us an eclectic mix of folk, progressive rock, Americana, Celtic tinges and even hints of jazz – and somehow it all fits together seamlessly. Abel Ganz have wisely sought out other skilled contributors and this track features Alex Paclin with a very distinctive Chromatic Harmonica, evoking a nostalgic feel right from the start. Fiona Cuthill on fiddles and recorders later adds a whirling and folky atmosphere, which interplays intoxicatingly with a volcanic organ from Jack Webb. This epic track is effectively departing guitarist Davie Mitchell’s farewell gift to the band, as he wrote most of the song, tellingly contributing Nashville acoustic guitars and a smokey solo late in the piece. That’s the way to exit a band – leave them a cracking song! The ‘Steely Dan-esque’ feel of the finale is conveyed deftly by the smooth vocals of Mick Macfarlane, underlined by an atmospheric closing sax solo from the wonderfully named Snake Davis.
One Small Soul takes us in a different direction musically, although maintains the same feelings of reminiscence tinged with regret, but ultimately infused with a sense of renewal:
Trying to Grow unhindered by Youth, A Realisation that all is not Lost”
Mick Macfarlane sings warmly and duets sweetly with the renowned Scottish folk singer Emily Smith in a simply gorgeous song. New guitarist Dave King solos subtly on electric guitar and Jack Webb’s piano tastefully underpins the piece, supported by Stephen Donnelly’s fine double bass play. David King seems to have fitted straight into the band and he lays down his introductory calling card with a short but delightful guitar solo instrumental, Aaran Shores, where one can almost feel the breeze over the waters.
Summerlong feels like one of those half-remembered dreams as you wake, with Jack Webb’s gentle piano framed beautifully within a lush but not overly sweet string arrangement by Frank Van Essen. Macfarlane’s evocative and emotional voice is brittle and captivating in this wistful song full of melancholic reminiscence, leavened with yearning hope.
Just when you feel like the album may be in danger of sinking too far into sentimentality, Abel Ganz kick open the doors with Sepia and White. The opening section absolutely rocks like a fat one! Apparently bassist Stephen Donnelly is responsible for writing this outstanding intro which is filled with funk and really grooves along… all I know is that it put a massive smile on my face and made me want to get up and – dare I say it – dance! Fear not, brave readers, I restrained myself as no-one wants that, real or imagined.
This multi-part piece yet again demonstrates Abel Ganz’s intuitive ability to slide smoothly from one genre to another. A soulful vocal interlude showcases Macfarlane’s warm Scottish voice reminiscing, before King takes up the melody on electric guitar and new keyboardist Alan Hearton lays down a brief but sinuous synth solo. The band then develop the theme more powerfully with King (and maybe Mitchell, it’s not always clear) leading the band into heavier territory, backed by Webb’s Hammond B3. A synth and piano interlude with vague echoes of Supertramp subtly curves us in a new direction.
I Remember you, Holes in my Memory, Am I wrong or right?”
The music swirls and recedes like a dream or distant memory, so perfectly conveying what the band describe as ‘the liminal space between a fading “what was” and an anticipated “what is to come”‘. This evocative musical photograph ends with a wall of sound and chiming guitars powerfully recapitulating and building on the earlier memorable motif. Denis Smith is worthy of special mention here for a couple of reasons – his drumming swings with aplomb between funk, pastoral, rock, prog and almost ambient styles, and it’s always right on the nail and perfectly suited to the mood. Additionally, sonically, Sepia and White is a particular triumph for Smith’s pristine and sensitive production skills. The love he has for this music shines out with the skill and care he has applied to this wonderful song, and indeed the whole album. There have been a few great songs already in a good year (for music at least!) but this is my song of the year so far, and I am doubtful it will be surpassed.
After such multi-faceted drama this beautifully judged album ends the journey with an appropriately atmospheric closing number in The Light Shines Out. Signy Jakobsdottir provides subtle congas and percussion whilst David King switches to keyboards and drum programming to show his versatility. This also gives Denis Smith the opportunity to move off the drums and come to the fore with a smouldering and delicate lead vocal, with more than a hint of fellow Scot Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile (another GOOD thing!). Marc Papaghin on French horn and Stevie Lawrence with some elegiac low whistle add to the idiosyncratic, other worldly but warm quality of this piece. The song and album seemingly fade away with Smith wistfully intoning the chorus, before a curious Peter Gabriel-esque subtle ’80s funk rhythm inserts itself as the unexpected but very cool coda.
Abel Ganz have had a strange and intermittent career, starting out as a neo-prog band in the early 1980s (featuring Alan Reed, later of Pallas and solo) followed by long periods of inactivity. However, with their Shooting Albatross album in 2008 and much more prominently with their two most recent releases, Abel Ganz have completely reinvented themselves. They have also managed to somehow capture musical lightning, as it has most certainly struck again, at least matching and possibly surpassing their last brilliant album. They ignore the usual cliched ‘Prog’ tropes and styles, indeed, they seem unrestrained by any boundaries or rules of instrumentation or styles they are willing to fashion and mould into their unique brand of music – it certainly ain’t ‘Prog’! But it is expansive, imaginative, intuitive, emotional and utterly captivating.
The Life of the Honey Bee and Other Moments of Clarity will definitely deserve to be regarded as one of the best albums of 2020. It seems clear that its themes are deeply rooted in personal experience for the band… and yet they have also created a piece of work which has great power to resonate emotionally with all those who hear it.
I have no qualms in saying that The Life of the Honey Bee and Other Moments of Clarity certainly touched my heart, and at the same time it compelled me to smile… and don’t we all need something like that right now?
It’s Gonna be Alright”
01. The Life of the Honey Bee and Other Moments of Clarity (12:38)
02. One Small Soul (5:52)
03. Aaran Shores (2:40)
04. Summerlong (5:22)
05. Sepia and White (13:31)
06. The Light Shines Out (6:17)
~ Bonus Track:
07. One Small Soul (Radio Edit) (3:58)
Mick Macfarlane – Lead Vocals, Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Bouzouki (track 1)
Dennis Smith – Drums, Lead Vocal (track 6)
Alan Hearton – Grand Piano, Minimoog String Synthesizer, Moog Synthesiser, Vibraphone, Additional Keyboards
Jack Webb – Pianos, Hammond B3 Organ, Electric Piano, Yamaha C3 Grand Piano, Synth Keyboards
David King – Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Lead Guitar (track 2), Drum Programming (track 6), Keyboards (track 6), Additional Keyboards
Stephen Donnelly – Bass Guitars, Double Bass (track 2), Acoustic Double Bass (track 5)
Davie Mitchell – Electric Guitars (tracks 1 & 5), Nashville Acoustic Guitar (track 1), Lead Guitar (track 1)
Alex Paclin – Chromatic Harmonica (track 1)
Snake Davis – Saxophone (track 1)
Fiona Cuthill – Fiddles & Recorders (track 1)
Emily Smith – Vocals (track 2)
Frank Van Essen – Strings & Arrangement (track 4)
Marc Papaghin – French Horn (track 6)
Stevie Lawrence – Low Whistle (track 6)
Signy Jakobsdottir – Congas & Percussion (track 6)
Record Label: Abel Records
Country of Origin: Scotland
Date of Release: 6th July 2020
– Gratuitous Flash (1984)
– Gullibles Travels (1985)
– The Dangers of Strangers (1988)
– The Deafening Silence (1994)
– Shooting Albatross (2008)
– The Dangers of Strangers (20th Anniversary Remaster) (2008)
– Abel Ganz (2014)
– The Life of the Honey Bee and Other Moments of Clarity (2020)