What do you get if you cross the albums Wish You Were Here and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath? I’d be hard pressed to give a better answer than Madness and Magic. Heck, even the title could be considered an allusion to the two albums. OK, it’s not as far as I’m aware (and I’d be very surprised to find it is), but still, there’s a heck of a lot of Floydian and Sabbath tropes in the music of the latest album from Arabs in Aspic. I Vow to Thee My Screen wouldn’t be terribly out of place on either album from the mid ‘70s, and this is something Arabs in Aspic have always done incredibly well. Their recreation of the classic ‘70s prog sound has always been superb.
Of course, it’s not all Floyd and Sabbath. The first part of Lullaby for Modern Kids is reminiscent of Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull, while the second part of the song is more reminiscent of Genesis and King Crimson. It’s all gloriously done, and unlike a lot of retro prog, never sounds either dated, forced, or derivative. The influences are there, but it’s always a unique take on them, which could never be mistaken for the original. The prog greats of the ‘70s provide inspiration, not derivation, for Arabs in Aspic. I first came across the band with their 2013 album Pictures in a Dream, and was immediately smitten. I’ve been following the band since, and they’re yet to let me down.
With swathes of Hammond and Mellotron, and some chunky and meaty guitar, Arabs in Aspic really serve up a huge helping of catchy and vibrant songs. They’re a band that’s genuinely fun to listen to. I’ve never been a great fan of Led Zep and Deep Purple, but when Arabs in Aspic pay tribute to them, I have no problem. They take a sound that’s recognisably someone else’s and make it entirely their own. The only band that Arabs in Aspic actually sound like is… Arabs in Aspic! This is something that’s bewildered and enchanted me since I first heard the band. There are bands I listen to, and cringe when I hear them more or less mirroring the sound of their influences. Arabs in Aspic never do this, so even if you can recognise an influence, it still sounds original and unique.
They are masters of all styles, too. Take the funky groove of High-Tech Parent for example. Again, I could easily tell you who I find this song reminiscent of, but there’s little point. It doesn’t sound like them. It sounds like Arabs in Aspic. Any reminiscence is just that. By now, from the three song titles I’ve given, the lyrical theme of the album is probably relatively apparent. It’s possibly a little overbearing for some listeners, but I’ve never really been one to be too worried about lyrics. For me, the voice is just another instrument in the mix, and I love the vocals on this album, regardless of what the lyrics are.
My favourite aspect of this album, though, is the percussion. Alessandro G. Elide was a guest musician on the previous Arabs in Aspic album, but is credited as a full member this time around, and he provides an integral part of the sound of this album. The two percussionists bang and crash upon multiple instruments throughout, and provide much of the whimsy and innocence that pervades the album. Despite the dark Fear of a Blank Planet-like themes, the music is delightful. The aforementioned High Tech Parent sounds happy and joyful if you listen to the music. Not so much, if you pay attention to the lyrics. This contradictory nature runs throughout the album, and the “boys with their toys” percussion gives a lot of the levity to the music.
Even though I don’t pay much attention to lyrics, one stood out for me, and that’s the line “A lad insane”, which must surely by a Bowie reference. That line occurs in the title track, which is the only song that does sound noticeably more menacing, and yet it’s the kind of menace that’s still somehow tolerable, perhaps even lovable. Madness and Magic is one of my favourite songs on the album. It’s incredibly catchy, and the hooks are such that they stay in my brain, and I find myself humming the tune to myself long after I’ve stopped listening.
The best is left until last, though, with the just short of seventeen minute epic Heaven in Your Eyes. With the percussion in this, and the way the song jams, this is more Black Santana, than the Pink Sabbath of the opening number in places. But there’s so much going on in this song, and so many changes, it’s just a constantly evolving delight. I know I’ve used that word a lot (or, at least, it feels like I have), but it’s what I keep coming back to. Every twist and turn delights. It’s no longer surprising, as it was on first listen, but it’s still delightful. The effortless way Arabs in Aspic entertains is unrivalled. Despite Madness and Magic being their most mature and assured album yet, it carries with it a childlike naivety and glee. For me, this is the best Arabs in Aspic album yet. The only worry I have now is how they can possibly top this.
01. I Vow to Thee My Screen (8:22)
02. Lullaby for Modern Kids, Pt. 1 (8:19)
03. Lullaby for Modern Kids, Pt. 2 (2:06)
04. High Tech Parent (4:34)
05. Madness and Magic (6:47)
06. Heaven in Your Eye (16:45)
Total Time – 46:53
Jostein Smeby – Guitars, Vocals
Stig Jørgensen – Organs, Vocals
Erik Paulsen – Bass, Vocals
Eskil Nyhus – Drums
Alessandro G. Elide – Percussion
Record label: Karisma Records
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 12th June 2020