Released towards the end of this disagreeable year, this album will certainly bring sunshine to the Swedish winter, even when their sun has stoically decided to not bother for a few snow-capped months. Written during what will hopefully be historically known as ‘THAT Pandemic year’, all members of this musical institution contributed their parts over the internet which makes the cohesive production and in-the-same-room-ness of these-twenty one tracks even more remarkable.
Referring more to the disconnected nature that is an island, paralleling the sense of isolation that has beset the planet in this annus horribilis, the prospect of something doom-laden would be expected. However, The Flower Kings’ latest double album, coming only a year since Waiting For Miracles (maybe an even more apt title for today) is as uplifting as it gets.
The musical success here is very much aided by the inclusion of drummer and (plenty of) percussion player Mirko DeMaio and keyboardist Zach Kamins. Although the FK drum stool has seen many different rear ends with Spinal Tap regularity, this chap seems to have found the seat his true home. The keyboard sounds are a bit like the change that Moraz made when… well that’s another story, but there is definitely a jazzier element imbuing a little Return to Forever fusion into this current bouquet of perennial blossoms.
Beginning with (currently banned) crowd effects and a syncopated stilted opening refrain, track one drag races into well-healed territory with world class playing all round. Jonas Reingold’s turbo’d bass screams from the speakers and the opening synth solo is just great. Racing with Blinders On means that the track actually finishes too soon, as it just stops, but then there is another eighty-eight minutes to go. And it’s an aural treat (careful) as the highlights are so packed you could make an igloo with them.
The album can be enjoyed as a stand-alone feast but is probably best served up separately as the there are subtle flavours in this smörgåsbord of delights. Even the off kilter Morning News, which is to all intents and purposes a Stetson-wearing country and western dusty road trip, is a welcome joy sandwiched between Queen-like Black Swan (complete with May-esque layering and Deacon runs) and the superb political rant of Broken, which showcases Hasse Fröberg’s higher register. In fact, this track is everything you’d expect from this band, packed to the gills with incredible drumming, smile raising keyboards, and strummy acoustics, all in six-and-a-half minutes, where before it could be thirty…
Solaris is a massive standout with full-on choir, gorgeous retro keys, God-like guitar from Roine Stolt, superb drumming and bass playing. The orchestral section is as beautiful as any rock track can get, simply magnificent. It might not be based on the book by Stanisław Lem, but his philosophical writings about human limitations and humanity’s place in the Universe would certainly not be out of place in this year of the deadly Covidnoids.
Sprinkled throughout are tasteful instrumentals that tie the tracks together. Man In A Two Piece Suit uses the louder guitar amp before All I Need is Love blatantly announces the influence of Yes. For detractors who say that seminal band are directly comparable to The Flower Kings it’s only this track and Heart of the Valley that juxtaposes the two. Of course, the decision to employ a certain artist to design the cover somewhat gilds that particular lily but if your album is going to be called Islands then there’s only one person qualified for the job:
“Yes Mr. Stolt?”
“Get me Roger Dean’s number, he has a new mission…”
Others are the very Flower Kingy A New Species and the perfectly formed Looking For Answers. This four minute piece would have been part of a twenty-minute opus on previous outings, but despite having a choir, a spine tingling church organ, and continent-sized guitar work, the welcome is never outstayed. The playful jazzy Journeyman and Hidden Angels nearly complete the wordless tally and the latter at 53-seconds could be the opening theme to a TV chat show about conspiracy theories: Just what does a Pangolin taste like?
Writers of songs in a second language are always impressive, especially when humour is involved. The word orange has an aloof attitude to any rhyming pair, which probably explains the light-hearted Tangerine where it positively tarts itself with a well-endowed couplet. And talking of a little light relief, Serpentine features a lively alto sax from Rob Townsend and, like the title suggests, it snakes in and around the jazz arrangement whilst lyrically sending out a bottled message concerning world poverty.
The second disc has a couple of tracks that are more familiar but the keyboards seem to bring everything bang up to date. Northern Lights and Telescope come to mind, and are very much part of the weave that this album is.
We are nearly stuffed and looking forward to another shot of brännvin but the final words in the sand Between Hope and Fear is the lasting message to the listener. It’s going to be alright in the end.
The concluding track is devoted to the album’s title and it’s a lead guitar-driven end credit finale to the cinematic journey we’ve just had. As mentioned before, this feature film length double CD (or 3 LPs) can be listened to as a whole or randomly selected like the different sized pebbles on the Island’s sea shore. The concept here might be related to the fear of disconnection, but by the end there is an overwhelming feeling of optimism and hope.
This is pure Progressive rock as it should be and is probably the best record this troupe of Scandinavian minstrels have made, most certainly proving that the genre is in tremendous good health, even if the world is not. Long live The King of the Flowers!
01. Racing With Blinders On (4:24)
02. From the Ground (4:02)
03. Black Swan (5:53)
04. Morning News (4:01)
05. Broken (6:38)
06. Goodbye Outrage (2:19)
07. Journeyman (1:43)
08. Tangerine (3:51)
09. Solaris (9:10)
10. Heart of the Valley (4:18)
11. Man In A Two Piece Suit (3:21)
Time – 49:40
01. All I Need Is Love (5:48)
02. A New Species (5:45)
03. Northern Lights (5:43)
04. Hidden Angels (0:50)
05. Serpentine (3:52)
06. Looking For Answers (4:30)
07. Telescope (4:41)
08. Fool’s Gold (3:11)
09. Between Hope & Fear (4:29)
10. Islands (4:12)
Time – 43:01
Total Time – 92:41
Roine Stolt – Vocal, Ukulele, Guitars, Additional Keyboards
Hasse Fröberg – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Jonas Reingold – Bass, Acoustic Guitar
Zach Kamins – Pianos, Organ, Synthesizers, Mellotron
Mirko DeMaio – Drums, Percussion
Rob Townsend – Soprano Saxophone
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: Sweden
Date of Release: 30th October 2020