Simon McKechnie - Retro

Simon McKechnie – Retro

Having previously taken on Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, it comes as no surprise that Simon McKechnie draws inspiration from the likes of Charles Darwin and Ada (‘Not Linda’) Lovelace for this, his first release for the venerable Bad Elephant label.

With a background in the worlds of jazz and classical music, Simon turned to prog in 2013 with Clocks and Dark Clouds, which is where I first encountered him. He followed it up with Newton’s Alchemy (2014) and From My Head to My Feet (2018).

It is a rare thing to come across an album emblazoned with the words ‘lyrics by Charles Darwin’, but indeed they are (as might be expected) on opening track The Origin of Species. It does just what it says on the tin as Simon delivers copious words drawn directly from Mr Darwin’s esteemed work over seven of the eight parts (the other being a workout for drummer Adam Riley). As Simon notes, “the idea was to bring the drama of Darwin’s concepts, such as Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest to life, ending with the mind-blowing final paragraph of the book”:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”

String effects and a multitude of synths suggest the expansive diversity of nature. It’s an ethereal start to a wordy 20-minutes; the multi-tracking sometimes giving an Oldfield quality, layers of guitar and keyboards filling the space. Simon’s voice harmonises with itself as he describes the abundance of life. We board The Beagle, water and sea spray in the air, with a fine edgy guitar solo from Mike Flynn. Natural Selection is more percussive, the layering of sounds working to fine effect, spidery guitar and keyboard holding the attention. There’s a sinister turn in Struggle for Existence, Simon’s voice more than elastic enough to cover all the bases and deliver to a muscular beat. The sound suggests a preponderance of ‘drums in a box’, but Simon tells me that this isn’t the case and all the drums are real. I’m not sure what sent me down the path of thinking this, possibly the texture of the recording, but it doesn’t matter anyway as the sound choices add to the atmosphere. It would be kind of ironic if a piece about the natural order of things were built on layers of the synthetic, but ‘real’ drums are definitely audible in there to give more punch. What Could Be More Curious? is an almost mournful consideration of the scope to be found within species, becoming more epic as the penny of evolutionary development drops, the run for the tape with Laws of Nature a fine conclusion.

It’s an intriguing piece, not only due to the world-defining gravity of the words, but also the detail and variety in the arrangement, all drawn up in a stately conclusion. I would have liked it to be a little more expansive at time, but it certainly works and Simon’s delivery of the words is a key component in making that happen.

Retro is much more to the point, musing on whether there really is anything new in music or is everything derivative (a key discussion point in the ongoing ‘prog v Prog wars’). After the gravitas of the first track, it’s a nice bit of fun, Simon’s voice again the key for me, selling the song well. Some of the instrumental choices could be seen as questionable, but it’s Simon’s record and I’m sure they’re what he wants it to sound like. ‘Retro’ can be a divisive word, but here it fits the music. From tinny rock ‘n’ roll shuffle with wibbly-wobbly ‘cheap’ keyboard sounds we head back in time through a baroque-edged chamber orchestra that is just lovely, the music entering a dreamy sweep as Simon ponders that,

“We don’t exist in a vacuum, we are the consequence of what came before,
Is there really nothing new to choose?
Or are we trapped in a world of ever reflecting mirrors?
Is all we have to work with,
A palette of constant references to our favourite things from the past?”

There’s a bit of (possibly ironic) Yes in there for me, and it all ends in a fine multi-layered vocal.

‘The Enchantress of Number’ was a term used by Victorian computer conceptualist Charles Babbage to describe Ada Lovelace, writer of the first programming algorithm. The energetic orchestral textures of the first part, meant to give the impression of coalescing numbers, is excellent, guitar coming to the fore before piano leads us into the first vocal section, a slow duet for Simon with himself, discussing Ada’s early life, blighted by illness and having Lord Byron as her Dad. As an escape she immersed herself in mathematics and science, and there’s an industrial metallic edge to the third part as she emerges into high society and meets Babbage, orchestral strings and brass mingling with soloing guitars and more massively layered keys.

It’s a high energy piece, the vocal again impressive, twisting around a lyric that often reads somewhat like a textbook entry, particularly towards the end, but it works. There’s a lot going on, including an actual recording of one of Babbage’s Difference Engines; it’s all impressively put together and doesn’t outlast the interest.

Finally, we’re back aboard The Beagle with Darwin on a calm day. It’s an acoustic guitar driven instrumental coda that expands on a theme from The Origin of Species, with deliciously twangy bass in support and another well realised electric solo. Various keyboard textures fill out the sound once more and it’s a good way to close things out.

Overall, this is a very interesting and engaging listen, not without fault but there is nothing that scuppers the deal. The Enchantress of Number is the real keeper for me, but all of the tracks have their charms and Simon has done a fine job in keeping this a cerebral listen whilst retaining the rock elements. There are lots of tricksy, turn-on-a-sixpence moments and a ‘bigger’ production would have made it better, but that’s just being greedy.

01. The Origin of Species (20:51)
– I. The Face of Nature
– II. The Beagle
– III. Natural Selection
– IV. Struggle for Existence
– V. The Struggle
– VI. What Could Be More Curious?
– VII. Laws of Nature
– VIII. The Origin
2. Retro (6:08)
3. The Enchantress of Number (12:19)
4. The Return of The Beagle (5:51)

Total time – 45:09

Mike Flynn – Guitar Solos (on The Origin of Species)
Adam Riley – Drums (on The Origin of Species & Retro)
Richard Horton – Operation of Babbage’s Difference Engine Number Two (on The Enchantress of Number)
Simon McKechnie – Vocals, All Other Instruments

Record Label: Bad Elephant Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 19th March 2021

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