Time is clearly very important to Robin Armstrong, the man behind Cosmograf. When he is not producing high quality progressive rock albums, he is an expert on repairing watches. Indeed, he has revealed that the origin of the project name ‘Cosmograf’ is a derivation of the ‘Rolex Cosmograph’ luxury watch, reflecting his love of timepieces. This interest in temporal matters is reflected in the themes running through the five songs of the latest Cosmograf album, Rattrapante, which touches upon our interaction and relationship with time itself. Armstrong outlined the inspiration behind this album:
“‘Rattrapante’ is a French word deriving from ‘rattraper’ meaning ‘to catch up or recapture’. A Rattrapante Chronograph can simultaneously time two events, such as a lap split time and a final race time. It was the perfect metaphor for our own interaction with time.”
Across Rattrapante, Cosmograf take interesting perspectives on time, including how it defines our lives, and fills our memories. In some ways, Robin Armstrong returns in time to the style of earlier albums with the atmospheric and cinematic opening In 1985, which slowly emerges with eerie synths and wave sounds, punctuated with sparse bluesy guitar lines, reminiscent of a Roger Waters album. With a shout of “Are You Ready?”, the song transforms into a heavy rocking leviathan, borne on bass, driving guitars and thunderous drums from Kyle Fenton, …and on top of all that are the mighty rock howls of Armstrong, whose vocals have never sounded quite so powerful before. The lyric is peppered with memories of events from 1985, including Concorde, Live Aid, and Back to the Future, but these positive memories are combined with a more sinister rollcall, including the Heysel Stadium disaster and the emergence of AIDS. Personally speaking, this song had particular resonance for me as 1985 was a particularly memorable period, the culture shock of attending a university in the United States, and all those vivid memories evoked by Armstrong certainly resonated with a vivid part of my own life. We all bring our own lens to the music and art we consume. Quite evidently, it was a very important period for the lyricist too as he threads his own memories of learning to play guitar, forming a teenage band and dreaming of rock stardom.
In 1985 succeeds so well as an extended song because Cosmograf skilfully intertwine history with personal memories, framing them in a pulsating and captivating soundtrack. Kashmir-like strings roll along, underpinning steepling guitars and Fenton’s titanic drums. A palpable sense of nostalgia twisted with regret drips from every bar and verse, and there’s even a distinctly ’80s synth solo which takes you right back. Cosmograf evocatively contrast and meld the optimism of a 15-year-old looking forward with the more jaundiced regret of a 50 year old looking back. The Live Aid references are particularly resonant and the piece ends with the sad observation:
And Bowie and Freddie are gone”
The title track enters on an undulating organ with staccato drums and bass, and then launches into a rocking, chugging rhythm (maybe a tad too ‘chugging’ for my liking?). The lyric focuses on figures such as the doomed speed record pioneer Donald Campbell, the tragic Apollo 1 astronauts, the Challenger shuttle crew, and the death of Grand Prix racer Ayreton Senna, arguably all figures who desired to outlive time by being remembered down through history for their achievements. (The Rattrapante title seems especially apt for a racing driver who would have been obsessed with individual lap times and overall race times for which such a watch might have been used). Throughout, the swirling keys permeate the piece with a fluid Hammond solo presaging a rising, insistent guitar burst, immediately before a section including iconic sound clips of President Kennedy and the space programme. Befitting a piece featuring pioneers of speed and space, the mid-section becomes more airy with brief flights of jazzy guitar. The undulating keys and rock theme return for the finale.
The first track released from the album, I Stick with You, features the striking vocals of Chrissy Mostyn from the Blackheart Orchestra, and this may be one of the first love songs Cosmograf have done… even if it is typically unconventional and somewhat dark! On the evidence of this ethereal and enchanting song, perhaps Robin Armstrong should do more such songs. His distinctively smoky voice is soaked with yearning and melancholy whilst Mostyn’s eerie vocals, over a string-laden refrain, are a perfect counterpoint. The lyrics appear to be from the point of view of a man who is seemingly ageless, stuck in time, fated to see the person they love grow old and fade away before their eyes. I Stick with You simultaneously oozes romance and tragedy, both musically and lyrically. Whilst the quality has been high on the first trio of songs, the album’s final two tracks may be the best the supremely talented Robin Armstrong has done… and he’s done some bloody wonderful things over the last 10 years!
A backwards tracked feedback drone opens Memories Lie, a noise which possibly represents the distortion of memories as we look back. This restrained but powerful song focuses on the effects of our cognitive decline as we grow older and how our minds twist our memories. Brief gentle interludes of acoustic guitar with strings feel like moments of insight, which then reach upwards for clarity with a majestic and stately ascending guitar solo. The reversed feedback seems to indicate we are going back into the distortion of memories and the piece recedes wistfully, ending abruptly with this refrain:
The written word does not really do justice to just how deceptively clever it is and how much emotional impact it possesses. As good as Memories Lie is, it feels almost like a preamble to the truly remarkable finale, Time Will Flow. After the more pastoral The Hay-Man Dreams album and the following, much heavier and pulsating Mind Over Depth, this beautifully crafted and intuitive piece most resembles the more cinematic, epic sweep of earlier Cosmograf albums like The Man Left in Space and The Unreasonable Silence. A building, undulating piano/synth theme draws us in gradually, with drums, bass and guitars adding to the heft of this widescreen opening. We move into a stirring and driving rock section with fabulous fluid drumming and an oscillating synth… and then suddenly it all falls away, just leaving the synth. Voice artist Tommy McNally hypnotically intones a beguiling poem which explores how we think of time and memories, gradually joined by percussion and building grand keyboards as the monologue progresses. A short Floydian guitar flight bridges us into Robin Armstrong’s contrasting gruff but impassioned vocals. The insistent oscillating synth line develops power and pace to match Armstrong’s vocal, intertwining with aerial guitar lines. Time Will Flow seems to reach a powerful crescendo as Armstrong rails against the passage of time:
This era’s mine, I wanna Freeze this one in Time”
Perhaps fittingly the finale concludes with a receding coda, giving a sense of flowing on into the future as the synths and vocalisations fade – after all, time waits for no-one.
Rattrapante is an album filled with such strong song writing and undoubtedly high-quality performances, crucially combined with great imagination and depth of feeling, ticking all the right boxes. As one of the best progressive artists of the last ten years, Robin Armstrong has developed his own inimitable and distinctive style which captures the mind and soul. It may seem early to say, but when we look back in time, Rattrapante will be regarded as one of the best Progressive Rock albums of 2021.
01. In 1985 (12:44)
02. Rattrapante (9:43)
03. I Stick To You (6:50)
04. Memories Lie (8:28)
05. Time Will Flow (12:43)
Total Time – 50:28
Robin Armstrong – Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Chrissy Mostyn – Vocals (track 3)
Kyle Fenton – Drums, Backing Vocals
Tommy McNally – Spoken Voice (track 1)
Sound Clips on Rattrapante courtesy of NASA
Record Label: Gravity Dream Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 26th March 2021
• Rattrapante (2021)
• Mind Over Depth (2019)
• When Age Has Done Its Duty (2018 Remix Version)
• The Hay-Man Dreams (2017)
• The Unreasonable Silence (2016)
• Capacitor (2014)
• The Man Left In Space (2013)
• When Age Has Done Its Duty (2011)
• End Of Ecclesia (2009) [CD no longer available, download via Bandcamp]
• Freed From The Anguish (2008) [No longer available]