‘Blah, Rhubarb, Blah…’, as Clive Mitten used to say in Fact and Fiction. Some performers endlessly regurgitate their most popular moments, living off past glories and memories, and some artists move on, relentlessly exploring new territory, expressing themselves in different ways. Clive Mitten is definitely the latter with this imaginative and captivating orchestral release, Suite Cryptique: Recomposing Twelfth Night 1978-1983.
Clive Mitten was the main man in composing the music for UK progressive rock band Twelfth Night, but after their demise in the late ’80s, he virtually retired from music until 2018’s The Age of Insanity, released as ‘C:Live Collective’ with other collaborators. That album found Clive radically re-imagining some of his former Twelfth Night pieces in an often exotic and unconventional melange of rock, electronica, dance beats and orchestral passages, completely avoiding cliched and predictable rehashes of earlier works. This latest project is very much a solo effort, presenting himself as a ‘composer & re-composer’. The Orchestral Estate, 2020’s download release, pointed the way to this latest collection with a near 27-minute programmed orchestral take on themes from The Age of Insanity. Mitten grasped the strange opportunity of time afforded him by the COVID lockdowns from March 2020 to embark on ambitious and inspired re-workings of themes from the early days of Twelfth Night. He had wanted to revisit early Twelfth Night material for forty years and plunged into creating a ‘cinematic orchestral’ album.
Anyone expecting lame syrupy ‘Hooked on Classics’ type renderings of Twelfth Night songs may be surprised. Mitten does not regurgitate or simply polish up old songs. He is NOT a cliched ‘de-composer’ of old material, more an inspired ‘re-composer’. Mitten takes pieces and dissects them forensically, throwing them into a fabulous sonic melting pot to reimagine whole new compositions, creatively evolved from the musical DNA of his previous works, fused with new elements.
One question worth asking when it comes to appreciating this album is, ‘Does it matter whether you were a fan of Twelfth Night?’
Well, the answer is emphatically – NO!
Twelfth Night fans will of course be drawn to this exercise out of fascination with what one of their heroes will have done with much loved classic songs from the ’80s, such as Sequences, We are Sane and The Collector – three of the finest progressive rock songs of any era. It will be interesting for such fans to play ‘Name that Tune’ as they try to work out which orchestral part fits which song. Some of that game will be relatively easy as Mitten takes much-loved melodies and sections and recognisably replaces instruments such as electric guitars and synthesisers with lush violins, sombre cellos and even skeletal xylophones… but even those are not straightforward transpositions as he adds quirky or emotive special ingredients to the mix. Other parts of the Twelfth Night canon may not be quite so easy to spot as elsewhere Mitten de-constructs small passages and then re-builds them in virtually unrecognisable fashion, with only nagging echoes in the back of the mind of where that piece originated – but it won’t matter because listeners will be carried along on a wave of magnificently realised orchestral music with electronic elements. Human Being, from the classic 1982 album Fact and Fiction, is a wonderful example of the way Clive has taken a piece which, as he says in the fascinating sleeve notes, had originally been written for strings back then, and re-presented it (in Part 4: Fact and Fiction) with such resonance in an orchestral setting… throwing a few bars of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in for fun – yes, there are also some bits that make you smile in this cornucopia of sounds.
Listeners new or relatively unfamiliar with Twelfth Night will not be able to partake in that particular ‘Name that Tune’ game, but that really should not matter as the music presented is so evocative, engaging and powerful that there is a very good chance they will simply be drawn into the album on its own merits. Mitten’s ‘orchestra’ is derived electronically, but in many instances it’s very difficult not to believe a full-blown orchestra is playing live with pizzicato strings, strident brass instruments, melodic woodwinds and waves of violins. (The only reservation I have is with some of the percussion, which never seems totally convincing in my view.) At other times it is clearer that these sounds have digital origins, but that is not a problem and adds an otherworldly feel to the whole album, melding classical tones with electronic timbres.
Highlights for me include the playful xylophone opening to the infectious rhythms of the Fact and Fiction song in the eponymous Part Four… – it’s just such an unexpected rendition of that memorable riff. In fact, Part Four… is a particular favourite of mine, but then I have always loved the vastly underrated Fact and Fiction album so hearing these twisted, ornate and highly stylised re-imaginings feels distinctly dream-like and surreal after listening to that album for nearly 40 years!
Another standout track for me is the grandeur and weirdness of Part Three: The Collector. The Collector had been a live favourite of Twelfth Night, but strangely had never been released as a studio recording while they were still active. Thankfully, they reformed with vocalist Geoff Mann on a one-off basis in 1990 to record the track for the compilation album Collectors Item – it’s simply one of the most peculiar ‘epics’ you will likely have heard. Suite Cryptique portrays this piece of musical Grand Guignol with sweeping and swaying Gothic-tinged passages, dripping with menace and mystery. There is even a brief brass nod to the movie Close Encounters, one of Geoff Mann’s favourites. Mitten reveals in the booklet that this piece is based on the classic 1941 film Citizen Kane, and begins, as Mitten explains, “with the elderly, dying Collector sitting in the vast halls of his ‘Xanadu’”. One can imagine that whole scene evoked by this music. At the end you can hear footsteps walking away, and Mitten tells us these represent Geoff Mann, who with this song was telling band and fans that he would be leaving (as he did in 1983). It’s a touching way to finish a truly epic and cinematic piece. One can easily imagine Mitten skilfully scoring films and TV. The spirit of Geoff Mann pervades this album as his violinist wife Jane Mann was Mitten’s ‘strings consultant’ and the very striking cover painting is one of Mann’s sketches from 1982, produced whilst Twelfth Night were recording Fact and Fiction. The whole package is presented very well.
This is two hours of stirring music which sweeps along magnificently, but with a golden emotional core. I could ramble on to try and describe the music, but I simply would not do it justice. ‘Blah, Rhubarb, Blah…’
If you’re a Twelfth Night fan (with an open mind) you’ll probably love it. If you love modern composers like Philip Glass or Steve Reich, or prefer a bit of Wagner, Mahler or Beethoven then this may well appeal. If you enjoy modern film soundtracks, then this may also be for you – it’s all those things and more, born out of a respect and love for music forged in the heat of comparative youth, but creatively developed with maturity and imagination, standing on its own, apart from its genetic musical roots in Twelfth Night. Clive Mitten’s Suite Cryptique has captured my heart and mind, and may just be one of the most remarkable albums of 2021.
‘Blah, Rhubarb, Blah…’, as the great man once said…
01. Part One: Live At The Target (25:30)
02. Part Two: Live (and Let Live) (22:58)
03. Part Three: The Collector (20:13)
04. Part Four: Fact And Fiction (32:32)
05. Part Five: Creepshow (17:38)
Total Time – 118:51
Clive Mitten – Written, Arranged, Recorded, Produced
Record Label: Twelfth Night Records
Date of Release: 2nd April 2021
(as ‘C:Live Collective’)
– The Age of Insanity (2018)
(as Clive Mitten)
– This City Is London (2016)
Clive Mitten – Facebook | Bandcamp
Twelfth Night – Website | Facebook | Bandcamp | Twitter