French progressive rock collective Nine Skies have been weaving their rock, jazz, classical and progressive influences for several years now – combining their acoustic instrumentation with deep, poignant and poetic lyrics. Their well-received 2017 debut Return Home looked at a range of different characters from modern city life. Their second album, Sweetheart Grips, released in late 2019, was a dense, complex and often heart-breaking exploration of the experience of a young soldier in the Second World War, and especially the tragedy of PTSD.
This latest release, 5.20, is still recognisably Nine Skies, but more introspective and delicate overall, and I feel this could well be their best album so far. They retain the plaintive, melancholic vocals and lyrical content, however the music is almost completely acoustic in nature on this occasion and yet has a layered depth, complexity and richness, with intertwining acoustic guitar and piano augmented by strings, flute, saxophone and rhythmic percussion. The musical journey is beautiful, yet challenging – dark and mournful, yet hopeful and uplifting as well. It demands your full attention, but you are fully rewarded by that commitment. Guest appearances by Steve and John Hackett and Damian Wilson are perfectly pitched, helping to create an excellent, contemporary and intimate exploration of the human condition, looking at life, death, faith, struggle, suffering, despair and, finally, hope. The shadow of the current pandemic somehow seems to be etched on the music, without the need to reference it overtly.
Opening track Colourblind starts with smooth acoustic guitar and accompanying bass, with Aliénor Favier and Achraf El Asraoui duetting beautifully on the yearning, poetic lyrics as the contrast between our dreams and reality is considered: “I created a dream, A beautiful scene, Coloured balloons in the air, While my being’s here”. Simple piano motifs, cello and violin build up the tempo, before a jazzy saxophone from Laurent Benhamou and jagged acoustic guitar, layered over the strings, brings the song to its conclusion.
For many, Wilderness will be amongst their favourite tracks, not least because it is probably the most melodic and approachable. Lovely, Genesis-style guitar rhythms propel the song over recurring piano patterns. Despite the dark, emotive lyrics, the presence of Steve Hackett and a soaring electric solo over fretless bass, coupled with a swaying percussive beat, creates a lightening of the mood and that recurring sense of hope from the melancholic sadness.
Beauty of Decay is a very appealing acoustic/classical guitar piece which provides a shaft of light, before a disturbing, hypnotic beat opens Golden Drops. The ominous warning to hold on to your dreams despite your fears: “Cover your eyes, Cover your ears, Keep your golden drops, Dreaming hopes.” A prayer-like vocal mixes with a swirling Arabian feel, giving a dislocated feel and sense of unease.
Above the Tide once again uses symphonic-like strings with piano to great effect, and these link well with the multi-layered vocals which almost overwhelm and swallow you emotionally, with the repetition of the main chorus; “Listen to the sea, The weeping sarcasm, Of a thousand smiles, Arise from the foam.” Only the final acoustic guitar passage brings a calm to the dark swell. Dear Mind is the second instrumental, driven initially by the guitar, but unlike the light of Beauty of Decay, we now have the disturbing shade, with the piano joining in and creating contrasting melodies as the tempo rises before the violin hints at a resolution of sorts.
John Hackett’s wonderful trademark swirling flute concludes The Old Man in the Snow, where chiming guitar lines counter the lyrics, pleading to the lonely protagonist to overcome his despair and ‘tough it out’; “You have to be strong enough, To withstand the tears. You have to be tough.” Achraf’s vocals are especially compelling on Godless Land, as he sings of losing faith against all that confronts us. A snippet of demonic waltz adds to the unreal atmosphere, with piano and guitar locked together as if in a dance towards the end.
An undoubted highlight is Damian Wilson’s presence on Porcelain Hill, possibly the most accessible of the album’s tracks. He sings as well as I have heard him do so for some time and he expresses the wistful, poignant, weariness of the lyrics as his vocals mingle beautifully with firstly the piano, and then the soothing strings. It has the most memorable chorus (“Porcelain hill, is made of my heart, Melted by a hundred nights, Carved out of a thousand dreams, Smoke and mirrors”) and again there is that hint of hope and light to cling onto. A beautiful song – at around 4 minutes, it is just too short!
The third instrumental, Achristas, is a dark, unsettling, yet contemplative piano piece that perfectly sets up the final track, Smiling Stars. An elegiac song of mourning and personal loss with all the acoustic instrumentation (including saxophone) and vocal layering coming together in a heart-breaking manner, and yet with maybe enough light and promise hinted at by the end: “When I look at the sky, I can see your eyes. When I stare at the stars, I don’t see any goodbye, A thousand of smiling stars, smiling stars.” As someone who has recently lost his father – thankfully to old age, rather than the pandemic – it is a tough, cathartic and yet beautiful conclusion to a strong and thoughtful album.
I recently asked lyricist and keyboardist Anne-Claire Rallo about the album, and she was keen to emphasise that whilst it is not a concept album, like the first two, it is very poetic and has common themes and feelings that run through the whole album.
“Achraf (on vocals and guitar) joined the band at the end of the last year and his influences brought a lot to this album. His voice matches well with Aliénor’s voice and he composes too – along with Alex [Lamia] and Eric [Bouillette]. Steve Hackett’s solo is just amazing. His brother John recorded a track with Eric for an album by Howard Sinclair and then agreed to play for us when we were looking for a flute.
“I loved Damian Wilson’s incredible voice and feeling on Porcelain Hill… he really loved the lyrics and the song immediately and it was a wonderful experience for me as well. As I am still French when I am writing lyrics… he just changed two or three words to be better ‘English’, but I have to say that I was so happy that he likes my lyrics so much! This song, and I would say the whole album, is very metaphorical and even if I wrote with my own vision, everyone can create their own vision and interpretation.”
Nine Skies have produced a complex, challenging and yet beautiful album that is truly progressive and produces a power and depth at odds with the mainly acoustic approach. All the band combine wonderfully with the strings and guest musicians. The darkness of Anne-Claire’s powerful, poetic lyrics recounting struggles and despair at this time cannot fully shut out the uplifting vision they also point to, and the need for us all to somehow carry on. I recommend reading the lyrics as you listen, as the French accent does make the occasional word unclear and they are too good to let anything become lost. The album may not be to everyone’s taste, but I recommend giving it a listen (or three) before reaching any definitive conclusions, as I feel this could become one of the surprise packages of the year for many prog rock listeners.
Finishing on a lighter note, I asked Anne-Claire if there was a symbolic, mystical meaning behind the 5.20 title?
“Our bassist Bernard is ALWAYS late… but I mean always! I think he was born late! When he went to the Prog en Beauce festival it was a long journey. We told him that if he was late we would leave without him. We scared him so much that he was the first one to be here to leave at 5.20 am! It was so miraculous that we promised him to call the next album 5.20 as a result!”
1. Colourblind (6:02)
2. Wilderness (6:04)
3. Beauty of Decay (2:14)
4. Golden Drops (4:39)
5. Above the Tide (4:16)
6. Dear Mind (3:26)
7. The Old Man in the Snow (5:37)
8. Godless Land (3:31)
9. Porcelain Hill (4:01)
10. Achristas (4:51)
11. Smiling Stars (6:20)
Total Time – 50:49
Aliénor Favier – Vocals
Eric Bouillette – Guitars, Mandolin, Violin, Keyboards, Arrangements
Alexandre Lamia – Guitars, Keyboards, Arrangements
Anne-Claire Rallo – Keyboards
David Darnaud – Guitars
Achraf El Asraoui – Vocals, Guitars
Bernard Hery – Bass, Fretless Bass
Fabien Galia – Drums, Percussion
Laurent Benhamou – Saxophones
Steve Hackett – Guitar Solo (track 2)
Damian Wilson – Vocals (track 9)
John Hackett – Flute (track 7)
Cath Lubatti – Violin, Viola
Lilian Jaumotte – Cello
Record Label: Anesthetize Productions
Country of Origin: France
Date of Release: 4th June 2021