Exactly a year on from Harmony / Synchronicity, Lee Abraham releases his ambitious Only Human album on September 4th. Clearly affected by recent events, Lee explains:
“Many of us have experienced feelings of isolation and inadequacy over the past 18 months, like never before. Some people have used this to re-examine where their life is going, what’s important to them and perhaps come up with their own theories on life in general and why we’re all here!”
Only Human is not a concept album but there is a thread of introspection, Lee reflecting upon where he is in his life and expressing himself with emotion, lyrically and musically. Whilst Harmony / Synchronicity was mainly a collection of seven smooth AOR style rock songs, Only Human combines his mastery of the shorter melodic pieces with a prime example of his more extended Progressive Rock leanings in the outstanding opening epic Counting Down. Listeners already familiar with Abraham will probably find this latest release most comparable in style and format to his 2016 album The Seasons Turn which began with an epic following by three shorter melodic rock songs (albeit ending that album with another extended piece). Lee has worked with some of the finest modern progressive rock vocalists over the last few years, but on Only Human he features just two – but what a duo of singing talent! Marc Atkinson (Riversea & Moon Halo), who sang the whole of Abraham’s excellent 2019 album Comatose, sings on two songs. However, the main vocal spotlight falls on the wonderful voice of Peter Jones, who has risen to prominence with his own Tiger Moth Tales band, and more lately the legendary Camel.
The album opens almost cinematically with atmospheric piano from the ever-dependable Rob Arnold over synth strings, and as the song slowly builds, Abraham comes in with a beautifully floating guitar, echoing Andy Latimer of Camel. After about three minutes, the feel of the song changes dramatically with insistent organ stabs and, with a roll of bass, drums and keyboards, we are into the heart of the piece. What becomes immediately evident is the absolutely stellar drumming of Lee’s long-time drumming partner Gerald Mulligan. His playing has always been of a high standard but on Only Human it is clear he has stepped up to an even higher level, with various fills and thrills in a fluid, powerhouse performance. Abraham has revealed that Mulligan now records himself in his own drum studio on a Phil Collins replica kit, having learned to use Pro Tools during Covid, so he can record at his own leisure and get things spot on instead of having limited time available in a hired studio. The gleaming percussive results are so clear in the crisp precision and power of the dramatic Counting Down. After this opening avalanche the piece drops back to a background synth wash upon which Arnold returns with a flowing piano alongside acoustic guitar. Abraham then adds a trademark climbing electric guitar motif and, six-minutes in, we finally hear Pete Jones’ fine vocals. There is a sense of bright optimism associated with the hope of a new-born life in the opening Your Life? section – it’s uplifting, high quality melodic prog.
The atmosphere changes with a plaintive piano and King Crimson-esque Mellotron before a more tremulous voice from Jones, indicating that experience is taking the gloss off innocent hope. So we move into the darker part two, The System:
Just fit in, don’t stand out,
See the wheel that turns, with each generation,
Feel the fire burn, hopes and ambition”
A more stately wave progresses with a picked guitar before Abraham effortlessly floats in a flight of electric guitar, presaging a more muscular instrumental passage. Banks of organ, a cascade of drums and bass underpin a searing, rippling guitar. Mulligan is absolutely on fire, driving the piece with such power alongside dark, evil sounding organs and pulsing guitars in a thrilling sequence.
Peter Jones re-enters the fray with suitably more desperate vocals in the third section, I Want Out, a dialogue between the dismissive voice of The System and the yearning call from the main protagonist:
I want out, to walk a different road, I want out, I want out…”
This section really is reminiscent of Abraham’s masterpiece, White from his 2009 album Black and White, still one of my favourite progressive rock albums of the last 20 years. A recapitulation of the This is Your Life… refrain from the opening section indicates a more positive acclamation to not get stuck in the system – don’t we all know it! Counting Down recedes in a shimmer of cymbals, gentle piano and flute-like keyboards. Choral sounds and Mellotron move us dreamily into chiming guitars as we enter the optimistic finale as the main protagonist makes a decision:
… We must change what’s within, Or we let the system win”
Peter Jones is on particularly outstanding form vocally as the main body of the piece ends in a fine melodic rock sweep and Abraham’s guitar takes another flight. There is a more magisterial coda to the piece with keyboards, piano and drums. Abraham has shared that Jones suggested that they end this epic with the intoning of the verse from the later piece Hands of Time as Abraham lays down another fluid guitar solo to take us to a truly satisfying conclusion. Abraham says it was too good a suggestion to ignore and neatly bookends the album with the closing song. The secret of the excellence of Counting Down is that whilst it is clearly an ambitious, sweeping epic it is actually comprised of memorable ‘songs within a song’, seamlessly threaded together with exciting instrumental rock passages. Abraham has said of Counting Down:
“I am extremely proud of Counting Down, it’s the most complete ‘progressive rock epic’… that I have written. I love melody and I have written some of my most memorable melodies in this song and using Peter Jones for the lead vocals, he understood completely the feel I was going for. I hope people enjoy the end result, it was quite a journey!”
Lee is right to be proud of Counting Down, which has to be one of the best melodic progressive rock songs of 2021, and probably one of the best things he has ever done.
So what about the rest of the album?
Lee presents a series of more straightforward melodic rock songs. Similar to the previous album, Marc Atkinson is entrusted with two songs on Only Human, including the title track. It suits Atkinson’s golden voice perfectly and after a heavy introduction it tells a tale of “how some people come across as almost cold and robotic when it comes to human feelings”, as Abraham has shared. Mark Spencer of Galahad and Twelfth Night provides backing vocals and there is a real thrust behind this song. Falling Apart again features Atkinson in a song which contrasts darker lyrics with a lighter AOR approach, but as ever with Abraham it flows impressively.
Peter Jones returns for the nostalgic Days Gone By with a chugging ’80s-type riff and an earworm melody in an anthemic piece that fits his voice so well. The Hands of Time closes the album, again with Jones’ vocals. Subtle percussion and the sound of a clock ticking fittingly start this lengthier song. Gilmour-esque guitar peels presage the entry of the rolling main theme, the song touching on time marching on for all of us. There’s a regal, majestic progress to this song, although I am not sure it needed 8-minutes to convey its message, which is only a very minor quibble.
Only Human is very clearly an album in two parts. The opening number is a tremendous example of how to construct a captivating and enjoyable ‘prog’ epic, and in the second half of the album Lee Abraham also demonstrates his mastery of the shorter, more accessible melodic rock song. There is great skill in either facet of his repertoire (lest anyone mistakenly believes ‘length = quality’ in song writing!). Only Human demonstrates Abraham as an artist equally at home with widescreen soundscapes or earworm hooks and melodies. Whatever direction his music takes he embroiders them with artfully skilled guitar work, sometimes thrilling, sometimes emotional, but always entertaining. Only Human will surely rank as one of the top Progressive albums of 2021.
01. Counting Down (29:45)
– i. Your Life?
– ii. The System
– iii. I Want Out
– iv. Counting Down
02. Only Human (5:49)
03. Days Gone By (5:23)
04. Falling Apart (6:23)
05. The Hands of Time (8:10)
Total Time – 55:30
Lee Abraham – Guitars, Keyboards, Bass Guitar, Piano (tracks 3, 4 & 5)
Gerald Mulligan – Drums
Peter Jones – Lead & Backing Vocals (tracks 1, 3 & 5)
Marc Atkinson – Lead & Backing Vocals (tracks 2 & 4)
Rob Arnold – Piano (tracks 1 & 2)
Mark Spencer – Backing Vocals (track 2)
Record Label: F2 Music Ltd
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 4th September 2021
– Pictures in The Hall (2004) [originally CD-R, now digital only]
– A View from the Bridge (2005)
– Black and White (2009)
– Distant Days (2014)
– The Seasons Turn (2016)
– Colours (2017)
– Comatose (2019)
– Western Skies [EP] (2020) [as Echo Rain]
– Harmony / Synchronicity (2020)
– Only Human (2021)