UK melodic prog rock band Mostly Autumn release a powerful and evocative new album, documenting their experience of the pandemic over the last year or so. It has all the ingredients of a classic Mostly Autumn album, but soaked with the raw emotion of personal loss, despair and finally hope for the future.
Mostly Autumn are a band not averse to showing their emotions on their sleeves when it comes to their subject matter. Dressed in Voices (2014) had the dark concept of a killer forced to witness the full weight of all he is taking away from his victim, and 2019’s White Rainbow was shaped by the death of former member Liam Davison. So, it is maybe not too surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect it has had on everyone, is the linking concept behind their post-lockdown album, Graveyard Star.
As Bryan Josh says in the liner notes, the album is “A real-time documentation of living through 2020/21 and a strong reflection of how we were feeling as this time passed. Although very personal to us, I can only imagine many of you can strongly relate to this journey.”
As a result, you get all the elements you would expect from a Mostly Autumn album; angelic vocals from Olivia Sparnenn-Josh, consistently strong guitar work from Bryan Josh and a stable line-up of musicians seamlessly blending elements of melodic rock and prog rock with Celtic folk overtones. However, add a deep lyrical content and a diverse range of compositional styles and you have one of the most impressive releases in the band’s 26-year history.
The opening epic, Graveyard Star, begins atmospherically with Iain Jennings’ keyboards and intimate and haunting vocals from Bryan and Olivia before violin and flute appear. Henry Roger’s drums pick up the strident beat prior to some great ensemble playing by the band. This is a song of loss, even if it dates from January 2020 before the first lockdown. Lyrics of mortality and loss dominate, with Olivia’s yearning vocals emotionally charging lines such as “Goodbye sun from another sun”, “I was the lamp beside your head, I was the diamond in your head” and “A spark in heaven’s crowd”, amongst others, while Bryan’s darker vocals complement the mood. Discordant electric guitar then shifts to a gentle acoustic-led interlude with poignant violin accompaniment from guest artist Chris Leslie (from Fairport Convention), before an expressive guitar solo soars above the heaviness and tiredness of the background tempo. A final rally fails to lift the sadness. It is clear that this journey into the dark has only just begun.
There are Floydian elements to Bryan’s weary vocals on The Plague Bell as he states, “It’s a long way home tonight”, the image of death as a “white rag ghost” stepping on board the ship taking us back to the first lockdown in March 2020. It is effectively the introduction to Skin of Mankind where Olivia’s dramatic vocals are joined by a deep guitar riff echoing a Western theme or an Enrico Morricone soundtrack, with a trotting rhythm from Henry’s drums and Andy Smith’s bass. The spritely, folky violin is strikingly at odds with the dark lyrics of a changing world and the need to now isolate to survive.
Shadows starts acoustically, but soon develops into a driving, mid-tempo rock song. We are well into isolation at home by now (April 2020) and Bryan’s vocals and lead guitar over Chris Johnson’s rhythm guitar emphasise the monotonous routine of it all. “Shadows cut the grain of the thunder and the rain”. The Harder That You Hurt continues the struggle against it all. Olivia’s gentle vocals emphasise the weariness, “The stronger you are, the weaker you feel” countered by “Counting days till we are back on the road again”. The band build up the power in typical Mostly Autumn fashion from a sleepy Knopfler-style guitar pattern to full-blown ensemble instrumentation.
Written in May 2020, Razor Blade is another very personal track. Dedicated to Val and Tracey, it starts with Olivia’s melancholic vocals over strummed acoustic guitar, as the lyrics hint at wanting to be away from it all. “Take me off the razor’s edge” – get out me out in the air and space and away from the darkness and the loss. Nice piano from Iain heralds another build-up, with keyboards taking flight and Bryan’s and Olivia’s contrasting vocals intertwining heartbreakingly. This Endless War continues the theme of loss and the need for support in those dark times to continue to fight and is a stunning slow burner of a track. Olivia wrote the lyrics and they resonate throughout:
You’ll always be the answer to my call.
I’d chase the wolves right from your door,
I’d bring you home from this
The music is initially sad and pensive, with gentle piano before the full band come in. Bryan’s closing solo is the best on the album for me and Olivia’s passionate vocals at the end are scorching!
Spirit of Mankind takes us to January 2021 and the second lockdown, and that feeling of frustration and sadness as we returned to isolation and the closing of the borders. “We’re on the ropes again”, the days filled with “the best of us” and “the worst of us”. There is a pulsating beat, epic keyboards and some well-pitched electric and acoustic guitar runs, and possibly the most catchy refrain on the album – hinting that there is light at the end of the tunnel and the promise of “a phoenix rising through these flames”.
All of the sudden we are in July 2021 and Back In These Arms signals the change from the dark to the light as the final lockdown ends. The subdued keyboards open up into a dynamic slab of anthemic group playing, with optimistic, joyous and defiant lyrics chanted out as life begins to return to normal. “I can hold my mother!”, “Yes we cry so hard cause it feels so good”. Andy’s bass pushes the song towards the end, with proggy keyboards from Iain adding to the lighter tone along with pipes and whistles from returning guest musician Troy Donockley (Nightwish). This optimistic mood continues with the beautiful Freedom to Fly. Largely piano-led over Olivia’s wistful tones – the sense of a new beginning is clear to hear and is an enlivening change of tempo.
Chris Johnson’s song The Diamond is also a refreshing change, with his acoustic guitar driving the song through as it builds up and his soft vocals, joined by those of Angela Gordon, produce a wonderfully ethereal and hypnotic soundscape. I was interested in how it fitted into the whole concept (Bryan alluded to a link to the diamond in the title track), and Chris gave me a very revealing explanation:
“It was about being in lockdown and feeling an intense longing to go the beautiful places in the world. For me that’s mountains and I imagined them still stood there, the nature unaffected by the pandemic. I wondered if you could compress all the hurt and sadness we were feeling. Compress it down and down until it was just a hard stone and throw it into the beauty of a deep mountain lake to get rid of it. But then, we need the sadness. It’s part of us and we wouldn’t be the complex things we are without it, so the song explores this kind of separation. The idea of wanting to get rid of a part of yourself, and then really missing it when it’s gone. I feel we have all changed from who we were before the pandemic, and maybe we’re searching to feel whole again.”
Turn Around Slowly is the epic conclusion, bringing all of the strands of the concept together, with repeated themes and lyrics. Starting with gentle musical passages, the first half has a poignancy as the lyric looks back on the long journey we have all taken. “The Lady” is a fitting reference and tribute to the work of Dame Sarah Gilbert and the Oxford vaccination team and whilst the tone is optimistic, Bryan’s vocals make us remember to “sweep up the roses that bent in the Sun”. Another epic guitar solo takes us into full prog rock mode but then there are alternating changes in tempo prior to a defiant reprise of Skin of Mankind, over powerful riffing. Bryan’s lyrics now have a combative tone, as he is talking to the virus and saying your time is now up! Troy’s pipes add a Celtic edge, with his low vocals building up the drama before Olivia reprises Graveyard Star and another quality guitar solo concludes the album as the band hit top gear. This track will be a real highlight when played live and links the whole album concept in true prog rock fashion.
The 2,000 who bought the limited edition of the album as a pre-order received it with a bonus disc of a further nine strong tracks to enjoy – many of which would have fitted on the first disc if space allowed, or if the double album option had been pursued. The Show Is On is an exuberant celebration of a return to live music, and Into the Valley of Death Rode the Six Hundred is a proggy Iain Jennings instrumental. Check In Your Eyes is typical, driving Mostly Autumn, whilst Side Effect is a gentle, piano-led Chris Johnson ballad. Swallows is a moving and expressive composition about a woman following the return to swifts and swallows in spring (another reference to the departed Tracey) with a poignancy added by some beautiful violin playing before an epic conclusion; definitely one to see live in the future, perhaps? Heading For the Mountains is an acoustic folk/country number by Bryan and Mountain Highway is another flowing Iain Jennings penned instrumental. This House (dedicated to Val) starts off almost C&W-like and is a bitter-sweet reflection of loss, but with an uplifting spirit at its heart and a moving, epic conclusion.
Graveyard Star is another great album by Mostly Autumn and adds to the consistent run of quality recent albums. Its topical concept about lockdown and the pandemic is deeply personal but never feels forced. It hits immediately, but also grows with repeated plays. As a result, the deep lyrics gradually speak more strongly to the listener, as well as documenting what Bryan, Olivia and the band went through themselves. Their prog-infused melodic rock with soaring guitars and evocative vocals is as engaging as ever.
In all honesty, if you have not succumbed to the band’s charms on recent albums, this new one is unlikely to change your view. However, existing fans are going to lap up this impressive and mature release and I would urge those less familiar with Mostly Autumn’s work to give Graveyard Star a good listen or two and reflect on the journey we have all travelled in recent years.
[You can read David Edwards’ interview with Bryan Josh HERE.]
Disc One (Standard Edition)
01. Graveyard Star (12:04)
02. The Plague Bell (1:46)
03. Skin of Mankind (4:24)
04. Shadows (4:10)
05. The Harder That You Hurt (4:31)
06. Razor Blade (7:03)
07. This Endless War (6:49)
08. Spirit of Mankind (4:55)
09. Back in These Arms (6:26)
10. Free to Fly (3:51)
11. The Diamond (5:57)
12. Turn Around Slowly (12:38)
Time – 74:34
Disc Two (Limited Edition)
01. The Show is On (4:52)
02. Into the Valley of Death Rode the Six Hundred (3:45)
03. Check in Your Eyes (5:07)
04. Side Effect (3:35)
05. Swallows (8:21)
06. Heading for the Mountains (2:41)
07. Mountain Highway (5:36)
08. This House (6:59)
Time – 40:56
Total Time – 115:30
Bryan Josh – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Tambourine
Olivia Sparnenn-Josh – Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Iain Jennings – Keyboards, Hammond Organ
Andy Smith – Bass
Henry Rogers – Drums
Chris Johnson – Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Lead Vocals (track 11)
Angela Gordon – Flute, Backing Vocals, Lead Vocals (track 11)
Troy Donockley – Pipes, Whistles (tracks 3, 9, 12 | CD 2 – 8), Portuguese Mandola (track 3), Low Vocals (track 12)
Chris Leslie – Violin (tracks 1, 3 | CD 2 – 5)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 24th September 2021