Kites is the long-awaited third album from Yorkshire’s melodic progressive rock band This Winter Machine. Delayed by both the extended COVID lockdown period and significant line-up changes, arising from the frustrations of not being able to build upon the momentum gained from their first two albums, The Man Who Never Was (2017) and A Tower of Clocks (2019). It is great to report that Al Winter and the band have ‘pulled the rabbit out of the hat’ and produced a vibrant, fresh and emotionally moving album of the highest quality.
Many musicians and bands have been deeply affected by the pandemic of the last 18 months, and This Winter Machine could argue that they have been affected more than most. The early promise and acclaim of the debut had been successfully followed up by their impressive sophomore release. By the start of 2020 the Kites title and artwork had already been agreed upon, and initial recording sessions had taken place, with many tracks nearing completion. Then everything just ground to a halt for all of us, resulting in a period of great frustration, changing plans and, most significantly, the departure of band members for a host of reasons, both personal and artistic. Al recruited new musicians and pushed ahead with Kites, as the others formed a new band called Ghost of the Machine.
Writing, rehearsing and recording all progressed at an accelerated rate, whilst observing social distancing guidelines, and at last, here in Autumn 2021, this labour of love can finally be released to both their devoted fanbase and the general rock and prog community. It has certainly seemed like a very long wait for many, but it looks like their patience has been fully rewarded.
Le Jour D’avant (‘the previous day’) is the short instrumental that starts the album. A lovely piano introduction, by the album’s chief guest keyboardist, Pat Ganger-Sanders, mingles with subtle acoustic guitar from Dom Bennison and some unsettling keyboard effects, creating a prelude of quiet unease before we encounter ominous, barked orders to “stay inside of your home” at the start of two-part epic The Storm. Pounding drums from Alan Wilson and a rumbling bass line from Dave Close build to a powerful guitar-led riff. Al’s vocals propel the song over eerie keyboard chords and there is a Dream Theater feel for the first half before a change in pace and tone is signalled by a soaring, expressive solo by guest guitarist Mark Abrahams (of Wishbone Ash), swirling keyboards heralding a less tense, more contemplative feel to Part 1. Although there is a clear link to the trauma of lockdown, Al states the song is also about “any form of entrapment or being bogged down or trapped in your own home”.
Part 2 begins in a lighter vein, with acoustic guitar by Simon D’Vali over the sound of a babbling brook and reflective lyrics of calm, such as “feeling the sunlight warm my face”. Al adds, “It harks back to when I was a child and would go to a field to watch my school play cricket. But really it was just to be able to lie in the grass and enjoy the peace and quiet. That lovely kind of release and feeling of solitude, even when there were other people around.” Although the more urgent instrumental drive of Part 1 does return, with Dom delivering a well-pitched, chiming guitar solo, there is a more cathartic feel, as if the storm has passed to some extent. Limited is another short instrumental that seems to act as a coda to these earlier tracks. Driven by Alan’s simple drums and Dave’s dominant bass, there is an ethereal dreaminess to the intertwining of the keyboards and guitars, and a sense of resolution of sorts.
Pleasure & Purpose begins with background crowd noises and then a slow, languid rhythm behind simple guitar notes as Al’s sad, thoughtful and measured vocals slowly lead the song into more depth and power. In many ways it is a typical This Winter Machine slow burner and is very much the heart of the album, growing with repeat listens. “It’s all about lack of communication,” explains Al, “and the dissolution of a relationship due mostly to misunderstanding and an inability to communicate properly.” Simon delivers a stunning guitar solo that lifts the music to stratospheric levels, with the baton then handed to Dom to play his engaging solo over a vibrant keyboard-orientated soundscape, before reaching a climax and then gently easing by the end.
This Heart’s Alive dates from the time of the second album and is also another track that starts gently and then gradually builds in intensity over time. Lyrically, it is about not understanding the dishonesty inherent in some relationships. It begins with chiming, repeated guitar patterns and some lovely keyboards from Pat, before acoustic guitar accompanies plaintive, yearning vocals from Al, through to a memorable chorus over a martial drum beat, which has a touch of Mostly Autumn to my ears. A short burst of harmonised vocals holds the atmosphere momentarily before the instrumentation returns one last time.
Another short instrumental, Whirlpool, raises the tempo considerably, and packs a lot of powerful melodic rock into its two-minute duration. Dynamic guitar, and retro keyboards propel the track swiftly, with lashings of Uriah Heep/Deep Purple-style Hammond organ throughout. By contrast, Broken starts atmospherically before some lovely piano from former keyboardist Mark Numan serenely introduces Al’s vocals – which are both sensitive and powerful as he reflects on “how a poor unbringing can affect adult relationships and how some people don’t move on emotionally from such a childhood.” Similar in style to In Amber from the last album, but here the music builds up layer by layer to a more powerful climax and provides an impressive finish for this thoughtful power ballad. The lyric “You see the world the same as me” deliberately echoes the melancholic Come Together in the Morning by Free and it is another nice touch from Al.
Peter Jones (of Tiger Moth Tales and Camel) is guest vocalist on the enjoyable and comforting Sometimes which creates a lighter, upbeat counterpoint to the darkness of the previous track. A mid-tempo rhythm with acoustic guitar and melodic guest keyboard touches from Reuben Jones enhance the accessible chorus and the brief inclusion of some lovely violin by Eric Bouillette Perso (of Nine Skies and The Room) adds that certain ‘je ne sais quoi.’ It all turns out to be a pleasant bonus and the ‘Mothster’ is on top form as always.
Kites, the longest individual track at over seven minutes, ends proceedings with a freshness and lightness of touch that should go down well at live concerts to come. Guitars and keyboards in tandem produce a generous slab of melodic rock, as Al delivers his love letter to the ’80s and the vibrancy and freedom of youth. Yet another solo from Dom and an uplifting finish – with references to Queen and Rush amongst the lyrics (see if you can spot the Radio Ga Ga reference!). “The name Kites comes from the idea that we are all too ready to grow up in our lives,” states Al. “But I feel it is sometimes better to allow yourself to be blown around by the wind, because you’ve always got that string anchored to the ground. We sometimes fight being buffeted, but we shouldn’t, because ‘someday we’ll be kites for the last time.’ Sometimes we look back and realise how good we had it in the past when we were younger, and they were special times we can remember. It’s so important not to be grounded and lose that magic.” It’s a strong and optimistic finale and the subtle inclusion of some spoken lines from the Edison phonograph advertisement of 1906 is such a nice touch to end the album with.
Kites makes an immediate impression, but more importantly it grows and develops further with repeated listens. Better sequenced than A Tower of Clocks, and more diverse than The Man Who Never Was, Kites sees a revitalised band successfully walking the line between maintaining their signature sound, but also not being afraid to develop as musicians and try out new things. It is evolution rather than revolution and it will hopefully both consolidate their existing fanbase and draw in new listeners in the months to come. Al and the band have dared to let out their kite strings and allowed their ambitions to fly high in stormy weather. I think they will be staying up there for some time to come!
01. Le Jour D’avant (1:40)
02. The Storm (Part 1) (5:37)
03. The Storm (Part 2) (4:37)
04. Limited (2:00)
05. Pleasure & Purpose (6:35)
06. This Heart’s Alive (6:31)
07. Whirlpool (2:17)
08. Broken (4:58)
09. Sometimes (4:05)
10. Kites (7:19)
Total Time – 45:39
Al Winter – Vocals
Dave Close – Bass, Vocals
Simon D’Vali – Guitar, Vocals
Dom Bennison – Guitar, Vocals
Alan Wilson – Drums
Pat Ganger-Sanders – Keyboards (tracks 1-7)
Mark Numan – Keyboards (track 8)
Reuben Jones – Keyboards (tracks 9 & 10)
Peter Jones – Vocals (track 9)
Mark Abraham – Guitar Solo (track 2)
Eric Bouillette Perso – Violin Solo (track 9)
Record Label: Independent
Formats: CD, Digital
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 25th October 2021