Monarch Trail - Wither Down

Monarch Trail – Wither Down

Monarch Trail are a Canadian progressive rock trio, led by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Ken Baird, Wither Down is their third release. Now, if the band and the album have gone under your musical radar of late, amongst the other fine releases of 2021, don’t be too concerned – they had gone under mine as well! I was vaguely aware of the name in the past, but not their music. However, when Wither Down was a surprise entry at No. 3 in Shaun Geraghty’s Prog Mill Album of the Year 2021 Listener’s Poll on Progzilla radio, it clearly demonstrated the band have a dedicated and committed following out there, which made both the album and the band worth exploring further. As a result, it seemed the right time to give the release a full TPA review.

From 1996 to 2009, Ken released five solo albums and formed several bands to play his music live, whilst continuing as a piano teacher. However, in 2014 he decided to focus on a ‘band approach’ to his music and asked Chris Lamont (drums) and Dino Verginella (bass) to form Monarch Trail, subsequently releasing their debut album, Skye. With guest guitarists John Mamone, Steve Cochrane and Kelly Kereliuk augmenting the trio’s sound as necessary, their signature neo-prog and retro symphonic rock style was unveiled. This was further developed on second album Sand in 2017 and has now coalesced with the rather wonderful Wither Down.

Other commitments prevented John playing on the latest album, but Kelly has covered most of the guitar duties and Ken and Dino even added some guitar on a couple of tracks as well. The overall result is an appetising selection of old school, keyboard-orientated progressive rock, but with an inventiveness and diversity keeping everything fresh and vibrant.

The album opens with the title track, and it’s an impressive start. Delicate and simple piano motifs, like falling raindrops and a trickling stream are intermittently joined by satisfying slabs of retro keyboards and a dynamic rhythm section ebbing and flowing beneath. This rise and fall in intensity works well and gives the music a comforting ’70s Genesis and Yes feel at times.

Ken’s higher register vocals have a yearning fragility to them, reminding me of a mix of Chris Squire, Roger Hodgson, John Lees and even hints of Dane Stevens of ’70s band Druid (for those with long memories), amongst others. Once you attune to them, they complement the plaintive lyrics addressing the feelings of insecurity and threat, yet also with a philosophical view of change. They have an atmospheric, autumnal feel that counterpoint the rather uplifting piano that flows throughout the piece and there are some lovely soaring synths and a more upbeat tempo courtesy of Dino and Chris. Written just before the lockdowns, it still seems to reflect the fears and uncertainties that followed over the next 18 months.

Echo has more of an ’80s neo-prog feel at the start, with soaring synthesisers mixing with some vibrant guitar riffing from Kelly. However, changing tempos eventually lead to some Tony Banks-style keyboard passages, giving a hint of Trick of the Tail-era Genesis. One of the strengths of the band is that you never quite know where they are taking the music. Themes are repeated, but they are often refreshingly juxtaposed. Full-blown, stately proggy noodlings might be followed by a swaying, almost funky passage and then Chris provides a spritely drum rhythm with Dino’s rumbling bass over which Ken’s keyboard virtuosity sails to new destinations. The lyrics allude to echoes from the past and even the doomed Echo of Greek mythology – and Ken’s vocals integrate well with the instrumentation.

Canyon Song has a more melancholic feel to it in general, as it looks at the fragility of nature. As Ken explained to me, “I was thinking of turtles in particular, where the shell won’t always be enough to protect them. I write a lot of songs like this over the years and these themes are pretty typical for me.” Brisk stabs of guitar soloing from Kelly provide some nice contrasting moments and as sweeping and soaring keyboards are met with more urgent drumming towards the end, you realise the complexity the musicians conjure up even within these shorter tracks on the album.

Waves of Sounds has some glorious Mellotron throughout (which is always a winner for me!) and initially atmospheric, distant vocals mingle with the shifting themes (a touch of Canadian French in the lyrics, as well). The keyboard-drenched soundscape provides a foundation for the twists and turns in mood and pace. One moment dynamic and upbeat; the next sad and lonely – this is 11-minutes of indulgent symphonic and melodic prog to lose yourself in. There is a stately majesty to this epic, with the odd hint of Keith Emerson-style piano before synthesisers take you into Wind and Wuthering territory. The track was apparently inspired by Quebec City and the lingering ghosts of musicians from the past and the legacy of sound left by them.

Megalopolitana is even more epic and has a diversity and complexity to match its length. Ken talks about a Return of the Giant Hogweed feel to the track, with images of futuristic plants attacking humans, but then developing a sort of conscious in the eons of time that follow. Echoes of Camel at the start, but there are also elements of modal jazz amongst the classic Yes and Genesis-style themes carried by the keyboards, but the guitars have their moment in the sun as well, with extended, melodic electric guitar passages from Kelly, whilst Steve delivers some delicate and contrasting acoustic guitar patterns. Ken’s floating vocals work best on this track. Lyrically very Jon Anderson in structure at times, they bring a dreamy, contemplative feel to proceedings. A real highpoint of the album and a truly immersive experience for melodic prog rock listeners.

The album closes with the instrumental All Kinds of Futures. Inspired by the final chapter of Day of the Daleks in the late Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of that Doctor Who story. Ken says it is a tribute to the writer and is a cornucopia of musical styles, from Rick Wakeman-like classical piano, to rich, full-on church organ and then some great neo-prog interplay between guitar and keyboards as urgent bass and drums support it all. It is a thoughtful yet fun track to end a very satisfying listening experience.

If I found the album very agreeable and pleasant on first listen, I was not prepared for the way it grew in stature and complexity with repeated plays. The variety and richness of the instrumentation continues to reveal itself layer by layer, and there is always something new you missed first time around.

It is easy to see why the buzz about Monarch Trail is starting to spread. Their refreshing blend of neo-prog and symphonic prog rock has much to delight fans of keyboard-led retro-style prog, but with a modern twist. With Wither Down, they may well have produced their best album so far. You also sense there is even more to come from Ken Baird and his fellow musicians and hopefully it won’t be another four years before we hear it. Highly recommended!

01. Wither Down (10:53)
02. Echo (5:59)
03. Canyon Song (6:32)
04. Waves of Sound (11:00)
05. Megalopolitana (15:18)
06. All Kinds of Futures (6:47)

Total Time – 56:29

Ken Baird – Piano, Keyboards, Vocals
Dino Verginella – Bass
Chris Lamont – Drums
~ with:
Kelly Kereliuk – Guitar (tracks 2,3,5 & 6)
Steve Cochrane – Acoustic Guitar (track 5)

Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Canada
Date of Release: 15th October 2021

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