Crossing a varied spectrum of influences and genres, and featuring nine well conceived tracks, Fearful Symmetry’s debut, Louder Than Words released in 2019, was a late but welcome discovery last year. In the review I commented about looking out for the follow-up, The Difficult Second, which was originally slated for the summer 2021, but duly arrived just prior to the first heatwave to hit the UK (and vast areas of Western Europe) in July 2022. So now sat searing in the second bake-off of the year, time to ‘cook’ The Difficult Second.
Reading the notes for the album it appears that whilst retaining the DNA of Fearful Symmetry, this latest album allows guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Suzi James greater freedom to “develop the ideas that were in progress prior to Louder Than Words“. This said, The Difficult Second is not a ‘solo’ release per se, and joining Suzi once again are vocalist Yael Shotts, drummer Sharon Petrover, with lyric contributions from Jeremy Shotts.
As with the debut, the new album opens in fine style. Mood Swings and Roundabouts starts with an a cappella version of the infectious chorus, followed by a brief acoustic guitar intro, before the Chris Squire inspired bass line announces itself into the mix. Mood Swings and Roundabouts is very much in the Fearful Symmetry mould, mixing well written and catchy AOR, with a distinctly proggy edge, laced with a varied selection of sub genres, including fusion and jazz rock, and abundantly across this album, Mideast influences. Mood Swings… is a rollicking start, setting the scene with its strong and memorable themes, interwoven guitars and, although delightfully sung by Yael Shotts, the chorus should come with an ‘infectious warning’, as I simply cannot get it out of my head.
Following Mood Swings…, Suzi quickly re-establishes her guitar credentials, something she so ably displayed on the debut, with the quirky instrumental title tune, a fascinating track that not only highlights Suzi’s fluid guitar, but encompasses a tasteful jazzy interlude with Rhodes-style piano and walking bass, again all performed by Suzi. Whereas Fearful Symmetry’s debut included several guest performers, the dreaded corona virus put paid to that, leaving Suzi James to flesh out the arrangements on this release. Something, it has to be said, she does extremely well, adding multiple keyboard layers, piano, organ, strings and even some Moog(y) solos. She has also added in a multi-oud, along with darbuka and riq percussion, all of which adds to the authenticity of the Middle Eastern themed tracks.
As on the debut album, the music across The Difficult Second is varied, requiring a couple of run throughs before it really gels, but once it does it’s an absolute treat. As mentioned, across the album we have a healthy selection of Eastern flavours, kicking off with the predominantly instrumental Shifting Sands, with the aforementioned percussion, along with wordless vocals proving very effective. Continuing the vibe and making for a strong mid-section to the album we have Eastern Eyes. I love the busy rhythms here which sit nicely along with Yael Shotts delightful vocals. There’s a great jazzy interlude in the middle and a ripping solo from Suzi towards the end.
And the Eastern theme continues through much of the album, take the stomping Sandworm for instance, with its heavier, pounding rhythm, bringing to mind some of Steve Hackett’s later solo work. The penultimate track Shukraan Jazilaan (which for the curious translates from the Arabic as ‘thank you very much’) is a lively and busy tune, full of interweaving acoustic and electric guitars. A nod to Al Di Meola perhaps? Worth noting is that despite the Mideast vibe, none of the tracks remotely sound like the routinely referenced Zep’s Kashmir. 😉
Moving closer to home, Light of My Life and Hope are sweet, cheerful even, mid-tempo piano driven ballads, which somewhat belie the lyrical message. Similarly the upbeat The Song of the Siren takes its theme from Greek mythology. Sirens were said to be part bird, part woman, who lured sailors to wrecking with the sweetness of their song. Much like the treacherous Sirens, the music itself is somewhat beguiling…
Sail away, or your ship’s run aground.
Bringing everything to a conclusion is Warlords, the album’s five part, fourteen-minute ‘epic’ – a summation of all that has gone before, however Fearful Symmetry are not finished with the musical spectrum, adding symphonic and folky components to the finale. So following the thematic Overture we are Stepping Out, or marching out as the opening footsteps might imply. However, we are quickly transported to the seaside with jaunty mandolin, whistles, e-Violin and Yeal’s sweet voice conjuring thoughts of Annie Haslam and Renaissance, especially in the canon style chorus. It seems to be something of a Fearful Symmetry trait, as despite the more ominous title and lyrics, Warlords and Battlestorm retain a rather uplifting and harmonious tone, only Suzi’s fiery solo section suggesting anything sinister. The track and album concludes with Aftermath. Again Yeal delivers a fine vocal, reminiscent to these ears of Lynsey de Paul…
Before concluding, and as I mentioned in my review of Louder Than Words that I wasn’t overly enamoured by the production values, it seems only appropriate that I come back to this point on the new release. Simple answer – no such reservations this time around.
It’s safe to say that the difficult second album has been delivered, and a fine album it is. Hats off to Suzi James who has employed her versatile guitar and multi-instrumental skills to create a diverse and ‘musical’ album full of strong tracks. I suppose all that remains is, will the next album be a major or a minor third… I’ll get my coat 🙂
01. Mood Swings and Roundabouts (5:59)
02. The Difficult Second (3:56)
03. Light of My Life (5:39)
04. Shifting Sands (4:07)
05. Eastern Eyes (5:14)
06. The Song of the Siren (4:57)
07. Hope (5:36)
08. Sandworm (6:37)
09. Shukraan Jazilaan (3:23)
10. Warlords (14:49)
– I. Overture
– II. Stepping Out
– III. Warlords
– IV. Battlestorm
– V. Aftermath
Total Time – 60:17
Suzi James – Guitar, Bass, Keyboards, Mandolin, Multi-Oud, e-Violin, Percussion, Darbuka, Riq, Penny Whistle, Backing Vocals
Yael Shotts – Vocals
Sharon Petrover – Drums
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 15th July 2022