North Star is a mini-album of new material from UK neo-prog stalwarts Pendragon – their first release since the highly acclaimed Love Over Fear album back in 2020. Released to coincide with the band’s return to live performance with three recent ‘Everyone’s a VIP’ weekends, it is further evidence that the ‘Dragon’ is definitely back in business.
Comprising just over 24-minutes of music spread over two tracks (with the title track an extended three-part suite), North Star is truly a pastoral and ethereal tour-de-force, full of atmosphere, beauty and acoustic-led charm that gently seeps into your being and stays with you long after the final notes have faded.
Nick Barrett has stated that much of the music started to take shape soon after Love Over Fear and has slowly developed in fits and starts since then. Originally envisaged as a collaboration between Nick and the band’s original keyboardist, John ‘Barney’ Barnfield, it eventually grew into a full Pendragon band project. Recorded between January 2022 and March 2023 at Sharlands Barn in Cornwall and mixed and mastered by Threshold’s Karl Groom, it comes across as a real labour of love for Nick and the band – one which most Pendragon fans are bound to embrace.
Musically, this is a gentler, more restrained side of the band’s persona. Those wanting more of the harder-edged sound of the likes of Pure and Passion will not find it here. North Star is cut from a similar cloth to Love Over Fear, and in many ways seems a natural and seamless continuation.
Regarding the titular epic, Nick says, “The North Star has guided mankind out of trouble for thousands of years and this is a positive message that uses this as a way forward for everyone after the last three years without mentioning the wretched C-word”. The evocative cover artwork is once again supplied by Cornish artist Liz Saddington and captures the spirit of the track perfectly, with the image of a collection of people and assorted animals walking through the quiet countryside with a vivid and serene night sky full of stars above them – the Plough and the North Star (Polaris) both observing and guiding the company.
North Star, Part 1: A Boy and His Dog begins delicately with lush sustained keyboard chords and violin, and repeating folk-like guitar picking. Subtle drumming and deep bass gentle prod the music forward as Nick’s restrained vocals narrate a nigh time walk of a young boy through the bucolic beauty of the Cornish fields and hills, where he sees the wealth of the natural treasures all around him under the North Star:
Through the summer grass of St. Catherine’s Hill.
A night full of maybugs and pipistrelle bats.
A sky full of stars under a black wide hat.”
This is an intoxicating, ethereal and heady mix of childhood nostalgia and English pastoral whimsy that fans of Big Big Train know so well. The musical accompaniment is largely unchanged but it is continually renewed by a rich, resonating and poignant electric guitar solo here, and then wistful harmonies of “He’s running away” there. Later there is a more defiant and hope-filled lifting of the voices, with Johanna Stroud’s backing vocals evoking a feeling of adventure and discovery to come for our protagonist; “No longer thinks maybe in one year’s time…. The only time is now”.
A jarring drone-like conclusion shakes us out of our comfortable dreamy idyll as the tone changes on North Star, Part 2: As Dead As A Dodo. Nick picks up the pace with some real American country folk guitar picking (you almost feel a ‘yeehaw’ coming on!) and then Jan Vincent Velazco’s drums and Peter Gee’s deep bass build up the momentum over Clive Nolan’s keyboard wash, with some Gilmour-like guitar patterns in the background. Nick’s lyrics seem to be addressing mankind’s arrogance and over-confidence against the natural forces surrounding it (I’m probably mistaken, but personally I can’t help but see a subtle reference to the naivety of the pandemic response here), as he sings:
But so did the dodo, feeling kind of swell.
Sleepwalking blindly into the abyss,
But I’m not listening ‘cos ignorance is bliss.”
The infectious chorus “You’re still dead as a dodo” feels like a throwback to the exuberant 360 Degrees from the last album. Although relatively short, there is still time for a mid-point shift in character, with rising acoustic guitar patterns, some busy drumming and soaring violin before a gentle conclusion. Not necessarily integrated with the two parts around it, but it forms an interesting pivot point, from which North Star, Part 3: Phoenician Skies emerges.
The soothing acoustic guitar picking returns but there is a wonderful lightness of spirit here, with a sparkle of keyboards. To the emotive cry of “It’s land ahoy, land ahoy” there is a tangible feel of magic as we are transported to the deck of a ship following the North Star on a distant sea. Are we encountering an ancient mariner from another age? Is this where our boy has ended up on his travels? Whatever your interpretation, it really is a lovely piece of music.
Landlocked and waterlogged, we follow the North Star.
Wasting days in such magnificent ways
Albatross and sail
Spirit take me away.”
Barney plays the main keyboards, but is he joined by Nick, especially on the organ solo, and these contribute to the warm, proggy feel of this particular track. The vocal harmonies are gorgeous, including Johanna’s siren-like notes, and the combined keyboard playing creates a mysterious and serene foundation over which Nick delivers some stunning trademark soloing from his Gibson Les Paul, before all too soon we have reached the end of our travels.
However, Fall Away proves to be a very satisfying way to conclude this mini album. Beginning with some exquisite and exotic Spanish guitar soloing, the song settles into a plaintive, melancholic and contemplative love song.
This dark world it’s always hard to find.
Never let it fall away again.
You’ve got to fight for it tooth and nail.”
Clive’s synths are haunting as they accompany Nick’s touching vocals, with choir-like Mellotron sound and waves of vocal harmonies washing over you. There is a real Genesis-like Entangled feel to this beautiful ballad which stays with you long after the closing notes.
North Star is a sumptuous, poetic, thoughtful, pastoral and acoustic-led triumph from Pendragon and it really only has one overriding problem – it’s just too damn short! The urge to put it back on repeat immediately and dive back into its charms is a strong one indeed. Small, but beautifully formed, the mini album works perfectly in its own right, but it certainly whets the appetite for a full Pendragon album release in the near future, where all the band’s diversity will no doubt shine along with the more gentle and intimate side this release showcases so well.
01. North Star – Part 1: A Boy And His Dog (8:31)
02. North Star – Part 2: As Dead As A Dodo (3:18)
03. North Star – Part 3: Phoenician Skies (5:59)
04. Fall Away (6:28)
Total Time – 24:16
Nick Barrett – Guitars, Vocals, Additional Keyboards, Programming, Organ Solo (track 3)
Clive Nolan – Keyboards (tracks 1, 2 & 4)
Peter Gee – Bass
Jan-Vincent Velazco – Drums, Percussion
Johanna Stroud – Backing Vocals, Violin
John Barnfield – Main Keyboards (track 3)
Record Label: Toff Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Dates of Release: 12th May 2023 (CD) | 1st June 2023 (Bandcamp CD & Digital) | End of 2023 (Vinyl)