The Scots are at it again…
More specifically, Comedy of Errors, who hark back to 1984 but have been prolific since 2011, the official year of their reformation following 20 years ‘away’, and, oh my goodness, they really are rising up the ranks as one of the most eye-opening symphonic progressive rock bands of the modern era. Prog Royalty is just round the corner. Their latest release, jauntily entitled Threnody For A Dead Queen, is their sixth album in twelve years, and is already attracting comments such as “their best release to date”. It’s an oft-used phrase for new albums as the general excitement of fans takes hold of new material, but having listened (a lot) to all six albums in their current discography, and having digested Threnody… numerous times, I do really concur that this could well justify that label.
I have always thought that all the albums have a theme running through them, and the band have a rich reputation for delivering symphonic epics, not least of all the 26-minute Student Prince, now over twelve years old, and we have been treated to at least two twelve-minute-plus tracks on each of the last couple of albums. This time, however, there are no less than three long epics; described as a “concept of life, love, death and beyond, now and for all time”. I briefly dwell on that first word, ‘concept’. This is certainly the first album in their repertoire which I believe can truly be described as conceptual. There is a recurring theme tune which appears at various points throughout the album, and all the tracks hang together as a single work; it is best listened to from start to finish in a single sitting – for progressive rock, it was forever thus.
Before anyone asks, I understand that the title of this album was conceived long before the passing of the late Queen Elizabeth II; a premonition, perhaps? A mere coincidence, more likely. The band have stated that despite their intent to release a new album every couple of years or so, events conspired against them and so there was a lot of writing and less releasing over the last few years. Patience is a virtue and catch-up means that we are now seeing nearly two hours of new music released in quick succession, firstly Time Machine towards the end of 2022, and now Threnody.
So what of the music? Summer Lies Beyond, a 15-minute epic, opens the album with an ethereal, light choral chant intro, followed by a lovely drum beat and strings. This track is almost soundtrack in nature, as the full band sound gradually builds. There are similarities with Mogwai, in particular their soundtrack to Les Revenants. It would be a beautiful atmospheric gig opener, with each member taking the stage in turn. It is story telling at its best, soaring guitar solo, vocals with lots of echo, perhaps a little overdone, but very effective nonetheless, given the underlying subject matter, with heartfelt lyrics such as:
Echoes onwards far beyond us,
New life mocks our adjuration,
Sing our dead Queen’s lamentation.”
A song of many parts, there are atmospheric pauses and time signature changes galore. The last three minutes is symphonic prog like little other, with underlying synth and bass pedals, Bruce Levick providing spine-tingling drum beats. Overlaying vocals, predominantly or totally from Joe Cairney, with up to four different sets of words being sung concurrently, will take some getting used to. A bit like being at a Prog-Rock cocktail party, I struggled at first to understand anything that was being sung but, over time, I latched on to one or other vocal conversation. What do you think? Regardless of that, the spatial separation in the mix is incredible. The crowd will be enraptured. It quite brought a tear to my eye.
The Seventh Seal, at 14-minutes, is signature Comedy of Errors, with references to the grim reaper and pending death. This is a story about Antonius Block, a medieval knight who, having returned from the Crusades, plays a game of chess with Death Personified, believing he will survive as long as the game lasts. I urge you to watch the 1957 film of the same name. Opening with a two-and-a-half minute instrumental, the mid-section is melodic in the extreme, almost anthemic with a slow steady pace with the full instrumental and vocal range on display, underpinned by a comforting bass line. Crikey, I love it as it builds to a complete change in tempo as “…Death unites us and bids us dance away”; the conclusion injects a sense of urgency and leaves one wanting more.
Thirty minutes in and only two songs down. There follows three considerably shorter tunes. We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On is a short instrumental giving the impression of being at sea or floating down a quintessentially English stream with largely acoustic guitar and what sounds like a melodica. Jane (Came Out of the Blue), at four-minutes, could easily be a single, if only we could get the band some mainstream radio play. I’m reminded of The Little River Band; remember them from the early ’80s? It’s a lovely upbeat song. Through the Veil, another short instrumental, has what sounds like a synthesised cello taking centre stage, before a regular drum beat continues through the track. Again, it is very cinematic, leading gently into the album’s title track.
Threnody For A Dead Queen is the third long form track at over twelve-minutes. A harpsichord introduction kicks things off, an atmospheric guitar solo taking over before the rest of the band take their places. Given the title, it gives the impression of a journey into the afterlife. There’s eight minutes of instrumental on that journey, and a critical key change at the eight-minute point, prior to a full prog rock bomb burst before the sublime vocals from Joe Cairney, supported by rich backing vocals from Jim Johnstone and Mark Spalding. This track really is a supreme band effort, a true delight with the lyrics even more poignant; a love song if ever there was one, narrating the final journey of the dead Queen:
From the heart hear what I have to say to you,
Threnodies for dead Queens always find their way,
And evermore shall they find their way.”
The album closes with two short instrumentals; Joe’s work is done. And Our Little Life is Rounded With A Sleep starts with an electric piano, again returning to the central theme, and a final release of the departed into the next world, and Funeral Dance is everything one might expect at the wake of an Elizabethan Queen; a song and dance followed by a echoing cheer from the mourners of a life well lived.
I really do think this album will chime strongly with the band’s fans, and it will no doubt garner new ones. I do not over-exaggerate when I say that that it firmly enters the realms of a prog epic. This is progressive rock as it was always meant to be. Rich in depth and breadth, far more so than their previous (quite excellent and revered) albums, with sophisticated, complex introductions, reassuring rhythm section, guitars as crisp as ever, and vocals packed with emotion. Whilst the long form tracks take centre stage, the short tracks, in particular the instrumentals, are very clever joining pieces that meld it into a concept piece. Joe Cairney’s vocals seem to me to be quite far back in the mix; that is not a criticism and it could easily have been designed as such because it makes the whole album quite mysterious, which fits well with the theme. It really is a lovely package, a must buy if you will, and sets the band even further on their upwards trajectory. And there will be a vinyl release to follow, you can be sure of that…
01. Summer Lies Beyond (15:27)
02. The Seventh Seal (14:10)
03. We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On (3:02)
04. Jane (Came Out of the Blue) (4:00)
05. Through the Veil (3:33)
06. Threnody for A Dead Queen (12:28)
07. And Our Little Life is Rounded With A Sleep (3:09)
08. Funeral Dance (3:09)
Total Time – 58:58
Joe Cairney – Vocals
John Fitzgerald – Bass
Jim Johnston – Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Bruce Levick – Acoustic Drums
Mark Spalding – Guitar, Backing Vocals
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 2nd June 2023