Mask is the very impressive, intriguing and highly enjoyable debut album from Ron Lammers and his melodic symphonic prog project The Foundation. It is a concept album looking chronologically at the human experience, with a highly personal and autobiographical journey taking us from birth, through life’s many ups and downs, and finally to a positive future path, mirroring the one Ron and his wife, Betty, currently find themselves on.
The origins of The Foundation go back to 1996, when he began composing and recording music in collaboration with Sietse Dijkstra and Marcel Kerkdijk. However, personal circumstances at the time curtailed the project. However, Ron’s love of symphonic and progressive rock has been a long-standing one – from his Xymphonia radio programme in the early 1990s, music festival organising and more recently the creation of Xymphonia Records to promote symphonic and progressive music in the Netherlands. He decided to revisit the musical project in 2020, and with the help of a host of Dutch progressive rock musicians from the likes of Knight Area and Cliffhanger, and the heavy rock of Autumn, he has lovingly sculptured an album which has much to offer fans of symphonic and neo-prog rock.
Ron calls the concept of Mask ‘a fairy tale of real life’ and it is a diverse and yet cohesive one, full of stirring instrumental and meaningful lyrical content. Ron handles most of the keyboards, with Jens van der Valk and Rinie Huigen adding guitar to Gils Koopman’s bass and Jan Grijpstra’s drums. Mark Smit provides the expressive vocals and there are telling musical contributions from Judith van der Valk, Sjoerd Bearda, Jan Munnik and Aad Bannink across the album. The influences of the likes of Camel, Yes, Genesis, Marillion and Alan Parsons, along with North American bands such as Styx and Saga, are there somewhere in the mix, but the project’s sound is uniquely theirs. Although this is Ron’s own personal life story, Mark has captured the narrative superbly in the lyrics to many of the songs.
The album opens with the atmospheric Before the Dawn, with a Vangelis-like symphonic soundscape of keyboards and Taurus pedals conjuring that sense of emptiness and yet calm before life begins. Jens delivers a haunting electric guitar solo before the sound of a baby takes us into Birth. The tempo picks up with Jans’ drums and Gijs throbbing Rickenbacker bass guitar propelling Rinie’s expressive and melodic guitar lines, all over Ron’s background keyboard wash. There is both a carefree calmness and yet a feeling of the unknown as the thoughts of children begin to develop into those of adults. The flowing instrumentation of these opening tracks gradually draws us into the music and sets us up for the rest of the album.
Climbing Mountains charts the start of many people’s working life. That competitive urge to be successful in work, life and society as a whole, without thought to all the people that might be hurt in the process. The track has a suitably rhythmic swagger of an ambitious young man on the way up and Mark’s higher, harmonised vocal range lift the song very effectively and give it an accessible and contemporary feel.
the less I care about what isn’t higher.
Higher than wings can fly.”
Sjoerd’s violin and Judith’s flute add subtle, thoughtful nuances to the music and Jens’ engaging and powerful electric guitar lines dominate throughout, although Ron’s mid-point keyboard notes have a dreamy Floydian feel to them.
Blind to Reality maintains the continuity of the previous track musically, but the lyrics take on a darker turn as the realisation of the price paid for our protagonist’s ambition begins to become clearer. There is some gorgeous resonating bass guitar to drive the song through, with Jens and Rinie trading some well-judged guitar interplay while Mark delivers some evocative vocals.
Reaching the brink of insanity.
That coldness inside me
Is making me blind to reality.”
It marks a pivotal stage in the album’s narrative. As Ron states, “You don’t see the things that really matter, like family, friends and relatives. We are born to love, but we learn to hate…. It’s up to us where we reach for.”
This resulting mood switch is crystallised within the darker edged instrumental, Despair. The intensity is brought up a few more notches and there is even a prog-metal splendour over Gijs’ urgent drumming, with insistent twin guitar attack, and a touch of e-bow, and a swaying heavy bass riff providing a refreshing tonal contrast to the album.
Mask – the epic 12-minute centrepiece of the album – is a neo-prog tour-de-force. Majestic keyboards smoothly herald lusher guitar playing before Mark’s poignant and reflective vocals recall Ron’s own spiritual awakening and Christian conversion, which he admits turned his life around. It is a turning away from all of the negativity of the past and the embracing of the positive message he found within him – with the mask a metaphor of that previous, false persona.
But the overwhelming strength
was too strong.
Just too strong.
So look into the mirror of your heart
And take off your mask.
Take off your mask now.”
The spiritual message is handled subtly and adds light to the sumptuous feast of interweaving and soaring guitar and uplifting proggy keyboard noodlings from Ron and Jan Munnik – all supported by a solid rhythmic foundation. A plaintive violin brings this beautiful track to a close and overall, this is confident, melodic progressive rock of the highest order for any neo-prog and symphonic prog aficionados out there to savour.
Renewal begins with some gentle, cathartic piano before the tempo increases and becomes more upbeat – to reflect the state of happiness Ron felt after making that life choice. There is a catchy chorus of “Renew my life”, with violin, flute and acoustic guitar adding sparkle to more effervescent electric guitar from Rinie. While Unconditional begins rather sombrely (almost reprising the ambient feel of Before the Dawn/Birth), the positivity of the previous track continues with Ron’s buoyant love song for Betty, for still being there for him through thick and thin. It is an infectious, unashamedly commercial slice of ‘feel-good’ pop music, with Mark’s vocals soaring high over the ensemble playing. Aad Bannink also delivers a lovely guitar solo on this one.
The album is rounded off nicely with the more reflective and contemplative Future. Although initially lower key than much that has come before, the track soon gains gravitas and provides another stunning showcase for some complex and progressive guitar excursions as the bass twists and turns beneath and Ron provides stabs of piano to accompany the more measured tempo. There are musical moments when the ongoing struggles of life are hinted at, but the tone is now an optimistic one. Mark’s vocals have a more relaxed feel to match his lyrics, as the song looks forward into the future.
Let the future carry me.”
Ron reflects that, “When you make a positive choice in life, the road we walk is not always clear and easy, but the destination is bright, and so there is always hope for the future.”
Mask by The Foundation is an excellent, deeply personal concept album of enthralling melodic, symphonic, and neo-prog which never ceases to entertain with its stunning and exuberant guitars, vibrant keyboards and a quality and expressive rhythm section. The synergy between the musicians is wonderful and there is both complexity and accessibility on show. The expressive and appealing vocals and lyrics reveal a thoughtful and relatable narrative and a spiritually uplifting message. Another modern prog discovery, this time from the Netherlands, that I heartedly recommend you explore further. I look forward to Ron Lammers’ future work if it matches the quality of this debut release (a sequel is already being considered). Check them out on Bandcamp now!
01. Before the Dawn (4:30)
02. Birth (3:13)
03. Climbing Mountains (5:00)
04. Blind to Reality (4:51)
05. Despair (3:38)
06. Mask (12:13)
07. Renewal (4:33)
08. Unconditional (4:02)
09. Future (7:21)
Total Time – 49:21
Ron Lammers – Keyboards
Mark Smit – Vocals (tracks 3,4,6,7,8 & 9)
Rinie Huigen – Electric & Acoustic Guitar (tracks 2,4,5,6,7,8 & 9)
Jens van der Valk – Electric Guitar, E-bow (tracks 1,3,4,5 & 8)
Gijs Koopman – Bass Guitar, Taurus Pedals, Additional Keyboards
Jan Grijpstra – Drums
Jan Munnik – Keyboards (tracks 4,6,7 & 8)
Sjoerd Bearda – Violin (tracks 1,3,6 & 7)
Judith van der Valk – Flute (tracks 3 & 7)
Aad Bannink – Electric Guitar Solo (track 8)
Record Label: Xymphonia Records
Formats: CD, Digital
Country of Origin: The Netherlands
Date of Release: 30th June 2023