Planetary Overload Part 2: Hope is the third ambitious album from the United Progressive Fraternity, a project established by vocalist Mark Trueack, who first came to prominence in Unitopia. It has been four years since the first Planetary Overload album, subtitled Loss, but Mark Trueack and his musical partner Steve Unruh have certainly not been idle, presenting here a substantial and widescreen double album, along with a bonus disc of their side project, Romantechs II. United Progressive Fraternity return to the environmentally conscious themes of previous albums, moving on from the stark warnings and lamentations of Loss with a message full of Hope in this latest release.
For the uninitiated, what is the United Progressive Fraternity and what are their origins?
United Progressive Fraternity (UPF) grew out of the ashes of the excellent Australian progressive rock band Unitopia, led by Trueack and Sean Timms, which imploded in about 2012 (but the good news is that they have recently re-formed and will be touring and releasing a new album in 2023). Timms went on to form Southern Empire (who also have a new album imminently – ambassadors, you’re spoiling us!). Simultaneously, Trueack formed UPF, and their debut Fall in Love with the World was released in 2014. Featuring other ex-Unitopia members, that album first touched on Trueack’s environmental concerns. Trueack’s vision was to form a collective of artists and activists around the globe to focus on the environment. Fall in Love with the World was largely based songs already co-written with Sean Timms for the abandoned Unitopia album Turn Left, with the songs shared between UPF and Southern Empire. Consequently, with songs co-written with Timms and played with some ex-Unitopia members, Fall in Love with the World had a distinctly Unitopia feel. In contrast, Planetary Overload Part 1: Loss went in rather a different direction away from the Unitopia template, with the influence and involvement of Steve Unruh. Planetary Overload Part 2: Hope continues very much in the vein of its predecessor, but in an even more expansive and diverse manner. Unruh, who also plays with Resistor and The Samurai of Prog, is a multi-instrumentalist who seems equally assured on violin, guitars, mandolin, flute and percussion, and his range of talents and style is clearly imprinted on this sprawling third UPF album… indeed, such is the dimension of this release it’s almost too much to take in all at once and needs some time to absorb its sheer scale and diversity. It certainly took this listener a few listens for it to reveal its qualities more fully, but some things are worth investing time in.
As a piece of art focused on the Earth’s environment it is entirely apt that Planetary Overload Part 2: Hope embraces a whole range of musical styles including jazz, rock, fusion, progressive rock, acoustic, dance rhythms and all sorts of ethnic influences. This gives the whole album a very diverse feel with something to appeal to many tastes. This approach is typified in the expansive and portentous opener Hope Is / Drums of Hope which commences with a synth wash and subtle percussion, with echoes of classic Jon and Vangelis, before a delicate flute joins Mark Trueack’s fine vocal – his voice has such a distinctive and engaging timbre which draws in the listener. The tempo and volume increases as a choral backing chants the refrain, with tribal drumming adding the feeling of a march, joined by a finely judged guitar. It’s a classic way to open the album, like the credits to a movie unveiling the scene. The percussion builds and builds, the last two minutes a drumming masterclass.
This album has quite an array of musicians, including a multitude of drummers – Tommy Murray, Hans Jorg Schmitz, Chus Gancedo, Daniele Giovannoni, Lisa Wetton and the legendary Peter Gabriel drummer Jerry Marotta. It is apt that Jerry Marotta’s Peter Gabriel connection is mentioned because there is a seamless segue into Love Never Leaves Us which rolls along with a classic Gabriel-esque rhythm played with such skill and intuition by Lisa Wetton on drums and percussion, alongside Trueack’s smooth vocal style. This is an enjoyable percussive ride with horn stabs and an engaging jazzy groove, with a subtle Spanish guitar and piano interlude.
As a concept album focused on the environment, the songs are interwoven with informative and inspirational quotes from figures such as Gerd Leonard, Sir David Attenborough and Chief Oren Lyons. These quotes are skilfully placed and, in general, the music flows, particularly The Answer which has an easy-going intro with flights of violin and saxophone before Trueack’s warm baritone intones a message of warning over a building tempo and volume, which just about sums up the main theme of the whole album:
a wave of entitlement causing this strain, outsized lives in a shrinking world, taken for granted.
Not that it’s easy being equal, seeing clearly, will we wait ’til we find the day is dark,
the seeds we plant do not grow, is something wrong with the lives we teach,
it’s calling, but who is listening now?”
One of the album’s main centrepieces is the epic Being of Equal, which in its nearly 21-minutes encapsulates the feeling and range of this ambitious project. An eerie synth opening is embroidered with Eastern sitar sounds and flutes as Trueack’s resonant voice intones with feeling. The pace picks up with the introduction of a pulsing synth and throbbing bass, joined with guitars, drums and a brief but great Hammond organ passage. A series of cascading vocals flows over an increasingly heavy backing with some great bass and drums driving it all forward. This storm soon subsides into the delightfully lilting ‘spinning on the surface’ section, a much softer passage with acoustic guitar, finely judged drums and gentle bass underpinning Trueack’s lovely vocals. This gentler passage softens even further as we seemingly enter a musical forest glade with soft percussion and harmony vocals. The piece suddenly opens up with forceful guitar and drums, a serpentine synth solo erupting as we are plunged into a more frenzied section. Rising multi-layered vocals ride on a growing wave of scintillating rock which builds in intensity on soaring guitars and forceful drums. The chant-like backing vocals cast a spell as this remarkable section careers towards a crashing conclusion. Out of the musical rubble emerges a chiming guitar and subtle synth line, underneath a much mellower Trueack vocal in quite a contemplative coda. This is a rather epic piece and initially it took me a while to ‘get’ it, but it did click in time and revealed itself to be an impressive and imaginative fusion of styles, melding together differing sections with great skill and artistry, typifying much of this album.
Mark Trueack and Steve Unruh commenced work on Planetary Overload Part 2: Hope in 2015, and over the intervening years they recruited a multitude of musicians to help them realise their vision, including Steve Hackett, Nick Magnus (formerly of Hackett’s band), Michel St-père of Mystery, Charlie Cawood of Knifeworld (and now Kyros), Hasse Fröberg and Jonas Reingold of The Flower Kings fame, piano prodigy Rachel Flowers, Ryo Okumoto of Spock’s Beard, and a reunion with Unitopia co-founder Sean Timms, amongst many others. The album was largely produced remotely with contributions file shared, but remarkably Unruh and Trueack have managed to pull together the many musicians and strands into cohesive sounding songs. Nevertheless, this is a huge project, and taking it all in is quite a challenge. Steve Unruh explained that “audiences can hear the record on their own terms” and that UPF cannot assume “people have uninterrupted two-hour listening sessions! We definitely wanted to break it up into digestible chapters”. He went on to explain that the songs “ebb and flow nicely for those who want to journey through the whole thing at once. We really tried to make something new and unique, letting the compositions evolve naturally rather than copying or forcing styles”.
This is definitely an album with a range of different styles, as shown in the energetic rocker that follows the epic Being of Equal as UPF blast in with the insistent and sometimes discordant Islands, with sax stabs, angular piano and angry vocals. The short dream-like Chants of Hope with a synth spiral, subtle bass and violin soon soothes the listener before the door is flung open with the swaggering horn-filled and thrusting Homosapien – it really is impossible to know in which direction this album will go next!
Mark Trueack has a beautifully resonant and rich voice which is showcased on the lovely Who We Really Are, accompanied melodically by piano, violin and gorgeous harmony vocals. In contrast, the lengthier We Only Get One Chance starts with an almost Country-style guitar, before an electric guitar passage injects a much more portentous feel, dropping to a more melodic section with violin keening lightly in the background… and later there is a female French vocal. This is actually a piece in which its melange of styles meant this listener could not get engaged with the song – it seemed to lack the ‘Golden Thread’ needed to hold it all together. Let’s face it, it’s very difficult to hold the attention across two hours of music, but others may find this song more appealing.
The crunching electric guitar led Faultline is altogether more impactful and coherent, with Jethro Tull-like flute from Unruh. Horns impart a real sense of swagger to give this powerful, catchy, jazzy rocker a real sheen of class. Similarly later on, the driving rock song Stabilization, after a restrained opening, really grabs the attention with some great drumming and tremendous violin and guitar solos. The diversity and subtle artistry of United Progressive Fraternity is displayed on the resplendent and diaphanous charm of The Bees in Us, which commences with a whispered vocal and gently tripping piano, developing into a beautiful pastoral lament about nature, suffused with sweet backing vocals and floating flute lines.
Return to Earth shimmers in delicately before the song takes up a very Gabriel-esque percussive rhythm and melodious flow, underpinning Trueack’s anthemic and optimistic refrain “We are Amazing”, hoping that we still have it in us to change environmental behaviours. The following Hymn of Hope is practically a classical choral piece with interwoven violin which seems to rise and rise… and by this time perhaps my attention levels were waning as the message and the feel of the album had become somewhat repetitious by this stage, but others may have more stamina and can stay the full course. As Unruh suggested, perhaps I need to listen to the final section as a separate piece? As the name suggests the final piece Reprise returns to much of the same ground already covered musically and lyrically, but does it in fine style with rather a hypnotic jazzy groove.
Like its predecessor, this album comes with a bonus disc of songs by Trueack, Unruh and Christophe Lebled, calling themselves ‘Romantechs’, in which they ‘re-imagine’ some of the songs or sections, such as Spinning on the Surface, based on a section of the epic Being of Equal. These songs are framed in romantic and simple formats and there are distinct echoes of Jon and Vangelis. The soft vocal harmonies and gentle instrumentation are sweet, but they definitely need to be seen as a separate ‘bonus’ as they do not really fit the feel of the rest of the album. However, this bonus disc is adorned with two standout jewels as the Romantechs perform two gorgeous alternative versions of two of Unitopia’s greatest tracks. Justified mirrors Justify from More Than a Dream, and most beautifully the extended Secret Garden presents an absolutely gorgeous take on Unitopia’s tremendous classic epic The Garden, particularly the beguiling final refrain. The problem with adding these on a bonus disc is that there is a risk that they outshine some of the material on the main album, although it may just be that familiarity with two much loved original versions may influence that view.
Well, there you have it – a rather mammoth album with clearly noble and important themes and intentions… but does it work as an album?
The answer is a definite, but qualified, ‘Yes’.
Planetary Overload Part 2: Hope is an album brimming over with passion and positivity, conveyed in a rich tapestry of styles, fused together with great skill, imagination and artistry. However, in my view it has to be said that United Progressive Fraternity are asking a lot from the listener with the sheer size and diversity of the album. Unruh has shared that they worked from scores of demos, and perhaps they needed to be a little more discerning in paring this album down a little more – two hours of music (and over three hours if you include the bonus disc) is simply too much to absorb for most listeners, meaning that standout songs are in danger of being a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of other music, and sometimes rather similar sounding pieces. Sometimes less is indeed more. However, that is a relatively minor quibble. I have persisted with this album for a while now (just finding the time to listen to it in a busy life is a challenge!) and I have to conclude that I am glad I stayed the course because this is definitely an album which benefits from repeated listens.
Overall, Planetary Overload Part 2: Hope is an inspiring album, intuitively fusing together a great range of influences, and fizzing with ideas and kaleidoscopic sounds. United Progressive Fraternity have vibrantly and imaginatively focused upon the crucial subjects of environmental and humanitarian issues with great passion, commitment and consummate skill.
01. Hope Is/Drums of Hope (7:43)
02. Love Never Leaves Us (7:42)
03. Soundscaped Quote: Gerd Leonhard (0:47)
04. The Answer (5:30)
05. Being of Equal (20:48)
06. Islands (5:11)
07. Transition – Tuning In (0:25)
08. Chants of Hope (2:23)
09. Homosapien (6:20)
10. Quote: Sir David Attenborough (0:42)
11. Who We Really Are (3:53)
12. We Only Get One Chance (10:02)
13. Transition – Suspense(0:12)
14. Faultline (6:37)
15. Learning (4:34)
16. Stabilization (8:02)
17. The Bees in Us (6:39)
18. Quote: Chief Oren Lyons (1:01)
19. The Changes We Make (4:59)
20. Return to Earth (5:14)
21. Hymn of Hope (6:51)
22. Reprise (4:22)
Time – 119:57
Romantechs: Romantechs II
01. The Secret Life of Light (5:12)
02. Mechanical Love (5:12)
03. New Beginning (5:05)
04. Running Water (7:44)
05. Reflect (4:23)
06. Spinning on the Surface (7:53)
07. The First Kiss (5:14)
08. Justified (11:38)
09. Secret Garden (15:49)
Time – 68:10
Total Time – 188:07
Mark ‘Truey’ Trueack – Vocals, Songwriting
Steve Unruh – Guitars, Sitar Guitar, Bass, Bass Pedals, Thumb Piano, Violin, Flute, Wind Chimes, Tambourine, Percussion, Narration, Lead & Harmony Vocals
Christophe Lebled – Keyboards, Synth Bass, Programmed Percussion, Sequences, Soundscapes, Programming, Arrangement
Gordo Bennett – Keyboards, Piano, Orchestral Programming, Soundscapes, Guitars
Ben Craven – Keyboards, Lead & Rhythm Guitars
Nick Magnus – Piano, Mad Scientist Brass Section
Rachel Flowers – Piano, Fretless Bass, Vocals, Multi-layered Harmony Vocals
Dale Nougher – Keyboards, Loops, Samples
Ryo Okumoto – Hammond Organ, Minimoog
Alex Grata – Keyboards
Sam Greenwood – Grand Piano
Sean Timms – Piano, Loops
Jean Pierre Louveton – Rhythm Guitars, Bass, Keyboards
John Greenwood – Guitars, Nylon-string Guitar
Peter Lazar – Guitars, Keyboards, Bass, Loops, Soundscapes
Tony Riveryman (aka Toni Jokinen) – Guitar, Keyboards
Charlie Cawood – Sitar, Glockenspiel, Harp, Electric Guitars, Zither, Daruan, Tremolo Bass, Liuqin, Nylon-string Guitar
Steve Hackett – Fernandez Sustainer Guitar
Michel St-Père – Guitars
Matt Williams – Guitars, Slide Guitar
Don Schiff – Bass, Stickbass, Upright Bass, Cello, Keyboard Strings
Colin Edwin – Fretless Bass, eBow Bass
Jonas Reingold – Bass
Lisa Wetton – Drums & Percussion
Tommy Murray – Drums
Hans Jorg Schmitz – Drums
Chus Gancedo – Drums
Daniele Giovannoni – Drums
Jerry Marotta – Drums, Taos Drum, Spring Shaker, Weasel, Cymbal FX, Rain Stick, Congas, Surdo
Clive Hodson – Horns, Alto & Tenor Saxophones, Trombone
Jamison Smeltz – Alto, Tenor & Baritone Saxophones
Ian Ritchie – Saxophone
Brendon Darby – Horns, Trumpet, Flugal Horn, Flugal & Harmon Mute Solos
Rod Ennis – French Horn
Hasse Fröberg – Lead & Harmony Vocals
Claire Vezina – Vocals
Michelle Young – Harmony Vocals
Jeramy Stanton Essary – Harmony Vocals
Elisa Montaldo – Harmony Vocals
Record Label: Progrock.com Essentials
Country of Origin: International
Date of Release: 15th July 2023
– Fall in Love with the World (2014)
– Planetary Overload Part 1: Loss (2019)
– Planetary Overload Part 1: Hope (2023)