The Lightmaker is the highly anticipated new album by Nine Skies, the French progressive rock project led by Anne-Claire Rallo and Alexandre Lamia. It is an impressive and musically expansive concept album that reflects on the human condition. It tells the story of Rudy, who is now living his 1,001st and final life. The album retraces some of his existences through the viewpoint of several characters and the introspection of these various incarnations. Dedicated to the memory of Anne-Claire’s husband, much missed musician Eric Bouillette, who sadly passed away from cancer last year, the album has a suitably contemplative and poignant feel and broad, almost theatrical sweep throughout.
Nine Skies’ previous album 5.20 was one of my favourite albums of 2021, and it is a pleasure to see the band not only returning to active duty, but with such a vibrant, challenging and ambitious concept album full of light and shade and with a wealth of diverse progressive rock elements.
The core quintet of Nine Skies are Anne-Claire Rallo (keyboards), Alexandre Lamia (guitars & piano), David Darnaud (guitars), Alexis Bietti (bass) and Johnny Marter (drums), joined by a host of guest vocalists and other musicians. As a result, each track deliberately has its own character, but are all linked by a common thematic thread running through them – much as it does in Rudy’s long series of multiple lives.
Intro: An Fánai is the atmospheric instrumental that opens the album and sets the musical tone for what will follow. It translates as ‘wanderer’ and from its windswept soundscape and beautiful, chiming, acoustic guitar lines, subtle percussion and slightly unsettling background chords and bells, we know we are on a long and thoughtful journey through the eyes of Rudy.
The Explorer follows with Riccardo Romano’s plaintive vocals complementing the shifting musical ensemble work, which rises and falls in tempo, with drums and bass providing the foundation over which piano, acoustic and electric guitar take their turn to move the song forward. Riccardo is the keyboardist for the Steve Rothery Band but has been pencilled in as the live vocalist on the band’s tour that follows the album’s release. Some nice, concise lyrical soloing punctuates Riccardo’s wistful singing, which can rise to a shout and then fall to a whisper as he recalls his many journeys through his transient life as an explorer. A man who dreams of finding a place to rest, but who has always needed to move on through his numerous lives.
I have found a new path now.
I found a new home.
Cause I am the explorer.”
The Room’s lead vocalist Martin Wilson brings his powerful and expressive singing to The Dreamer. Orchestral string effects flow into acoustic guitar and some nicely judged bass patterns and piano notes. Lyrically, the song continues the melancholic and regretful theme of the previous track.
Once delusion is over?
Does it really end,
Really end my friend?”
There is an earthy spoken passage from Martin that contrasts well to the poetic grandeur elsewhere, with more resonating electric guitar soloing over busy, intricate drum patterns.
Beautiful as the music has been so far, the power and intensity of The Chaotic is a welcome shift in the musical template. Dynamic metal-like guitar riffs and a swirl of theatrical vocal duetting from Laura Piazzai and Arnaud Quevado, create a discordant blending of music and words, with an unsettling edge, heightened by bursts of frantic rhythm from Johnny and Alexis. The progressive keyboards of Adam Holzman are a joy to behold, especially the extended solo, and his playing both stands aloof from the instrumental maelstrom and guitar shredding beneath, but also complements it so well. The shock of the new and the virtual chaos felt by Rudy are all expressed in the whirlpool of lyrics.
Kristoffer Gildenlöw joins on vocals and bass for The Lost. The former Pain of Salvation bassist, amongst many other group and solo projects (including Kayak in recent years), brings his deeper, rugged vocal register to a much darker and eerie track. Starting with the ominous tolling of bells and switching between creeping acoustic guitar and Opeth-like heaviness, the track is the black heart of the album with its sense of loneliness and isolation and nightmarish lyrics as Rudy becomes “Mr Nobody.”
Dark mane and black eyes.
This is my spirit embodied.
Dancing under the moon,
Begging for redemption.
Wandering until dawn.”
Interlude: The Wanderer maintains the unsettling atmosphere but is a quieter and ethereal piece of music with strummed bass guitar from Alexis and dreamy, wordless vocals from a 50-strong choir (taking part as a lovely tribute to Eric) proving a brief respite before the final two epic tracks.
Charlie Bramald (Ghost of the Machine, Nova Cascade, Zio ,etc.) brings his wonderful, soaring vocal skills to The Haunted. There is a lightness of spirit and a dance-like rhythm and flow to the music at times, but then subtle shifts in ambience, as the lyrics highlight the waves of emotions Rudy feels as the character of The Haunted, from joy to dread and back again, as he seemingly floats and dreamily drifts – haunted by the ghosts and experiences of the past. Perhaps Rudy is aware he can only run and dance for so long over the course of his many lives? Is he “the acrobat” balancing the aspects of his lives – his hopes and fears?
There is time for keyboards and guitars to interweave mysteriously as the narrative twists and turns, reminding us that our lives take many such changes as we dance through our own lives. Charlie delivers Rudy’s spoken lines over an ambient soundscape, which both aims to reassure the listener (or even comfort himself), as well as warn of life’s uncertainties.
The sun always ends up rising…”
“I feel like a mystery box.
Floating on the violent shores of life.
Overwhelmed by waves of feeling.
Unable to reach illusion of comfort.”
For me the song conjures up almost a Poe-like ‘dream within a dream’ unearthly feel to it. However, the words are suitably ambiguous and open to your own interpretation, and the song really have a dark, poetic beauty. A track to ponder for sure.
Last up is The Architect – Rudy’s final character – and it continues the narrative theme from the last song. Achraf El Asraoui returns to the band and delivers some lovely, floating vocals, over understated guitar chords and motifs, as Rudy considers the end of his existence and what has been learnt, pondering some big questions in the process,
To fill, to fill,
Like an irrational fear of the void.
To fill, to fill.
But is all this real?
What will remain when I’m gone?
Feelings, Illusions, Truth,
The instrumentation increasingly becomes more complex and multi-faceted, and the band deliver dynamic stabs of heavier rock elements and electric guitars from David and Alexandre, with guest drummer Marco Minnemann handling all the changes in tempo impeccably, in tandem with Alexis’s pulsating bass. Anne-Claire’s keyboard patterns weave magic in the background, and Achraf also uses spoken lyrics to great effect – even reprising Charlie’s ‘mystery box’ metaphor from earlier.
There are jazzy elements amongst the neo-prog, and even some lush symphonic prog over which the ubiquitous John Mitchell guests with some beautiful and soaring guitar soloing – as Marco leads us forward on Rudy’s climatic final march. However, the album ends on a more gentle and bitter-sweet note as the bowed guitar is slowly replaced by some enigmatic keyboards from Anne-Claire and the sound of time clicking away for Rudy one last time.
Although the tracks stand up on their own, the album is best enjoyed in a single one-hour sitting, with the narrative allowed to flow through the myriad of songs and the undulating musical variety. For Anne-Claire, Alexandre and the core band, the album is clearly an artistic labour of love, and the spirit of Eric Bouillette can still be found if you take the time to immerse yourself within the music and the lyrics. The artwork is a thing of beauty alone, with each persona of Rudy portrayed in card form.
The Lightmaker is progressive rock of the highest order. Nine Skies have returned with a stunning concept album reflecting on the human condition through a compelling reflection of the many distinct characters and lives of its chief protagonist. Guest vocalists and musicians add a distinct flavour to each song, whilst the band produce intricate ensemble instrumentation as dense and sumptuous as you’d find on any prog epic, yet with haunting, emotive and fragile moments of pastoral and acoustic beauty. It’s a release that will undoubtedly reward you time and time again, the more you invest yourself within it. Another of my albums of the year for sure!
01. Intro: An Fánai (2:38)
02. The Explorer (6:08)
03. The Dreamer (8:01)
04. The Chaotic (7:18)
05. The Lost (9:12)
06. Interlude: The Wanderer (1:27)
07. The Haunted (11:25)
08. The Architect (11:18)
Total Time – 57:27
Anne-Claire Rallo – Keyboards
Alexandre Lamia – Guitars, Piano
David Darnaud – Guitars
Alexis Bietti – Bass
Johnny Marter – Drums
Riccardo Romano – Vocals (track 2)
Martin Wilson – Vocals (track 3)
Arnaud Quevedo – Vocals (track 4)
Laura Piazzai – Vocals (track 4)
Adam Holzman – Keyboards (track 4)
Kristoffer Gildenlöw – Vocals, Bass (track 5)
Charlie Bramald – Vocals (track 7)
Achraf El Asraoui – Vocals (track 8)
Marco Minnemann – Drums (track 8)
John Mitchell – Guitar Solo (track 8)
50-person choir (track 6)
Eric Bouillette (RIP) – Acoustic Guitar (track 3)
Record Label: Independent
Formats: CD, Digital
Country of Origin: France | U.K.
Date of Release: 18th September 2023