Welsh band Retreat From Moscow came out of nowhere in early 2022 with one of the best debut ‘Prog’ albums of 2022, The World As We Knew It. They now follow it up with an ambitious release suffused with a heady mixture of Welsh and Greek mythology, reflections on colonial whitewashing and bleak visions of dystopian futures in Dreams, Myths and Machines. Surpassing – or even matching – the debut was always going to be a challenge, but the band have produced an imaginative and skilfully realised album.
For the uninitiated, Retreat From Moscow have roots going right back to around 1979 when they gigged for a couple of years, releasing one single. Bassist Anthony Lewis has shared that their peculiar name came from a suggestion from Andrew Raymond, who was reading a book about Napoleon at the time. The band loved the pomposity of this unlikely name as they wanted to sound unashamedly prog at the time of the punk onslaught – they even used to play the 1812 Overture before they came on stage in their early days! However, it appears that real life then took over and they put their youthful aspirations seemingly on permanent hold. Unexpectedly, they got together again in 2016, as rather more mature musicians, and set about recording their long-delayed debut album, only for it to be delayed again by the pandemic. Eventually, Robin Armstrong was impressed enough to release the album on his Gravity Dream label, over forty years since they first formed. If the Cosmograf man sees and hears something he likes in them it is definitely worth investigating. Robin Armstrong even guests on one of the tracks on this second album, along with Andy Tillison of The Tangent.
Saving California starts the album impressively with a tale of the genocidal effects on the indigenous American population of zealous conquistadors and missionaries. Echoing drums from Greg Haver enter over a sinister synth and subtle bass line before the piece opens out with a memorable keyboard sequence. This is reminiscent of late ’70s Genesis in the …And Then There Were Three… era, accessible and melodic but also with expansive elements. The song then recedes into a much more pastoral and reflective final section, seemingly bringing the story into the present day, perhaps referencing demonstrations by modern indigenous North Americans. As an opener, it definitely draws the listener in, before launching into one of the main highlights of Dreams, Myths and Machines. The second piece transports us from California into the realm of ancient Welsh legend in Flowerbride. Driving rock with a great synth melody plunges us into the world of Celtic myth, described in the Mabinigion, a book of Welsh legend that references Goronwy, Gwidion and the Flowerbride herself, Bloddeuedd. John Harris sings this rip-roaring ride of a song so fluidly, borne along by high quality bass playing from Anthony Lewis and excellent drumming from Greg Haver, as they do throughout the album. Harris uses his Roland GR300 Guitar Synth for an expressive and angular guitar solo, like the tendrils of a plant growing. On the whole this is not an album shot through with flamboyant or self-indulgent solos – it is characterised by excellent ensemble playing by a band in tune with each other, all contributing to the whole.
Retreat From Moscow can also just rock out, as in the much more straight-ahead Running Man, which flies along at pace, as you would expect, with a great Hammond organ solo in the middle and some unexpectedly gruff and powerful rock vocals from the versatile Harris. Things get decidedly bleaker as the focus moves to the homeless in the striking Windchill, with some lyrics from bassist Anthony Lewis. It was one of two songs recorded at the iconic Rockfield studios in Wales. Windchill features distinctive and suitably additional icy guitar solos from Robin Armstrong, effectively emphasising the anger about the plight of the homeless, whom we pass every day in the street, often without a second glance:
To rage against the sight of this injustice”
What is interesting about this set of songs is the diversity of stories and styles, typified by the transition from the stark social commentary of Windchill into the sci-fi synth soundscapes of Time Traveller. Just when you think you are floating off into space the band spectacularly erupt, with the high-class rhythm section of Haver and Lewis laying down a groove-laden rock-solid foundation. This song also characterises an essential quality which makes this band stand out – their songs are jam packed full of memorable melodies and hooks which make them so accessible and enjoyable. A crisp, short guitar solo embellishes the song, but we are soon back to the main infectious riff. Later on, a very Caravan-like organ solo beautifully illustrates the latter section before Harris’s great harmony vocals come in and the band drive along at quite a pace. A fluid guitar rides along on a wall of drums and bass before it all ends with Harris’s echoing voice. This is a cracking song, but so many songs stand out on this album.
Whilst their debut was retrospectively focussed on memories of the band’s early days in the late ’70s/early ’80s, Dreams, Myths and Machines is “the band embracing our present and the lives we’ve led”, according to drummer Greg Haver. John Harris adds, “the new album is an exciting blend of stories past and present framed within the Retreat From Moscow prog rock soundscape”. The style of these albums clearly mark out Retreat From Moscow as a band with origins in the early ’80s prog scene, with clear nods to Marillion and It Bites, and with some influences stretching back to the classic Prog of the ’70s. Some people get irritated by the application of labels and comparisons with other artists (which can be a risk at times, especially if overdone), but it can be difficult to convey what music sounds like with just the written word and no comparisons. However, let’s be really clear here – Retreat From Moscow are a class act and not some tired and cliched set of musicians aping musical heroes – there’s simply too much musical imagination, lyricism, musicianship and flair in these original an engaging songs.
There are a couple of epic tracks, The Machine Stops and I Can Hear You Calling, Retreat From Moscow extending themselves within more ambitious pieces. The Machine Stops is a dystopian tale of future subterranean living, in which a young man aspires to free himself, featuring a keyboard solo from Andy Tillison, who also provides ‘organ embellishments’ (the mind boggles!). The opening section sets the scene with assurance, opening out dramatically with a thrilling and appropriately ascending synth solo as our hero climbs from the depths. A lilting piano and finely judged bass accompany our hero as he reaches the surface before, with the sound of a flute, he is taken down below again. This song fuses influences from ’80s Marillion with elements of ’70s Genesis. However, the strength of the opening half is not sustained for me and it feels like the piece loses momentum, becoming less fluid in the latter section, and then it just suddenly stops… presumably like the machine? To be fair, that more dislocated feel to the music also reflects the narrative of the song as the main character struggles to make sense of his world, so I may just not ‘get it’! It is well-crafted with some excellent passages, but as a whole I am just not sure it works for me as a rounded and honed piece, which is always a challenge over 13 minutes, but this is a minor quibble in a generally very impressive album.
In contrast, the earlier epic I Can Hear You Calling is successfully and engagingly sustained over its 11 minutes, written mainly by keyboard player Andrew Raymond, with input from other band members. Ambitiously, the band turn from Welsh legend and tackle Greek mythology, basing this song upon two parts of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Commencing with an insistent organ riff, reminiscent of Watcher of the Skies, the electric guitar soon kicks in before a synth takes up the melody, followed by the guitar. Guitars and keyboards constantly interchange throughout the song. The vocals are shared with the sensual vocals of Jillian Slade, singing as the nymph character Calypso, who detained Odysseus for seven years on an island, hoping he would become her husband. However, he only wants to return home to his wife, Penelope, of whom he mournfully and repeatedly sings, “I Can Hear You Calling Now”. The restrained and melancholic first section reflects Odysseus’ sorrow and his desire to return home, conveyed with delicate emotion by John Harris in a fine vocal performance. The story and the song takes a dramatic turn halfway through with a stirring rock passage, with soaring, flowing guitars and a battery of bass and drums. The second section focuses on Odysseus’s return home to Ithaca where he finds a multitude of suitors pressing their attentions on his wife and abusing her hospitality, assuming that her husband is dead. There is menace and anger in the music as Odysseus wreaks his revenge on these suitors, with some great organ work and a particularly serpentine and thrilling synth solo conveying the drama. Towards the end, the main theme is recapitulated briefly to bring the song home with Jillian Slade’s lovely voice returning as Penelope welcomes her husband home. This is an outstanding song which smoothly pulls together disparate narrative and musical elements, evocatively telling the story.
The final song, DNA, stands out as being really rather different as it pulses in with a peculiar synth wave and fat guitar or bass, eerie sounds floating around before an insistent drum beat marches the song onwards. Harris adds regal guitar lines as this powerful song rumbles forward before dropping into a more reflective phase with a wistful synth line over a gentle piano and melodic bass. The multi-talented Harris plays a sweet flute under the voice of Drew Berry, an American biomedical animator, talking about the flow of genes from one generation to the next. Dreams, Myths and Machines is characterised with some fascinating and poetic lyrics here, particularly during the stirring finale:
Neural pathways, subconscious control,
Nature, Nurture, counting the ways,
Dual Helix, subliminal daze”
This song was inspired during the Covid lockdown when John Harris’s parents came to live with him, underlining to him the family traits shared between the generations, from his parents and on to his own children, encouraging him to read about these genetic links and how we develop our own personalities. There is an anthemic quality to the final section, with engaging melodic rock as the whole band locks in smoothly, and passionate vocals from Harris with a final ascent into a great passage where a majestic guitar and glorious keyboard intertwine. Perhaps appropriately for a song about passing on genes into the future, the track fades away. An excellent way to finish the album.
There you have it – Retreat From Moscow’s second album (I’ll try to avoid the ‘difficult’ second album cliché… the band clearly did!). Their first album came out of the blue and surprised me, but I am pleased to report that Retreat From Moscow have built on that success with a high-quality second release. It amazes me that this band took so long to get their music out there – they clearly have so much songwriting talent and outstanding musical skills.
If you like free-flowing, melodic progressive rock filled with interesting lyrics, earworm hooks and some great riffs played with skill and flair then this is definitely the album for you. Retreat From Moscow are very much advancing with the excellent Dreams, Myths and Machines.
01. Saving California (7:50)
02. Flowerbride (8:23)
03. Running Man (4:11)
04. I Can Hear You Calling (11:37)
05. Windchill (7:32)
06. Time Traveller (7:26)
07. The Machine Stops (13:32)
08. Assassin’s Cloak (5:36)
09. DNA (9:26)
Total Time – 75:43
Andrew Raymond – Keyboards, Guitar, Pedal Steel Guitar
John Harris – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Flute, Keyboards, Roland GR300 Guitar Synth, E-Bow
Greg Haver – Drums & Percussion
Tony Lewis – Wal Basses, Voice (of the ‘Mending Committee’)
Robin Armstrong – Additional Guitar Solos (track 5)
Andy Tillison – Keyboard Solo, Organ Embellishment (track 7)
Peter Kirby – Additional Piano, Synths (tracks 2 & 8)
Jillian Slade – Vocals (track 4)
Record Label: Gravity Dream
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 18th August 2023
– The World As We Knew It (2022)
– Dreams, Myths And Machines (2023)