I was fortunate to see Doris Brendel with Lee Dunham (and most of her band) at the Prog for Peart 3 a few months ago and was very impressed by their vibrant and expressively rocking performance. Progressive elements were there in the background and in the extended song structures, and the steam-punk costumes certainly added charm and visual impact to their performance. However, it also felt more old-school, hard rock in general, compared to many of the other band over the weekend, with Doris’s vocals having a real blues-rock swagger and husky tone recalling the likes of Janis Joplin and Elkie Brookes in her Vinegar Joe days.
I was therefore intrigued to see how the music would translate into the studio environment. In a musical world obsessed by labels and genre pigeon-holing, would TPA be an appropriate site to review the latest album? Well, in my opinion, the band fit perfectly well with the broad church that encompasses prog rock… and what’s more, it’s a rather fine album to boot!
Firstly, some background. Doris Brendel has been producing quality rock music in all its wonderful diversity for many decades now. The daughter of the renowned classical pianist Alfred Brendel, her distinctive and powerful vocals have been behind a whole host of musical ventures and collaborations, from 1990s alt-rockers The Violet Hour, through acoustic and rock projects, solo outings and supporting the likes of Alvin Lee, Gary Moore, Sam Brown, Joe Brown and Herbie Flowers, as well as touring extensively with Marillion, Nils Lofgren, John Farnham and Steve Marriott. Over the last few years, she has completed several European tours, with Wishbone Ash and Fish, who she also sang backing vocals for on his superb final album Weltschmerz.
However, it wasn’t until 2010 that Doris made time for a dedicated album project, with the release of The Last Adventure, followed by four albums in collaboration with guitarist and producer Lee Dunham, starting with 2012’s Not Utopia, followed by Upside Down World, Eclectica and, most recently, the well-received Mass Hysteria in 2020. Add several home-recorded acoustic solo releases in recent years and the broad range of musical styles she can show, along with her musical commitment, and she deserves much praise.
Pig’s Might Fly is Doris and Lee’s fifth joint release and it’s rock music in all its many wonderful guises. On one level it is classic melodic hard rock with blues rock influences, driven on by a consummate, sassy and powerful female vocalist. Yet, it is the musical diversity and complexity within the playing and the standard of the songwriting that gives the album a truly progressive character at times. Intricate, rhythmic time signatures, stirring keyboard passages and extended compositional structures which keep everything fresh and vibrant. Add touches of folk, pop and even jazz, and you underestimate the band’s musical vision at your peril.
Joining Doris and Lee are Sam White on drums, Jacob Stoney on keyboards on a couple of tracks (Lee covers the rest), and Ewan McIntosh on bass. Lee mixed the album, but the ubiquitous John Mitchell did the final mastering. Add the distinctive artwork of Ian Foxton and Doris herself and you have a quality release indeed.
Pigs Might Fly opens with the title track, a dynamic and driving whirl of Lee’s guitar and Jacob’s keyboard complexity, but it then coalesces into a moody, slower tempo with Doris’s bluesy, husky vocals over atmospheric organ chords, peppered with occasional bursts of guitar and deep bass and drums, which gradually gain intensity and stature, helped by some great guitar soloing and a reprise of the original theme. Doris supplies acoustic guitar to great effect. There are progressive elements to be found here and good musical tension as the restrained passages threaten to burst out at any time, but they are largely held in check. The insightful lyrics are actually a nod to Boris Johnson, but Doris says feel free to chose your own personal liar!
As you looked me in the eye.
And now it’s apparent, now it’s clear,
that pigs might fly, that pigs might fly.”
Better the Devil You Know is about keeping your enemies close and is a more up-tempo and spirited melodic rock song that drives on from a crunching opening guitar riff with a galloping beat, wiggly, haunting keyboard passages and some archetypal guitar soloing. On one level it’s a classic rocker, but it has those extra elements that lift it up several notches from the usual fayre.
Fight Fire with Fire has a dark, mysterious feel to it with atmospheric piano notes, but thereafter there is intricate ensemble playing with resonating bass, powerful drums, undulating keyboards and more expressive guitar interludes. It’s all about when nothing has worked to resolve a situation, all that remains is retribution. Doris displays a fine range of vocal styles, with rasping touches of Sabbath-like darkness, contrasting with a lighter, melodic tone in the chorus. The attempts at reconciliation are in an edgy minor key, whereas the “Fight fire with fire” refrain has a positive major key resolution to it.
That is all that remains.
Fight fire with fire
Maybe that will ease the pain.”
Good Deed of the Day has an evocative country and blues feel with strummed electric guitar, a swaying rhythm and saloon-bar piano, over which Doris’s world-weary vocals spin their spell. Lee’s sliding guitar work and soaring soloing help conjure up a desolate western landscape, with some ominous musical effects and pounding drums adding unexpected texture towards the end. The lyrics are evocative and clearly show that no number of good deeds can atone for a seriously dark life led.
It’s my good deed of the day.
I like the praise, to appease my selfish ways,
For my good deed of the day.”
Ghost is full of musical invention, with refreshing changes in rhythmic dance-like tempo (a touch of Delilah at times?), some fine keyboard passages and deep guitar riffs complementing Doris’s flowing singing, all combining in a complex and unexpected fashion – much like a musical jigsaw. Throw in some quirky percussion and flageolet pipes from Doris and the band’s progressive credentials are there for all to hear.
I Saw You is a slower, piano-led power ballad, dominated by Doris’s deep, reverberating vocals, but Sam’s busy drumming is as dynamic as ever, and some Coldplay-like chiming notes and symphonic metal incursions as the vocals take flight up the scales. Lee’s guitar riffs (lovely echoes of Kashmir at times) and sparkling soloing are real highpoints to this track. Lyrically, it is nicely ambiguous according to Doris, “Who is doing the gaslighting? The singer or her partner? Someone is deluded, but it’s not clear who.”
And the way you smiled.
I know the signs,
You crossed the line.”
Rock and A Hard Place has a raunchy, blues-laden, funky swagger, with Doris at her most Joplin-like. The organ in the background holds things together as the band come together in a guitar-led jam session, with a real ’70s rock feel to it all and a great rhythm. The lyrics touch on the fact that life can either be too much or not enough.
Rorschach is a gentler song, showing Doris’s softer and most elegant side, as acoustic guitar and more flageolet add a dreamier edge to proceedings, but not without sudden rises in musical intensity to keep things fresh. Some nice touches of orchestration and electric guitar give it musical grandeur, as the lyrics touch on the physiological ‘Rorschach’ inkblot tests and how depression can make even the most beautiful landscape fade to black. The sad and poignant refrain of “I still can’t see butterflies” resonates throughout.
Still Waters is a beautiful, bluesy, slow burner of a ballad, starting with piano and some rippling bass notes, the band supporting Doris’s yearning voice perfectly. Lee’s guitar passages are nicely restrained but lovingly executed, and the instrumentation interweaves effortlessly. Doris says, “Being someone who carries emotions on my sleeve, I’m both in awe of, and slightly threatened by, truly enigmatic people. The lyrics also touch on the idea of a woman with locked-in syndrome.”
The treasure beneath the sand.
Breach the walls of her defence,
No words can comprehend.”
From a musical perspective, once again it feels that the emotional dam will eventually burst, but the song’s flowing diminution, with the whispered “Hear the river speak” is really effective. Another album highlight.
Truth Needs No Colours is a more straightforward mid-tempo rock song, with a jaunty beat, some lighter synthesised passages, floating vocals, and a contemporary and accessible feel. After a staccato drum interlude, the power kicks in impressively before guitar, drums, bass and keyboards sync together seamlessly. The use of different colours to evoke the different emotions in the lyrics works well.
White Rose is the concluding track, a gentle multi-layered love song that rounds off the album very nicely. The vocals, enhanced by backing and harmonies, are almost ethereal in nature – a marked contrast to Doris’s more well-known style – and the use of evocative, plaintive flageolet flute sounds, gentle percussion, piano and more well-judged guitar from Lee work so well. “I rarely write love songs, but this is one, albeit highly romanticised one,” Doris explains. “Red rose – youth wonder and hope. Yellow rose – life’s midpoint. Work, family, time flies. White rose – life’s end. Memories to the road’s end. All shared with one person.”
It is interesting to note that only eight of the eleven tracks on the CD are on the vinyl listing – and given that those are the impressive trio of Rorschach, Still Waters and White Rose, make sure you buy the CD or download these tracks, if vinyl is your format of choice. This softer, more reflective side of the band is as enjoyable as their rockier persona.
Pigs Might Fly is an impressive album of melodic hard rock with many prog flourishes, and an eclectic diversity of styles and tempo, including elements of folk, country and pop. Doris Brendel has a truly iconic and raunchy blues-rock voice, but it can handle delicate and heartfelt ballads as well as the power and intensity of old school classic rock – with Lee Dunham and the band proving to be a wonderfully talented and tightly-knit unit. Check out this album and try to get to see them live in concert if you can. I was pleasantly surprised to like this album so much, and hopefully many of you will be too should you explore further.
01. Pigs Might Fly (6:48)# (Vinyl 6:00)
02. Better the Devil You Know (5:42)
03. Fight Fire with Fire (4:38)
04. Good Deed of the Day (6:29)# (Vinyl 5:36)
05. Ghost (5:53)
06. I Saw You (5:07)
07. Rock and a Hard Place (4:58)
08. Rorschach (6:37)*
09. Still Waters (7:15)*
10. Truth Needs No Colours (4:53)
11. White Rose (5:37)*
Total Time – 63:57 (CD/Download) / 43:40 (Vinyl)
(* bonus tracks, not on vinyl)
(# vinyl edits)
Doris Brendel – Lead & Backing Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Flageolet
Lee Dunham – Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Piano & Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Sam White – Drums
Jacob Stoney – Keyboards (tracks 1 & 9)
Ewan McIntosh – Bass
Record Label: Sky-Rocket Records
Formats: CD, Digital, Vinyl
Country of Origin: U.K.
Released: 11 th September 2023