Southern Empire – Another World

Southern Empire – Another World

Southern Empire continue the current wave of Australian albums hitting our progressive music shores with their third album, Another World. They face the challenge of following their brilliant 2018 release Civilisation with new singer Shaun Holton, after the amicable departure of Danny Lopresto.

For those new to Southern Empire, they were formed by Sean Timms and Danny Lopresto after Timms’ legendary band Unitopia initially split up in 2013. Happily, Unitopia have now reformed, also releasing a new album in 2023. Southern Empire recruited incredible drummer Brody Green alongside talented bassist Jez Martin and hot shot guitarist Cam Blokland. Their eponymous 2016 debut album, largely based on songs Timms had written for an abandoned Unitopia album, was a notable first release. However, it was with Civilisation, one of the best albums of 2018, that Southern Empire really broke through. They created intricate thrilling widescreen music filled with earworm melodies, powerful riffs and great lyrics fronted by the outstanding Lopresto, and they dazzled in their remarkable live shows.

How were they going to follow that? The reassuring answer is that this new album bursts with creativity, power and their usual stellar musicianship. Another World hits you right between the eyes from the opening cannonade of drums from Brody Green, joined by some meaty guitar and eerie synths in album opener Reaching Out. Sweet harmony vocals, echoing Starcastle of old, usher in Shaun Holton, confidently joining the musical tornado with great assurance. This sounds nothing much like we have heard from Southern Empire, with Green’s machine gun drums detonating so crisply, backed up with typical fluid bass from Jez Martin. Sean Timms has shared that this song is based on the multiverse storylines common in TV and films. Reaching Out explores the Sliding Doors film idea of ‘What if’ scenarios, how one chance action or simple choice could completely change your life. IQ explored that theme so well in their classic Guiding Light, but Southern Empire do it in a very different way. It’s a furious opening, telling us that this album is something altogether different from the band – ‘Son of Civilisation’, it ain’t! Indeed, that is important to remember – anyone hoping that Southern Empire would simply repeat the previous album will need to set their expectations aside and open their minds. In the five years since the last album, this band has grown and changed. It seems clear that whilst Timms still writes the majority of the songs, this is much more of a collective album with more input from all band members. Timms has shared that Danny Lopresto contributed some lyrical ideas before he left, and the band provided numerous arrangement ideas, which shines through in the fizzing creativity of the music.

Face the Dawn was the first song Timms asked Holton to sing for his audition – and you can hear why it convinced him to choose Shaun as lead vocalist. Against a furious backing, Holton has to roar out his vocals, yet remains able to imbue the lines with passion. The middle section settles into a much more placid atmosphere with flowing piano from Timms and some delicate violin from Steve Unruh of United Progressive Fraternity, allowing Holton to show his more subtle side. Southern Empire have always tended to take a ‘left turn’ in songs. In Silver into Gold (part 2 of Face the Dawn), a distinctly jazzy sax breaks in with some great bass from Jez Martin, followed by a brief interlude of distinctly Mahavishnu Orchestra guitar styling… I have no idea why, that’s just what Southern Empire do sometimes – and they do it with such aplomb! Sean Timms has explained that Face the Dawn was inspired by a documentary about ‘Dawn Face’, the most difficult ascent of the El Capitan mountain in Yosemite National Park: “As someone who is deathly afraid of heights, I’m fascinated by extreme climbers. The song grew from there and grew into an epic about facing one’s fears. It’s also based on a dream I’ve had many times about flying through the air like an eagle and being completely free and in control of your own destiny”. This is definitely a song which soars, especially in the finale, with Blokland’s guitars and Unruh’s violin interweaving as it reaches skyward.

After the rather frenzied and dramatic opening couplet of songs, Southern Empire take us into much calmer waters on Hold On to Me, the first of two songs written by Cam Blokland. Cam increasingly contributes to Southern Empire songwriting with Hold On to Me, the final song Butterfly and the delicate Wasting Time section of the epic White Shadows. His brilliant guitar playing has always been evident, but what hasn’t been apparent previously is his excellent singing, as he takes the lead vocals on two songs. In Hold On to Me his softly passionate voice is carried by lilting acoustic guitar and piano. It’s a touching and inspiring song about staying strong for someone who is suffering, and Blokland sings his poetically simple words with an emotional touch. This feels like a real anthem from the heart, and the band take it to another level with elegant power before Blokland softly finishes with a heartfelt plea:

“So you can hold on to me when you’re feeling weak,
Let me be your strength, Put your weight on me…
You can’t expect for me to hurt you like he did, You can’t just let your heart expire
And leave you crying and alone, You can’t expect for me to leave you on your own
But you have to let me know.”

Initially, he sung ‘guide vocals,’ with the expectation that someone else would sing the final version, but Timms pushed to include Cam’s original vocals – much to Blokland’s surprise! Timms has good judgement in these things as Cam contributes some excellent vocals, and as he wrote the songs from his heart there is the resonance and authenticity of real emotion in his voice. This is a relatively simple and straightforward song, but in that simplicity and directness there is such feeling and emotional connection – it may just be one of their best songs. Cam Blokland has shared that he originally wrote this song ten years ago, and it’s by far the favourite lyric he has written; “I was in an emotional place at the time, and I think my songwriting ability had finally reached a point where I could articulate what I was feeling effectively. It’s a bit melancholy for me nowadays… but I’m still proud of it and I hope it brings some healing to someone out there.”

Similarly, the final gossamer thin coda of Butterfly is a beautiful love song, sung with appropriate delicacy, embroidered with trilling flights of flute from Amanda Timms, and a short but sweet fluid guitar solo from Blokland. It’s a simply gorgeous way to finish the album. Cam has shared that he came from a musical family and grew up singing, so he really appreciated being able to sing his own lyrics on this album. He added that he doesn’t write many lyrics these days and these songs were written quite some time ago. Well, all I can say is that Cam should really find the time to write and sing more songs based on the evidence here.

When You Return commences with a memorable hypnotic synth wave, over which the talented Lisa Wetton intones a speech about the immensity of Infinite Space. Sean Timms has explained it is based on the ‘Fermi Paradox’ which “refers to the dichotomy between the high probability that extra-terrestrial intelligence exists and the fact that we have no evidence for such aliens” (from Live Science). The Fermi Paradox theme is smartly combined by Timms with a “Love song to the creator of the Universe”. Lisa Wetton also provides some great percussion alongside Green’s funky drumming, and the band fly along appropriately to keep up with the pace and lyrics of this great song, “passing through the vortex more than twice the speed of light”, sung with fluidity and control by Holton. Midway through the song seemingly loses touch with gravity and floats off into a swirling ‘dream pop’ phase, with Timms weaving keyboard spells alongside some lovely harmony vocals. Wetton returns with a brief monologue, introducing an undulating solo from Blokland before the crunching cosmic rock wave of the main theme is recapitulated and Holton let’s rip with some fantastic vocals. That’s how to deal with the enormity of infinite space… in ‘only’ about six minutes. Timms remains open minded about the possibility of life on other planets, but what a glorious interstellar rock ride!

Sean Timms remains the main driving force behind this album both musically and lyrically, sharing that “Moving Through Tomorrow is a journey piece, about living our lives and attributing as much meaning to them as we can. It’s a song about defiance, about getting through the obstacles of life, daily challenges, being humble but not broken… surviving.” For me, this inspiring song is the pinnacle of the album, melding together diverse musical elements with powerful lyrics, delivered brilliantly by Shaun Holton. An ’80s pop synth intro is bulldozed by a mighty rock blast of meaty riffs, the lyric slipping in references to Dylan Thomas: “I will not go gently into that good night, rage and rage daily against the dying of the light”, and even Plato’s Republic (or Hieronymus Bosch’s painting), Moving through tomorrow, Sailing on a ship of fools”. As the song fluidly drives on, they throw in some very Moon Safari-like harmony vocals before a synth line drops us into much calmer waters… but also much darker realms thematically:

“I stand alone in the hollow gloom, With only the sound of my own shallow breath
Wondering how I stumbled upon, This blackest of all labyrinths.”

Strangely, this descent into the depths (like all good heroes of myth) is conveyed through a shimmering phase of melodic rock and some smooth yearning vocals from Holton, with great harmony vocals. Timms lays down a suitably beautiful labyrinthine synth solo before Blokland and Green hit us with a wave of crunching drums and guitar, and the piece gently parachutes to the ground with piano, synths and flute from Amamda Timms. However, there is one last defiant recapitulation of the earlier theme and chorus signifying that even after all that, our hero is defiant but humble as a survivor. It’s a great song, fusing together so many elements with a wonderful central lyrical theme.

Southern Empire have been well known for their ‘epics’ and they do not disappoint with the expansive nearly 20-minutes of White Shadows, Timms saying that it was inspired by an idea from Danny Lopresto, his lyric forming the basis for the rest of the piece. Timms explains that White Shadows has a post-apocalyptic feel and is about “survival through horrendous conditions and circumstances. It’s about loss and working through loss to come out the other side… not unscathed, but hopefully wiser, more compassionate and resilient.” Timms’ faith is always there in his lyrics, subtly and poetically conveyed without becoming overpowering. I do not think this impactful piece necessarily needs a ‘post-apocalyptic’ setting, because sadly, with the state of the world in the last few years, this epic piece is entirely relevant today. Sean Timms starts it like an overture or film title sequence before a flowing piano and orchestral passage… it’s simply Timms at his best and it goes on for over three minutes. A burst of electronic sounds plunges us into a driving rock section and we are off into the main piece. Holton handles the stirring lyrics with great confidence, and amidst the musical melee a saxophone swoops in the background. The heroic chorus is an earworm which will go ’round and ’round your brain, but then seven minutes in a fantastic heavy rock sequence smashes in, courtesy of Cam Blokland, which he describes as his favourite idea contributed to the album. He has shared that such “low tuned, heavy sounds are such a staple of modern prog”, which the younger members of the band are pushing for, with the full support of Sean Timms. Blokland feels that what he brings to Southern Empire is the “sort of modern, heavy material”. Alongside the more melodic progressive leanings of Sean Timms, this makes for an intoxicating fusion of styles and ideas which really helps Southern Empire stand out as a truly great modern progressive rock band.

Following this heavy avalanche, a delightful saxophone welcomes in a far more laid-back and melodic passage over which Holton sings expressively. Jez Martin particularly stands out with a cool bassline underpinning the smooth ride. This dreamy mid-section mellows even further into the Blokland written Wasting Time section, with Martin’s flowing bass underpinning acoustic guitar, and bird-like flute from Amanda Timms. This is a beautiful piece woven so skilfully and intuitively into this epic by the magician Sean Timms, the section ending with a rising crescendo of music and vocals. The backing vocals are outstanding throughout the album, including some contributions from Lopresto before he left, but particularly in this section some great “ridiculously high backing vocals” from drummer Brody Green (as described in the credits). How he hits those notes so well makes the mind boggle! Holton’s vocals really fly in this section, and it feels like we are heading for a classic but possibly predictable ‘Prog’ finale… but no, Southern Empire typically have other ideas (of course they do!): a short blast of sax sends us spiralling into a jazz section with tinkling keyboards, then Blokland weighs in with his own Allan Holdsworth-style fretwork, whilst Martin is doing all sorts of unlikely finger-twisting bass play and Green’s drumming and percussion brilliantly underpins this piece of musical circus. Southern Empire have always had a tendency to take odd musical ‘left turns’ and I will be honest, this one felt like a screeching hand-brake turn which took me out of the flow when I first heard of it. However, I have had the privilege of living with this track for some time and eventually this rather crazy but brilliant diversion ‘clicked’ – it’s Southern Empire after all, expect the unexpected at any time! The main theme is recapitulated for the finale and Holton’s great vocals cry out:

“White Shadows have faded away, The pulse and heart beat are beating again,
White Shadows dissolve into dust, Descend into darkness, their dreams turn to rust.”

White Shadows is a truly spectacular piece which showcases the virtuosity and imagination of this great band. After that journey it is a good idea for Southern Empire to bring us back down at the end with Cam Blokland’s aforementioned gorgeous Butterfly, expressing a wish for safety for a loved one who is away. Well, Southern Empire have been away for a while, but it’s great that they are back with such a high-quality album.

Of course, the elephant in the room that many will be asking about is: How does Shaun Holton compare with Danny Lopresto as vocalist?

Cam Blokland suggested Shaun Holton to the band, and Blokland should be credited for finding such a distinctive and very talented vocalist with the ability to fully express these powerful and complex songs. Somewhat wisely, Southern Empire have not tried to clone their former singer, so it is essential that listeners dispel the notion of wanting Shaun to sound like Danny – he does not, and that’s fine. Just go with the flow of the music as Southern Empire progress onwards. Apparently, Danny Lopresto has given his approval to Holton’s vocals and supports his entry into the band. So if he’s good enough for Lopresto…

What does seem apparent is that Danny Lopresto was heavily involved in this project right up to when he left the band. Indeed, his guitar and backing vocal contributions remain on the album, along with joint songwriting credits. It’s nice to see his contribution has not been ‘airbrushed out’, as with some other bands in similar situations! In that context, it appears that Holton was faced with the challenge of re-recording the lead vocals of a great singer. Holton joined too late to contribute to the songwriting on this album, so he is singing lyrics written by and for his predecessor. That may have been an issue for some artists, but he has imprinted his own distinctive style upon the vocals, and he accomplishes that task quite brilliantly. Sean Timms is clearly very impressed with Holton and is looking forward to his future contributions as a musician, songwriter and producer, and as we have seen with the other recruits into Southern Empire, Timms knows a thing or two about spotting talent. If Holton can do this well with material which he has ‘inherited’, I really look forward to future albums in which he has been fully involved in the songwriting.

At the centre of Southern Empire remains Sean Timms, leading this young band with skill and intuition. Cam Blokland has shared that he recorded his guitar and vocal parts over the last five years and, like the rest of the band, he sent them to Sean Timms. He describes these contributions as ‘patches’ which Timms then skilfully weaves into the final ‘patchwork’ of the finished album. The great skill and insight to produce and interweave such differing sections and styles so seamlessly and imaginatively is absolutely outstanding, and he has done it again so well with Another World, despite the challenges of the last few years.

Enter Southern Empire’s Another World with an open mind – their future bodes very well. After five years, Southern Empire have evolved and significantly moved on. Crucially they have retained what made them stand out and imaginatively developed their spectacular sound even further. Southern Empire have produced yet another fine album of imaginative and spectacularly well-performed melodic progressive rock music with a harder edge – Another World is simply one of the best modern rock albums of 2023.

01. Reaching Out (4:17)
02. Face the Dawn (12:45)
03. Hold On to Me (6:31)
04. When You Return (6:20)
05. Moving Through Tomorrow (10:23)
06. White Shadows (19:23)
07. Butterfly (4:25)

Total Time – 64:04

Sean Timms – Keyboards, Programming, Lap Steel Guitar, Backing Vocals
Cam Blokland – Electric and Acoustic Guitars, Lead & Backing Vocals
Brody Green – Drums, Hand Percussion & ‘Ridiculously High’ Backing Vocals
Jez Martin – Fretted & Fretless Bass
Shaun Holton – Lead & Backing Vocals
~ with:
Daniel Lopresto – Backing Vocals, Guitar
Steve Unruh – Violins, Flute
Adam Page – Tenor Saxophone
Marek Arnold – Soprano Saxophone
Lisa Wetton – Percussion, Narration (track 4)
Amanda Timms – Flute

Record Label: Giant Electric Pea (GEP)
Country of Origin: Australia
Date of Release: 4th September 2023

• Southern Empire (2016)
• Live at H.Q. (2017)
• Civilisation (2018)
• Another World (2023)

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