Unitopia are back with their first new studio album since 2012, the expansive Seven Chambers, a double album partly inspired by personal adversity for the artists. The title is a poetic reference to the human heart, reflecting both the literal physical and more metaphorical emotional rollercoaster ride band members have experienced over the last decade or so. The core of the band remains the original Australian maestros Mark ‘Truey’ Trueack and Sean Timms, but much else has changed in the world of Unitopia. Multi-instrumentalist Steve Unruh from the USA (and The Samurai of Prog) has joined his United Progressive Fraternity colleague Trueack in Unitopia, along with British guitarist John Greenwood. Trueack and Timms also somehow managed to recruit Alphonso Johnson, iconic bassist with jazz fusion band Weather Report. To complete a stellar American rhythm section, Johnson’s former Weather Report bandmate and legendary live Genesis drummer Chester Thompson is also now on board. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge for Unitopia since 2012 and with this radically different line-up it will be fascinating to see how they have developed.
Seven Chambers aptly has seven songs, ranging in styles for over eighty minutes, and delves into some darker places. Mark Trueack has shared that the lyrics of Broken Heart are inspired by the experience of having a heart attack, and was one of the first songs he wrote with John Greenwood, who provided the melody. It’s introduced with a short orchestral passage before slipping smoothly into a Beatle-esque melody and Trueack’s quality vocals, describing with incongruous harmony the fear and sense of dislocation experienced during a cardiac arrest. There is a curious and beguiling juxtaposition between the lush melodic rock and the darkness of the subject matter, but even in the darkest moments there can be the light of redemption. Greenwood’s guitar stirringly carries the main melody as Trueack proclaims with a sense of hope the curiously earworm refrain:
A flowing piano from Sean Timms joins a guitar and Steve Unruh’s flute in a more contemplative passage as calm descends, until suddenly the main theme is recapitulated with greater pace and seemingly much more defiance. The whole band carries this great opening song to an optimistic ending… and a heart can still be heard fading away.
Already the stage (or is it the operating theatre?) has been set for Unitopia to focusing on the effects of health upon body and mind. Something Invisible clearly lays out those concerns with such feeling. Trueack has revealed on social media that the lyrics were inspired by a series of significant health issues, including a brain tumour, followed by the nerve condition neuropathy and the onset of diabetes. Obviously all these conditions are invisible to the naked eye so, as Trueack described, you can be happily going along unaware that ‘something invisible’ is happening internally “until one day something doesn’t work properly”. This is clearly a song very close to Trueack’s heart as he sings the lovely vocal melody with resonant feeling, backed by soulful harmony support. He has also shared that this song was originally intended for the third United Progressive Fraternity album, Planetary Overload Part 2: Hope, and one can hear how this smoothly melodic piece would have fitted the feel of that album, but it beautifully adorns Seven Chambers. Something Invisible rolls along sweetly, underpinned with a cool bass and subtle drums from the class rhythm section. A surprising and delightful chamber music detour emerges with a finely picked guitar and gentle flute, Timms’ piano and Unruh’s violin taking on the melody in a more orchestral passage. Cleverly and rather darkly, this quieter passage probably represents the invisible, insidious workings of ill health just below the skin, and after Trueack intones sombrely “No compromise, no compromise”, Unruh’s violin breaks in with a Klezmer type break, followed swiftly by Greenwood’s fluid electric guitar work, taking us on to one last recapitulation of the main vocal refrain.
If anyone was expecting Seven Chambers to be a tired re-tread of the earlier manifestation of Unitopia, they may have to accept that this is a band which has moved on significantly from those days. They are different, older people now and this is a new version of Unitopia, with the influence of four main songwriters giving the band a rather different feel. The new approach is probably most exemplified in the next two songs, Bittersweet and the appropriately manic Mania. Bittersweet is a curious reflection upon the effects of diabetes. In truth, it is a rather strange musical confection, starting with a rather pastoral Wind and Wuthering style main body of the song, with lush 12-string acoustic guitars, flutes and violins abounding. After five minutes, it transmogrifies with an angular guitar break into a frankly weird and percussive vocal section detailing all the things we really should not be eating. Truey has shared that parallels can be drawn with the 1981 eccentric pop song Snack Attack (by 10CC’s Godley and Crème) and there’s a distinct dance music feel mixed in with a whole fruit salad of jazz piano, flutes, violins and eccentric backing vocals. There’s a serious message but there is also clearly some comic intent as Truey follows the litany of unhealthy foods with a list of healthier alternatives. He finishes this peculiar but striking song with the advice: “We either find another way, or we’re lost, or we’re lost, or we’re lost. To live longer, stronger, stronger than before”. With diabetes at increasingly prevalent proportions in the Western World in particular, Trueack clearly has a point (writes someone who developed diabetes… and has taken the advice in this song!).
Mania was confirmed by Trueack as based on bi-polar illness, and it launches straight into an insistent angular guitar riff and absolutely titanic drums from Chester Thompson. This really is quite a leviathan of a song, with Trueack roaring out against a wall of sound. John Greenwood really shines here with a whole range of guitar sounds, solos and effects. Midway through, the track spasms unexpectedly with treated distorted electronic vocals against a dissonant backing and then spins out unpredictably with peculiar violins and thundering drums, presumably suggesting the state of mind… and then things really do go a bit bonkers! Greenwood rolls out some prog-metal riffs, echoed with string effects as the distorted vocals collide with freakish pianos and whirling violins before suddenly imploding as Trueack finally screams “I’m Flying”. No-one has ever heard Unitopia like this before, and along with the Snack Attack-style finale of Bittersweet it is probably fair to say that these tracks will present the greatest challenge to long time Unitopia fans wedded to the classic melodic progressive rock stylings of much of The Garden era. However, Unitopia have ALWAYS dared to inject unusual musical ideas and concepts into their songs… but maybe not quite as ‘left field’ as these two tracks! Trueack believes that Unitopia have never been this complex and adventurous before, and you can hear why he feels that way – this is not a band which has stood still. Unitopia are exploring new areas of music and sounds for them, engaging new concepts about our bodies and minds with fascinating and sometimes challenging results.
The interesting reflections on health are continued with The Stroke of Midnight, a song described by Truey as a ‘real beauty’, showcasing the new influence of John Greenwood on the band. Greenwood is an impressively multi-talented and fascinating person; an English physician who emigrated to Australia and provided vital treatment to the victims of the Bali terrorist bombing of 2002 due to his expertise in treating burns, for which he was made an Honorary Member of the Order of Australia in 2003. He was also awarded the ‘Australian of the Year’ award in 2016 for his continuing work and innovations in the field of burns treatment. On top of all that, it is evident that Greenwood is a very talented guitarist, seemingly adept at Steve Hackett-esque passages (Hackett being a favourite of Greenwood apparently) or flashes of more metal style fretwork. Greenwood wrote the softly melodic music for The Stroke of Midnight and came up with the theme and some of the lyrics, with assistance from Trueack, based on a true story of when Greenwood came across a person who had collapsed with a stroke at midnight. The lyrics are from the point of view of the patient, describing the frightening stroke experience, the moving music and perfectly judged vocals telling this emotive story with touch and sensitivity. Timms’ piano and especially Unruh’s expressive violin are particularly poignant in the middle section. Thankfully, the patient survived and the lyrics conclude optimistically, outlining the efforts the person made to recover from this health emergency. A moving and impressive song from a very impressive human being.
Talking of impressive human beings, the first epic on the second set of Seven Chambers is based on a remarkable pioneer in medicine, Helen B. Taussig. Sometimes having some background knowledge about a musical piece helps enhance the understanding and enjoyment, and I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Mark Trueack from his home in Thailand. He enthused about this album and the new version of Unitopia, also giving some interesting information about the songs. I had not heard of Helen B. Taussig previously and was fascinated when Truey explained that Sean Timms and he wanted to write another song about a pioneer, in the same vein as Tesla from their 2010 album Artificial. They decided to tell the fascinating story of Helen B. Taussig over 19 minutes in Helen, with Timms writing the yearning lyrics, which Trueack sings so deftly. Helen B. Taussig was deaf but remarkably managed to overcome considerable misogyny to become trained as a doctor in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and eventually became a paediatric cardiologist. Remarkably, she had the ability to sense the heartbeats of babies with her fingers as well as a hearing doctor with a stethoscope. She developed an innovative procedure to extend the lives of babies born with ‘blue baby syndrome’ (an inflammation of the heart which was a major cause of infant mortality). As if that was not enough, in 1960 she successfully campaigned in America to ban the imminent approval of the new drug Thalidomide, which had severe debilitating effects on babies in Europe.
This may be a worthy story to tell but does Helen work as a musical piece? Well, learning from Truey the inspiration behind the song helped transform my enjoyment and understanding of the significance of the lyrics. Unitopia have created a rich and evocative musical canvas upon which to paint this moving story of a great woman overcoming adversity to have a wonderfully positive effect on many others. Alphonso Johnson’s bass sets a bewitching opening riff before the song opens out with Trueack in great form, vocalising Helen’s passion and pleas in overcoming her own difficulties and not giving up on children who would previously have probably been left to die with this perilous condition. It’s quite a multi-faceted piece which a written description would not do justice, suffice to say that the band combine so well to portray the story through a multitude of different styles, interweaving melodies and harmonies. The memorable opening theme is eventually recapitulated, and Helen appropriately concludes with a bright, positive coda describing the great achievements of this remarkable woman.
Unitopia serve up yet another ‘epic’ to finish the album, and in my view they leave the best to last. The Uncertain is inspired by Steve Unruh’s survival from cancer which nearly killed him. Truey has described this song as being “very special and close to the heart”, and this wonderful piece certainly sets the pulse racing in an engaging musical journey which in turn thrills and moves the listener. An orchestral opening flows into a simple acoustic guitar motif with delicate, almost whispered vocals which develop into a Beatles-esque melody, bookending the feel of the opening Broken Heart. However, before it all gets too cosy, Greenwood thrusts in with a gorgeously crunching guitar riff, Truey vocalising with anger and desperation – this is a real fight for life. A gloriously dramatic instrumental sequence comes in with Greenwood to the fore before the volume drops and we hear the bleeps of a heart monitor as a doctor intones the differing ways to treat cancer. Timms’ Hammond organ presages the crunching, intoxicating guitar riffs returning and then Unruh virtually takes off in a surgically precise violin passage.
The Uncertain climbs out of the musical rubble with a stark acoustic guitar and Trueack’s haunting voice in the moving mid-section. This contemplative section may reflect Unruh coming to terms with his illness, his treatment and his struggle for survival as Trueack sings wistfully of “Beauty and frailty, Beauty and frailty … In the land of the Uncertain, I am found”. These are truly beautiful and impactful words set perfectly in evocative and emotional music, especially when Unruh’s gorgeously melancholic violin floats in. Chester Thompson shows his percussive skills to kick off a more strident passage, but with a twist as a whistle plays over a thumping rock riff. A dazzlingly sinuous synth flashes across the musical landscape, followed stratospherically by a tremendous electric guitar line, but none of this is overdone or too flashy – they all add just the right amount to the whole as the earlier Beatles type melody joyously returns briefly. The Uncertain finishes with perfect simplicity and beauty, marked by the return of the opening acoustic guitar theme, a delicate bass and Truey’s beguiling vocals singing with delicacy and feeling: “Frailty and beauty I have known, In the land of the uncertain I am home”. Well, this may be called The Uncertain, but I am certain that this final track is Unitopia at their best, skilfully interweaving earworm melodies and hooks with eloquent words and passages of exciting rock power. The Uncertain can stand alongside the best music Unitopia have ever produced.
How this album will be received by listeners may depend on their willingness to listen to where Unitopia are now as individuals and as a virtually new band – they are not the same people they were 10 or 15 years ago. Quite apart from the influence of significant new band members, Unitopia’s new music has been clearly shaped and inspired by life experiences and challenges in the intervening years, which is etched into every note, beat and word of this album. Unitopia should be commended for exploring these areas in imaginative and evocative ways. Seven Chambers is clearly from the heart, and is best heard with an open mind and heart. The challenging complexities and beauty of this remarkable and long-awaited album reveals itself more and more with repeated listens. Whilst there are inevitably differences in Unitopia, crucially they have not lost their central core qualities of writing engaging and entertaining rock songs filled with melody, subtlety and power.
Seven Chambers is an ambitious and expansive album ranging across different styles, with the central theme around our physical and mental health. It is a heartfelt reflection from artists who are dealing with getting older – giving the songs a real sense of authenticity and genuine emotion. Ultimately, these are songs which touch on some of our darkest fears and experiences, and yet they are imbued with a sense of hope and redemption. Unitopia are well and truly back with one of the most imaginative and high-quality progressive rock albums of 2023.
01. Broken Heart (8:30)
02. Something Invisible (6:39)
03. Bittersweet (7:20)
04. Mania (12:29)
05. The Stroke of Midnight (9:39)
01. Helen (19:14)
02. The Uncertain (18:34)
Total Time – 82:25
Mark ‘Truey’ Trueack – Vocals
Sean Timms – Keyboards, Various Stringed Instruments, Backing Vocals
Steve Unruh – Violin, Flute, Mandolin, Rhythm Guitars, Backing Vocals
John Greenwood – Lead Electric Guitar, Nylon Strung Guitar, 6 & 12-string Acoustic Guitars, Mandolin, Programmed Orchestration, Backing Vocals
Chester Thompson – Drums
Alphonso Johnson – Bass
Record Label: Progrock.com’s Essentials
Country of Origin: Australia
Date of Release: 25th August 2023
– More Than a Dream (2005)
– The Garden (2008)
– Artificial (2010)
– One Night in Europe (Live) (2011)
– Covered Mirror Volume 1: Smooth as Silk (2012)
– More than a Dream – The Dream Complete (Remastered & Expanded Edition) (2017)
– The Garden (Remastered & Expanded Edition) (2020)
– Seven Chambers (2023)