Two-and-a-half years after DBA enthralled melodic rock fans with their tremendous fourth album, the bucolic Halcyon Hymns, they return to our CD players and turntables with their latest effort, Celestial Songs. Dave Bainbridge, Andy Hodge and Ash Soan are on board once again, so too is Ashton Bullock with more narration and Marc Almond returns for another cameo. It is sad not to be able to enjoy the immense talents of the late David Longdon, though, to whom the band have dedicated this album, alongside the late Alan White.
The writing process for this latest release is reminiscent of that for the previous album. Downes put together a range of chord sequences and progressions which chimed with Braide who then, as Downes explained, got “up and running very, very quickly”. For his part, Braide felt that the songs “started to feel more thematic in emotion and feeling… more classic rock than the predecessor Halcyon Hymns“. DBA also acknowledged the importance of the involvement of the returning musicians to the overall band sound.
I’ve always been a big fan of Geoff Downes and his ability to craft anthemic melodic rock, but I must admit that I haven’t been overwhelmed by the output of Yes, excepting Fly From Here, since Magnification. To my ears, DBA is the creative home of Downes’ writing and, just as John Wetton and John Payne provided a great partnering for Downes, so too Braide, with his new wave, pop and rock sensibilities, combining to produce some superb compositions. Braide, as composer, singer and musician, is nothing short of a musical genius.
The album opens with Look What You Do, a curious track which begins in truly proggy fashion with a keyboard and guitar overture before shifting tone and pace completely into something with a Gospel feel to it. Clear Light, the first track the band released in advance of the album, is one of the best they’ve ever written. It’s a really anthemic piece with a chorus melody which counterpoints the keyboards with an absolutely stunning riff from Bainbridge. ‘Can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head’ territory, is where we are with this one. I feel like this might have been the kind of thing Asia would have written around 1983, if they’d been working with Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson.
Keep on Moving is the second of the album’s advance tracks and it weaves a guitar melody out of The Eagles’ songbook around some fabulous arpeggiated guitar, provided by It Bites’ Francis Dunnery in the first of the album’s guest slots. Lyrically, it’s a lovely piece about nostalgia and wouldn’t have been out of place on the previous album. Near the four-minute mark we get a surprise – a terrific keyboard solo from guitarist Bainbridge, which he then follows with a guitar solo.
Darker Side of Fame features a vocal duet between Braide and Almond. Almond’s vocal contribution on Halcyon Hymns was Warm Summer Sun, the album’s best track. Here, though, I think this song might be the weakest number as the chorus just isn’t up to the excellent standard of the other offerings here. Hey Kid is a really dark little song about a young gun nut, with a simple, but lush, piano chord progression that calls to mind some of Pet Shop Boys’ more reflective moments. It works here like a musical interlude in the middle of the album and is very likeable.
The band, and the anthemic writing, returns on Will to Power, which starts off with something like a Russian folk piece before launching into the punchy groove of synth bass. This leads us into the first of two longer pieces, Heart Shaped Hole. I love the fretless bass in the melancholic introduction to this one. There are some superb progressions here, and some more magnificent guitar solos. I also love the workout around the repeated theme in the song’s long coda. One of the best tracks on the album, and one which deals with the price of ambition so much better than Darker Side of Fame.
Dear Petra, an anti-war song about the abuse of children, is a beautiful piano ballad which I think is, along with Clear Light, the album’s best cut. The tone of the music and the lyrics fit perfectly together and it’s impossible to listen to this and not feel moved. This kind of song can be difficult to get right, but Downes and Braide have succeeded here. Braide draws on Hindu philosophy for the pleasantly mid-tempo On the Run, a track with another infectious chorus that you’ll struggle to get out of your head.
Andy Partridge adds to the songwriting credits for Goodbye to You (Sister Shame), a track which, like Today on the previous album, is in the vein of a McCartney Beatles number. It’s a decent track, but the album has better to offer elsewhere. Finally, the closer Beyond the Stars is the album’s other epic. It’s a layered track which apparently built up from a smaller three-minute piece. Ashton Bullock provides narration over a church organ, which then cedes to more anthemic keyboards and guitar. Mellower variations on the theme follow before Braide begins to sing. More excellent chord progressions follow to see out the album.
A final word on Roger Dean’s artwork. My thoughts perfectly echo Braide’s on this: “I personally couldn’t imagine how Roger would have been able to top (Halcyon Hymns), but I truly think this sleeve is the best one yet.” I personally think Dean’s most recent DBA covers are the best album covers he’s ever done. I haven’t had a record player for years, but I’m contemplating buying the vinyl for the larger sleeve.
All in all, and once again, this is a majestic effort from DBA, from the musicianship to the production, from the songwriting to the artwork. I keep saying it each time, but DBA really do just keep getting better.
01. Look What You Do (6:17)
02. Clear Light (5:00)
03. Keep on Moving (ft. Francis Dunnery) (6:36)]
04. Darker Side of Fame (ft. Marc Almond) (3:56)
05. Hey Kid (3:28)
06. Will to Power (6:23)
07. Heart Shaped Hole (9:06)
08. Dear Petra (3:56)
09. On the Run (5:09)
10. Goodbye to You (Sister Shame) (7:30)
11. Beyond the Stars (10:19)
Total Time – 67:40
Geoff Downes – Piano, Keyboards, Programming
Chris Braide – Vocals, Piano, Keyboards, Programming
Dave Bainbridge – Electric & Acoustic guitars, Mandolin, Bouzouki, Keyboard Solo (track 3)
Andy Hodge – Fretted & Fretless Bass Guitars
Ash Soan – Drums (all tracks except 1)
Tim Weller – Drums (track 1), Additional Drums (9 & 10)
Barney Ashton Bullock – Narration
Francis Dunnery – Arpeggio Guitar (track 3)
Marc Almond – Vocals (track 4)
Record Label: Cherry Red Records
Catalogue#/Formats: CD – DBACD006; 2LP – DBALP006; Digital
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 8th September 2023