This Winter Machine return with their fourth album, the ambitious conceptual piece The Clockwork Man, a dark dystopian story with a sci-fi steam-punk feel, rooted in insights and perspectives about modern society. It is probably fair to say that things have not always gone like clockwork for This Winter Machine in recent years, after multiple line-up changes, and yet they have still managed to produce quality albums.
It may be helpful to put this album in historical perspective: This Winter Machine defined their classic melodic progressive rock sound with their much-loved debut The Man Who Never Was (2016), developing it further on the impressive A Tower of Clocks (2019). In 2021, Kites followed a schism when most of the band left, leaving singer Al Winter to recruit a whole new group. This manifestation still managed to produce a high-quality ’80s inflected album, although Kites‘ use of guest keyboardists compromised the album’s sense of cohesion to some extent. Fast forward to 2023 and This Winter Machine have had more significant line-up change with the departure of guitarists Dom Bennison and Simon D’Vali, replaced by Winter’s old friend and former band mate John Cook (although bearing in mind that This Winter Machine seem to go through guitarists like Spinal Tap went through drummers, he may be feeling an irrational fear of spontaneous human combustion!). Cook has a previous connection as he co-wrote the original version of the title track for The Man Who Never Was. On the evidence of this album, he clearly has ample playing and compositional skills to be an able replacement. Crucially, in addition to Cook, This Winter Machine have finally been able to recruit a highly skilled keyboardist in Leigh Perkins, who indelibly stamps his own style on the sound of the band. That brings us up to date with the revolving door of This Winter Machine band membership, so how does the new album sound?
The Clockwork Man is the band’s first concept album, and they present it with great imagination and musical skill, drawing the listener into the narrative with impactful rock songs filled with a combination of power and subtlety. Al Winter is a self-confessed Rush fanatic, sharing that The Clockwork Man was partly inspired by his love of ’70s/’80s sci-fi, and “a desire to try a ‘real’ concept album much in the same vein as 2112, and a way to make points about existing society and where it could be heading without being overt and polemic.” To underline the steam punk atmosphere, some early special editions of the album (already sold out!) came with a graphic novel booklet outlining the story, with some fabulous artwork by Andrew Richmond. The evocative and eye-catching cover artwork is by Ed Unitsky, well known for his artwork for other artists such as Unitopia, U.P.F, The Tangent, Manning, The Flower Kings and Riversea, amongst others. This Winter Machine certainly know how to attractively present their albums. However, whilst the imagery is great to look at, the band have also ensured that the music is of a high quality.
The Clockwork Man immediately grabs your attention with the opening overture of The River (Parts 1 & 2), co-written by Winter with bassist Dave Close, alongside guitarist Dom Bennison before he left. A suitably sci-fi synth pulse opens the scene before an undulating wave of guitar and drums acts as a fanfare for Al Winter’s assertive and sinister vocals. In the background, Leigh Perkins embroiders the piece with evocative keyboard motifs. John Cook lays down a brilliantly slithering, serpentine solo over the mayhem before just over about halfway though a crunching riff spells the end of part one – it’s a spectacular opening which grabs the listener. However, This Winter Machine also know how to describe much subtler musical pictures as Perkins plays a delicate piano under a yearning, remorseful vocal in the second part of the song. This emotional passage is enhanced with a restrained but evocative guest guitar solo from Ade Fisher of Stuckfish. Ade also mixed and produced the album, and it was certainly a smart move to engage his services as he adds a feeling of real depth and quality. Additionally, Pete Maher, renowned for his work with artists such as U2, Snow Patrol, Noel Gallagher, The Pixies and Paul Weller, mastered the album, and he certainly gives it a real sheen of sonic quality.
The sound of rain segues us into Solitude, Silence and Steam, which is introduced with a sinister bass from Dave Close. John Cook, who wrote the song, multiplies the sense of foreboding with a dark and flowing main electric guitar melody. The song continues relentlessly as Winter sings with a sense of desperation, evoking Solitude. A more subtle guitar and a rumble of thunder take us into the more contemplative Silence section. There is a sense that the main protagonist, one of the cloned slave race Clockwork Men, is awakening from their sedated docility. Cook finishes this piece with a fluid guitar passage… and the rain keeps falling.
Close’s bass again kicks off The Final Goodbye whilst Cook takes up the melody on guitar, Perkins’ synthesizer elaborating on the persistent flow of the song. This feels like a connecting piece for the narrative as our dissident Clockwork Man goes searching for illegal alcohol and illicit company in the underground ‘Clone Bars’. Stumbling through the door, the piece ends with the sound of a busy bar. Kites featured Pete Jones as guest vocalist on the lovely Sometimes, and Al Winter has recruited another outstanding but very different guest singer on The Clockwork Man. The forceful Change features impressive hard rock vocals from Andre Saint, of Grace and Fire. Winter has shared that the music and melody for Change was specifically written to fit Saint’s vocal style, which he sings with his characteristic assurance and power. This is clearly a pivotal point in the story as our main protagonist hears the radical thoughts of a rebel… but he also starts to fall in love with a ‘normal’ (non-clone) woman, with whom he eventually lives.
Reflections is the album’s only instrumental, and unlike the short instrumental pieces on Kites, which felt rather embryonic, Reflections is clearly a fully formed and engaging piece. Cook and Perkins mainly feature as they fluidly play around the central theme and melody on piano, keyboards and guitar, suitably reflecting a range of softer or more turbulent emotions. Having a keyboardist back as an integral part of the band is crucial in rounding out and embellishing the classic sound of This Winter Machine, and as their instruments interweave, Perkins and Cook complement each other so well.
If This Winter Machine ever go down in a plane, a la Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper (obviously, lets hope that doesn’t happen!), then I am willing to bet that one song that TWM fans may be playing whilst holding their candles is the elegiac and beautiful Nothing Lasts Forever. Starting with a heartfelt sigh, this song signifies the end of a relationship in the face of hatred for ‘others’ and discrimination against a minority group, the Clones. The parallels with modern society are very clear. This simple, sad song drips with remorse and regret. Cook’s music and Winter’s affecting lyrics combine to great effect, the emotion enhanced with brief but touching melancholic whistles from Leigh Perkins. Al Winter has always had an ear for an infectious, accessible melody, and this is a great example. Midway through, Perkins plays a lilting melody on the whistle before morphing into a synth-driven passage, which in turn merges into a mellifluous guitar part. The simple emotive opening is recapitulated at the end to finish a special song. Leigh Perkins shines in the diaphanous, shimmering piano and synths of The Light. Penned by Al Winter, it showcases one of his most delicate and lyrical vocal performances. The Light also underlines that one significant improvement from previous TWM albums is that Winter’s vocals are much more to the fore in the mix on The Clockwork Man.
This brings us to the finale – I won’t share the whole story here as that is for the listener to discover. Suffice to say, it is not filled with joy! The portentous Falling through a Hole in the Sky is again written by Winter and Cook, who appear to have formed a strong songwriting partnership, highlighting just how much of a contribution John Cook has made to the new manifestation of This Winter Machine (let’s hope he doesn’t spontaneously combust any time soon!). Falling through a Hole in the Sky is a powerful ‘mini-epic’ as the story reaches a dramatic and emotional impact for the Clockwork Man and his fellow Clones. Al Winter is able to write understated lyrics which have a subtle emotional resonance: “But even now I still remember…”, only a few short words but they conjure up such images and feelings. The song reaches an emotional apogee midway through, and with a crunching guitar motif the song careers onward with Cook grinding out a relentless riff, which Perkins magnifies with waves of keyboards. Alan Wilson lays down a thunderous runway on drums alongside Close’s throbbing bass patterns. The restrained power all sounds and feels rather apocalyptic with Winter’s voice echoing in the distance as Cook takes flight with one last great solo – but this is not about individuals, this is a band creating a tremendous wall of sound.
I have an interesting history with this band. I have reviewed previous albums and performances very positively, and got on well with the band. However, I also had the unfortunate task of writing a review of a very disappointing and underwhelming festival performance which was hampered by programmed keyboard effects and no keyboard player. It was an honest review but it gave me absolutely no pleasure at all to write it. I have since heard from trusted friends that this was very much an unfortunate glitch for the band and they have regained their live ‘Mojo’, particularly with the essential element of a talented keyboardist on stage. Well, at least This Winter Machine know that I don’t blow smoke in proverbial places, and if I really like something, I genuinely like it. Therefore, I am glad to report that The Clockwork Man is an excellent testament to the durability and quality of This Winter Machine. There is a compelling central narrative threading through the album, but most of the songs could easily stand alone outside that context.
This album ticks all the right boxes if you are a fan of well written and well performed flowing melodic progressive rock. There are times when things actually do go like Clockwork, and This Winter Machine have produced one of the most accomplished albums of their career with the impressive The Clockwork Man.
01. The River (Parts 1 & 2) (11:18)
02. Solitude, Silence and Steam (8:18)
03. Final Goodbye (2:56)
04. Change (5:42)
05. Reflections (5:07)
06. Nothing Lasts Forever (6:08)
07. The Light (3:51)
08. Falling Through a Hole in the Sky (7:31)
Total Time – 50:31
Al Winter – Vocals
John Cook – Guitars
Leigh Perkins – Keyboards, Whistles, Backing Vocals
Alan Wilson – Drums
Dave Close – Bass
Andre Saint – Vocals (track 4)
Ade Fisher – Guitar Solo (track 1, part 2)
Record Label: White Knight Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 6th October 2023
– The Man Who Never Was (2016)
– A Tower of Clocks (2019)
– Kites (2021)
– The Clockwork Man (2023)