This is the sixth studio album from German progressive rock outfit Subsignal, a band that started out as a side project by members of Sieges Even. I had heard a couple of songs from their last album, 2018’s La Muerta, thanks to the Spotify algorithm (cue outrage from a section of the readership). Regardless of what flavour of prog album or song I’ve been listening to in the past 18 months, if I don’t have anything queued up to play next this is always the band that pops up. So when I saw they had a new album I could review, it made sense for me to take the plunge.
I’ve seen Subsignal described as Neo-prog elsewhere, and I can see where that description has come from. For me, it has always been a shorthand for “there will be some ’80s sounds on this record”, and that was certainly the case here too, particularly the drumming. There are things going on here that wouldn’t feel out of place on an IQ record, which reinforces that genre labelling. They also remind me a bit of The Mighty Ra, who I saw play at the recent Tales from the ‘Wood festival in South Wales. There are moments that also remind me of Terry Hoax, a German band I became obsessed with as a teenager when I was constantly glued to MTV Europe. I still have an imported copy of one of their CDs somewhere in the house.
Recreating the ’70s always plays well to me, maybe it’s a sense of purity and authenticity to that kind of sound and instrumentation. Maybe it’s due to me growing up in the ’80s, so the ’70s is this halcyon, simpler almost magical time in my eyes and to my ears. Bands who are around now, but leaning into the ’80s neo-prog era can end up veering into an AOR/MOR sound or even the dreaded soft rock territory of music. There are times on this album when Jennifer Rush style air grabs wouldn’t be out of place. But the thing they do to avoid falling into a full-on power ballad cheese-fest is adding extra elements, building on the sound and hitting you with occasional moments of heft, from the guitars, drums and keys. The other factor that elevates this album is the really strong songwriting, delivering some rather enjoyable songs with wonderfully crafted transitions, one of the things that the best prog excels at.
If the vocals aren’t up to scratch, I lose interest in albums very quickly, but Arno Menses has an enchanting voice, with a rich and warm tone that drew me in from the outset. There are some gorgeous acoustic guitar moments on this record, and it is really well produced too. The band slips into the good side of country with some laid-back slide guitar in the quieter moments too. Marigold’s intro reminds me of Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven from the Days of Thunder soundtrack, and that song is one on the album that probably skirts soft rock territory the most and was my least favourite once it really got going.
Recent single Silver (The Sheltered Garden), with its big anthemic vocals, chunky guitar momentum and sparkly keyboards is a real stand out. It’s followed by Impasse which is another real crowd pleaser too; there are plenty of singalong moments on this record. Embers Part 2 is a follow on from Embers Part 1, which was on their 2011 album Touchstones, that’s quite the prog move there and it’s a really good song, with layers and texture wrapped around a silky pop vocal. 2021’s popular single A Room on the Edge of Forever rounds the album out, in a way that’s both familiar and new.
Despite repeated listens, I couldn’t quite decide how much I liked this album. My usual metric is: Will I listen to this again? Yes. Will I listen to more of the band’s music? Yes. Would I like to see them live? Yes. So it’s a full house here, it’s not a perfect album but it’s an enjoyable listen. The more I think about it, not every album has to be life changing or special, there’s a lot to be said for good albums that you can enjoy on multiple listens without them becoming all encompassing. So get your lighter out (or I guess your phone these days) and sway along to these songs that skilfully stay the right side of the boundary to cheese.
01. A Poetry of Rain (1:12)
02. The Art of Giving In (5:16)
03. Marigold (5:09)
04. Sliver (The Sheltered Garden) (5:52)
05. Impasse (6:22)
06. Embers Part II: Water Wings (6:17)
07. Melencolia One (5:49)
08. A Wound is A Place to Let the Light In (5:32)
09. The Last of its Kind (6:44)
10. A Room on the Edge of Forever (4:13) *
Total Time – 52:26
* Bonus track – CD only
Markus Steffen – Guitars
Arno Menses – Vocals
Martijn Horsten – Bass
Markus Maichel – Keyboards
Dirk Brand – Drums
Record Label: Gentle Art of Music (GAOM)
Country of Origin: Germany
Date of Release: 22nd September 2023