I have been living with the new Pattern-Seeking Animals album, Spooky Action At A Distance, for a while now. Even more so than with the three previous albums, the longer you listen, the more the album reveals itself. P-SA are no Spock’s Beard clones; they are definitively and emphatically their own band. In my interview with bandleader John Boegehold, he explained how the band made a deliberate attempt to broaden their sound. Spooky Action At A Distance accomplishes this task in fine fashion. From the title alone (a phenomenon of quantum entanglement where each particle of a group cannot be described independently of the others), you know you’re in for something more than just a little bit different. The band and the album do not disappoint.
From the opening strains of The Man Made of Stone, the sonic footprint is noticeably different. The sound is punchier, the vocals more textured, the synth sounds unusual. Vocalist Ted Leonard comes across much more confident, using his upper register more than on past efforts. On this tale of a Norse king realising that this is his last battle and wondering was it all worth it, the string arrangements accomplish something surprisingly difficult in rock music. Rather than stand out (as they do, for example, on the latest Yes album), they feel a natural part of the song. Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist John Boegehold has a knack for integrating disparate sounds into a unified whole. This is an emotional album full of story songs, so the underlying music needs to be in service of the lyrics, something he does convincingly. A fine example of this is the way he uses the acoustic guitar to give the song warmth and to create a sense of empathy towards the fated king.
Window to the World has gotten a bit of attention for its reggae-style backbeat. It does add a new dimension but never overwhelms the song. Dave Meros’ bass stands out, exploring the length of the fretboard while Jimmy Keegan deftly moves from the offbeat to powerhouse four-on-the-floor. Rather than pummel with power chords, Leonard riffs his way along, creating a scaffolding upon which Boegehold’s keyboards hang like a delicate spiderweb. The tale of an aging person seeking enlightenment in what appears to be his or her final moments, What Awaits Me leads with a bass riff. But again, it is the variety of acoustic instruments that creates the sonic interest, with several spread across the stereo spectrum. Leonard’s lead is restrained and Boegehold’s electric sitar and Mellotron are used sparingly; but it’s their use as supporting instruments that makes them all the more attractive. Ted Leonard is a consummate vocalist throughout, but mention has to be made regarding the background vocals (provided by both the band and outside singers) which have a greater range and a greater role than on past albums.
The album’s epic centrepiece, both musically and emotionally, is He Once Was. Over the course of twelve minutes, this heartbreaking tale of a soldier before and after his experiences in the First World War moves the listener not with its lyrics – which are open-ended and invite you to fill in the haunting details – but with its atmosphere. A piano and flute motif introduces the song with a quiet bordering on reverence, before yielding to an arrangement that presages something more dire. The tension relaxes as the story unfolds, allowing for the words to take hold. There is much going on musically, rewarding repeated listening. The music is pacific one moment, edgy the next. Even the backing vocals reflect the changing landscape, moving from light to dread, so that even the wordless portions of the song continue to tell the story. Recapitulation of the opening theme with a new arrangement builds interest in both the song and its protagonist. When Ted Leonard lets loose on guitar, he proves he is more than capable of taking his place alongside erstwhile bandmates Alan Morse and Doug Ott. The Dark Side of the Moon-style sax break enhances the song’s visceral impact, a fitting segue into the final reprise of the opening bars of the song.
Underneath the Orphan Moon is the tale of a pregnant teenager escaping a dangerous situation, made all the more poignant by the sumptuous piano and cello backing. The music builds along with the girl’s predicament and her determination to escape. Leonard delivers another impressive solo, solemn, succinct and powerful. Clouds That Never Rain picks up the pace, providing a stage for Boegehold to move from one keyboard to the next. As if to prove the point that this is an album of emotions, the vocals (about a believer in conspiracies) are as haunting as the arrangements are exquisite. Meros is a busy player, but never steps on his own feet, providing fascinating rhythm and melody simultaneously. Keegan is the model of a nimble drummer who avoids overplaying, but is never less than dazzling. To say that Pattern-Seeking Animals has coalesced as a band is an understatement.
In an interesting move, P-SA have a second go at a song previously released on Spock’s Beard’s Noise Floor album. Unhappy with the way Bulletproof turned out originally, the band offers a different take. Using synth and electric piano to set the mood, the music taking on a determined edge as the character proclaims:
Rattle scream and shout
Gonna pound on the walls
Till the ghosts come out
Then I’ll climb to the roof
There I’ll stake my claim
Cause I’m bulletproof.”
The chord changes remind me of classic sixties pop; the structure is sophisticated, but never in a “look at me” manner. Whereas the Spock’s version was all bravado, the update sounds more like the singer is trying to convince himself he’s bulletproof. The differences are not huge, but the end result is, and so much for the better. Somewhere North of Nowhere is more conventionally prog in tone and construction. The vocals are up front, but listen to all of what’s happening underneath. The song is one of the more interestingly written, episodic in its mini-suite structure. The instrumental coda in particular is a display of prowess, the instrumentalists trading off with one another in a tasteful display of fireworks.
Like a compilation of short stories, Spooky Action offers another tale, this one of a woman following God’s call into battle. Keys build the dark mood, only to be alleviated by an angelic female choir. The dichotomy of the verse and the chorus leads to a totally new instrumental section which heightens the push and pull, again echoed in the backing vocals. The use of a flute throughout the song brings a welcome change of tonal colour. This is another song where the more you listen the more you hear. The album concludes with another left turn. Love is Still the Light has Boegehold’s pop sensibility coming to the fore again. Leonard’s voice is almost fragile on this unabashed love song. The female vocals echoing his (courtesy of Abbie Parker and Diane Boothby) add a sense of light and hope that would not have been as evident otherwise. The uncluttered arrangement leaves space for the vocals to stand out and spread the message, ending the proceedings on a note of optimism and a belief that tomorrow will be a better day.
Pattern-Seeking Animals is a different sort of animal. They are a bit of a throwback to another time and place, where bands released an album every year, each one bigger and better than the one before. Spooky Action At A Distance is the product of a band growing into their own skin, taking their rightful place among the heavy hitters. Welcome to the big leagues.
[You can read John’s recent interview with John Boegehold HERE.]
01. The Man Made of Stone (7:01)
02. Window to the World (3:58)
03. What Awaits Me (5:22)
04. He Once Was (12:17)
05. Underneath the Orphan Moon (3:52)
06. Clouds That Never Rain (5:17)
07. Bulletproof (4:17)
08. Somewhere North of Nowhere (6:46)
09. Summoned From Afar (7:33)
10. Love is Still the Light (4:42)
Total Time – 61:06
Ted Leonard – Lead Vocals, Guitar
Dave Meros – Bass Guitars
Jimmy Keegan – Drums, Percussion, Vocals
John Boegehold – Synths, Programming, Mellotron, Guitars, Electric Sitar, Charango, Ronrocco, Vihuela, Mandocello, Autoharp, String Arrangement, Vocals
Abbie Parker, Diane Boothby, Holly Rix, Ivy Marie, Marcella Detroit – Backing Vocals
Alex Bone – Tenor Sax
Gary Cambra – Additional Guitar
Liz Hanks – Cello
Maisie Ireland – Cor Anglais
Sue Winsberg – Flute
Vesislava – Cello
Quartet405 – Strings
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 27th October 2023