The release of a new Steve Thorne album always gives me ambivalent feelings: on the one hand, there is this great music and on the other hand those gloomy, depressing lyrics. This contradiction actually characterises the entire oeuvre of the Englishman from Southampton. Wonderfully melodic neo-prog related music is linked to horrible pessimistic conspiracy theories. Disavowing the Moon landing is just one of the many theories this man has, as evidenced by the song He Who Pays the Piper from previous album Levelled: Emotional Creatures Part 3.
But then again, there’s that voice, that music. A colleague of mine already put it eloquently in his review of Levelled: Emotional Creatures Part 3: “When I listen to Steve Thorne’s voice I am often overwhelmed by a blissful feeling”. I wholeheartedly agree with this opinion. This is confirmed once again when listening to Thorne’s newcomer, entitled Malice in Plunderland. If the black humour in the title doesn’t put you on track, the cover design will: a politician, painted as a deranged clown with vultures and rodents on his head and shoulders, depicted in front of Parliament in London. Now that’s a statement. It is the literal representation of the song These Clowns on the new album.
While Thorne has sometimes been accompanied by a variety of artists from the prog scene in the past, this is no longer the case over the last few albums. No John Mitchell, Gary Chandler, Martin Orford or Tony Levin this time, but a more or less permanent backing band with drummer Kyle Fenton and guitarist Geoff Lea, although Big Big Train drummer Nick D’Virgilio (NdV) makes a guest appearance, as he did on the last album. But the apparent lack of star quality does not detract from the music: Thorne is a gifted songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and singer, both Fenton and D’Virgilio play extremely solidly, but from a musical point of view, guitarist Lea in particular is unrivalled. With his playing, akin to David Gilmour, he makes the difference time and time again – hats off to this relatively unknown musician.
Opener Rumble and Dust is a strong up-tempo rocker with excellent drumming from NdV. Title track Malice in Plunderland starts with a speech by President John F Kennedy from 1961. “The rats are getting reckless”, Thorne sings in a biting lyric against Lea’s razor-sharp guitar, to a rather sudden ending. Another quote at the beginning of Tall and Strong, this time from Game of Thrones, after which a wonderful song develops featuring Lea’s guitar. Catherine Wheel provides fireworks not only figuratively but also literally, another spoken text as an intro with wonderful melodious music and vocals. Cup of Truth reminds me somewhat of Electric Light Orchestra because of the piano, guitar riff and harmony vocals.
The spoken words in Who or Where You Are is about the so-called New World Order, the ancient and all-encompassing conspiracy theory about the Illuminati. Lea produces Jeff Beck-like screeches on his electric guitar, and NdV’s drumming is extremely recognisable. “The ocean will rise 1/100th of one percent, over the next 300 fucking years”, Trump’s infamous rejection of climate science in 2022 closes the song. These Clowns is the musical representation of the cover design. Or vice versa of course. Sharp lyrics versus a catchy and even somewhat soft melody, typical Thorne. The latter does not apply to Lea’s solo. Good Times to Come also has the sharpest of lyrics over a sweet Beatles-esque theme with piano, fretless bass and wind instruments, very skilful.
To Mock a Killingbird is a short intermezzo in which a repetition of the same phrase: “this is extremely dangerous to our democracy”. Reference is made to an HBO episode that portrays the Sinclair Broadcast Group as influencing public opinion by constantly repeating the same ‘warning’. Long story for a soundbite of exactly 44 seconds… Downstream is the closing track of Malice, with NdV’s driving drums, a strong bass line from Thorne himself and perhaps the best guitar work from Lea yet.
Ten songs at just over forty minutes, it’s not long, but better to be short and sweet than long and boring. Thorne is not into epics, most songs last around four minutes, only Who or Where You Are reaches the seven minutes limit. Occasionally it feels like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, this search for quotes, speeches and their meaning. Fun but tiring. And Thorne achieves his goal: I make the effort, how ironic.
Back to those lyrics. “My new album is a direct and honest manifestation of my feelings, thoughts and emotions relating to the last two years or more towards the crazy tyrannical, deceptive onslaught by the ‘powers that shouldn’t be’ upon we the people”, says Thorne. He finds writing hopeful, uplifting songs and lyrics misleading and unfair in these dark and uncertain times that he feels are so clearly deliberately forced upon us.
Well, what can I say? It reminds me a bit of the schism that Roger Waters has been causing within the music industry (and beyond) for some time. It is not new; John Lennon, Bob Dylan and, staying closer to home, Fish also sang that they didn’t trust the government (State of Mind). But this goes a step further. How much further, only Thorne can decide for himself. Hopefully someday there will be a change in his thinking. As long as it doesn’t affect this wonderful music that provides some light next to the darkness of his lyrics. To be continued, no doubt.
01. Rubble and Dust (4:11)
02. Malice in Plunderland (4:26)
03. Tall and Strong (4:16)
04. Catherine Wheel (4:46)
05. Cup of Truth (3:51)
06. Who or Where You Are (7:01)
07. These Clowns (3:44)
08. Good Times to Come (3:53)
09. To Mock A Killingbird (0:45)
10. Downstream (5:33)
Total Time – 42:27
Steve Thorne – Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals, Fretted & Fretless Basses, Keyboards, Percussion
Kyle Fenton – Drums
Nick D’Virgilio – Drums (tracks 1,6 & 10)
Geoff Lea – Lead Guitar
Record Label: White Knight Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 7th April 2023
– Malice in Plunderland (2023)
– Levelled: Emotional Creatures: Part Three (2019)
– Island of Imbeciles (2016)
– Crimes & Reasons (2012)
– Into the Ether (2009)
– Emotional Creatures: Part Two (2007)
– Emotional Creatures: Part One (2005)