Drifting Sun - Veil

Drifting Sun – Veil

Drifting Sun have never flinched from staring into the heart of darkness; indeed they seem to relish it, and Veil, their latest offering, is no exception. It is a conceptually complex album, exploring such existential challenges as sin and betrayal, dementia and insanity and the ravages of old age. These are intertwined with meditations on the theme of love from a variety of traditions. Since the band is the project of pianist and composer Pat Sanders, it’s no surprise that the music is predominantly keyboard-centric – and when the keyboards are this good that’s definitely a plus! – but the other musicians all have ample chance to shine and make a significant contribution to the sonic landscape. Stylistically the music is colourful and dramatic, characterised by passionate vocals, multi-layered instrumental textures and complex, twisty rhythms. It shares similarities with neo-prog bands such as Pallas and Marillion, together with the occasional nod to classic prog, but these elements are skilfully subsumed into a vibrantly evocative style that is unique to Drifting Sun.

Despite multiple changes of personnel over the years, with Pat at the helm the band has managed to retain their own highly distinctive style since the release of their first album back in 1996. Since then seven more albums have appeared culminating in the addictively enjoyable and captivating slice of dramatic neo-prog that is Forsaken Innocence. That album was my introduction to the band and it completely bowled me over with its melodic inventiveness, compelling storytelling and superb musicianship. For Veil, Pat has retained two elements from the Forsaken Innocence team: the expressive and versatile vocals of Jargon, (Vocal Delirium), and the formidable bass skills of John Jowitt, (ex-IQ, Jadis, Arena and Frost* and currently with Rain and Tim Bowness). Guitar duties are now expertly performed by Ralph Cardall, also doubling on mandolin, and on drums and percussion we have the excellent Fudge Smith, drummer with Pendragon from 1986-2006.

Drifting Sun

Veiled, the atmospheric curtain raiser, opens with crackling static and the faraway tones of a solo piano, evoking the sepia tint of times long past. A yearning waltz melody summons the spirit of a haunted fairground while wordless vocals create an eerily beautiful, dreamlike atmosphere before the vision slips away all too soon like a faded memory.

Frailty, the second and longest track of the album, beautifully showcases Pat’s skill at creating an extended composition that is thematically cohesive while providing an engaging variety of moods and textures. Proceedings kick off with a burst of neo-prog energy powered by Fudge’s blistering drums and an impetuous rush of keyboards. Ralph’s frenetic guitar reinforces the melodrama and the constantly shifting metre creates a restless sense of unease. A shimmering organ chord followed by a reflective piano soliloquy heralds the entrance of Jargon’s dramatic and colourful vocals. The verse lyrics skilfully combine elements of Chinese legend with themes of loss and betrayal while the chorus is characterised by a relentless rhythmic drive and a syncopated motif on Hammond organ. In a surreal interlude a mixed voice choir comments upon the proceedings with a series of exclamatory staccato “Oh”s. The final coda has a more solemn and elegiac atmosphere lamenting the tragedy of the moon goddess, banished into the heavens for betraying her lover. The wordless choir returns with a series of richly dissonant and expressive chords, rounding off the track with a sustained burst of glory before fading into silence.

After the pace and angst of Frailty, Eros and Psyche is more gentle and reflective, though equally heartfelt. In Pat’s poetic lyrics elements of the Greek myth are intertwined with the album’s recurring theme of old age. Jargon’s vocals are more restrained but suffused with a touching blend of longing and regret, sympathetically supported by a delicately shimmering web of piano and synths. The lyrics of the first verse “Their sins were calling, it’s too late to cry” quote directly from the previous track, providing a sense of continuity. The chorus, with its emphatic drums and John’s strong melodic bass line, brings a change of mood from reflection to action. A glorious instrumental passage follows, with multilayered keyboards, acoustic and electric guitar combining to create intricate and richly-coloured textures. During the final chorus we have our first chance to fully appreciate Ralph’s thrillingly expressive guitar playing as he exuberantly dips and soars, like Psyche finally breaking free from her gilded cage.

The Thing evokes a massed Viking assembly where disputes were settled and laws made. Right from the off Jargon’s spellbinding voice takes centre stage, the vocal melody following the rhythms and contours of natural speech and supported by floating synth chords. As the gathering commences the assembled Vikings strike up a rousing chorus and “Glory to Odin our father is sworn”. A catchy, modal melody accompanied by acoustic guitar creates a medieval and folky atmosphere – this is definitely the earworm of the album for me and becomes yet more enjoyable when you don your historically inaccurate horned helmet and sing along. The excitement continues to build until Ralph’s guitar finally erupts in a burst of heroic virtuosity. The closing chorus is dramatically performed a capella as the warriors pledge fealty before finally emerging into the dark landscape. In the gloriously evocative coda a powerful and energetic theme in 7/4 is thundered out by the organ and bass, with a background of howling guitars and synths and the inexorable rhythm of Fudge’s drums. This depiction of weapon-wielding, mead-fuelled Norsemen tramping purposefully “with shield on arm and axe in hand” and disappearing into the mist is quite irresistible.

2-Minute Waltz just about lives up to its name in duration but the wild, scampering triplets of the opening make it feel more like an Italian tarantella than a waltz. Not only does this virtuosic solo provide an entertaining and enjoyable palate-cleanser but it serves as a reminder (if such were needed) of Pat’s pianistic skills and his roots in classical music.

Pat describes the dark veil as “what we go through when we ‘lose it’, and eventually when we pass”, and Through The Veil explores this idea in vivid detail. A ruthless sense of menace is maintained throughout the track, fuelled by the music’s jagged and asymmetric rhythms which are reinforced by Fudge’s masterful drumming. A distinctive guitar figure with a Middle Eastern flavour heralds an invitation to “Look through the dark veil. Time immorial.” This lyrical and musical motif recurs throughout the track, unifying the structure while conveying a merciless sense of inevitability. The verses make poignant references to the theme of dementia and its devastating effects on the memory and sense of identity, which “comes and … goes like shards of glass, Just a phase in a fragile mind”. This idea is reinforced graphically by the images in the band’s video for the song. The chorus offers a note of optimism with the words “may all our dreams come together lest we lose track of each other”. As Pat explained to me, “dementia … disrupts lives but in the end we realise that the love that people feel for each other is the ‘glue’ that holds it all together”. A final instrumental section compels us onward in a headlong rush then subsides suddenly onto a hollow sustained chord, leaving us gazing upon the brink of oblivion.

The verse lyrics of The Old Man paint a bleak picture of a “bruised and broken-hearted” figure pleading desperately for “one more taste of bygone days”. The slower tempo and ambiguous metre create a sense of suspended time, and the urgency and menace of the previous track gives way to disillusionment, loss and sadness. Short, disjointed vocal phrases suggest the dry lips and laboured breath of the dying man, and exquisite vocal harmonies add pathos and tenderness. The melody and lyrics of the chorus directly reference the previous track, but the relentless drums and frenzied instrumental counterpoint are now replaced by lushly reverberant textures and more gentle and elegiac harmonies. An emotive outpouring of impassioned electric guitar and cascading synths fades into a mysterious coda as the old man departs “through the blind screen” to a background of enigmatic, sustained chords and clanging pulses of sound like the tolling of distant bells.

The sinister parody of Cirkus opens with an obsessive organ rhythm which is immediately challenged by the deliberately off-kilter thrum of John’s bass. Pat’s keyboards introduce a waltz that is the sinister doppelganger of the sweetly nostalgic melody that opened the album. The music soon takes a further nightmarish turn using the bible story of Cain and Abel as the basis of a terrifying portrait of guilt, obsession and the descent into insanity. The chorus is heralded and accompanied by a demonically syncopated organ figure, aided and abetted by riffing bass and insistent, clangourous drums. Rather than supporting the vocal line the music appears to fight against it, creating an uncomfortable sense of harmonic and rhythmic dissonance and providing a chilling depiction of a mind that is spiralling out of control. There is a heart-stopping moment when the devilish counterpoint momentarily gives way to unison between instruments and vocalist, highlighting Cain’s anguished cry “And the eye of God is peering”. A hurtling figure in 5/4 depicts Cain’s increasingly obsessive and murderous thoughts. The track draws to a close with a ghostly coda based on the initial waltz theme, ending abruptly on an unresolved imperfect cadence like a heart that has suddenly ceased to beat.

Drifting Sun has delivered another darkly atmospheric and unsettling feast of an album. It is more succinct and tightly organised than Forsaken Innocence, with instrumental sections closely integrated into the overall structure of each track. Once again Pat has assembled a stellar cast of musicians who clearly live and breathe the music, delivering a passionate and committed performance. Instead of having a continuous narrative running through the album each track functions like an act in a powerful and immersive drama, exploring its central themes through contrasting characters and backdrops. The subtle cross-references between tracks help to create a satisfying sense of unity and flow. Is this Drifting Sun’s best album so far? Each listener must make their own decision, but if you like your prog sinister, melodramatic and totally enthralling then this is an album you cannot afford to miss.

Special thanks to Pat Sanders for kindly agreeing to answer my questions about the album and for his insightful responses.

01. Veiled (2:00)
02. Frailty (12:05)
03. Eros and Psyche (5:12)
04. The Thing (7:49)
05. 2-Minute Waltz (1:59)
06. Through the Veil (5:45)
07. The Old Man (5:44)
08. Cirkus (6:34)

Total Time – 47:08

Jargon – Vocals
Ralph Cardall – Guitars, Mandolin
Pat Sanders – Keyboards
John Jowitt – Bass
Fudge Smith – Drums
~ With:
Suzi James – Violin (tracks 2,4 & 8)

Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 22nd March 2024

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