Ellesmere - Stranger Skies

Ellesmere – Stranger Skies

Ellesmere is a project masterminded by Italian multi-instrumentalist Roberto Vitelli. You may have come across them, as their last album, Wyrd, caused a bit of a stir in prog circles at the end of 2020. Latest release Stranger Skies, in many respects, carries on where Wyrd left off, but with a couple of significant differences.

Of course, stylistically, we still have the recognisable influences from the usual classic prog suspects, so clear influences from Genesis, Yes, Crimson, VDGG et al, but where Wyrd was obviously Roberto plus a myriad cast of prog royalty, Stranger Skies has much more of a band feel, and hangs together with much more cohesion as a result. There is a clear core band, which is Roberto himself on keys and bass, Matthias Olsson (Anglagard, White Willow) on drums, Giacomo Anselmo on guitar, and John Wilkinson (Mama, Swan Chorus) on vocals. It is Wilkinson who makes the most difference, as this album sees much more of a vocal approach to the songwriting, and this makes the band seem more accessible and the songs more memorable. Where Wyrd was dazzling instrumentally, Stranger Skies is more direct. Sure it still has the classic prog elements which so impressed before, but now it seems more channelled, more focussed, and is all the better for it.

The album is split into two distinct halves. The first ‘side’ comprising four tracks linked by a theme related to a cold world, whilst the second half has two longer pieces depicting an alternative warmer land, and both can be seen on the striking Rodney Matthews cover. Northwards opens proceedings, fronted by a cinematic overture which wouldn’t sound out of place in a fantasy film; it’s all very Harry Potter, but makes a good intro to the song proper. A driving riff and hook laden verses – apparently, we are heading Northwards to the North Pole! Wilkinson’s voice makes the Genesis comparison inevitable, and even the promo blurb suggests that Trick of the Tail was a big influence, and there are clear Genesis-isms on much of the album, but nothing that strikes me as ‘stolen’, just a stylistic similarity. Tundra continues the Wintery theme with some tasty warming guitar work from Anselmi, whilst Crystallised has a very nice 12 string intro before introducing a very famous guest, the very easily identifiable David Jackson with his unmistakable sax sound. I could listen to him all day, and getting him onboard shows the quality of this project, as I’m sure he is much in demand. Arctica concludes the sub-zero suite with an energetic jazzy workout somewhat reminiscent of Yes. Again, the song is memorable and melodic, but with plenty of instrumental interest. Despite the obvious influences, Ellesmere manage to make a pretty good job of making their own mark.

Side two opens with the title track, and here the composition is allowed room to grow and develop, with a slow building prog edifice taking shape, held together with John Wilkinson’s vocals, but interspersed with longer instrumental passages, keyboards and guitar leading, ably supported by John Hackett on flute. There are epic organ interludes, and as the guest list includes ex-Flower King Tomas Bodin, he may well be responsible. No matter, whoever it is, it sounds suitably monumental, especially given some quite prominent bass underpinning from Vitelli himself. His brooding runs have Chris Squire writ large, and that’s no criticism. This track is one of the best longer form pieces I’ve heard this year. Long enough to stretch out, but not hanging around long enough to bore, and with a rhythm which keeps you alert to its intricacies.

Final track Another World again features Jackson, and is a concluding tour de force, with a chugging riff, swelling verses, keyboard theatrics, wondrous lead guitar, and that sax driving the melody. It eventually slides easily back into a reprise of Northwards, nicely bookending the album in a most satisfying way. The piano outro touches on the theme from the opening overture, and just sounds perfect. Overall, this has to be one of those rare albums which I find myself drawn back to over and over, and which I still find compelling after many listens. Vitelli has managed to draw a star cast, but has had the sense to stick to a core band for the basics, and it’s a winning formula, especially spearheaded by Wilkinson’s voice, which is a unifying force. A plethora of guest singers wouldn’t have had the same cohesion, so full marks for sticking with the vision.

Now that Ellesmere have proven to be a proper band, we can look forward to seeing them live, and they are on the bill for next year’s Fusion festival, so I’m very optimistic that they will storm the Stourport Civic! My advice is, don’t miss it, and in the meantime, listen to Stranger Skies!

01. Northwards (6:50)
02. Tundra (6:44)
03. Crystallised (5:13)
04. Arctica (4:16)
05. Stranger Skies (12:17)
06. Another World (11:43)

Total Time – 47:03

Roberto Vitelli – Bass, Keyboards
Matthias Olsson – Drums
John Wilkinson – Vocals
Giacomo Anselmi – Guitar
~ With:
Clive Nolan – Keyboards
Graeme Taylor – Acoustic Guitar
Tomas Bodin – Keyboards
John Hackett – Flute
David Jackson – Saxes, Wind Instruments
Bob Hodges – Keyboards
Stefano Vicarelli – Keyboards
Riccardo Romano – Backing Vocals, 12 String Acoustic Guitar

Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Italy
Date of Release: 12th January 2024

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