A new gunslinger is in town, and his name is Simon Collins. For those new to the program, we like to foster new Progressive Rock acts who have something distinct and entertaining to add to the canon, and this album certainly fits the bill. It is due for release on May 20th, 2013. Don’t ask me how I came by it two days early; you don’t want to know. But I will say that I will be buying my copy as soon as I get some money in this house again. This is a keeper.
tl;dr Version: A concept album co-written by the son of a famous pop star? Can that possibly be any good? You bet your ass it can!
‘Splain, Lucy Version: Sound of Contact may be new, but Simon Collins and his band mates (David Kerzner, Kelly Nordstrom and Matt Dorsey) have been around a while, and this album is proof that they know what they’re doing. It’s not quite a supergroup project like Flying Colors or TransAtlantic, but it’s very much in that vein of Moving Forward/Looking Backward Progressive Rock acts, but with a difference, because Simon has made his name as an electronic musician as well as a world class drummer in his own right, and this album reflects that, too. Yes, you will hear Mellotrons, but you will also hear cutting edge synths, modern guitar effects, and top shelf production values from the one and only Nick Davis. And you will hear some fantastic songs, because that’s what this concept album consists mainly of; toe tapping, thoughtful and infectious melodies that sacrifice nothing to either the small deities of pop radio OR the Gods of Prog.
Boring Version: Simon Collins is a funny figure in rock music. So few sons or daughters of famous pop stars really ever emerge from under the shadows of their famous parents, despite being gifted musicians, singers and songwriters in their own right (e.g. Alexa Ray Joel, James McCartney, Sean Lennon, and perhaps Dhani Harrison, although his band, thenewno2, is making inroads as well). Even a famous and successful solo musician such as Julian Lennon still has to answer questions about his famous father, almost thirty years after starting his solo music career.
Simon, as some know, is the the son of famous singer/songwriter and retired Prog Rock drummer Phil Collins of solo and Genesis fame (tell me you didn’t know that). And he has released a short but distinct catalogue of electronic pop albums under his own name over the last decade, whilst moving towards building a band he could tour and record with. Well, after meeting and working with keyboardist David Kerzner (whom I cannot say enough nice things about, so I will refrain here; the highest praise I can give him is that he is a modern day synthesis of Tony Banks’ and Kevin Moore’s writing and playing styles) on his last solo album, including the remarkable Genesis cover ‘Keep It Dark’ (with guitarist Kelly Nordstrom), Simon found the songwriting partner he’s been needing to take his music to the next level. Building from the band he created for that album, they went on to found a remarkable (there’s that word again) Progressive Rock band, and wrote and recorded what is threatening to be my favourite album of 2013; Dimensionaut, by Sound of Contact.
Dimensionaut is a concept album, but don’t let that moniker deter you, or for those with dreams of theaters of progressive compositions gilded in distortion and drenched in the blood of musicians playing in 13/6, relax. There are chops on display here, but they aren’t the main feature. This is one of the most accessible-but-powerful progressive rock albums I’ve heard in a while, and believe me, I’ve been listening. And for those keeping score, this truly is a band effort. There are co-write credits on all of the songs, and in case there is any doubt, Simon’s name is in every one of those credits.
01. Sound Of Contact (02:05) (Collins/Kerzner)
02. Cosmic Distance Ladder (04:43) (Collins/Dorsey/Kerzner/Nordstrom)
03. Pale Blue Dot (04:44) (Collins/Dorsey/Kerzner/Nordstrom)
04. I Am (Dimensionaut) (06:24) (Collins/Kerzner/Nordstrom)
05. Not Coming Down (06:01) (Collins/Kerzner/Seigel)
06. Remote View (03:54) (Collins/Kerzner/Nordstrom)
07. Beyond Illumination Feat. Hannah Stobart (05:53) (Collins/Kerzner/Nordstrom/Stobart)
08. Only Breathing Out (05:56) (Collins Kerzner/Nordstrom)
09. Realm Of In-Organic Beings (02:52) (Collins/Kerzner)
10. Closer To You (05:05) (Collins/Dorsey/Kerzner)
11. Omega Point (06:29) (Collins/Dorsey/Kerzner/Nordstrom)
12. Möbius Slip (19:35)
Part 1 In The Difference Engine (Collins/Dorsey/Kerzner/Nordstrom)
Part 2 Perihelion Continuum (Collins/Kerzner/Nordstrom)
Part 3 Salvation Found (Collins/Kerzner/Nordstrom)
Part 4 All Worlds All Times (Collins/Kerzner/Nordstrom)
Sound of Contact are:
Simon Collins – vocals, drums
Dave Kerzner – keyboards, backing vocals
Kelly Nordstrom – guitar, bass
Matt Dorsey – guitar, bass, backing vocals
Hannah Stobart: vocals
Wells Cunningham: cello
Sound of Contact opens the album with radio signals and then a quick burst of rock instrumentation, followed by some ambient sounds and acoustic guitars and piano. Simon’s voice is joined by Hannah Stobart’s, and then a very Yes-like vocal chorus of snippet vocals, like something from Tales of Topographic Oceans, closes the short number, but leads directly into…
Cosmic Distance Ladder is a mid-tempo prog rocker with drums and guitars to the fore, a long instrumental passage with great 80s and 90s synth textures and riffs, and some outstanding bass playing in the background. The song diverts into a slightly jazz fusion-fueled middle section, a real proof of concept section to demonstrate their musicianship without bludgeoning you endlessly with scales and time shifts. Think late 80s Rush with a bit more keyboard. That closing passage builds in tension before releasing and leading into…
Pale Blue Dot opens with synths and guitars buzzing and humming quietly while the cymbals tap out an intricate pattern that leads into the main riff. This is followed quite suddenly by the chorus, which jumps to the first verse, and the first revelation that Simon has a great lead vocal voice that only sounds the slightest bit like his father’s. The second is, the lyrics are really smart and well-fashioned. The bridge arrives at almost three minutes in, and it becomes clear that this band has no trouble coming up with hooks. The bridge leads to a refrain and then a chorus that builds to the outro. No notes wasted, no efforts to squeeze in a few riffs or scales, just a very effective rock song.
I Am (Dimensionaut) starts quietly, just Simon with a bit of fretless bass and chiming electric piano. Somewhat Marillion-like, here, but as the band starts to work its way into the chorus hook, the song comes to life. The verse returns, and again, I get a slightly Marillionesque vibe, but there’s a distinct quality to Simon’s vocals here which makes this feel fresh. At about three minutes, they go into a very Marillion/Saga style instrumental passage, which is just beautiful in scope and brevity. The chorus returns in a quiet refrain, and the verse returns likewise, before the slow build to the hooky instrumental chorus passage, and then the chorus proper, which just feels like a rallying cry to come outside and breathe the fresh air in the sunlight. Beautiful.
Not Coming Down is a well-constructed rock song with a classic Marillion feel (think Misplaced Childhood/Clutching At Straws) in the verses, and something a little more like Catherine Wheel in the chorus, plus some Hogarth-era Marillionisms in the instrumental passages. Very effective use of strings here. This is the lead-off single, and the story is illustrated pretty strongly in the accompanying video, which you should really scoot over to Youtube to watch. The instrumental section is dark and moody, while the outro is bright and uplifting, like a psychedelic Beatles outro. Very cool choice for a first single.
Remote View enters with psychedelic keys and guitars and big Bonham drums, before the chorus hook kicks in, which just sounds so fresh and interesting, I have trouble drawing immediate comparisons. There is more affected psychedelic vocal treatment in the bridge section, and the guitar solo is vaguely Beatlesque. The refrain leads back to the verse, and the chorus is joined with call and answer vocals, and all the while, you’re hearing Simon singing in a fashion you haven’t heard before.
Beyond Illumination opens like a Vangelis piece, CS-80 sounds in full effect, followed by a reggae verse section that succeeds in sounding both like and unlike Ghost in the Machine-era the Police and early-80s Genesis flirting with reggae before opening up into a beautiful, affected chorus. The reggae verse returns the third time, with Hannah Stobart adding a beautiful vocal performance that then shifts into a bridge section with call and answer vocals, and a beautiful return to the chorus. Very moving piece.
Only Breathing Out creeps in disguised as a lovely ballad with a few telltale sustained buzzing Hackett-Steurmer-type guitar notes, but then a great hook to the chorus arrives, and the song builds into a barnstormer of pop rock grandeur. Strongest chorus hook on the album so far, and it doesn’t overstay before the quiet verse treatment returns. That chorus makes its way around again, and it still doesn’t lose its flavour. The instrumental kicks in quietly enough, but with a dextrous show of tom runs to punctuate the otherwise fairly ambient mood. Then a return to an instrumental chorus riff, and then the chorus itself, and the outro builds with strings until a release on pianos and vocals, with a bit of fretless bass ebbs away, affected vocal samples punctuating the sussurus.
Realm of In-Organic Beings slips in sounding for all the world like a combination of The Great Gig in the Sky and The Waiting Room, overlaid onto a catchy rhythmic riff with enough layers of reverb to drown an oncoming Egyptian cavalry. Gorgeous meditation.
Closer To You chimes and a soft wall of guitars join a piano to introduce this song. Here I can almost, ALMOST hear some of Simon’s father’s sensibilities in the vocal melody. It’s a pretty intro, and the second verse builds with a harmony vocal that then leads to the chorus (another very cool hook), which actually has some pretty complex background vocals. The second verse burbles along with some heft before the chorus returns, and then repeats more stridently, leading to an instrumental passage that features a brilliantly understated guitar pattern. The build up to the outro is like something straight off of a Genesis album, but I can’t decide if it’s Wind and Wuthering or Duke. Lovely. Big chorus outro. Nice finish.
Omega Point is a chopsy intro affair that builds to the verse, with a heavily affected, powerful vocal performance from Simon. Strong piece that rumbles by like a train. Some great bass playing underneath the solid drum pattern and ambient waves of guitar and padded piano. Gorgeous chorus hook. Relentless drive. Washy, treated keys in the instrumental break, which leads back to that irresistible chorus. The song goes into a second instrumental passage, this time with a synth string passage and wending, intertwined guitar leads. Very cool and not at all overblown. The drums pick up a little more insistently during the bridge, which leads to a break that carries into the outro, winding down slowly to make room for…
Möbius Slip is the four-part epic closer to the album, running at over nineteen (19) minutes long, and filled with very modern sample sounds of signals and static, building on string box orchestral sounds, like a modern revisitation of Little Neutrino from Klaatu; a beautifully constructed instrumental section with some wonderfully tuneful playing and great atmospherics. The segue to the second part is reminiscent of Pink Floyd, including the slightly chugging sound of rotors in the air. This makes way for a slightly middle Eastern riff, which makes room for Simon’s vocal introduction at about five minutes into the piece. This second section sounds just a little like a mash-up of Soundgarden and Porcupine Tree, but doesn’t sound derivative, for all that. The acoustic bridge brings us to a strange melding of Pink Floyd and Steve Howe-led Yes, and this bridges into a PT-type instrumental passage, complete with slightly heavy metal riffing, which transforms into a Led Zeppelin section, but again using vocal effects taken from Steven Wilson’s playbook. This section transforms into an instrumental section that chops it up even more, with a slightly Dream Theateresque instrumental section, complete with very prototypical Portnoy-type drumming. Very cool. The instrumental shifts to a quieter but equally choppy section, a little less Dream Theater, establishing Sound of Contact as its own creature. Finally, part four arrives, a change-up that sounds a bit like a Synchronicity era Police piece, but with a drum sound closer to John Bonham again. A lovely bridge here, very Phil Collins in drum flavour, the vocals sounding like a young Peter Gabriel, and yet not sounding like a Gabriel-era Genesis piece. HUGE CHORUS sound, including walls of guitar not entirely unlike Brian May, but a little less melodically perfected. Then we get synth melodies like Tony Banks on And Then There Were Three, as the band manoeuvres through a beautiful Genesis-style outro, lots of uplifting notes and riffs here. Gorgeous. You have no doubt that the story ends well, even if you haven’t been following the lyrics too closely. Which, really, you should, because this band’s lyric writing is as good as it comes. A Day In the Life closer, wending treated piano and synths and walls of guitar and Mellotron and winding down drums… ahhh… the radio signals return, and the album ends.
I need you all to go out and buy this album, capice? This is modern Prog, and it’s accessible and lovely and built to appeal to a wide range of audiences, without throwing in an obvious radio-accessible hit. It IS a concept album from start to finish, and it doesn’t stray from that. It merely takes pages from other successful concept albums, including Duke and other such not-quite-a-full-concept-but-close-enough albums by having melodically and rhythmically challenging instrumentals and infectious songs intertwined. You can’t really miss with this one. Simon and company have taken away all of the road blocks to Prog assimilation on this one. Go tell your S.O. that a new heavyweight Prog Pop/Rock band has come to the rescue. Then tell them I sent you, because I want to be invited along too.
© 2013 Lee Edward McIlmoyle