Frost* - Milliontown
Rarely has a debut album by a new prog band attracted so much attention and pre-release hype. Mind you, this is not a debut in the normal sense of the word; none of the musicians on this album are new to the game at all. With established names like John Mitchell - Guitars (Arena, Kino, The Urbane), John Jowitt - Bass (IQ, Jadis, Arena) and Andy Edwards - Drums (IQ, Robert Plant) joining Frost* main man Jem Godfrey - Keyboards and vocals, for his labour of love project.
Whilst probably previously unknown in 'Progland' save for his contribution to 80s neo-proggers Freefall, Mr Godfrey has carved quite a name for himself in the wider world of pop music as a writer/producer responsible for some of the music we all love to say we hate. He may well have won himself an Ivor Novello award last year for the bestselling UK single of 2005 - X-Factor winner, Shane Ward's That's My Goal but does that mean he can write and perform prog? Pop and prog usually being as musically alike as a fridge and an aardvark.
By all accounts, Jem always did have a bit of prog in him, cutting his teeth by learning to play Tony Banks' Genesis solos at an early age. The day job is exactly that, a nice little earner. This - Milliontown - is a kind of a 'what-I-did-in-my-holidays' project, albeit one with some longevity attached. It is hoped to produce an album a year for the next five years so it's not a flash-in-the-pan vanity project by any means.
Recruiting the other musicians by the simple expedient of emailing them and asking - would that it were so easy for non Ivor Novello recipients - the project appears to have got off to a running start with very little in the way of hitches and problems. Hopefully a favourable portent for things to come, particularly the forthcoming live gigs (at the time of writing - August 2006).
So, to the music, is Jem Godfrey a wolf in prog's clothing or even the emperor wearing new clothes - a nice spangley cape perhaps?
Milliontown the album kicks off with an instrumental track, Hyperventilate. Opening with an almost organic sound - the flute samples being reminiscent of jungle and bird noises - and a gentle piano melody which builds as the rest of the band join in and then Wham! We're into time change territory.
The track feels as if it is putting all its wares out on display, a stall setting as it were with the usual elements catalogued and present. Ah, there's the ubiquitous John Mitchell soloing up a storm, in another corner Andy Edwards plays as if he has four hands not two. Full of the modern 'progness' we've come to expect from bands such as Kino, Echolyn and Spock's Beard, Hyperventilate is a breathless run at creating a new prog out of old traditions.
Proving that he can indeed do prog, Jem Godfrey could so easily settle back and write a whole album chock full of this kind of symphonic sound but he's not going to do that, oh no, he's got a few surprises up his sleeve. No Me No You begins with a cacophony of sampled voices before some monster riffing takes its place in an almost Metallica vein. Where Hyperventilate was all about melody, this is all about heaviness in a Dream Theatre or Kino vibe. Mindful not to keep the track too samey, a short tinkley piano break punctures the weight of the song leading back into a wall of noise, again sample heavy and vaguely ominous.
OK, so we can do trad prog and prog metal, what else is there in the bag? Snowman once again changes the mood with a completely different style, a bit Peter Gabriel with its backwards flute samples and plodding, slow rhythm. Extending the cold metaphor, the whole song exudes a chill, misting up your window with its icy breath.
By now, it's fairly obvious that no song on this album is going to sound much like the rest and The Other Me is no exception. Taking its leaf from the industrial book and nicking a riff from Gary Numan's Are Friends Electric? This track above all demonstrates Jem's pop sensibilities. Without the prog bridges in the middle, it could easily find a place in the top 30 and more than anything forms a companion piece to the Sugababes' Freak Like Me, Oh, the scandal! Mentioning a girly band in a prog review! Hard cheese, Freak... was a decent bit of power pop and so is this. And its catchy as hell to boot.
Black Light Machine was probably the first Frost* track most people heard, being available for download well before the album came out. Starting off like It Bites or King Crimson circa Discipline it soon morphs into a more traditional prog sound, the longer length of it allowing a bit more space in-between than some of the previous tracks. Once again John Mitchell proves what an able guitarist he is with a perfectly measured solo at the heart of the song. The treated vocals, very breathy, lay an 80s feel on the piece which perhaps was not what was aimed for but that niggles aside they're soon gone to be replaced with a full on three minute prog wig-out to end the song. Jem has declared a fondness for It Bites and here is where it is at its most obvious.
Where would a proper prog album be without its epic? True to the genre, Jem has written one as the title track. Not only epic, dare I say Milliontown is also 'concept', being inspired by the book The Apprentice by Gordon Houghton. A tale of death and what happens when you are dug up from it. Epics of this length, 26 minutes, are notoriously hard to get perspective on, needing more than the requisite few listens to fully appreciate and digest even for hardened prog fans.
While certainly a cohesive whole, none of the six sections of Milliontown stand out in any particular way. Repeating themes pop up here and there but there isn't that sense of wildly contrasting sections all gelling seamlessly that marks out a truly brilliant epic. Milliontown is more like a very, very long song than a multipart epic. Despite this, the playing and arrangement are superb and the song bears comparisons to some of the Transatlantic mega-epics. Perhaps the little piano coda at the end was a prog cliché too far though, adding very little to the number and intruding into your brain as you try and process what you have just listened too.
All in all, it seems we can forgive Jem Godfrey his populist past, he has demonstrated he has the soul of a true progger and with some skilful help has constructed a debut album that will no doubt go on to win many plaudits and awards in the end-of-the-year round ups. His keyboard playing is top notch and as befits an award winning writer and producer the production values on this album take the best of the old and mix it with the cream of the new. I suspect that his vocals will join the ranks of those that people either love or hate. Whilst hitting the right note is never a problem, the range of emotions is slightly lacking and a reliance on vocal effects is a trifle over bearing, It suits some songs such as Snowman but a more earthy, human vocal would have suited others better.
Lest we forget, Frost* is a band not a person and the contribution of the other members is of the highest quality. John Mitchell must surely now be elevated to the rank of top prog guitarists, no emotion lacking in his playing. John Jowitt and Andy Edwards have rapidly turned into the dream team of prog rhythm sections. Jowitt in particular underlying the whole album with rhythm and tone but if you take the time to listen to his parts carefully you wonder at his effortless skill.
Milliontown is an album which will find great favour among fans of It Bites, Kino, Transatlantic and all symphonic prog lovers. Therein perhaps lies its greatest flaw, it's all to easy to play the game of spot the reference. Maybe the next album will be less of the sum of its influences and have more of its own unique Frost* sound, I for one, certainly hope so.
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