By: Charlie Gardner
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Released on April 22, 2016 via InsideOut Music
Messenger have got a message for you… And even just one listen to Threnodies will tell you that the missive says almost as much about them as a band as it does the lives (and deaths) that they portray in this compelling creation.
Gone are the flirtations with folksiness that marked out the promising, trio-led debut of 2014’s Illusory Blues, replaced instead with a new-found boldness that comes from being a settled five-piece. Have no doubt about it: Messenger of 2016 play full-blooded, psychedelic prog rock… with the emphasis on rock.
A threnody is a musical or poetic lamentation of mourning, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that this loosely conceptual album will be a succession of dreary ballads: every track is alive and kicking; and chock-full of meditations on the meaning of life, death, the universe and everything, which aptly match the trippy treeline of their soundscape.
We start gently, though, with ‘Calyx’ (a titular nod to Robert Wyatt that seems accidental) whose drifting, somnambular opening focuses on a lost soul in limbo between life and death, “Wake me from this sleep / There’s no colour to my dreams…” before a startling injection of synths kicks off a rock canter that rises into a coda of wailing guitars from Barnaby Maddick and Khaled Lowe. And while it should be obvious that such hypertrophy is merely a prelude, nothing quite prepares you for what follows…
‘Oracles of War’ opens with vertiginous, doom-laden bass chords – an asphyxiation of sound that owes as much to Royal Blood as Sabbath – before galloping into a rock ballad of Lizzy-like duelling guitars and reflection on the futility of conflict (“Don’t go looking for reason / It’s absent like the desert snow”) that is driven, like so much of the album, by Jaime Gomez Arellano’s dramatic drum patterning. But what really hones its edge is the confidence of Dan Knight’s keys, with just the right counterpoint of gravelly Hammond to accompany such sentiments as “Lies killing all the innocents on both sides”, whose bellicose fury are surely influenced by that tragic November night in Paris.
These ingredients on their own are enough to make this one of the towering tracks on the album; but raging against the machine only goes so far and, after four-and-a-half furious minutes, they expand into the semi-religious hush of Floyd-like reflection with a sleight of hand that leaves you breathless: Maddick’s plaintive falsetto, underpinned by syncopated rhythms and clean acoustic guitars, steering us towards a coda of settled scores and settling dust; of frenzy fading to peace, however uneasy.
If ‘Oracles of War’ is the prime example of Messenger now, then ‘Balearic Blues’ harks back to their pastoral past and, quite literally, “echoes of a time you knew before”. It’s a spirit waltz of gentle guitar arpeggios, steam-train drumming, and vivid imagery that imagines a soul flying through nature and into the universe. But while it has the space for a ‘fiddles and flutes’ interlude of yesteryear, these are eschewed in favour of sensitive, string-sound samples that paint the perfect dreamscape.
‘Celestial Spheres’ steers us back to full-dose psychedelic rock, and is the second standout of the album. Describing the vain attempt to escape the siren-call of fate, “As I turned to face the roaring sea / I knew this could be the final scene / Is she still biding her time?” its trippy opening (complete with Manzarek-style Rhodes piano raindrops) explodes into syncopated, 70s-style heavy-rock riffs and drums, with yet more exquisite Hammond playing from Knight that oozes Spooky Tooth at their, well, spookiest. And he’s not finished there, switching up to a perfect synth-storm to create a bridge for Maddick’s and Lowe’s fight-to-the-fuzz finish.
With a nice sense of dynamic, the lullaby-like ‘Nocturne’ follows: a deceptively simple lament that hints at loss and a lost love – “Run, run, chasing the sun / Just to get burned again / You’re too tired and outdone to be spurned yet again” – cleverly underpinned by insistent drums and James Leach’s counterpointed, crunchy bass. But despite the achingly beautiful funereal finale of Echoplex guitars, it’s a little more than a diversion before ‘Pareidolia’, the penultimate song, and the third touched with real greatness.
And what a beast it is: its frankly impenetrable lyrics (taking the title at face value, it would ironically appear to argue that appearances can be deceptive) exhorting us to “Give heed to euphoria’s calling” and choose between “A palisade or a prison / To stay a slave or awaken with the few?” even at the risk of our own death. But putting such Matrix-like musing aside, the triumph here is in the composition, and a band who don’t just admit to their Floydian slip, but are proud enough to parade it down the street (and some) in a Gilmour-inspired section that shows off Maddick’s and Lowe’s Fleet-Foxes style harmonies at their very best. And while the lyrics might be too far down the rabbit hole for me to ever grasp the narrative, who cares when you’re overcome by a refrain as hairs-on-the-neck haunting as this.
It’s a tough track to follow, but as slight a closer as ‘Crown of Ashes’ may seem, it grows in stature with repeated listenings, without ever treading anywhere near the death metal the title hints at! Instead, we open with a warm and mellow guitar prelude that leads a slow, funeral march of luscious close harmonies and string sounds in a simple, curve-like elegy. “Somewhere in time hangs a portrait of you / Your eyes still alive with a fire, and a smile that endures…” wistfully hints at an existence where we may be alive but are dead inside (wearing a crown of ashes) if we don’t stay true to ourselves; while the final line, “Maybe it’s me but I’m certain I’m there just out of view…” has uncanny echoes of Death Is Nothing At All.
An understated finale, but an apt one I feel; for one of the triumphs of Threnodies is that it shows Messenger at ease and completely true to themselves. A Messenger where Arellano’s drums drive the band to new dimensions and Knight’s keys add stability and shape, freeing up Lowe and Maddick to do what they do best: produce dazzling guitar lines and harmonies. Messenger re-born, in some ways.
Threnodies is a considerable achievement: a rock-driven creation that is expansive but subliminally so, with the soundscape of almost every track effortlessly re-modelling its time signatures and key changes like shifting sands in the desert. It’s accessible prog at its very best: virtuosic yet self-effacing; trippy but not tripped out; poetic but never precious. It’s undoubtedly one of the prog albums of the year; and although it may be more of sleeper when it comes to being recognised outside the prognoscenti, I have a feeling the memo will get through, and it will end up in a good many other RoTY lists, too, such is its broad appeal. But more than that, if this album is a taste of things to come, then there’s every reason to think that Messenger are a British band capable of touching the heights of Anekdoten, or even Opeth…
Illusory Blues was a fine debut, but in many ways it was an illusion. The Messenger story starts here with Threnodies, and it’s a story you need to listen to. The message is simply this: Messenger rock!
Pass it on…