The musical partnership between the aged, eternally shifty-eyed Geoff Downes and his “East Anglian Jack White” songwriting/producing virtuoso sidekick Chris Braide breaks new ground with their fourth album Halcyon Hymns.
As you might expect from its ambitious constituent members, Halcyon Hymns offers a lot of bop for your buck. Downes, drawing from his decades of experience playing keys for The Buggles, Yes and Asia, comes up with the central ideas – hooks, chord progressions, themes and such – and Braide then arranges, writes lyrics and expands on these ideas until they coalesce into full songs. It’s a solid working arrangement; Downes’ more eclectic, experimental offerings remain at the fore, but are tempered, and given modern vibrancy and polish by Braide’s more commercial sensibilities. The end result is something that contains all the emotional veracity and unconventional texture of progressive music, but presented in a shiny, gorgeously produced form. Nice.
Overall, the band has shifted away from the keyboard-focused sound of their earlier work, instead opting for a more traditional guitar/piano led ensemble, bringing it more in line with that ephemeral, indescribably ‘80s Pink Floyd/ Fleetwood Mac sound. That isn’t to say the instrumentation is boring. There are slightly schmaltzy strings and wailing Gary Moore-esque guitar solos dotted throughout. Warm Summer Sun and Your Heart Will Find The Way are prime examples (for better and for worse). Elsewhere on the album, the smoky, spooky King Of The Sunset brings the angst and Remembrance squeezes every last drop of song from three simple, repeated chords, building layers upon layers of swelling melancholy over a wistful, spoken word elegy for idyllic childhood summers long past.
Occasionally, Braide layers his vocals like he’s trying to channel all five Moody Blues members at the same time, but crucially knows when to dial it back. Today starts out like a re-imagined Imagine – all lilting piano and introspective vocals – but by the end bristles with the triumphant, folksy energy of Hey Jude’s famous outro.
Like much of their past output, the tracks here often open with an unintentionally hilarious spoken word introduction, for example: “Silence. Or is it?/ Shrapnelled hearts bristle/ We, once youthful, bejewelled/ too soon jumped…”. It may be a little too silly, a little too Spinal Tap, for many (“No one knows who they were, or… what they were doing…”) but against seemingly all odds, as the album unfurls and displays its impressively tuneful plumage, these spoken interludes begin to make more sense, sounding less Jeremy Clarkson reading Geoffrey Chaucer and more mildly affected young Geoffrey Chaucer reading Geoffrey Chaucer. When it works, which it often does, it results in moments of exquisite clarity that transcend their initial peculiarity – unexpected nuggets of elegiac, lyrical wisdom nestled among the instantly recognisable hooks and multifaceted, melodious moments of the purest prog-pop precision.
Halcyon Hymns is an album of contradictions. It infuses clean, laid-back pop production with the spacey, experimental vibe of prog rock; it flirts with ridiculousness while occasionally delivering sparkling droplets of poignancy; it longs for the past while remaining annoyingly upbeat about the future. It may be a tad over-sincere in places for modern tastes, but do your old dad a favour and stick with it. The Downes Braide Association will take you from the sublime to the ridiculous and back to sublime again.