(Small Pond, released on 21 April 2017)

Progressive rock is incredibly unfashionable nowadays. But it isn’t just the garishly elaborate stage productions and impenetrable time signatures that are as arcane as its Hobbit-bothering lyrics. Its elitist philosophy – its self-bestowed status as a kind of future music, vanguards of rock’s ‘maturation’ through overlong compositions of multiple movements – seems laughably out of step with today’s tirelessly forward-thinking R&B and pop. Recent practitioners (neo-prog artists, if you like) rely on a lofty classicism that leaves them as cold and remote as an arctic laboratory. The Physics House Band, however, make a compelling case for the warm revaluation of a declined genre. Returning with their second record Mercury Fountain, The Physics House Band writhe, glide, and brawl their way through a marvellous intergalactic journey, all in a third of the time it takes for The Mars Volta.

Despite its great singles, Mercury Fountain is an album that demands to be heard in full for its disorienting ebb and flow. After an introductory Kraftwerk-meets-Battles sketch, the jabbing-and-bruising interplay of ‘Calypso’ deals the album’s first white hot blow, cooling down for a moment with the wandering bass and tractor beam synth of ‘Holy Caves’. Just when the listener thinks they’re safe, these sonic jokers drop heavyweight ‘Surrogate Head’, then provide an icepack with the chilled ‘A Thousand Small Spaces’. Sure enough, next tracks ‘Obidant’ and ‘Impolex’ appear suddenly like an unseen hurtling comet colliding with the Earth. As the mini-album comes to a close, ‘The Astral Wave’ redelivers a little of every texture found on Mercury Fountain, all wrapped up in a neat, uplifting package. There’s real drama in these nine tracks, as each one masterfully feeds into the next. But The Physics House Band still manage to shock and surprise with their twists and turns, even after multiple listens.

Despite its linearity, Mercury Fountain alludes to the eternal. ‘Mobius Strip’ at the beginning and its sequel at the end suggest the quaintest of progressive rock concepts – the circular album. It’s a heart-warmingly corny device that never really worked for anyone, but The Physics House Band pay homage to the ambitious bands who may as well have attempted it: Amon Düül II, Rush, ELP. Fixation on the ‘never-ending record’ concept could easily equate to much baggier music, but Mercury Fountain sounds mercifully trim and streamlined. Dare I say it, it’s much more pop-minded than much of its ilk – and better for it.

The matte gloss that dulled the band’s previous release Horizons / Rapture is buffered into dramatic technicolour on the band’s latest, and that isn’t necessarily down to the addition of a few more FX pedals than last time. For all its genre reverence, The Physics House Band also learn from prog revivalists The Mars Volta and Battles, absorbing fascinating sound textures from outside the genre’s narrow confines. There’s plenty of shimmering ambience and ominous droning, imploding-planet space rock riffwork, and even the odd sax blare to keep Mercury Fountain from sounding like a mere tribute act.

As thrilling and intense as Mercury Fountain is, there’s something quite loving about it – campy, even. There’s real affection here not just for the sound of progressive rock, but also its iconography and thematic preoccupations. The Physics House Band appear to be saying “this is all faintly silly, but that’s why it’s brilliant”. If a stellar mini-album isn’t enough of a selling point, the group’s overall persuasiveness should certainly be.