This is actually the Pennsylvania band’s second eponymous album; only that small-case first letter separates it from their 1991 debut. Heard in the context of their back catalogue, from that first work to 2000’s Cowboy Poems Free and to 2005’s The End Is Beautiful, echolyn might be their most accessible work to date.
Stalwart US prog band just get better and better.
From the introductory bars of opener Islands you know you’re in capable hands, and over its 16 minutes shows everything the band are best at. Ray Weston’s unforced vocal talent tops a tune that balances neo-prog with traditional songcraft. Chris Buzby’s powerful, trad-prog synth sounds are accompanied by Brett Kull’s urgent guitar lines; drummer Paul Ramsey drives smoothly through the many rhythmic gear changes and, importantly, Kull and Buzby’s choral backing vocals add distinctive colour.
The sunny, shimmering Headright rests on a vibrant acoustic shuffle adorned with splashes of glockenspiel and Mellotron, while the languid Locust To Bethlehem (‘I am looking for ghosts/Listening to the pavement/With hopes of raising the dead/So they can shine again’) sparks with more ideas per verse than many mainstream rock albums have over their whole runtimes.
Some Memorial is a poignant reflection on numerous commemorations of death, and it’s also a diatribe against the vapid trappings and distractions of modern life, from soulless coffee shops to pills and cigarettes. The 12-minute musical setting is intriguing, those vocal harmonies come to the fore and Weston really puts the song across. Kull takes the lead admirably on Past Gravity, which opens as a soft acoustic ballad and gradually widens out into a grander, emotive piece.
Echolyn are frequently catchy without resorting to repetitive choruses, but in the rare, chromatic refrain here their muse falls, ‘From a great height past gravity/Through the blue of sea/To the island she’s made’. Less whimsical, When Sunday Spills is a kitchen sink drama about a relationship gone awry. It’s almost Beatlesy in parts, with banjo and a toy piano adding a charming homespun texture. The understated (Speaking In) Lampblack features some gorgeous strings, while manic closer The Cardinal And I signs off with a prog wig-out that leaves no room for doubt about the band’s technical skill.
That facility is a means to an end here. Perhaps now more than ever, echolyn are all about the song, and the vigour and imagination on display here suggest the band are in a good place. It’s a shame that the members are too busy making their respective livings elsewhere to commit to the project full-time. They still have so much to offer.