If I were tasked to imagine what a typical instrumental progressive rock album led by a guitar virtuoso sounded like, I’d probably envision exactly the music that Steve Rothery and co. prepared for his first real solo album. Created with the help of fans through crowdfunding and riding on a wave of ideas cultivated for the better part of 30 years, The Ghosts of Pripyat once again shows just what kind of a creative mastermind and a driving force behind Marillion Steve Rothery actually was.
Again, let’s not shy away from the obvious: this record ticks all the usual boxes where (instrumental) progressive rock is concerned. Ambient, slow, moody parts driven with gentle guitars and atmospheric keyboard sounds? Check. Lush guitar solos borrowing licks from blues? Check. Heavier segments that serve as counterpoint to mellower introductions? Check. Progressive rock in itself is not really all that progressive. But to equate the formulaic nature of this music with it being “bad,” well, that would be a terrible mistake. There’s a lot to be appreciated here. Like the overall allure of the opening “Morpheus,” the catchy melodies such as those found on “Kendris,” or the heavy prog tingles that emerge during the latter half of “White Pass.” The songwriting is always tight, the solos never overstay their welcome, and the general atmosphere is pleasing and inviting; the musical equivalent of meditation. And while there are obvious Marillion references here, there’s no overreliance or obsession with that heritage. No, this record stands on its own.
It’s hard to pick standouts since all seven tracks are similarly composed. They are all rather lengthy, with the shortest being the title track clocking in at five and a half minutes, and they all follow a quiet part – rockish part pattern. The tunes tend to alternate between soothing, ambient sections during the opening minutes and heavier, Led Zeppelin inspired codas filled with lots of crunchy riffs. Nonetheless, the flow of the music feels effortless and natural, not at all forced or uninspired. You can pick any of the numbers and get a good feeling of what the album stands for. Still, a slight nod must be given to the epic “The Old Man of the Sea” with contributions from guests Steve Hackett (longtime Genesis guitarist) and Steven Wilson (leader and guitarist of Porcupine Tree). It’s a really cool song in which the transition between delicate and rough parts is performed most elegantly. The only downsides worth mentioning, besides the obvious “if you don’t like prog rock, you won’t like this,” is that some song segments tend to meander a bit too long and there’s not much variety between songs. These are hardly deal-breakers, to be clear, and many similar bands suffer from the same issues.
The musicianship is, expectedly, top-notch. Rothery’s virtuosity needs no special introduction, while Yatim Halimi on bass, Leon Parr on drums, Dave Foster on guitar, and Riccardo Romano on keyboards and acoustic guitar all perform their roles admirably without ever overindulging in the much maligned progressive noodling and exhibitionism. It’s a rare case where the musicians stay out of the way of the music completely. Guest appearances by the aforementioned Steve Hackett and Steven Wilson are welcome but not indispensable. When everything else works out, progressive rock albums are sometimes destroyed by awful production that drowns out the playing, but this time around everything is A-ok. Perhaps not as organic and appealing as Opeth’s Pale Communion, it still suits the music just fine.
Not a masterpiece, not a disappointment, just a straightforward and unpretentious prog rock release. A record that will be appreciated by any fan of Marillion or progressive rock laced with a nostalgic, retro note. It might even soothe the poor souls who expected a lot from Pink Floyd’s recently necromanced record. Everyone else, give this a try if you’re looking for some late night, relaxing stuff. If you dig what you hear, checking out Marillion would be wise as well.