Progressive music from the Land Down Under demonstrated itself to be in great shape last year with fantastic releases from Voyager and Caligula’s Horse, both taking top spots on my end-of-year list. But let’s be real here: are these bands truly progressive when the longest song between them is but a measly fifteen minutes? Adelaide’s Southern Empire say “Not so!” as they drop the massive platter that is Civilisation. The four-track album clocks in at a mind-numbing seventy minutes, including songs reaching twenty minutes and thirty minutes. “Less is more” and the 42-Minute Rule are staples of AMG, but the Aussies wipe their feet on such banal concepts. The question is whether they justify the enormous time investment required to fully appreciate a record of such hefty girth?
Yes, yes they can. Southern Empire happily abuse a smorgasbord of progressive influences: the epic structure of Transatlantic, the lithe complexity of Yes, the grandiosity of Rush, and the catchy modern sheen of Haken. As such, the art of Civilisation is not so much in its unique sound, but rather its composition and execution. The bulk and heart of the album are in its two centerpieces, “Cries for the Lonely” and “The Crossroads.” Adventurous, bold songwriting drives these dynamically written tracks of progressive rock that freshens up the sounds of the 70’s with a bright layer of vigor and spirit. Their length is used expertly to showcase a variety of styles and moods that reflect the flow of a soundtrack. An audacious keyboard-driven instrumental section naturally progresses into a bombastic call-and-response of choral and main vocals before moving onto a touching violin and guitar solo, none of it sounding forced or unnatural.
The strength of the compositions is boldened by spirited performances. Vocalist Danny Lopresto is gifted with a strong baritone full of appropriate drama and grandiloquence. He’s joined by the rest of the band, all of whom join in the various styles and layers, such as the canon employed in “Goliath’s Moon” and the choral arrangements on “Cries for the Lonely.” The guitars regularly erupt in excellent solos and keep the attention with deft plucking and the liberal application of hooks . Furthermore, the album is filled with a variety of less common instruments and effect, applied as befitting the flow of the music. Just listen to the hand percussion used to a salsa-like effect on “Crossroads,” the funky wah-wah on “Goliath’s Moon” and the sporadic but effective use of flutes to evoke melancholy.
The bookends to the album don’t reach the middle tracks’ quality, though they are never less than enjoyable. Opener “Goliath’s Moon” has an odd start as its initial verse is played twice, which is like reading the same story twice considering the sci-fi narrative of a lost diamond, but the track soon picks up steam with a compelling vitality and dynamic use of the vocal range. Closer “Innocence & Fortune” comes on the heels of a tiring hour of strong music and initially suffers from languidity, but finishes strong with a very Yes-like Mellotron ditty and a triumphant burst of choir and symphony. The great flow across the album doesn’t suffer from these shortcomings, which are minor in the grand scheme of things. And as if these words of praise have not been enough, Civilisation sports an excellent production from the hand of keyboard player and band creator Sean Timms (ex-Unitopia). The sound is bright, clean, and crystal clear, with each instrument audible separately even when the compositions become crowded (frequently on “Goliath’s Moon”). The bass pulses genially, the drums are clear and natural, and the various extra instruments are mixed in perfectly and dynamically, to the point where you no longer notice just how natural it sounds.
I reckon all of us at AMG have, at one point or another, bemoaned a lack of editing bringing a seventy-minute album down. Progressive rock is a victim of this practice more often than not. Yet Civilisation has the dynamics, the spirit, the skill, and the unabashed bombast to pull off such a heavy weight, though it requires some patience from the listener to truly sink in and grow. There’s the occasional overindulgence, ironically on the shortest tracks, but they are few and never affect the superb flow. Southern Empire may have delivered the best retro progressive rock album this year.