Having ensnared my heart in 2015 (Courting the Widow (Widow)) and delivered a solid follow-up in 2017 (The Bride Said No (Bride)), Nad Sylvan and his merry band of prog musicians have returned in 2019 to conclude the so-called ‘Vampire Trilogy’ of linked albums. The Regal Bastard (Bastard) spins a typically perverse tale and represents a not insignificant musical step forwards from Bride. Widow is one of the best progressive rock releases in the past 5 years while Bride was somewhat less ostentatious and stuck with me far less. Bastard draws from both of these experiences in forging a surprisingly fresh release in what can be a particularly stuffy genre. Prog nerds, read on.
At a high level, it remains unsurprising that the Nad Sylvan project can be likened to Genesis; Nad (the man) undertakes vocal duties in lieu of Messr Gabriel in Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited, and his music continues to honor that lilting, amusing and eclectic rock of the early-mid 70s. Bastard is plainly still progressive but almost sounds closer to the ‘symphonic rock’ tag used by Italian bands such as Il Paese dei Balocchi, more subtle though this certainly is. An abundance of symphonic instruments are apparent and the writing is less flashy from a technical perspective, relying less on shifting time signatures and fretboard wizardry. It’s a more delicate release, diverging from the overt bombast used previously. Indeed, I hear the post-Floyd atmospherics and a relative sobriety favored by the likes of Gazpacho. It still has an effervescent feel and overflows with good ideas – but these ideas are more subtly integrated and the resulting album is less scattershot than Widow. It’s a strangely ‘clean’ record for prog, featuring simple melodies and typically prioritizing just one instrument at a time. This could not be further from my most recent prog review.
It’s still recognizably Nad though. “Oahu” through “The Regal Bastard” hark back to prior work, picking up a playful harpsichord and upbeat instrumentation. In particular, the overblown organ and evil laughter on “Meet your Maker” evoke B-movie horrors which demonstrates the preference for tongue-in-cheek story-telling. “Whoa (Always Been Without You)” features Nad’s typical tension of dark lyrics paired with jovial melodies. Meanwhile, the title track operates in a similar though shorter fashion as “To Turn the Other Side” from Widow, amalgamating grand, detailed song-writing with playful melodies and a strong orientation around the vocals. As a final note, “Honey I’m Home” opens with a quaint but beautiful melody lifted straight from “Carry Me Home” which ties off that story very neatly. While Bastard pushes its music into new territory, it also ultimately feels like a fitting summary of past years via its cute references to older material.
Bastard is further distinguished from prior records by being more bite-sized. Tracks are generally shorter and the gargantuan “To Turn the Other Side” is ‘only’ matched by the 12-minute title track at the record’s core. A structural nit I could pick is that the back-half of the record is loaded with slower, softer pieces, leaving an album which slowly fades rather than reaching an exciting climax. But I’m loath to truly criticize this point as each track is strong alone and the cumulative effect is one where the listener is tightly held and led through Nad’s sober but no less powerful emotions. These emotions are strongly projected in his voice. While his distinctive timbre may turn some off, this is his project and you can’t miss this fact even through extended instrumental passages. His lower end emerges more here than on the prior 2 records, demonstrating real depth and emotive power. It’s further from the Gabriel-esque croons of which he is also capable and befits the moodier, subtler compositions which characterize this album.
I regret ‘only’ conferring a 3.5 on Widow so may yet regret only awarding the same here. I feel it currently lacks that 4.0 edge. But make no mistake that Bastard is as much detailed and sophisticated as it is eloquent and moving; it will be enjoyed by fans of sedate Genesis or Gazpacho. I’m left wondering about Nad’s next musical destination from here. This (very fittingly) concludes the thematically-linked hat trick of records so will the goalposts shift? Is there more development to be experienced? I will undoubtedly follow this journey on the quality evident here.