In the harsh light of this cynical and paranoid new millennium in which we find ourselves, it’s easy to forget just how massively popular Kula Shaker were at their peak. Admittedly, that popularity lasted approximately 10 months (at the very most), and, of course, never quite made it across The Pond. But for a short period the boys from Richmond’s curious melding of Hindu religious sentiment with guitar-heavy neo psychedelia won over the hearts and minds (and souls) of British music-buyers. Their debut, 1996’s K, was the fastest-selling since Oasis‘ monster hit Definitely Maybe.
But alas, theirs was a cautionary tale. So much of a cautionary tale, in fact, that encylopedia entries on “cautionary tales” carry a bloody great picture of Crispian Mills’ grinning face to illustrate the point. Maybe. Following some well-meant but catastrophically ill-advised remarks regarding the mystical properties of swastikas in an interview, the unlucky foursome rapidly fell out of favour with the notoriously fickle British public and faded back into the murky obscurity from whence they came. Their next effort, 1999’s Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts, limped in at Number 9 before quietly sliding out of the chart, and the group announced their split shortly after.
And now they’re back. Again. They were back once already, but 2007’s Strange Folk was a mixed bag at best, the sound of a band trying to find their feet once more after eight long years in the musical wilderness. But this time, they’re really back. The question is, will anyone notice?
Right from the outset Pilgrims Progress suggests it’ll be a very different affair to that which went before. Opening with irresistibly baroque first single Peter Pan R.I.P., a gorgeous, melancholic, cello-driven pop-rock ode to that most famous of lost children, before moving on to the even more precious (and just as fantastical) chamber folk ditty Ophelia, the decidedly more rootsy psychedelic blues number Modern Blues and Only Love, a driving, insistent, faux call-and-response session boasting a healthy dose of jangling Byrds-ian Rickenbacker and some three-part harmonies to die for (the response to each call, incidentally, is that “only love will take you there”; but you already knew that), it becomes quickly apparent that Pilgrims Progress’ infinitely varied 41 minutes are going to be playing host to the entire gamut of the musical spectrum of the late 1960s, and more besides.
The irresistible, sitar-driven country shuffle (!) All Dressed Up (And Ready to Fall in Love), campy, almost-Adam Ant Wild West instrumental When A Brave Needs A Maid and haunting, desolate ballad Cavalry, which relays the desperate tale of an outnumbered and demoralised group of soldiers (“We can’t turn back, we’re under attack / outnumbered too, I believe”), sound like they could be out-takes from an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, whilst the smoky, romantic soul waltz Ruby contains a subtle nod to both lead singer Mills’ own (now noticeably less prominent) religious beliefs and original musical mystic George Harrison in the lines “Beware of darkness, don’t let it bring you down” (repeated later as “Beware of maya”, both direct lifts from Harrison’s Beware of Darkness, the opener to side three of 1970’s All Things Must Pass).
Figure It Out is vintage Kula, mashing trippy, Revolver-esque psychedelia with spoken Hindu mantras, and epic, organ-driven curtain call Winter’s Call builds to a crashing crescendo that brings to mind much of the earnest, self-conscious seriousness that characterised early British progressive rock.
But the thing is, inexplicably, none of it feels like a pastiche. Not once do you feel like the band are simply exhuming the ghosts of the rock behemoths of days gone by, despite the fact that the template for the exotic, acid-fried musical nuggets contained within is clearly so deeply-rooted in that lysergically-enhanced blur that’s come to be known as the Swinging Sixties. It’s also evident that the three years that have elapsed since the release of the lacklustre aforementioned Strange Folk have been productively spent. Each song feels like a meticulously crafted and neatly packaged mini symphony, crammed full of endless musical ideas and killer hooks; these are songs that will get inside your head, and won’t leave again in a hurry.
On paper, the template for album number four is much the same as their previous three efforts. But where Pilgrims Progress really shines is in its rare ability to present the sounds of another era in a setting that feels mature, fresh, current and forward-thinking. It’s a huge leap forward for both Kula Shaker and for modern rock and roll in general, and the band’s first true must-have LP. “Retro” is no longer a dirty word.