So Prog is back, is it? We’ve heard a lot of that lately, and it’s partially true – prog rock has seen a major resurgence in the last few years, spearheaded by the likes of the Mars Volta and the magnificent Coheed And Cambria.
Those of us that wish for a true revival of the glory days of 70s prog, however, won’t be wishing for the sophisticated cool of the aforementioned artists, nor the kind of knowing experimentalism of the likes of Sigur R�s. We want the return of the shameless dramatic enthusiasm that inspired the likes of Aphrodite’s Child et al. We want the type of band that will dress up as Roman soldiers for the cover of a concept album with classical aspirations, Debussy influences and two-part epics that are wilfully referred to as “bipedal”. In other words, we want New York’s Tarantula AD.
Book Of Sand, at its heart, is a piece – nay, a suite – of classical music; the band combine orchestral strings and classical piano with crunching metal guitars and furious drums. The focal point of the album is the (unsurprisingly) three-part Century Trilogy, its dramatic movements named Conquest, Empire and The Fall. The first movement’s opening murmur of violins builds to a crashing bulldozer of a guitar riff that builds to a climax then vanishes into near silence, as an angry cello take the lead and sings a song of nervous expectation which the guitar, ever impatient, threatens with sudden bursts of modern electric fury.
Bipedal epic Who Took Berlin is next and again opens with a bludgeoning guitar riff before settling into an almost jazz-like melancholy overladen with beautiful vocal harmonies. Solo piano and glockenspiel carry the themes forward in part two, with the obvious Debussy influence on the piano feeling decidedly surreal after the all the Sabbath-esque guitar blasts.
Sealake is a far more subdued affair with an eerie vocal from Sierra Casady that provides the calm-before-the-storm for The Century Trilogy Part II: Empire, which gets straight to the point with a guitar riff simply designed to be played while dressed as a Roman centurion. Yet again, though, the heavy guitar simply serves to introduce proceedings before we are back into the cinematic ambient textures that lead us through Tarantula AD’s little symphony. The ghostly vocals that wail in the distance, like sirens calling to lead legendary explorers to stray from their quest, help build this epic into becoming the key moment of the album.
Despite the epic leanings, Book Of Sand is lo-fi, almost under-produced. The band chose to record the album in a cottage by the coast in Washington State, with the doors wide open and microphones pointing outside to capture the sounds of the wildlife outside. This approach meets with mixed success: On one hand the overall ambience is very distinctive, often surreally calming and beautiful. On the other, there are wild fluctuations in volume, with the music sometimes seeming to disappear completely, and the piano often sounds as though it’s being played underwater.
Where the album is consistently quiet this is less of an issue, as it is on the georgeous Debussy-esque arabesque that is Prelude to the Fall and on the piano solo The Lost Waltz – obviously there are less volume fluctuations in the room, and you can clearly hear the birds chittering away by the sea. On the tracks that intersperse crashing guitars with moments of delicacy this issue does distract at times from the joy of listening to the music. It’s a small quibble, but an immediately noticeable one.
Paco Borracho leads up to the climactic part of the Century Trilogy by building up into a sudden and vigorous punk-tango that makes the first chord of The Fall sound as epic as that of Metallica‘s For Whom The Bell Tolls. This final track brings together elements from across the whole album that precedes it, including all its myriad successes, minor failings and wild eccentricities. Symphonic, crazy, epic and returning (as so many thematic albums do) to reclothed iterations of the themes that introduced it, it’s a suitable close to a bold and beautiful piece of work.
If reading the first paragraph of this review made you want to cringe, if the use of the word “we” made you want to say; “Speak for yourself, mate”; then Book Of Sand is maybe not your bag. One thing I can say for certain, though – Book Of Sand will be living on this reviewer’s playlist for a very long time to come. Beautiful.