If progressive rock is to survive, it will be because of people like Jem Godfrey.
What is prog rock today, anyway? It seems to appear in two varieties — your prog metal and your retro edition that sticks close to the time-honored heroes of the form, and there’s no shame in either variant. I listen to much of it and enjoy quite a bit of both. But at the core there isn’t much progress to be seen. We have metal (with keyboards) and classic rock. What the genre needs, if not to stay relevant but at least to not lie to itself, is someone who will pull from many different arenas and attempt to unify these random parts.
Godfrey, in the guise of the band Frost* (the asterisk is important as we will discuss momentarily), has been doing just that off and on since 2006. Along with longtime guitarist John Mitchell, Frost* has mashed together pop, rock, metal, multi-part long-form compositions and more into a single, unique entity. Frost* can sound like a lot of different things, but no one else sounds nearly like Frost*. This is especially true with the latest, third album Falling Satellites. (Actually, calling this the third studio album is misleading. The live recording, The Philadelphia Experiment, had a single studio track on it, but “The Dividing Line” was as long as some conventional albums.)
While not technically a concept album, the recording does have a reoccurring theme: endings. Godfrey himself has blogged over the years that he owed label InsideOut another album to make good on their contract, so the die seemed cast that endings would be a central point to be assessed, so there are songs that highlight the loss of love, loss of childhood in the form of disappearing landmarks, even the end of the earth, as interpreted from “Nice Day For It…,” the fateful words the barman tells Ford Prefect, once Prefect informs him the world was ending in fifteen minutes, in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. It comes as no surprise then that the record opens with the suitably apocalyptic “First Day,” which bookends the collection with the relatively spare “Last Day,” a song built for voice and piano. In-between the band performances, rounded out by Nathan King on bass and Craig Blundell on drums, are anything but spare.
“Towerblock” is going to get a lot of talk when the reviews are measured against each other, and for good reason. It is an impressive piece of digital production rolling from an industrial undercurrent into a full-fledged electro dubstep section that is both thrilling and dizzying. It also isn’t the first time Godfrey’s employed such an inclusive technique, having added a touch of it on “The Other Me” from 2006’s Milliontown. Godfrey comes from the pop world, having made his mark as a pop producer and writer. It pays the bills in ways that prog rock never will, and you can tell that it is a world he genuinely loves, so its integration here stands as probably the most progressive thing we’ve heard in many years. That also goes for the moody “Lights Out,” a chilled-out, straight-up pop ballad. It is not the typical reviewer bloviation to say this track would fit comfortably on pop radio, but it also fits seamlessly into Falling Satellites‘ framework.
That phrase, “falling satellites” appears in a couple of places: in “Numbers” at the front end of the record and in the segmented “Heartstrings” as “The Raging Against The Dying Of The Light Blues In 7/8.” It is an interesting visual, loaded with lots of subtext. A satellite is a expression of man’s achievement, that we have conquered space (kind of), that we’ve mastered communication (but not so much), and that we’ve built this beast to last, until gravity makes fools of us and reclaims its prize. It is all at once an image of evolution and impotence, but you’re liable to miss that, as the song is a thrashing butt-kick, appearing after another sweet pop tune in “Closer To The Sun.”
John Mitchell doesn’t get nearly enough credit. He’s been a key part of many of my favorite records in this past decade and is a fantastic guitar player. And while Frost* is Godfrey’s terrain, it would not be the same without Mitchell’s equally incendiary and tasteful playing. For the first time on these albums, Mitchell has had a major role in the writing phase, and he makes the most of it. Plus, his gruff voice works incredibly well against Godfrey’s often amplified whispers.
The concern is that, now having completed the necessary last album of the contract, this might be the true and final Frost* album. Even the band’s name is fraught with issues. The asterisk helps identify this Frost* from the U.S. variation from Seven Witches frontman Jack Frost, and from the black metallers Celtic Frost, neither of which Frost* sounds like. Being in a group so non-categorical, and having been married to this identity for a decade, I wouldn’t be surprised if Godfrey said that definitely was an ending. The more you listen to the album, however, the more you’ll hope he changes his mind. He’s done that before.
It’s that contrast of light to dark, loud to quiet, reverential to utterly modern that mark Frost*’s Falling Satellites clearly as the prog album to beat in 2016, mainly because it will be the single most progressive attempt all year.