It’s prog, Jim, but not as we know it.
Magnolia is the latest album by The Pineapple Thief, which is generally regarded as a progressive rock band. But that categorisation sits uneasily with Crotchety Man. When I think of ‘prog’ my first thoughts are of Yes, Genesis and King Crimson and then ELP, Gentle Giant and perhaps Jethro Tull. The songs on Magnolia aren’t quite like those bands’ compositions and yet they fit the definition of prog rock too well to be excluded.
So, what is it that characterises prog rock? The most succinct description I know says that prog rock is “a mostly British attempt to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility”. It’s high-brow rock. In their pursuit of greater sophistication the early prog rock bands took many ideas from classical music. They wrote long tracks and collected them together on albums with a common theme. They used keyboards or traditional orchestras to create big, symphonic soundscapes. They incorporated long instrumental passages. And they weren’t afraid to use complex harmonies and rhythms. Prog rock was music to be appreciated for its technical merits as well as its more visceral impact.
Magnolia isn’t really like that. There are no tracks on the album longer than 4 minutes 20 seconds and there are no instrumentals. It’s not an album that could be accused of being pretentious. On the other hand, the band does use orchestral instruments, there are some intricate rhythms and, overall, it does raise rock music a notch above the average sophistication level of most rock bands. Is it prog rock? Well, sort of. It’s what Wikipedia labels ‘new prog’.
To my ear the songs on Magnolia sound like a cross between recent Radiohead and Muse – thoughtfully constructed art rock with outbreaks of crashing hard rock. The first track, Simple As That, is a straightforward hard rock piece but with a vocal very reminiscent of Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke. It is followed by another rocker, Alone At Sea, that sounds to me like something by the indie rock band Two Door Cinema Club. The next two tracks are quieter and more melodic. Don’t Tell Me introduces strings for the first time and builds to an anthemic ending. The title track is a late night festival crowd song, one for gently waving Magnolia flowers and singing along dreamily as the bass rolls forward toward the coming dawn.
Next comes the slow, lush Seasons Past with a haunting piano/synth theme and plenty of sensual strings bringing past times reverberating into the present. And then we’re Coming Home, but it’s a journey that we seem reluctant to take, a road that is taking us back to pay for our sins. The One You Left To Die picks up the beat again, telling a story of regret after leaving a loved one. Perhaps that is the sin we must atone for. Then Breathe crashes in with flailing guitar chords as if a medic is frantically pumping a ribcage while we can only watch and quietly pray that our friend will come back to life.
From Me is a short mournful interlude about a dear relative who has been taken to an old folks home far away “for the dying days”. It’s rather too slow and melancholy for my taste, though. In complete contrast, Sense of Fear starts with a machine-gun guitar that takes us into an ominous hard rock song, although it’s not clear what terrible fate is about to befall the two of us. Perhaps it’s just A Loneliness that awaits us as we are serenaded by a choir and our loving relationship slowly goes up in flames. Then, finally, the Bond between us is broken. All that’s left is the wash of sad orchestral sounds and a plaintive muted trumpet bewailing our loss.
So, this ‘new prog’ thing … Do I like it? Is it any good? Well, yes, I think so. Magnolia was added to the Crotchety Collection quite recently and it has settled in quite nicely. I’d rate it 3.5 out of 5 – happy to have it, will play it from time to time, but won’t swoon over it. The acid test is to see how those tracks affect me when they come up on an all-songs shuffle, but it’s too early yet to know what that will bring.
A new album by The Pineapple Thief is due for release on 12th August; it’s called Your Wilderness.