Australia – hardly a hotbed of progressive musicianship! Oh, there’s no shortage of `adventurous metal’ bands piggy-backing on the “prog” tag in that country, but artists working in more symphonic-flavoured prog-related styles are few and far between. Thankfully we have Australian multi-instrument Ben Craven flying the prog flag in this country, who already released a superb symphonic work back in 2011, `Great and Terrible Potions’ (come for the lovely Roger Dean cover, stay for the winning music!), and he follows it up five years later with the even greater `Last Chance to Hear’, a grand canvas of cinematic- styled prog that even boasts a guest appearance from Star Trek’s William Shatner!
It’s odd to discover on the first listen that `Last Chance…’ is mostly instrumental-based, with Ben (who has a charismatic, gently raspy voice that’s always a pleasure to hear) only singing on two of the ten tracks on offer, but by stepping back a little from vocal-driven pieces, he’s replaced them with a rich and lavish selection of continuous atmospheric instrumental showcases, highlighted by his skills across a range of instruments but performed with the liveliness of a full band. Whilst hardly lazily retro here, his influences range from the first few Steve Hackett solo discs, Pink Floyd (and Ben’s guitar tone is beautifully David Gilmour-flecked without sounding like a lazy clone for even a single second) and Porcupine Tree, with perhaps a pinch of Mike Oldfield, and there’s even a cool quasi-Bond theme slinking into the halfway point of the disc for good measure.
With the CD indexed into two vinyl-length sides, the first part of the title track `Last Chance to Hear’, a subtle yet blunt dig at the current hole the music industry is in, bursts to life like a funkier version of the Flower Kings that simmers with sweetly murmuring bass, a pounding jazzy beat, tasty bristles of Hammond organ and scorching electric-guitar embers in the finale. The two-part `Critical Mass’ changes direction immediately, beginning life as a mysterious gothic soundtrack-like piece of spectral male/female choral voices over grand orchestration. Buoyant chunky bass and a driving beat break through to raise the drama, with Ben’s ringing and droning guitar drawls and quirky electronic weirdness over quickening clockwork-like percussion softly reminding of ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett’s `Spectral Mornings’ period. The second and third parts (yes, really, so those prone to brain-melts hold on, Part One will show up later in the disc!) of `Spy in the Sky’ may open with cool electronic programming, sprinklings of delicate piano and warm acoustic guitar, but it unfolds with a sense of wonder, William Shatner’s ravishing narration delivered from on high and culminating in victorious electric guitar and spiralling synth duelling!
The `second side’s `The Remarkable Man’ is the above mentioned Bond-esque theme, with a wink in its eye and a sauntering groove to the synth-horn blasts and electric guitar slow-burn. Returning to the first part of `Spy in the Sky’, the listener is blessed with a dreamy Gilmour-flavoured electric guitar, humming Hammond organ and reflective piano rumination that serves a similar purpose to Craven’s achingly beautiful Rick Wright tribute `The Conjurer’ on his previous `…Potions’ disc, and it could have easily fit alongside `Marooned’ on Pink Floyd’s own `Division Bell’ album.
The energetic and playful (and amusingly titled!) `Revenge of Dr Komodo’ marries angular King Crimson guitar bite and swagger with an ocean of whirring keyboard wig-outs with touches of the bluster of Yes and ELP, and it’s the closest the album comes to a vintage-influenced moment. The second part of the title-track soars with weeping slide guitar strains, darker funky up-tempo bursts and a brooding heavier energy that almost calls to mind some of the later Porcupine Tree albums, eventually launching into groovy extended jamming and wailing soloing before closing on an almost bluesy strut. Then, album closer `Mortal Remains’ is a fragile solo piano come-down that again calls to mind Rick Wright with its careful melancholic traces.
Special mention must go to Freyja Dean’s colourful nature-infused psychedelic artwork that would surely give the Ozric Tentacles a wet dream, and it looks a treat on the triple foldout digi-pack edition that comes with a bonus DVD of promo material and videos, as well as a small poster. It just adds a special, instantly eye-catching quality that lifts an already wondrous musical work even higher, and besides, all the best prog albums should have the obligatory surreal and eye-catching artwork always associated with the genre!
With `Last Chance to Hear’, Ben Craven has simply outdone himself and stepped up in a massive way from already hugely satisfying earlier releases, and he’s delivered a gloriously vibrant work full of variety, sophistication, true heart and even a welcome sense of sly fun! Forget just calling it `the best Australian prog-release of the year’, Ben has delivered one of the best overall symphonic/cinematic/eclectic/take your pick albums of 2016, and he should be immensely proud of his efforts here.
Four and a half stars.