Final Conflict are an internationally acclaimed progressive rock band based in Stoke-On-Trent in the UK. They already formed in 1985 and since then they have released a number of excellent albums culminating in their masterpiece Stand Up (1997, see review). In 2012 they finally released Return Of The Artisan, the first studio album in seven years recorded by long-time members Andy Lawton (vocals, guitars), Brian Donkin (guitars, vocals) and Steve Lipiec (keyboards) supplemented by new members Henry Rogers (drums) and Barry Elwood (bass). This line-up played a lot together since 2007.
The new line-up seems solid and steady. I think the band members wanted to make a fresh start by recording an album as great as Stand Up. In my opinion they succeeded in this mission because their new CD comes pretty close to the musical standard they'd set on that masterpiece. Once again Andy Lawton and Brian Donkin combined their strong dramatic vocals with even more expressive guitar performances than could be heard on the previous albums. The twin guitar parts and the strong harmony vocals are a treat to the ears. You could say that this is one of the characteristics of Final Conflict just like the excellent and specific keyboard parts of Steve Lipiec. With these features they distinguish themselves from other prog bands.
However, on Return Of The Artisan Lipiec did something Dean Baker (Galahad) already did many years ago: adding some very modern sounding synthesizer parts to the compositions which often pushes the music towards trance music, although Lipiec didn't go that far as Baker. Just as on the Galahad albums, the use of sequencers and trance rhythms also worked out well on Return Of The Artisan. Henry Rogers and Barry Elwood, the new rhythm section, know how to create a strong groove and they sound very tight together. While listening to the album it's obvious that Final Conflict can easily be compared to neo-progressive bands like Pendragon, IQ, Pallas and early Marillion, but they have also been inspired by Pink Floyd. This can mostly be heard in the guitar solos and in the way they create a certain atmosphere.
Not only the music but also the lyrics show a considerable degree of depth. You may regard Return Of The Artisan to be an album with a thematic concept that ruminates the state of artistry in the world today. It shows the approach of the Mechanic, one of the two main characters who, contrary to the Artisan, likes to grind out things according to a neat pattern for the sake of mass market appeal. The Artisan, the other main character, rather prefers to win the passionate devotion of a few instead of the mild approval of the many. It's an apt summation of the place where music finds itself these days. The internet era suddenly makes craftsmanship, a personal connection with the audience, and establishing yourself in a particular well-loved musical niche or subculture as opposed to simply pitching your stuff to the mass market, has become more viable than ever thanks to the internet providing vibrant sources of support and promotion for niche genres.
With Return Of The Artisan Final Conflict delivered again an album that deserves a wider audience. The nine compositions are all very high-levelled without showing any lack of inspiration! This album certainly belongs to the musical highlights of 2012. Unfortunately I received the album only a couple of months ago otherwise it certainly would have ended in my personal top-ten of 2012. I would highly recommend this album to lovers of neo-progressive rock in general, but to Pink Floyd devotees in particular.
****+ Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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