In 2005 keyboard player Iain Jennings (Mostly Autumn) recorded the solo album Breathing Space, together with Liam Davison (guitars), Bryan Josh (guitars), Olivia Sparnenn (vocals) and Andrew Jennings (drums), all band members of Mostly Autumn at the time. To promote this excellent solo effort he formed a band of his own and named it Breathing Space, after his debut. During Iain Jennings's sabbatical with Mostly Autumn he recorded another two well-received albums, namely Coming Up For Air (2007) and Below The Radar (2009, see review) before they disbanded in 2010. The main reason why they split up was that Olivia Sparnenn replaced Heather Findlay as the lead singer of Mostly Autumn.
Without having a band of his own, Iain Jennings found some time to record a second solo album. Eight years after Breathing Space he now presents My Dark Surprise, a concept album with a sci-fi storyline dealing with themes of identity and reality. He asked Mark Chatterton to do the lead vocals, which means that the sound of the album strongly differs compared to his debut. Asking Chatterton was a good choice as the cooperation between both musicians worked out well on My Dark Surprise. Jennings composed all the music, while Chatterton wrote the lyrics. The chemistry between them can be heard throughout the album. In a way the album reminded me of Moonrise. On the three albums of this Polish project the cooperation of singers Łukasz Gall and Marcin Jajkiewicz also worked out perfectly with Kamil Konieczniak, the man behind this project.
Just like the singers on the Moonrise albums, Mark Chatterton has an outstanding voice that can be compared to vocalists like Ray Wilson (Genesis, Stiltskin) and Mark Trueack (Unitopia). Of course Jennings and Chatterton were not the only musicians who played on Iain's second solo album. The other musicians include drummer Gavin Griffiths (Mostly Autumn, Panic Room, Fish), bassist Stu Fletcher (Halo Blind, The Heather Findlay Band) and once again guitarist Liam Davison. Furthermore the album features guitarists Andy Newlove and Colin Elsworth and James Russell on saxophone.
My Dark Surprise has a playing time of almost one hour. You could say that it contains rather song-orientated material with a contemporary touch and with different musical styles. Thus you can hear touches of progressive rock and electronic music in Change The Shape, hard rock in Stand Inside The Shadow and jazz-flavoured dance-pop in the title track. All these different styles perfectly fit together. I never had the idea that I was listening to an album of individual songs that were just put together. The connection between the songs is evident, something which is important for a concept album. Each style perfectly describes the mood of the protagonist in the story.
Just like on Breathing Space, the emphasis on this album is on the song writing rather than on virtuoso playing, so don't expect complex and extended guitar or synth solos. Of course several solos can be heard on the electric guitar in Stand Inside The Shadow, on synthesizer in Change The Shape and on saxophone in Stand Inside The Shadow and the title track. Mr. Jennings always has a tasteful less-is-more style. For him the keyboards are just part of the basics of a song providing atmospheres, textures and colour rather than flashy soloing. As always his playing on the acoustic piano is outstanding. Just listen to tracks as Hiding From My Fears, A Choice To Make A Change and That's Why I Fly and enjoy the beauty of his piano playing.
The ten tracks on My Dark Surprise are all of a high level and therefore strongly recommended to people with a taste for song-orientated contemporary progressive music that slightly refers to the music of Pink Floyd and Moonrise. But also fans of Mostly Autumn will probably love this album!
**** Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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