After three years and a number of live performances of The Key, part 1: The Prophecy, Clive Nolan, Tracy Hitchings and Karl Groom came together again for their second Strangers On A Train album called The Key, part 2: The Labyrinth. This time singer Alan Reed (ex-Pallas) was part of the band as well. Those three years were important because this isn't really just a second album from this foursome. In between The Prophecy (see review) and The Labyrinth, Nolan and Groom have collaborated on Pendragon's The Window Of Life (1993). Nolan had also produced Hitchings' first and only solo album to date called From Ignorance To Ecstasy (1991). She had also appeared on Gallery Of Dreams (1992) from the Austrian multi-instrumentalist Gandalf featuring Steve Hackett. This album was re-released in 2012 as well.
Those experiences more than shaped The Labyrinth. The vocals and music are richer and fuller, the music is more complex and there's an unquestionable tightness about the music that was hinted at in The Prophecy. The interchange between the three of them on The Prophecy was more marked where here it flows almost seamlessly. Nolan's compositional and keyboard skills don't dominate this album as they threatened to The Prophecy. Hitchings hits notes with a clarity and power that few female vocalists manage and in an age where we got used to the auto-tune, such vocal skills were a rarity. Groom has improved the most since The Prophecy. His confidence on guitars comes across in both power guitar solos and lighter work backing Hitchings. Another major change is that The Prophecy was a fourteen-track album with a playing time of 63 minutes, while The Labyrinth only contains five tracks that last 72 minutes. The reason for this is that while The Prophecy was broken into its separate parts, rather than have the three long tracks on this album with different movements, they have been left as a single track.
Darkworld is a track in five movements: A New Beginning, Edge Of Darkness, Deliverance, A Moment Of Sanity and Beyond The Rubicon. Between them they create a quite substantial piece of music that's much more than the sum of its parts. Beyond The Rubicon in particular, is an extremely powerful piece of music that would happily grace any album in its own right. Hijrah is one of the two short tracks and an instrumental with Tracy Hitchings using her voice as an instrument rather than singing. There's a clear point in the track where it feels like it might have originally been conceived as two separate pieces, but in the mix it has been allowed to become one. The second part will also get the Rick Wakeman fans checking the notes on the album. No, he doesn't appear on The Labyrinth, but with your eyes closed you could be forgiven for thinking he did.
The title track consists of three movements: The First Veil: Sensing A Presence, The Second Veil: Contamination and The Third Veil: Trick Of The Light. The second part is interesting because it's very short and consists of a narrative by Alan Reed that isn't that well done. That's a shame because there are so many other powerful male voices that could have been used for this. Trick Of The Light is a full blooded orchestral movement that really benefits from having the speakers up full as it builds towards a baroque-like duet between Nolan and Groom. The Vision Clears is a great Hitchings track and listening to this I wonder if it originally took form when Nolan was producing her solo album which appeared between the two Stranger On A Train albums. Even today, this would easily stand the live power ballad test and I'm surprised it has never managed to sneak its way into any of the Landmarq sets.
The album closes with Endzone another multi-movement track consisting of Occam's Flame, Purification, Recovery, A New Perspective and Denouement. Occam's Flame and Recovery are instrumental movements that help to build the atmosphere around this track. Occam's Flame is one of those Groom and Nolan duets easy to visualize when listening to it. Unfortunately for Alan Reed who sings Purification, his voice is weak compared to Tracy Hitchings and as with Contamination he really fails to pull it off for me. Recovery does just that; it helps to pull this track back together again before handing it to Hitchings for A New Perspective. Her vocals backed by the acoustic guitar of Groom and Nolan's keyboard work lift the whole track again. The album finishes with Denouement where Reed gets another shot at making his vocals work. This time around he sings somewhat better; he has the advantage of Hitchings to add power to the vocals.
Overall this is more of a mixed album than The Prophecy and part of that is down to the decision to combine smaller tracks into larger pieces and the fact that not everything worked. Offsetting this is the quality of the performances of Nolan, Groom and Hitchings and that has raised the mark for this album above that for The Prophecy. Am I being harsh? Well, that's possible. Remember this is the period when progressive rock in particular started to eat itself and lost sight of what was good about the genre. It had become both formulaic and over blown. Neither of those things happens here thankfully, but anytime an album loses your attention, you begin to think: maybe it could have been shortened.
What's not in question is the quality of the compositions of the album. Nolan is one of those increasing rarities in the rock business, a classically trained composer and that's evident in the way he keeps things together and in the depth of the music. Underpinning the entire album is sections of serious orchestration that deserve to be played live with a full orchestra. Such a live performance of The Labyrinth would be something special to see.
It will be interesting to see what comes with the third part of this trilogy of albums should it ever appear. The challenge is that Clive Nolan (Pendragon, Arena, Shadowland, Caamora), Tracy Hitchings (Landmarq) and Karl Groom (Threshold, Shadowland) are so busy these days with their own bands that finding the time to record the final part of The Key and close this project may never be found even if the band insist it will happen.
**** Ian Murphy (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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