In 2012, the Australian band Unitopia released its fourth album Covered Mirror Vol. 1: Smooth As Silk (see review). This was a cover album containing interpretations of classic progressive rock tracks. Strangely enough the band dissolved shortly thereafter. Lead singer Mark Trueack started with Unitopia members Matt Williams (guitars), Tim Irrgang (percussion) and David Hopgood (drums), a new band under the banner United Progressive Fraternity and released an album titled Fall In Love With The World (see review) in 2014. Keyboard player Sean Timms formed a new band which he named Southern Empire. Their album was recorded in 2015 and released March 2016. They named it Southern Empire, just like the band. This release has next to the audio disc a video disc.
As usual in my reviews, I always first introduce the musicians. This time no exception and can I tell that next to Sean Timms (keyboards, electric guitars, lap steel guitar, Theremin, alto saxophone, ukulele, melodic, backing vocals) are in the band the following musicians: Danny Lopresto (lead and backing vocals, electric and 12 string acoustic guitars, mandolin) who sang major roles in musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar) and in Queen and Led Zeppelin shows. Cam Blokland (electric and acoustic guitars, banjo, backing vocals) who was headlining the Australian Guitar Festival in 2014 and masters different musical styles such as jazz rock, fusion, metal and progressive rock. Jez Martin (fretted and fretless bass guitars, flugelhorn, French horn, melophon, backing vocals) who played among other things in Dream Theater and Frank Zappa tribute bands. Finally Brody Green (drums, hand percussion, backing vocals) who commutes between symphonic metal and musicals, also plays in a Celtic folk band called The Borderers. They get some musical assistance from Steve Unruh (Samurai Of Prog) on violin and flute. Furthermore, also featured is Adam Page on saxophones and flute. Former Unitopia colleague Tim Irrgang can be heard on the congas, darbouka, tambourine and African drums. And finally Oliver Timms used the cowbell.
The album starts very calm with the shortest track on the album. Before the song starts it is as if somebody puts the needle on the record and starts to play Show Me The Way which is mainly performed on the acoustic guitar and in a way only accompanies lead singer Danny Lopresto for less than one minute. After that, the album really explodes with the following piece. During Forest Fire the influences of The Beatles certainly comes to the surface. But you can also hear that this composition originally was written for Unitopia. Only the vocal parts sound different. Danny has a great voice but is rougher than that of Mark Trueack. He is regularly accompanied by the voices of Cam, Jez, Brody and Sean. This way the harmony vocals truly sound pretty amazing! Music wise you not only hear progressive rock but also influences of fusion, jazz rock and metal all done in a very good way. The highlight for me personally might be the strong instrumental break half way through the song. The battle between Sean and Cam on the Moog and electric guitar is just excellent and prevents you from sitting still during the whole ride. The possible influences of UK is another thing that kept me awake during this track. Without any break the next track Hold continues where Forest Fire ends music wise. If I didn't look at my display I certainly would have thought that both compositions are one long piece of music. Again Unitopia can be heard but also the other influences mentioned earlier are notable. I loved it all the way. Just like the African drum parts at the end of the song. The next piece How Long was without a doubt right from the start written for an Unitopia album. Those who also do know the earlier mentioned album Fall In Love With The World might recognise parts of the song Intersection of United Progressive Fraternity. Some of the lyrics are the same but the song differs in music, including the guitar solo done by Danny Lopresto at the start of this track. Again the percussion parts in this piece are brilliantly done. The jazzy side of the band comes through this time a little bit more to the surface than on other tracks. The saxophone parts are partly to blame. Nice is also Seans keyboard part on the piano and keyboards on which he sounds like the late Keith Emerson playing Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Creole Dance. The longest track on the album is next and has the title The Bridge That Binds. This almost one half hour long epic piece of music is divided into nine parts. It has everything a lover of progressive rock wants to hear-everything which makes his heart beat faster like great up tempo pieces, fine harmony vocals and excellent instrumental breaks with perfect performed solo parts. But it also has fine resting moments and parts to sing-a-long with. I guess you can't ask for more! At least I can't! I will not go deeper into the parts separately and what to expect music wise but believe me it has the same musical influences mentioned earlier. So again a must for anybody who likes a mix of progressive rock, fusion, jazz rock and metal. The album ends with Dreams & Machines. A song to contemplate and therefore they did choose to close the album with a nice ballad. Just like many other acts who tell a kind of concept story do like to end their album in a rather mellow way. It certainly feels good to have another resting moment at the end of this excellent album. An album on which you sometimes gasp for air and you can hardly not keep up with the pace which is afforded.
As mentioned earlier this release does not only contain an audio disc but also a video disc. This DVD has almost footage of every track on the CD. One sees the band in the studio performing on four pieces. Only the first and last track are missing. I am not sure if the band really performs live in the recording studio because it seems as if they are just doing as if and also the sound you hear is the same as on the CD. But who cares if you have a closer look at how those songs are sung and played on the instruments. You won't hear me complain-not at all. I even wished that more acts would include a DVD with their CDs to have a look at how they do their things in the studio.
I do know that the progressive rock genre isn't a musical competition. There are no winners or losers! But I do know that if I had to choose between Southern Empire and United Progressive Fraternity after the split up of Unitopia, it wouldn't be a difficult one. Music wise the debut of Southern Empire has much more in store for me than the debut made by United Progressive Fraternity. Don't get me wrong Fall In Love With The World was a fine album to listen to. But what I did hear on Southern Empire really did kick ass for me! Everything is just perfect on this release. A great production on which each instrument and voice can be heard crystal clear. Every track is of a very high level music wise with no weak parts at all. A fine balance between up tempo parts and more mellow pieces can be heard throughout the entire album. Every musician has delivered an outstanding performance and shows their excellent craftsmanship on the entire album. For me personally Southern Empire has made a true masterpiece with Southern Empire. Everything just falls in place on this superb album! They made an amazing debut most bands can only dream about!
This album is for me the musical highlight of 2016 so far. I haven't heard anything better the first couple of months of this year. Therefore only the highest score of five stars is in place for this awesome album. I am already looking forward to their second release and the live performances in 2017! They certainly won't let me down!
***** Henri Strik (edited by Robert James Pashman)
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