Pictures and Eclipse Chaser are the two main studio releases from Mindspeak, an Austrian progressive quintet, based in Vienna who have been making music together since 2009 when most of the band were in their early 20s. A live version of the debut composition Pictures is also available to complete their canon.
While not exactly prolific in the studio so far, there is plenty of time for these still comparatively young and exceptionally talented musicians, and certainly on the evidence of these two recordings, it is easy to see where the time has been spent in honing their compositional ability and musical tradecraft. The first release Pictures was 2 years in the making and recorded the hard way, mostly in home studios, except for the drums. While this does lead to a certain unevenness of performance and in the overall integrity of the work, this minor criticism should not diminish what is an impressive and ambitious debut for this group. A mix of instrumental and vocal tracks, tell the story of a woman at odds with society, painfully self-aware and seeking an exit from her mental struggle. Doomy atmospheric instrumentals announce the piece before melding into lush orchestrations taking the listener Into The Void before the band kick in at full tilt with Tragedy of Perfection a 12-minute epic, characterised heavy riffs, grinding bass and then a stripped back vocal, at first startlingly unaccompanied, repetitive and manic exploring the central character's tragic inability to live with her flaws. In the central 6-part section The Big Sleep we are presented with scenes from her life which colour in the main predicament. This section opens with a fanfare of sorts, a lovely arrangement although we know that the mood will turn darker, intimated by the insistent beats of the pianist's left hand. The effect is intense, although I found the vocals somewhat exposed and lacking in warmth, perhaps straining too much with all the instrumentation. Despite the darkness of the themes, there is space for uplifting sections and some playful hat-tips - I enjoyed what I think was a nod towards Focus in the instrumental sections. The band is strong on melody and write some great hooks. Overall the effect is quite dazzling.
With my appetite duly whet by the opening collection, I moved on to Eclipse Chaser an epic of the space age, the band have reached literally and metaphorically a new orbit. This is a palpably more assured and polished collection building on the promise of the first release, which is all you can ask really. It is good to see that the same five musicians feature, a sign that the band have confidence in what they are doing and are musically together'. And with good reason, as this is very good indeed and certainly worthy of a wider audience. I'm not going to start a riot, but a number of established groups have released highly recommended albums this year which frankly don't hold a candle to Mindspeak, on this evidence. Here Viktoria Simon's vocals are more assured, much warmer, more sensitively treated in the mix. Again the feature of the collection is a six-part suite, The Human Element, with two terrific tracks opening. The album gets off to a flyer with the opening chords of When Giants Cry. Heavy riffs intersperse with atmospheric space-like keyboards and melodic guitar lines, plus full choral orchestration from Chor Weinhaus, a really dramatic touch. Tetrachrome has a catchy guitar themed intro, before the band hit their stride in a full-blooded workout and for the first time we get a sense of the power in Simon's voice. She sounds as if she is really enjoying herself out front on this one, and what was fragile and a bit cold is now commanding and engaging, even when left with only strummed guitar for accompaniment. However it is The Human Element which will catch the ear of prog fans and where this band really start to come of age. This is a six-part piece of sonic theatre telling of a doomed, hubristic adventure into space. Christoph Kasparovsky's keyboards create the opening atmospherics and his layered textures are used to great effect throughout the piece, complementing Alex Clement's lyrical and occasionally spiky guitar. Anything that includes an excerpt from Gustav Holst's Planets gets my vote automatically, I have to say. But that is to expose my shallowness more than anything else. There is so much to commend this piece, which demonstrates the value of the intense effort which has been put in to producing this composition. Bravely the story fizzles out as we are told that 'It is just beyond mathematically impossible for anyone to survive.' and a chaotic drum fill gives way to a strangely poignant hum of white noise, carrying a last signal in a lyrical guitar phrase, abruptly cut short.
If Vienna is not necessarily known for its indigenous prog scene, Mindspeak have as good a chance as anyone to put it on the map for more than touring bands. A welcome addition whom I look forward to hearing again in the future. (Make it less than 5 years to the next one though, folks?!)
**** Andrew Cottrell
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