It's almost embarrassing to admit that I missed both Strangers On A Train albums when they were first released, but such things happen. After all, there are so many albums one can buy and listen to in a year, and back then, we had no MP3-option. Strangers On A Train recorded two albums: The Key, part 1: The Prophecy (1990) and The Key, part 2: The Labyrinth (1993, see review). The first album featured Clive Nolan (Pendragon, Arena, Shadowland) on keyboards and vocals, Karl Groom (Threshold) on guitar and Tracy Hitchings (Landmarq) on lead vocals. On the second album singer Alan Reed (ex-Pallas) was part of the band as well. In late 2012, the Polish label Metal Mind Productions reissued the albums and they have immediately become something of a favourite of mind.
Each album stands on its own and contains a completely different style of music. The Prophecy brings out the talents of each of the performers. Nolan's composition and piano work is outstanding and, to be honest, is probably among his best. It's streets ahead of his work with Pendragon and showed the need for him to break away and do his own projects. Hitchings' voice is exceptional and immediately recognizable. She only recorded the album The Loreli (1989) with Quasar before joining up with Nolan and Groom which meant that she was able to use this album to demonstrate what she was capable of. It worked because not only would she go on to do other collaborations with Nolan, but she became also a member of the well-known British progressive rock band Landmarq.
Already a founder member of Threshold but with no album to his name, Groom is a bit of a surprise on The Prophecy. With Nolan and Hitchings, it would be easy to dismiss Groom as just a guitar player, but listen very carefully to the album and you can hear his influence. The interplay between all three musicians on this album is well done and balanced. At one point it seems that Nolan and Hitchings are in control, then its Groom and Hitchings. While Nolan wrote all the music and lyrics, this is an album that demonstrates that concept albums designed to show off the performers can work really well. While there are solos from everyone, they don't get lost in long extended jams of the type that were sadly becoming all too common for progressive rock at that time.
The opening theme from Arrival runs through the entire album as a link. Hitchings' vocals, as simple as they are on this track, immediately grab the listener more for her voice than for the lyrics. Sacrifice opens and closes with some very nice guitar work from Groom and some equally nice punchy, breathless, staccato lyrics from Hitchings coupled with equally punchy keyboard work from Nolan. Three instrumentals then follow starting with a medieval feel to Silent Companion which is a real shift of gears for the album. While it would seem oddly out of place on many rock albums, you have to think back to the experimentation that was being done back in the late eighties and early nineties. The shift back to the feel of a piano album at the start of Crossing The Wasteland is a great counterpoint to Silent Companion and it's elevated even more when Groom's bass line kicks in.
The last piece of this instrumental interlude is Perchance To Dream where Hitchings joins in just to add an extra counterpoint to the piano and guitars. This is something that you tend to hear more as the backing on classic rock albums, think of Pink Floyd for instance, but which is often overlooked by many bands today. Singers don't need words to enhance the album. Some good'la-la-lahing' can be really powerful, especially when you have the vocal talents like Tracy Hitchings on hand. Groom and Hitchings then combine to create a great ballad with Lightshow but before you get too settled, the very offbeat and almost experimental opening of Occam's Tears kicks in. I think this is to be the best track on the album. It's more powerful than Sacrifice and while Hitchings has only a small vocal part, the whole eight minutes not only hangs together well, but it also seems to end too soon.
It's almost as if the end of Occam's Tears is the trigger for the album to take off. Nolan is supreme on Losing A Hold On Life and is then joined by Hitchings for a stunning duet. Next up is Duel, one of the outstanding tracks on this album. Rock in all its forms is littered by instrumental duets, but it can be hard to pull off a great keyboard-guitar duet that keeps the listener engaged. For four and a half minutes, Groom and Nolan go head to head and the result is worth listening to again and again. From The Inside Out is another good track that only serves to introduce the much more powerful Healing The Rift. Nolan's keyboards in full organ mode form a great backdrop for the theatrical delivery of Hitchings and the occasional wailing guitars of Groom. It's just very stage-like and very visual.
What really works with this album is that the sequencing between the tracks makes this sound more like the soundtrack from a musical. The majority of tracks segue into each other due to Nolan's compositional skills. The Key, part 1: The Prophecy is an album that's well worth buying.
***+ Ian Murphy (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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