Ellesmere - Wyrd

(CD 2020, 43:33, AMS AMS317CD)

The tracks:
  1- Challenge(7:25)
  2- The Eary Manor(6:23)
  3- Endeavour(8:23)
  4- Ajar(8:04)
  5- Endeless(13:13)

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Wyrd is the third release from Ellesmere the symphonic rock project founded by Roberto Vitelli, otherwise known from the excellent Taproban, in 2015 and follows on from 2019's release, Ellesmere II - From Sea And Beyond. Like its predecessors, this release features an eye-catching array of guests from King Crimson (David Cross) to The Flower Kings (Tomas Bodin) and all points of royalty from Scandinavia through to Southern Europe; a remarkable achievement!

Vitelli provides all the music and lyrics for this release and is clearly taking the project on a very determined arc of progression. Having begun in the pastoral roots of early Genesis with his travels through the chateaux of the Loire on the first release Les Châteaux De La Loire, this offering develops the more experimental side, infused with King Crimson, ELP and jazz-rock influences. Yes are also a constant reference, not simply through the cover art presented by Rodney Matthews which is strongly redolent of Roger Dean's alternative universes.

Vitelli is explicit in regarding this release as a step along the way, and from the opening track, Challenge, there is a restlessness about the compositions, which belie the stately, grandiose piano / synth introduction. Serenity is undone by vicious, jagged competing themes, cavorting with urgent percussion resting only for a brief expositional vocal, itself culminating in a piercing scream of delight or anguish, only the future can tell. The Eary Manor features John Hackett's flute skittering like a bat across a jagged landscape of staccato chords, brutal and forbidding. A simple piano line manages to evoke an unseen threat approaching, before the full orchestration joins in cavorting in infernal debauchery, topped by a banshee screeching wail of synthesizer. Half way through there is a seismic shift to an almost innocent sounding melodic intrusion, although it is not long before the bat-flute and its hellish band swoop down on the victim, returning again and once more until the entire scene dissolves leaving only a chilling blast of ice cold wind to haunt the listener's imagination.

The central piece, Endeavour begins at a low ebb. The vocal conveying anxiety and fading hope. “I'm still relying on you” is the message, though more through desperation than conviction. The main theme seems to blossom slowly as energy is restored. Predictably this cannot last. Emerson-like power keys are interspersed with increasingly frenetic free jazz improvisations. The road is never easy. Just as grandiose sweeps of symphonic keyboard seem to have restored the upper hand, chaos always threatens. What sounds like resolution is always underpinned by foreboding, a constant reminder that even happy endings come at a cost. Accordingly Ajar begins in martial mode, the musicians join in an insistent round, interwoven with sinuous sax, and then the machinery of war is on the move, an earjangling keyboard theme. The saxophone returns, surprisingly sensual and the vocal incantatory and spiritual, repeating the single word of the title. There is a fleeting glimpse of something transcendentally uplifting, but then voices are heard, barbaric, distorted and dimly understood, if at all. The flute, briefly heard in improvisation, is now an electric, darting aura around this menace, echoing from one side to the other. Soaring keyboards contrast with savage drumming and an imperious, implacable, relentless bass. And then silence.

The epic conclusion is, paradoxically, Endeless perhaps underlining Vitelli's point that there are no conclusions, just steps along the way, and this album is no different. This is in many ways the most conventional track of the five. Glorious symphonic prog in full dress uniform, themes soar to the stars and solo runs flash like comets. There is a sense of the joy of release and although nothing is allowed to settle the mood is almost uniformly upbeat and celebratory. If there were trials to be gone through here they are recounted fondly as part of the collective consciousness. The last section however stands alone from the rest, a short coda and almost a reawakening into mundanity and a realisation that at the end of one chapter, there is still another tale to be told.

This is a complex, ambitious release and as the composer is at pains to point out, it is but a step on a path. It is not always an easy listen, and refuses to wear any one skin comfortably, always searching for a new direction and avoiding complacency. Whatever direction this path takes, this is something to be admired and I am happy to have joined for this section of the adventure. May there be many more as rich and exciting as this.

**** Andrew Cottrell

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