Shortly after the release of Wither Down (2021, see review), the third album made by the Canadian progressive rock act Monarch Trail, I had a short chat on the internet with their lead singer, keyboard player and main composer Ken Baird. November 2021 he told me that things are starting to "busy up" around here, and over the holidays he would be working on finishing the demos for album number 4 for Monarch Trail. Furthermore he told me that actually, three of them are more or less completed. Moreover he told me he had a creative time around Jan/Feb of last year and did the first three songs, and they are all 20 minutes or so! He told me that he probably was planning a double album, but please don't let anyone know. On the other hand he would try to put it on a single CD if it fits into 74 minutes but double vinyl for sure. He doesn't release many vinyl albums, but he wanted to do some for this next album. He also mentioned that "Side 4" is half-written too. There is a shorter song and a longer song he said. The longer one is not complete yet but some of it is there, based of an idea that bassist Dino Verginella sent him. Well after this inside information from Ken I really thought that in 2022 a new album of Monarch Trail would have been released. However it turned out differently. Towards the end of 2023 the news reached me that the new album was out. Named Four Sides.
Of course the title refers to what Ken earlier mentioned to me. Coming with a double vinyl album consisting of Four Sides. This is how the double vinyl album looks like:
Side I: The Oldest Of Trees (22:39)
Side II: Eris (19:46)
Side III: Twenty K (17:06)
Side IV, a: Moon To Follow (9:37)
Side IV, b: Afterthought (4:21)
The first three songs are all epic in length and would each take up a side of a vinyl record. The fourth side is divided into two songs. It's just like it was back in the seventies when Yes released the double album Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973). Containing 4 tracks on 2 vinyl records divided on four sides. But the album titles are also mentioned the same way on the compact disc version which has a total length of almost 74 minutes. And therefore it is Monarch Trail's longest album to date.
All of this is of course is a great tribute to the great progressive rock bands of the seventies. Music wise the band also takes their inspiration from those bands. Influences from bands such as Genesis, Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer can be heard throughout the entire album. I probably also have to mention that Four Sides shares the same release date with Genesis' Wind And Wuthering, which was released on December 17, 1976. Only 47 years later.
For this new album the line-up again consists of Ken Baird (piano, keyboards, vocals, guitars (1,5), recorder, Penny whistle), Chris Lamont (drums) and Dino Verginella (bass). As like on all of the bands earlier releases extra guests on the guitars can be enjoyed as well.
Namely Kelly Kereliuk on Twenty K and Steve Cochrane on Moon To Follow.
The album kicks off with the longest track on the album and sets the tone for what is to be expected on the entire album. The typical Monarch Trail sound is all over the place so to speak. In a way the band continues where they left of on their latest album Wither Down. On The Oldest Of Trees again the band sounds like Genesis, Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The keyboard sounds of Keith Emerson and Tony Banks are never far away! But also again it made me think of Barclay James Harvest and Glass Hammer. But above all it is again the typical Monarch Trail sound that we can enjoy on the first epic. Wow what an opener!
The album continues with Eris. Probably the “weirdest” track on the entire album. However “weirdest” doesn't mean “weakest”. Not at all. Again you can hear twenty minutes long the best possible progressive rock available. Weird only refers to the long instrumental intro which the band hasn't showed music wise before. It sounds a little bit like ambient and new age kind of music and goes music wise into the direction of the great Greek musical maestro Vangelis. After eleven minutes the whole band gets involved and influences of Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer come to the surface. The well known sound of Monarch Trail in full splendour that's for sure.
It is followed by Twenty K. Again the well known sound of Monarch Trail in full splendour is there for you to enjoy. With all of the earlier mentioned influences. However this time around I heard for the first time an influence that I probably didn't hear before. The piano sound of John Tout, the keyboard player of Renaissance. The band with the wonderful vocals of Annie Haslam. Also I do have to mention the excellent guitar parts of Kelly Kereliuk. Together with Ken's keyboards they colour the track in a perfect way.
We have now come to the fourth side of the album with the two shortest compositions on the entire album. First we have Moon To Follow. Strangely enough again the earlier mentioned John Tout piano influences can be heard. Only this time the playing has a more free jazz style. Next to the wonderful keyboard parts of Baird it is Steve Cochrane who shines on the guitar on this track. And finally, at the very end of the album we find a very melodic instrumental recording titled Afterthought. Again it is as if John Tout is sitting behind the piano. The piano parts in a way replace the vocal parts on this tune. Furthermore excellent keyboard parts makes sure this song is the perfect ending of a perfect album.
Finally I have to mention Baird's strong vocal performance throughout the entire album. It certainly lifts the album to a higher level without any doubt. And also his two musical partners in crime Lamont and Verginella have to be mentioned. Without them the album probably would not reach the high level of performance as you can hear now. They also makes sure Ken can shine on his many keyboards and play strong chords and solos. But also they give a platform for both guitar players to bring out the best in them. So thumbs up for those two excellent musicians!
After listening to Four Sides several times it easy to say that it contains the same kind of high musical level which you also could find on the three predecessors. Meaning a very high level of progressive rock which you mostly find on the albums made by Genesis, Yes, Barclay James Harvest, Renaissance and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Also music wise you can refer the musical style of Monarch Trail to the same kind of musical style of those mentioned acts. So it's obvious that Four Sides is highly recommended to those who have those bands in their musical hearts. Four Sides is without any doubt one of the best albums released in 2023, even when it came out almost in 2024! Well for me personally it is the best progressive rock album of 2023.No discussion about that fact! Therefore only the highest rating of five stars can be given to this true masterpiece. A well deserved score for this amazing album made by this amazing band!
***** Henri Strik (edited by Tracy van Os van den Abeelen)
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