Last year saw the release of Steve Hughes' debut album, Tales From The Silent Oceans (see review), which earned a well-rounded score of four (out of five) from your humble reviewer. The follow-up is a two parter, Once We Were (Pt 1) with Pt 2 due for release very soon in December. One observation to make from the outset is that Hughes, once the drummer with Big Big Train, The Enid and Kino, does not do things by halves. Whereas Silent Oceans showcased a collection of his hauntingly evocative symphonically-led compositions, Once We Were is dominated by one track and very ambitious at that, but we shall come to it in a moment.
Like the first album with its tales of mania and destruction, this album also has a theme, albeit a slightly looser story, about a man who appears in different timelines from the past to the future. The album interweaves this theme with songs about love, grief, separation, broken families, death and war. To help him tell these stories, Hughes has enlisted a musical cast which includes his long term collaborator J C Strand, plus Dec Burke (Frost*, Darwin's Radio, AutoPlastik) and Keith Winter on guitars, The Enid colleague Alex Tsentides joins him on bass, along with Katja Piel and Hughes's sister Angie on vocals and violinist Maclej Zolnowski. Hughes takes care of all the other instruments.
Hughes starts the album with Summer Soldier, a track topping the 30 minute mar and which rivals War And Peace in terms of scale and drama. For a composition which, if released on vinyl, would do a Close To The Edge and fill a whole side, it holds its shape and momentum extremely well. Hughes' trademark driving rhythms, which range from all-out assault and battery to jazzier chops, are complemented by exuberant piano passages and great swathes of guitar. At one stage, Hughes, Strand and Winter all come together for a three cornered guitar contest, while other passages feature ethereal female voices, both sung and spoken, that calm and soothe. These are but fleeting preludes to Hughes cranking up the tempo again, latterly to depict a theatre of war in which his drums perform as gunfire. Finally, the sound of bells ringing and discordant voices bring it all to a close but not before the listener's senses have sent reeling over and over again.
For the rest of the album, Hughes returns to his symphonic soundscapes for a series of songs, which vary in length and tone. A New Light uses dreamy vocals and delicate synths to evoke a shimmering effect, while For Jay has an airier and lighter feel. The pick of the bunch is Kettering Road, a place in Northamptonshire which is obviously dear to his heart. It has a nostalgic feel which is brought to life through some stunning vocal harmonisation and even a vocoder before a powerful guitar-driven sequence signals the end of the road. Propaganda Pt 1 is a brief gentle piano solo against a backdrop of harmonising keyboards, followed by Was I Wrong? a pretty and lyrically strong song that features Burke on guitar.
We are back in wistful territory through It Could've Been Us, whose plangent, bucolic quality is shattered by a rather violent crashing ending. Second Chance is a beautiful, romantic duet sung by Hughes and sister Angie. The album's closer, Saigo Ni Moichido, has a mournful, far Eastern feel thanks to Zolnowski's expressive violin, the track's hook line reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto's haunting theme tune to Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.
Hughes has painstakingly worked hard over 18 months to compose, perform and produce this album. Where he takes us in a couple of months' time with Pt 2 will be very interesting to discover.
**** Alison Reijman
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