Phenomena is the fifth album from multi-instrumentalist Tony Lowe's ESP Project. Like 2019's offering, The Rising (see review) it features Damien Child's vocals and imaginative lyrics which were added in the latter stages of a project which I am pleased to report seems to have been unaffected by the restrictions and compromises which have affected so many aspects of the creative arts this year.
Compromise is certainly not on the menu for the ESP Project and the quality of this release, picking up exactly where its predecessor left off is greatly reassuring. While there is much that is familiar, it would be a mistake to think of this as a 'safe' piece of work. Each track offers surprising encounters, as in Telesthesia where a burst of church organ heralds rousing techno beats. Lowe seems incapable of writing programmatically, happily finding ways to take symphonic ambient soundscapes, overlay them with intricate guitar and then soar with driving guitars, jazz inspired licks or slabs of electronica. The cover art is a perfect allegory for these compositions featuring what appears to be a closed box, but of irregular, almost indeterminate shape, inside something glows white hot, but its source is unclear, illuminating the contents whose true nature is yet to be revealed, organic possibly, a hint of worlds to explore encrusted with jewel like bursts of colour, no sense of scale, both epic in potential and a perfect miniature, simultaneously. There's an illustrative moment in Seven Billion Tiny Sparks where King Crimson make an appearance, but dimly lit and are gone before they can be grasped as the music shape-shifts, exploring alternative possibilities, some fully realised, others remain as will o' the wisps. Mention must also be made at this point of Alison Fleming's vocal appearance on this path, beautifully catching the fragility and ephemeral nature of the iridescent burst of life. Damien Child elsewhere is the perfect counterfoil for Lowe, sinuously weaving his vocals around the powerful arrangements.
Phenomena is a much needed boost of an album, powerful, challenging symphonic rock that refuses to rest on its laurels and proving yet again that the ESP Project is full of class, musicality and great, thoughtful writing.
****+ Andrew Cottrell
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