1. Passion (5:27)
2. Empathy (11:20)
3. Feeding Frenzy (5:47)
4. This Green And Pleasant Land (13:13)
5. It’s Just A Matter Of Not Getting Caught (4:41)
6. Skara Brae (7:31)
7. Your Black Heart (6:46)
Nick Barrett – vocals, guitars, keyboard, keyboard programming
Peter Gee – bass
Clive Nolan – keyboards, backing vocals
Scott Higham – drums, backing vocals
One of the front runners of the Neo-Prog movement (together with Marillion, Pallas and IQ) who in the mid-Eighties brought the genre back into the limelight, Pendragon do not need any introduction to the community of progressive rock fans. Never the most prolific of bands, throughout their 33 years of activity on the music scene the Stroud-based quartet have established themselves as firm favourites with those who privilege the more melodic, song-based side of prog.
Even if I was obviously acquainted with the band’s reputation, I have to admit that, before Passion, I had never listened to any Pendragon album in its entirety. For a number of reasons, mainly related to my personal circumstances, while in the Eighties I had become quite familiar with Marillion, most of the other bands managed to flow almost completely under my radar. In the following years I only heard a handful of scattered tracks that left little or no impression – especially as my tastes evolved in a different direction from “mainstream” symphonic prog and its offshoot Neo.
Passion, Pendragon’s ninth studio album – released in April 2011, and recorded with the same line-up as 2008’s Pure – like its predecessor may well prove quite divisive as regards the band’s fandom. A masterpiece for some, a borderline sellout for others, it is definitely a bold statement, and therefore bound to rub some people the wrong way. Whatever you may think about the band and the whole Neo-Prog movement, it is undeniable that, with their last couple of releases, Pendragon have taken a big step forward into the 21st century, even at the risk of alienating their more conservative fans. Though some might call it sacrificing to fads, it might also be seen as being willing to take risks – a more than healthy attitude for a progressive rock band.
Neo-Prog often gets a bad rap in some prog circles for being both derivative and not as complex as other subgenres, as well as frequently too “accessible”. While all of those aspects may be considered true to a certain extent, it is also true that they have earned bands like Pendragon a loyal following among those people who shy away from anything too convoluted, or lacking in melody. Indeeed, in compositional terms, Passion is rather straightforward: the same, however, might be said about highly acclaimed “modern prog” icons Porcupine Tree (incidentally, a clear influence on this album). It is also very balanced in terms of running time (54 minutes), featuring 7 tracks, only two of which longer than 10 minutes, and therefore fulfilling the role of the obligatory “epics”.
The first shock for prog purists comes right at the beginning of the title-track, after the industrial-sounding drum loops and gentle guitar chords – in the shape of heavy riffing and near-growling vocals with a definite Opeth flavour. The song, rather linear in structure, relies on the atmospheric interplay between Nick Barrett’s guitar and Clive Nolan’s keyboards, occasionally slashed by razor-sharp riffs and increased drumming speed, and plenty of electronic effects. The following number, Empathy (one of the two epics previously mentioned), makes very effective use of cutting-edge technology to create an ominous, claustrophobic atmosphere, with spacey effects, heavily treated guitar and dirge-like vocals (as well as heavy riffing) that reinforce the Porcupine Tree comparisons. This is offset by a clean, melodic guitar solo and solemn church-like organ section towards the end, though not without the further shock of a rap-style vocal interlude. True to its title, “Feeding Frenzy” pursues the same dark, menacing tone, slowly building up to a powerful climax of heavy guitar chords and crashing drums, and ending with some rather scary vocal samples.
Though strategically placed right in the middle of the album, the second epic (and longest track), “This Green and Pleasant Land”, is, in my view, probably the weakest, most predictable track on Passion, though the heavier, faster second half and the yodeling voices at the end inject some spice in a song that might have used some editing. Moreover, I feel that the lyrics, though undeniably sincere, tend to simplify some rather complicated issues (such as multiculturalism), and possibly reinforce negative stereotypes. The short “It’s a Matter of Not Getting Caught” has a brief, riff-driven section sandwiched between two slow, meditative ones; while “Skara Brae” (the name of a Neolithic settlement in the Orkney Islands) is one of the highlights of the album, and my personal favourite – with its raw, almost Sabbathian opening, and the successful combination of clean, melodic guitar and vocals and the intense heaviness of chugging riffs perfecting the example put forward by Porcupine Tree in their more recent efforts. The album is wrapped up by the lovely, piano-led ballad “My Black Heart”, soulfully interpreted by Barrett (whose voice is undisputedly an acquired taste, but also very attuned to the music), and reminiscent of the more intimist moments of The Tangent or Big Big Train.
Coming in a sumptuous package complete with striking artwork by German-based Killustrations design studio, a thorough booklet and a 120-minute making-of DVD titled A Handycam Progumentary, Passion may disappoint the more traditional-minded fans, but its bold approach may also win the band a few followers among the ranks of the more modern-oriented prog devotees. Though not everyone’s cup of tea, this is an interesting, well-crafted offering by a highly professional band who – unlike other veterans of the prog scene – refuse to be stuck in a musical time-warp.