1. The Noise of Time (5:09)
2. For Those Overrun by American Violence (7:12)
3. The Wind (5:12)
4. I Fought for Nothing (5:21)
5. Election Night 2004 (and only some dogs down the street protested) (2:11)
6. Winter (5:40)
7. Fate (3:44)
8. Adrift in Empire (5:32)
9. For Those in Peril on The Sea (7:10)
10. Softly Adrift (4:53)
11. The Matter of Our Crimes (5:41)
12. Meditation for Kellie C. (5:46)
Scott Brazieal – vocals, all instruments
Ali Ippolito – vocals (1, 3, 4)
Adam Hurst – cello (4, 6)
Tom Hood – bowed guitar (6, 9), guitar solo (7)
R.D. (Dave) Hardesty – vocal narrative (11)
Followers of the US avant-progressive scene will remember Scott Brazieal as the founder of Cartoon and PFS, as well as a member of 5uu’s and Thinking Plague, who also toured with such icons as Christian Vander and John Greaves. A gifted multi-instrumentalist and composer, currently based in California, Brazieal has been lying low for the past decade or so, steadily working on his first solo project – a labour of love that began in 2003, and was finally released earlier this year. The album, titled Songs from the Empire, comprises 12 tracks mostly performed by Brazieal himself with the help of some guest musicians. According to the artist, the album was conceived as a whole rather than a collection of individual songs, and as such is meant to be listened to in its entirety – a concept that sounds almost alien to a generation weaned on iPods and single-song downloading.
Songs from the Empire is one of those albums that may need several listens before they begin to “make sense”, so to speak. While the instrumental component definitely outweighs the singing, Brazieal’s voice – reminiscent of Roger Waters’, and sounding at times rather off-key (though the effect may be intentional) – seems to emphasize the dissonance that occasionally disrupts the somber, meditative mood of the music. The most distinctive (as well as potentially controversial) aspect of the album, however, is its highly charged political content. Flag-wavers of any kind, or those who think that music should refrain from taking a political stance, will be immediately put off by titles such as “For Those Overrun by American Violence”. On the other hand, the political message is not conveyed in a straightforward manner – that is, through “conventional” lyrics – but rather through suggestions such as sound effects, vocal narratives and original recordings. Indeed, the most overt statement can be found in “Adrift in Empire”, which features part of Martin Luther King, Jr’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech – whose content rings uncannily true even 45 years later.
Though the message is almost inseparable from the music, in purely musical terms Songs from the Empire is a fascinating listen, hovering between atmospheric minimalism and classical references with a pinch of rock directness thrown in for added spice. The use of dissonance – to many the hallmark of the avant-prog subgenre – is quite restrained, while quite a surprising amount of melody is scattered throughout the album. Keyboards and electronics play the biggest role, but the contribution of other instruments (such as strings, guitar and drums) ensures variety, while sound effects reinforce the message and enhance the emotional impact. The slow pacing of the compositions – at times exceedingly so – also highlights their introspective quality.
Guest vocalist Ali Ippolito’s melodious tones temper Brazieal’s harsher, more discordant ones in opener “The Noise of Time”, the rarefied, vaguely ominous “I Fought for Nothing” and the atmospheric “The Wind”; while a female church choir – superimposed to a wailing, almost tribal voice – injects a sense of eerie mysticism in the broodingly cinematic “For Those Overrun by American Violence”. The already-mentioned “I Fought for Nothing” and “Softly Adrift”, both suggestive of Roger Waters’ solo output, bridge the gap between mainstream and experimentation, coming across as skewed torch songs of sorts. On the other hand, the instrumental tracks possess the intimate, sometimes brittle feel of chamber music. The 7-minute “For Those in Peril on the Sea” starts out in mournful, string-driven fashion, then gradually turns more dissonant towards the end. In the highly descriptive “Winter”, the slow, sparse motion of the piano is disturbed by eerily creaking sound effects suggesting frost or ice. The album is then brought to a lovely, melancholy close by the subdued piano in the aptly titled “Meditation for Kellie C.”, joined by atmospheric keyboard washes towards the end.
Clocking in at about 61 minutes, Songs from the Empire is a well-balanced, carefully composed effort that will definitely please lovers of everything avant-progressive, as well as those who appreciate contemporary classical music. While the previous paragraphs should make it abundantly clear that the album is not an easily accessible proposition, it will also reward the patience of those who like music to make you think rather than offer instant gratification.