1. Mother and Daughter (7:45)
2. Clocks and Clouds (7:48)
3. The City in the Sea (7:48)
4. God Particle (7:45)
5. Gorham’s Cave (8:34)
6. He Who Saw the Deep (Gilgamesh) (9:47)
7. The Emigrant (6:52)
Adam Riley – drums
Simon McKechnie – all other instruments
Behind this album there is a heartwarming story of triumph over adversity that should encourage us to put many things into perspective. Based in London, multi-instrumentalist/composer Simon McKechnie (who has a thriving career as a musician with a very eclectic attitude) had been planning to record a progressive rock album for a long time, but he only got around to doing so when, in the spring of 2012, a serious health condition forced him to spend most of his time lying in bed. During that difficult time, he kept on playing his guitar and writing the songs that would later be included on Clocks and Dark Clouds. The album was recorded in McKechnie’s own studio, with the assistance of his longtime friend and collaborator Adam Riley – a drummer with a jazz-fusion background who proved to be the perfect choice to enhance the album’s complexity – and released in June 2013. Its title is an homage to Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s composition “Clocks and Clouds” , one of the artist’s favourite pieces of music. Though not exactly a concept album, all of its seven songs revolve, in one way or the other, around the topic of time.
In my years as a reviewer, I have often come across a number of similar, studio-based projects, which, albeit technically accomplished, can often be dull, meandering affairs that add nothing of value to the development of the prog scene. However, Clocks and Dark Clouds, while not perfect, is definitely a cut above the average current release. It also sounds refreshingly modern, reinterpreting the classics in a very personal way rather than using them as a template to be followed verbatim. As biased as I may have become, when I first put the CD on I was very pleasantly surprised, as I was expecting something quite different.
With a very reasonable running time of around 56 minutes, Clocks and Dark Clouds comprises seven longish tracks that place a strong emphasis on vocals. Indeed, McKechnie’s voice is spotlighted right from the start, fortunately proving up to the task of tackling the elaborate lyrics without overstaying its welcome. He also proves himself a capable lyricist, dealing with thought-provoking topics such as history and science with perhaps a touch of wordiness, but avoiding the cheesy nonsense too often associated with prog. On the whole, the album is very cohesive, even if it does lose some steam in the second half. The angular, interlocking guitar lines, supported by Riley’s suitably intricate drumming patterns, evoke King Crimson’s Belew-Levin period, and McKechnie’s knack for a catchy tune tempers the intensity of the instrumental passages.
By an interesting quirk, the album’s first four songs have almost the same running time. Opener “Mother and Daughter” introduces McKechnie’s modus operandi in style, balancing angularity with melody. “Clocks and Clouds” introduces an almost Oriental note amidst the ticking sounds and dramatic, jagged instrumental accompaniment that evokes Yes and Van Der Graaf Generator. In “City by the Sea” (with lyrics by prog icon Edgar Allan Poe, also referenced by the raven silhouette on the cover) the Eastern flavour becomes even more prominent, coupled with suitably eerie sound effects, slashing riffs and outstanding guitar work that recall The Mars Volta’s idiosyncratic approach. The latter influence also crops up in “God Particle”, which opens with a quote by none other than Albert Einstein, and showcases Riley’s astounding drumming, propulsive and textural at the same time.
The following couple of songs are even more ambitious nature, but also reveal a few weaknesses, though without detracting from the album’s overall quality. The almost 10-minute “He Who Saw the Deep”, inspired by the myth of Gilgamesh (the oldest epic known to mankind), is characterized by a dynamic, borderline aggressive mood, only at times relieved by more subdued pauses; the sometimes shrill vocals and spectacular drumming again reminded me of The Mars Volta. “Gorham’s Cave”, though somewhat shorter, is broken up by frequent, sometimes abrupt changes of pace; the influence of later Rush is unmistakable, as well as that of The Police circa “Synchronicity”. The disc closes on a high note with “The Emigrant” an the album’s most “traditional” song in terms of structure, made particularly memorable by Irish poet Joseph Campbell’s lyrics and their haunting “farewell” refrain, and a gentler, elegiac mood reminiscent of Genesis.
For all his alleged debt to the prog icons of the Seventies, Simon McKechnie has produced an album that sounds highly refreshing in a world of often rehashed ideas. Though lovers of instrumental music might find the prevalence of vocals somewhat offputting, the instrumental arrangements manage to hold the attention of demanding listeners. In spite of the rather tinny sound quality, the album is still eminently listenable, and challenging without being too taxing. Highly recommended to prog fans who like a healthy mix of modernity and reverence towards the genre’s founding fathers, Clocks and Dark Sounds is a very promising debut from a gifted artist.