1. Last Train To Kimball (1:10)
2. Insomniac Blue (5:35)
3. Palestinian Black (6:55)
4. Wounded Animal (10:26)
5. Let It Rain (4:45)
6. Silence Kills (8:45)
7. It’s Only Fear (6:18)
8. Bar at the End of the World (1:25)
9. Haunted (9:49)
10.Rebuke the Sea (9:03)
11. Adrift (7:30)
Luis Nasser – bass, miscellaneous debris
Brian Harris – keyboards
Rich Poston – electric guitar
Roey Ben-Yoseph – lead vocals
Tim McCaskey – acoustic guitar
Steve Royce – flute, vocals
Andy Tillotson – drums, acoustic guitar, vocals
David Keller – cello
Brittany Moffitt – vocals
After an eight-year hiatus, Chicago-based outfit Sonus Umbra are back with only bassist/mainman Luis Nasser and drummer Andy Tillotson left of the band that released Digging for Zeroes in 2005. Founded in the early Nineties by Nasser and his friend Ricardo Gómez while the pair were still living in Mexico, they started out as Radio Silence, and disbanded when Nasser and Gómez relocated to the US – only to get back together with on their current name (meaning “Sound of Shadow”) at the very beginning of the new century, releasing three albums between 2000 and 2005.
The chequered history of Sonus Umbra is outlined with almost poetic flair by Nasser – a professor of physics at Columbia University, as well as a gifted musician and lyricist – in the stylish booklet that accompanies Winter Soulstice, the band’s fourth release. Though Nasser is credited as the main songwriter, in his introduction he makes it abundantly clear that Sonus Umbra is not a one-man show recorded with a bunch of hired hands, but a true band – and a seven-piece at that, boasting of a lush instrumentation that lends variety and complexity to the compositions.
Being a newcomer to the band’s music, my curiosity was whetted by the CD’s striking cover artwork and photography, which suggest a modern rather than a retro direction. Indeed, while listening to Winter Soulstice, I was reminded of the eclectic approach to progressive rock of Man On Fire and Little Atlas (whose mainman Steve Katsikas gets a mention in the liner notes), two modern US bands whose albums I have covered in the past couple of years. Like them, Sonus Umbra straddle past and present with ease, placing a strong emphasis on songs and balancing the vocal and the instrumental component with a skilled touch.
Even if not overtly stated, Winter Soulstice is a concept album of sorts, making use of recurring musical themes that help to create cohesion and reinforce the message of the long, articulate lyrics, which tell a tale of loneliness and loss to which many of us can relate. Albeit somewhat sprawling, the album as a whole will only occasionally elicit reminiscences of other bands or artists. The expressive interplay between Steve Royce’s flute and Rich Poston’s electric guitar in the likes of the instrumental “Palestinian Black” and the autumnal, cello-driven “Rebuke the Sea” evokes Jethro Tull, but as a whole Sonus Umbra sound remarkably original.
Introduced by the ambient noises of “Last Train to Kimball”, “Insomniac Blue” features that mix of catchy, melodic vocals and complex, multilayered instrumental parts, with Nasser’s twangy bass and Tillotson’s versatile drumming pushed to the fore, while Tim McCluskey’s lovely acoustic guitar and Brian Harris’ rippling piano increase the melodic quotient. In the middle of “Wounded Animal”, powerful organ runs intensify the effect of the vocals and guitar riffs, while the frantically pounding drums veer into metal territory – like Deep Purple on steroids. On the other hand, the lyrically and musically connected “Haunted” blends the drama of a solemn, march-like pace with the haunting beauty of the closing a cappella vocal section.
Soothing, folksy notes hold sway in the mostly acoustic, flute-laden ballad “Let It Rain” and soften the intensity of the eclectic, subtly ominous “Silence Kills” – where the role of piano and synth seems to embody the acoustic and the electric component of the album; while the following “It’s Only Fear” – the most straightforward number on the disc, with a recognizable conventional song structure – spotlights Poston’s discreet yet expressive lead guitar in the bridge. The lovely, somber “Adrift” – an acoustic instrumental piece built upon a hauntingly repetitive theme – provides a fitting conclusion, summing up the mood of the album without any need for words.
Clocking in at over 70 minutes, Winter Soulstice inevitably contains some filler, and may occasionally sound a bit samey. Roey Ben-Yoseph’s voice may also turn out to be an acquired taste for some, especially when he reaches for the high notes. However, the album is impeccably performed, very cohesive in terms of writing, and features outstanding instrumental textures with a keen ear for melody. Highly recommended to prog fans who like a good balance of melody and complexity, Winter Soulstice is a more than satisfactory comeback release from a band that has managed to forge its own individual sound – respecting the genre’s glorious past without lingering too much in its shadow.