Messenger - Illusory Blues | Review

Progressive rock had its inexplicable day in the sun a decade ago, when The Mars Volta, Motorpsycho and Porcupine Tree were selling out huge venues and creeping up the Billboard charts. I say inexplicable because even when prog rock is popular it is never widely loved, always the butt of a joke even when praised. This was the same in the genre’s 60s-70s heyday, when Yes was filling stadiums while being ridiculed in Rolling Stone and Cream. Some hated its inherent cosmic navel gazing, others what was seen as an emphasis on musicianship over songcraft. This was bullshit, of course; I mean, have you heard “Siberian Khatru” or “A Passage to Bangkok” or “Exiles”? Compared to the coked-up and blown-out noise of hair metal, early prog was arena rock writ large, huge melodies paired to jazzy scales and 15 minute synth solos. Sure it wasn’t for everyone, but what is?

Messenger dregs up some of this past for Illusory Blues, pitching its tent somewhere between the mid-oughts revivalists and the classics. Anchored by acoustic guitar and Khaled Lowe’s flighty voice, these Brits freely indulge in flute solos and string quartets, fingerpicked classical leads and mutating time signatures. I hear Porcupine Tree and King Crimson, with a little Jethro Tull thrown in for good measure on tracks like “Piscean Tide.” Nerdy though it maybe, Illusory is a hell of a lot of fun.

Take “Midnight,” the longest and most self-consciously ‘epic’ track of the bunch. After beginning with some classical flair it erupts into a motorik groove at about 3 minutes, eventually settling into a chugging strut accompanied by falsetto “ooh ooh ooooooohs.” Jamie Gomez Arellano’s drums are crisp and sit way up in the mix, snapping out jazzy beats over zither strums and hitting hard for a violin solo straight out of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. These songs travel places, jumping between movements and ideas that nevertheless feel tethered together, less by mode or scale than energy and feeling. 8 minutes shouldn’t jump by as fast as “Midnight” does, but Messenger finds a way.

Elsewhere the band sticks to smaller ideas, developing melodies and rhythms instead of jumping among them. “Somniloquist” plugs psychedelic pop, mellotron and all, into a classic rock mold, with honest-to-god riffs bridging it all. Years ago a band as well crafted and huge-sounding as Messenger would have been massive, Lowe projecting his ace vocal chords through stadium after stadium. But that is no longer the world we live in. The days of bands descending to the stage in spaceships and ripping out bitching pan flute solos are long past, with the occasional flare-up whenever Jon Anderson decides he doesn’t mind most of Yes, or the annually uncelebrated but nonetheless attended Rush tour. Even the aforementioned revivalists threw in punk and metal and salsa to their mix, stressing chaos as opposed to new age calm. By digging back to a poppier (and more populist) time, Messenger has crafted an interesting little gem. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the world for it.

Rob Rubsam

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Rob Rubsam is a freelance writer and itinerant resident of Upstate New York. His writing about music has been published at CVLT Nation, Tom Tom Magazine, The Rumpus, Burning Ambulance, and others. When not contemplating giant squids or erecting a standing stone in his backyard, he tweets at @millenialistfun. Do not contact him with your black mass-related inquiries, please.