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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Wishbone Ash

Blue Horizon

Review by Jason Hillenburg

Never believe anyone who says, "It's just music.” Undoubtedly, there are countless professional musicians, living and dead, who amassed gloomy fortunes while always viewing their work as pure, formulaic product. Other musicians are a different breed. In the hands of some, rock music can be much more than mere product. The visceral physicality produced by the marriage of guitar, bass, and drums remains, in our digitized world, one of the pre-eminent vehicles for moving the human spirit to joy, grief, and healing. A musician with genuine personal depth, mastery over the tools of the form, and a committed work ethic is an artist capable of, as William Faulkner wrote of novelists, leaving a scratch on the wall of oblivion. Led by guitarist extraordinaire Andy Powell, the band Wishbone Ash proves, yet again, with Blue Horizon that they are doing far more than recording pop songs. They are sharing their hearts and laying themselves bare. Blue Horizon is a living work of great artistry. This is the best Wishbone Ash album since Illuminations.


This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2014  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Take It Back

Eight years ago, I lost the ability to recognize the artistry in works like this. After twelve years of alcoholic self-destruction, my appreciation for beauty reached nil. Art, particularly music and the written word, had been my deepest passion in life, but too many days sick and despairing robbed me of my affinity for life. I decided that I did not want to die and reclaiming my pre-alcoholic life became a critical part of my life in those early years. The opening song of the album, "Take It Back,” resonates deeply with me. Songs with a message like this are gentle exhortations to never let the weight of life's losses and compromises bury you. The steady, pressing insistence in Powell's sensitive vocal never pushes too hard. If someone powered their way through these lyrics, the message would lose weight or risk heavy-handedness. Instead, Powell's approach stresses the humanity in this situation. We barrel headlong into new lives with the best intentions only to sometimes lose our way.

Deep Blues
This is an infectious mid-tempo romp with great lyrics and another strong Powell vocal. If you've lived long enough, everyone knows someone with a taste for self-martyrdom and victimization. This collaborative lyric draws a deft portrayal of such a figure in fresh, exciting language. Musically, I'm always an enormous fan of this band's nods to the blues genre and "Deep Blues" is no exception. The band jams out a bit on this and the extended duel between Muddy Manninen and Powell crackles with gritty, grinning chemistry.
Strange How Things Come Back Around
The rise and fall of personal fortune lurks at the center of "Strange How Things Come Back Around.” Composed by former Ash guitarist Roger Filgate, this pensive piece wants us to understand how everything we do is part of a larger construct, and never assume the current phase of our lives is final. The "circular" arrangement of the song, practically a quasi-waltz, creatively underscores the lyrics without cluttering the composition with needless elements.
Being One
There is a genuine humility in "Being One.” While the sentiment that our physical lives are bound and insignificant when compared to the world is common, this song does more. It gives us a rounded view of its composers. The lyric is brief but focused on the subject. The progressive elements hinted at in the previous song leap to the fore here with a healthy dose of Beatles-like harmonies. The music is challenging for the player and listener alike and the rhythm section of bassist Bob Skeat and drummer Joe Crabtree anchor the guitars through an array of impressive and exciting tempo shifts. This is a stylish and sophisticated number.
Way down South
Here is a mature, moving AOR masterpiece. Its title conjures images and snatches of other songs in my memory. The blues connotations are, naturally, deliberate and intended to place it within familiar territory. The music's relaxed air contrasts sharply with the desperation in the lyrics. Other highlights include the strong chorus harmonies and shimmering guitar work; in particular, a sterling outro featuring terrific guitar work.
Tally Ho!
Growing up in a solidly blue-collar family has allowed me to see the bitter realities of "Tally Ho!" first hand. Another of many resonant moments listening to this album comes whenever I hear the tough-minded despair of the chorus wrestling with the optimism in the verses. This is a song about the need to push on towards the dawn even when hope for a better tomorrow is strained. Powell's proud vocal, accented on the chorus by Joe Crabtree's snare rolls, is weary but undefeated. Another strong, melodic guitar solo near the end still lingers in my memory.
Mary Jane -
Muddy Manninen steps up on vocals for "Mary Jane," a delightful ode to a mysterious "multi-dimensional" figure. While Manninen will never be confused with Freddie Mercury, his vocal is emotive and charismatic. It's easy to hear how much fun this was to record, and that woozy, late-night feel gives the song considerable charm. It is a blues, but the band isn't content to regurgitate textbook changes, so this song moves in some unexpected ways that are nevertheless consistent with the genre.
American Century
Aynsley Powell's second contribution to the album, "American Century,” is given a fantastic treatment. This ambitious, multi-sectioned song shows Wishbone Ash flexing its progressive rock chops in a clearer way than at any time since, perhaps, the Illuminations album. The extended intro lays down the gauntlet and the band zips through an impressive array of tempo changes with supreme confidence. The lyrical content, as in "Tally Ho!," indulges in some social criticism that never attempts browbeating the listener into submission.
Blue Horizon
The title song is another clear invocation of the band's progressive side. Another ambitious, multi-sectioned tune in the vein of the previous song, the astonishing twin guitar attack reaches its zenith here. It is continually impressive how Powell and Manninen weave their guitar parts around each other to create a cohesive tapestry of sound, and it's an exhilarating listening experience.
All There Is To Say
Blue Horizon's closer "All There Is to Say" opens with a single guitar playing a melody strongly reminiscent of both "The Pilgrim" and "Throw Down The Sword.” It widens into another full-on nod to the band's progressive side with its multiple sections and surprising shifts. Part elegy, part mission statement, this song burns with cathartic passion, particularly in its rousing climax. My 77 year old father passed away in January and, when I first heard Powell singing the final two verses, tears flowed unchecked down my cheeks. I think of him now when listening to the song again. The song is perhaps the best closer in the band's history and an extraordinarily moving work from a beautifully unbound heart.

 

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