(All Album Reviews by Epilepticgibbon)
I won't be too suprised if the name Nick May doesn't mean much to you. I'm fairly knowledgeable about British prog rock but I didn't know that Nick May had been a member of The Enid, one of the long acknowledged giants of the symphonic rock scene, or that he'd also been a member of Jadis and Quasar (or assorted other groups, for that matter). This is the first solo release by Nick, a multi-instrumentalist, though he's also teamed up with an ex-Enid buddy, Steve Hughes, who provides drums on the album.
I must admit that I got a bit confused about whether Whimwise was the title of the album or the title of the musical project, but Nick clarified this for me: it's both! Whimwise is the name of this first album but any future releases involving Nick, Steve, and the group of musicians Nick has got together to perform the music live will go out under the name of Whimwise, so at least we've cleared that up.
Anyway, it's fairly easy to categorise the music on this album, even though there's always a lot going on and there appear to be a number of influences. It's all instrumental - no lyrics, not even any vocals, and it's broadly progressive rock, though it's also electronic music, classical music, cartoon music, film soundtrack music, avant garde, and it's all six in different places, on different tracks, and sometimes even within the same track.
In terms of influences or 'sounds like' references, it's not surprising to immediately think of The Enid, though I'd argue that it's often a lot darker and bolder than my memories of The Enid's sound. In addition I can also hear Frank Zappa (particularly during Frank's synclavier period), Dave Stewart of National Health, Danny Elfman (particularly in the more cinematic moments of this album), and Raymond Scott (particularly in the more playful and 'cartoony' moments). Other references, though perhaps less likely as influences, are other artists who have released albums this year - there's some common ground between the music on this album and Alimar's classical-style pieces written using software instruments and also, though perhaps to a lesser extent, the latest Karda Estra album.
At times the music on the album reaches genuinely sublime and genius levels. My personal favourite would be the truly epic 'Scurry Flurries', 11 manic minutes of all the strong points about this album - extremely eclectic and dramatic, never quite staying in the boxes you think it's put itself into, playful, frantic and energetic in places, but with lots of changes to the timbre, tone and tempo throughout and, ultimately, a truely fine marriage of classical and rock sensibilities. For me this is the best realisation of what Nick appears to be trying to do with the “Whimwise” project and if nothing else on the CD quite matches it, he certainly comes close with the uplifting and fast moving second track “Lies”, the creepy sci-fi/horror film soundtrack that is “Of Coils And Cogs”, and the equally creepy Danny Elfman'ish “The Spiders Understand”, which would be the perfect soundtrack for anyone making a film about a carve-up in a carnival!
Unfortunately I would say that not all the tracks quite 'do the business' for me and I did find the use of software instruments or synths to provide much of the classical effects and sounds throughout the album a bit wearing. The horn sounds used on penultimate track “Not In My Name” stand out as particularly brash and artificial, which in turn makes them sound rather dated and cheesy. Obviously there are financial and practical difficulties with bringing a full live orchestra into the recording studio, or even simply a few live session musicians, to provide an album's symphonic sounds, but there's no doubt that on occasion a few more real instruments and few less synths would have given the material a much more organic and engaging feel. This is clearly indicated by the real drumming offered by the aforementioned Steve Hughes, which definitely brings an extra dimension to the material.
In fairness I would expect that the occasionally sterile feel to the music would be less obvious in a live setting when there's a full band playing (apparently the live Whimwise band includes electric violin and flute) so maybe it would be better to judge the music in such a context. This problem may also be resolved on future Whimwise albums when Nick can get a full band involved.
Nevertheless, Enid fans will love this, and not just from a collector's point of view either, because the music is definitely within the broad realm of the Enid's sound, merging contemporary electronic and rock styles with the Romantic symphonic tradition. But with Whimwise Nick has clearly moved beyond the coattails of Robert John Godfrey and I particularly like the addition of sinister film music and experimental touches which should interest fans of Elfman, Zappa and Scott. If this sounds like your cup of tea then, rest assured, it almost certainly is and I would encourage you to check out sound samples on Nick's website or just go ahead and buy the album. I don't think it's a consistently brilliant album but there's still a great deal to enjoy and engage with, and “Scurry Flurries” is a contender for one of the tracks of the year.
Best tracks: “Lies”, “Scurry Flurries”, “Of Coils And Cogs”, “The Spiders Understand”.