(All Album Reviews by maribor)
Three years after Entertaining Thanatos, this year American symphonic rockers returned on the scene with a new album called The Sparrow, which portrays a science fiction story written by Mary Doria Russell about a Jesuit expedition to a distant planet. With this effort Metaphor return to treating religious themes (this time more indirectly, through the story). But not only are they returning to their sarcastic and humorous religious observations, they also go back to the style of their first album, now a cult favourite.
The story starts at the end (“Inquisition”), when a group of inquisitors explore the circumstances surrounding the Jesuit expedition to the planet Rakhat. Father Emilio Sandoz recollects what happened (“Song From A Nearby Star”), he recalls landing on the planet and the feeling of arriving to Paradise (“Stella Maris”) because a beautiful song resounds throughout the planet. After that, a member of the expedition dies (“Death in Eden”), while the others discover people on the planet – the Runa. They discover that these aren't the singers producing the beautiful melodies (“Challalla Khaeri”), but nevertheless the Runae prove to be kind and hospitable, if not the most intelligent of creatures. The Jesuits show them how to grow plants (“Garden Building”) and Father Sandoz falls in love with Sophia, another member of the expedition (“Sick for What The Heart Wants”). During that time, another astronaut falls ill, so some of them must return to the shuttle for medicine (Sophia is one of them). Sophia returns and explains that they had an accident and failed to bring the medicine, while the space craft was destroyed (“Stranded”). Later, the astronauts meet the real singers, which prove to be the dominant civilization on the planet. They are intelligent, civilized (unlike the Runae) and much taller than humans. The Jesuits take a tour of one of their cities and when they return to the Runae village, the Runae are off at the harvest (“Flower Harvest”). When the Jesuits taught them how to plant gardens, the Runae population exploded and so the singers decided to wipe them out. There were more of the Runae, but they were no match for the superior weapons of the singers (“We Are Many And They Are Few”). All the astronauts, except Emilio, die and he is a slave of the king of the singers (“Mother Night”). Father Snadoz is desperate and decides to kill the first thing he sees. That first thing is Askama, who was a member of the rescue party from Earth and she was like a daughter to him (“God Will Break Your Heart”). Father Sandoz completely loses faith in God and can't believe that a righteous God would let such atrocities happen.
John Mabry portrays the internal conflicts of Father Sandoz beautifully, from questioning in his faith when he falls in love, to his complete disillusionment with God when he sees some of the horrors that happened, some of which are his doing as well (the killing of Askama). While the lyrics may be based on a story by Mary Doria Russell, John Mabry adds his typical metaphorical and humorous twists. This time, just like on Starfooted, he excels at writing lyrics that are as one with the music. Not for a moment did I think that something was forced or out of place.
Musically, The Sparrow picks up where they left off with Starfooted. There is much more emphasis on aesthetic compositions, both when it comes to instruments and vocals, than on the more experimental (but just as good, merely in a different way) Entertaining Thanatos. There are lots of great choir arrangements, which again remind of the debut. The avant-garde elements are still present, however there are not as many of them and even the few that remain are integrated into this new magnificent sound.
The amount of enthusiasm, energy and virtuosity put into the pieces is again staggering. At the forefront of all of this is the unofficial boss of the group, Malcolm Smith, whose fluent style always brings up comparisons to Steve Hackett. Marc Spooner uses vintage keyboards like Hammond organ, piano and mellotron even more. His style is not too aggressive; his main focus seems to be in the subtlety and refinement of the arrangements, which, together with the guitarist, form the main sound backdrop for the band. The biggest asset of singer John Mabry is his excellent lyrical technique, but he is a fine vocalist as well. The rhythm section is again at a high level and Greg Miller, the new face behind the drum kit, gels with the band effortlessly.
With The Sparrow, Metaphor return to the style that they incorporated on Starfooted. Entertaining Thanatos was a bit different from their usual style (in a positive sense), but now the Americans returned to the sound that made them famous (relatively speaking). As is usual, the music is complemented with top-notch lyrics, based on a highly involving science-fiction novel. Maybe some fans might wonder why they need so long to record an album, but I for one prefer a band to take their time and compose really memorable pieces rather than rush things and come up with only a decent effort. The Sparrow doesn't reach the heights of Starfooted, still it is not too far behind. The future of Metaphor seems secure and we can look forward to some more great music.
The concept album is most definitely not dead, as this fourth album by the band Metaphor resonantly proves.
Metaphor started out as a Genesis cover-band on the American west coast and consequently its is rooted firmly in the 'classic' sound of the 70s greats. That being said, The Sparrow is far from being an attempt at cloning Genesis - in fact, if any of the 70s prog greats are to be called upon for comparison, I would say that Gentle Giant and Yes are better reference points. In terms of modern bands, imagine a less heavy and more quirky Puppet Show.
The story of the album is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by American author Mary Doria Russel. I had not read the book upon first exposure to the CD and my first impression (as an avowed atheist) when glancing over the nicely illustrated 3 page lyric sheet was one of frustration: 'Not ANOTHER Christian Prog album?!'. However, closer inspection revealed that questions of faith and religion are dealt with on an intellectual level here, which I found quite refreshing and far more interesting than another exercise in praise music.
The tale here is quite an involved one and as far as I can tell the band has done an excellent job in distilling its essence in the 14 songs on the album. It is told through the words of the Jesuit explorer Emilio who - with a crew of other Jesuits - is sent on an interstellar mission launched by the Vatican to make first contact with an alien race detected by the SETI project. Upon arrival, the crew find a people of primitive furry creatures and proceed to teach them how to grow food more efficiently and improve their lives. A second race of highly developed aliens living on the same planet sees this as an act of aggression and basically wipes out the innocent furry creatures, then rapes and mutilates Emilio. Emilio is able to return to earth, but his faith has been shattered - the album ends with him begging in rage and despair to God for an answer to what he and his crew might have done to bring such suffering upon the furry creatures and themselves. Thus, it is up to the listener to draw his own conclusions and - if anything - it seems that religious beliefs are questioned rather than endorsed.
The music does a brilliant job of underscoring and emphasizing the story as it goes along - all 70 plus minutes of it! This album clearly was a true labour of love. Marc Spooner on keys offers up a tremendous range of keyboard sounds to be savoured - from the low register rumble of an old Hammond and waves of Mellotron to the whispering glitter of atmospheric synths he does an uncanny job of choosing the perfect sounds for each arrangement. Drums, guitar and bass (Greg Miller, Malcolm Smith and Jim Anderson) are expertly played and no single instrument ever overindulges - everything is focused on achieving the best possible arrangement rather than showing off for the sake of it. The vocals are delivered with great emotion by John Marby - he sounds a bit strained in places and his mid-register voice isn't very powerful, but it blends in well in service of the songs. He also does a good job on the vocal harmonies. The production is on the top-heavy side - a bit heavier in the base range might have delivered more punch, but the most important thing is that the mix is clear, well-balanced and a delight for the ears.
As mentioned above, the quirkiness of Gentle Giant and the majesty of Yes echo strong in Metaphor's music. I haven't heard this much counterpoint on an album in ages! Anyone who enjoys counterpoint melodies will LOVE this album - instrumental sections with abrupt rhythmic breaks and intricate interweaving guitar and keyboard lines can be found throughout. One section in the 11 minute epic “Challalla khaeri” reminds of Kansas' “Miracles out of Nowhere” with new instruments joining in to form a fantastic counterpoint pattern - a definite highpoint.
The band also appears to have a healthy sense of humour - early on in the same song there's a brief, very pop-like vocal harmony section that sounds like something the finalists at American Idol might belt out all together, holding hands: “I just want to shine this little light of mine...”. Brilliant!
There are few real standout melodies or songs on the album, but the mixture of so many different sounds and textures, the abundant ideas sprinkled liberally throughout and the great passion with which everyone involved is obviously contributing make this a great and highly enjoyable piece of work. One of the rare albums that persistently grows on the listener. Most importantly the album sustains momentum for its entire 70 minute playing time (a mighty achievement in itself) and homogenously flows from start to finish.
Anyone with a passion for 70s prog in the symphonic vein will appreciate this great effort. I sincerely hope that the strength of this release will see the band mentioned alongside current prog titans like Spock's Beard and the Flower Kings in future - at very least in terms of musical quality.
Highly recommended to all fans of 70s Prog!