It's often the way that musicians and the band they parted with simultaneously reappear after a period of rebuilding. Hence as Touchstone prepare to release a new EP, their ex-keyboard player and vocalist Rob Cottingham arrives with his new band Cairo (not to be confused with the 90s US prog act of the same name) and their debut album Say. It would have been a fair presumption that the thoroughly excellent Captain Blue (a project Cottingham created while still a member of his previous band) would become his main focus, however with Cairo, the instantly recognisable singer/keyboardist decides instead to straddle the gap between both his previous solo work and Touchstone. That's possibly not too much of a surprise and yet, the enigmatic progressive tones that hit too hard to be considered rock, yet never veer into the territory marked out as metal, land in an area that should welcome followers of both codes of prog into what has been crafted here.
Rob's band are equal to the task, singer (or at least singer when Rob isn't at the mic) Rachel Hill (Nanburn) a scintillating presence who has the ability to make her contributions vital and unforgettable without the need for glass shattering histrionics, growls or screams. Instead she sets about enhancing the music she fronts by sympathetically understanding where to add colour and depth. That she combines with Rob's voice superbly is icing on a scrumalicuous cake. The bond between guitarist James Hards' playing and Cottingham's keys is equally important, the pair already building up what feels like a telepathic link, knowing when to allow the other to swoop and soar and when to combine ďż˝ no passing go, no collecting ďż˝200, no messing about ďż˝ to go directly for the throat. "Nothing To Prove" is the prime example, an irresistible riff cutting through, keys adding splashes of colour and intrigue before both ease off, Cottingham seducing with his striking vocals, Hill ready to add to the enigmatic atmosphere. Bassist Paul Stoker also knows how to garnish the the pot, bursting through with runs and power, drummer Graham Brown driving on with a groove that shifts neatly between snare pops and hi-hat shuffles. A mid-song breakdown reminds of Galahad neatly shifting through the gears (as they did so well on the Empire's Never Last album, from which this section would sound right at home), before the themes are revisited in different guise on the equally excellent "Nothing To Lose Reprise".
Oddly the album actually begins with two tracks that feel like introductions, the short instrumental simply called "Cairo" giving way to the spoken word "Shadow's Return Prologue". With that track cutting into "Shadow's Return" itself, you could be forgiven for thinking that this excellent beginning points to a concept piece (something Rob has 'previous' for). However with the beautiful and heartfelt "Dancing The Gossamer Thread" about the tragic loss of a close friend in difficult circumstances and the superbly pitched "Katrina" a reaction to how big government neglects its people (the Hurricane Katrina disaster used as a backdrop through cutting music and expert use of sampled dialogue to shine a light on a wider issue), the topics covered are varied, if intrinsically linked through the human experience of lows and highs. Hill is quite simply splendid on this track, lulling and soft one moment, full of angst and regret the next. However with "Searching" tender and caring, "Back From The Wilderness" an atmospheric grower that latter day Fish era Marillion would have been proud of and the album's title track sliding neatly between punchy melodic rock and catchy prog, all the bases are covered ďż˝ and covered excellently.
Hang fire on those end of year best of lists, for what Cairo have created here is sure to have a Say in what makes the cut.
And after an initial 2016 independent release, Say is now available through Heavy Right Foot/Cherry Red records, so you really have no excuse not to rush out and get it!
2. SHADOW'S RETURN PROLOGUE
3. SHADOW'S RETURN
4. WIPED OUT
6. NOTHING TO PROVE
7. NOTHING TO PROVE REPRISE
10. RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS PART 1
11. BACK FROM THE WILDERNESS
12. DANCING THE GOSSAMER THREAD
13. KATRINA (BREATHE MIX)
Added: May 23rd 2018
Reviewer: Steven Reid
Related Link: Cairo online
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Posted by Jon Neudorf, SoT Staff Writer on 2018-05-24 03:59:44
Cairo is the latest project led by ex-Touchstone keyboardist Rob Cottingham. I am not sure if Touchstone will be continuing as a band but they do have four impressive studio albums to their credit. With Cairo there is certainly a bit of a Touchstone feel as the music on the bandâ€™s debut Say nicely fits in the progressive rock/crossover genre. As a matter of fact Say rivals Wintercoast, my favourite Touchstone album, in terms of melody and instrumental prowess. Another link to Touchstone are the mix of male and female vocals. Both Cottingham and Rachel Hill kill it as the vocal arrangements and melodies are superb throughout the album.
â€śCairoâ€ť leads off the album with the sounds of what might be an eastern market, images of exotic locales like India are invoked before a pulsating riff begins in earnest. The mix of keyboards and guitar along with the fabulous drumming skills of Graham Brown hooked me in immediately. Talking narrative and a darker tone gives â€śShadowâ€™s Return Prologueâ€ť a more ominous feel. Soaring vocals and melodies make â€śShadowâ€™s Returnâ€ť a heavy prog delight. The use of layered vocals is particularly catchy. â€śWiped Outâ€ť contrasts between heavy and calm featuring more solid riffs and tight rhythmic interplay. The male and female lead vocals are excellent. The first few tracks are relatively short and it is not until â€śNothing To Proveâ€ť, at almost ten minutes, does the band fully explore their musical surroundings. Moody keyboards and staccato riffs create a nice contrast between light and heavy progressive rock. â€śNothing To Prove Repriseâ€ť follows suit with a much darker tone as waves of ominous synths and Ayreon-esque machinery-like sounds lead into catchy keyboards and fast paced drumming. Lovely orchestrations and piano highlight the sorrowful â€śSearchingâ€ť and lush strings and moody guitar bending make â€śKatrinaâ€ť a fitting tribute to that unfortunate disaster. The disc ends with a remix of â€śKatrinaâ€ť flowing with poignant keyboards and atmospheric guitar. My one complaint is the couple minutes of silence half way through the song. I know this is quite a common thing but I have never liked it as it disrupts the flow of the album. However, in the big scheme of things this is a minor annoyance and does not take away from what is an exceptional slice of melodic progressive rock.
By the way, production and engineering duties were shared between Cottingham and John Mitchell (Arena, Frost, It Bites, Lonely Robot) so you just know the album sounds great. Highly recommended!
Rob Cottingham (vocals, keys, programming and SFX)
Rachel Hill (vocals)
James Hards (electric and acoustic guitars)
Paul Stocker (bass and acoustic guitars)
Graham Brown (drums and percussion)
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