Back on the theme of strange coincidences, or happenings, that I mentioned recently in my Carl Verheynen Band review, here we have yet another one with this review of It Bites's The Tall Ships. This is the first time in over 18 months writing for SoT that I've ever reviewed three UK artists in a row: Big Big Train, Steve Thorne, and now this. And, as these things go, one might have expected one of the other two to run off with the winnings, given some of the hype surrounding them, but, in fact, it is The Tall Ships which is the pick of the bunch, by a long margin!
Released in the US in August 2009, The Tall Ships was actually released in the UK in October 08: it's an album that I bought at the time, but it was nevertheless a pleasant surprise to see a second copy arriving from SoT – it gives me an excuse to write about it!
It Bites are, in one sense, an "old" band, in that they produced three very successful albums in the second half of the 1980s, so it was a surprise to see them reappearing, with a different line-up, twenty years later. The original four-piece band was led by guitarist and vocalist Francis Dunnery: he, however, was not keen to join a reunion and so for this reincarnation the band are led by the only two original members, Bob Dalton (drums) and John Beck (keyboards, backing vocals). The greater loss is Dunnery's, as he is not to be associated with this excellent, enjoyable album of crossover prog (art-rock). The current line-up is completed by John Mitchell (also of Arena, Kino and Frost* on guitar and lead vocals) and Lee Pomeroy (also played with Rick Wakeman, on bass). All the songs are credited to the whole band.
It's an excellent line-up: from the very start of "Oh My God" you can hear that the vocal is superlative, strong, dynamic, rich in timbre and able to carry a melody across a broad spectrum of the scale. The instrumental playing is high calibre too, but with the focus on pleasing melody and rhythm, rather than painful virtuosity and improvisation.
The songs are catchy rock songs written "progressively": the most clearly progressive number is the closing track, "This is England" – winner of the UK's Classic Rock Society's (of which Rick Wakeman is president) "track of the year" award for 2008 – which at a running time of 13:50 has everything that prog purists could hope for, but has plenty of melody and rhythm to keep everyone else happy too.
Elsewhere the songs are generally less than half that time, but not lacking in invention because of that. The album kicks off with a series of five stunning songs that would take some beating by any other album. "Oh My God"'s strong opening vocal harmonies give way to catchy melody-rhythm combination that is the hallmark of the album: there's hooks aplenty, and while the album does grow after repeated listening, there is plenty to enjoy on a first listen: at times the style reminds me of a faster tempo mid-80s Rush at their peak. "Ghosts" is first-class too, has great pace and beat, and carries a sharp hook on ethereal keys, the vocal perfect, as you soon realise it will be for the whole album! "Playground" is the highlight of the album for me, superb melody. "Memory of Water" brings some heaviness into the fray before the title track again concentrates on melodic development. Gorgeous! The combination of pace and power, rhythm and melody over the album up to this point is just perfection.
Melody must be so much easier to write when you have a vocalist that can sing!
The run of five songs that take us up to "This is England" are also strong, they would be a highlight on any other album, but on The Tall Ships they compare less well against the blitzkrieg opening. "The WInd That Shakes the Barley" has a very strong hook running on the chorus; I suspect that this is one of those songs that if you happen to get caught by, you will disagree with the assessment of the album that I've just written! "Great Disasters" rekindles faint memories of a 1970s song that may have been written by Billy Joel, but I'm not a big follower of his and can't quite pin it down at the moment – irrespective, it's another very catchy number, as is "Fahrenheit".
"For Safekeeping" is a love song that, for me, isn't as strong as the album's opening numbers, but I get a real sense from this album that it's the specific melodies and rhythmic structures that will affect individuals' favourite songs/sections of the album. Many people will fall in love with this track and will argue with me that the second half of the album is better. The key thing to note is that there is very much to enjoy on this album and it will appeal to a broad selection of progressive rock fans, in particular those who have enjoyed the "less purist prog" periods of bands such as Rush, Yes and Spock's Beard to name just three. The Tall Ships has a very broad appeal: great melody, great rhyhm, great performances, great songs: quite a lot for everyone really.
"Lights" is another of those songs where I say isn't as strong and you say...., but I guess that we would all be united in claiming "This is England" as a fitting closing for what is a great album; a very English progressive painting over a number of musical sections with seamless development and some great playing and singing: it brings together all that is best about this album, ending up on a sumptuous melodic refrain section kicked off by a church organ, then opening up to the band. Glorious!
As close to a 5-star album as you can come without actually getting the full score!
1) Oh My God
4) Memory of Water
5) The Tall Ships
6) The WInd That Shakes the Barley
7) Great Disasters
9) For Safekeeping
11) This is England