The early 90s saw Jon Anderson pleading “Change We Must”, Robert Plant issuing his own missive with “Fate Of Nations” and countless others throughout the decades that followed pointing to the inconvenient truth of climate change. Thirty years on and are we any better off? It seems that we are living into our karmic destiny as slowly, bit by bit, we come to face the reality that weather is getting more extreme – indeed, EVERYTHING is getting more extreme – and we must find a way within ourselves to open up to change, even if it means losing some of our nostalgic pleasures.
Such is the predicament faced by the main character of Cosmograf’s “Heroic Materials”, having been forced to grow up by age 18 to face Nazi fighters in World War II and now at age 99 looking at a world he hardly recognizes, a world which holds little value for the things he loved when he was younger. Yes, it’s a bittersweet theme at best, filled with longing and regretful songs in minor keys. It also provides the substance for a stunning Cosmograf album, close to a masterpiece and surely a standout recording that should not be missed.
The key ingredient to the success of “Heroic Materials” is spaciousness. Mastermind Robin Armstrong takes an unhurried approach to tell the tale, making sure the space between notes is cared for just as much as those played. With a 46-minute running time, this is the perfect concept album – not too bloated or indulgent, nor too brief and unsatisfying. A tender blend of soft, wistful piano with strings opens the first track “I Recall” with Armstrong launching right into a vulnerable falsetto. We can tell we’re in for something special right from the get go.
Notably, the album’s atmosphere runs parallel to Floyd’s “The Final Cut” mixed in with bits of “The Wall”, perhaps too closely at times. Indeed, at the end of the opening track amidst the warbling birds and rumbling Spitfire Merlin engine I expected to hear Harry Waters exclaim, “Look mommy, there’s an aeroplane in the sky.” Several times you will hear his dad Roger’s voice in Armstrong’s delivery and songwriting, or Gilmour’s hand in Armstrong’s guitar. No matter, it’s simply brilliant whether as an homage or a familiar reference point. And truth be told, if “The Final Cut” had sounded this good, the end of the Waters-era might have fared better.
Case in point is the epic 13-minute title track, a three-part suite which is, quite frankly, perfect. The arrangement’s measured pacing pays off handsomely, with each guitar solo section building off the previous one over-top hypnotic piano arpeggios, strings and acoustic guitars beautifully supporting the overall impact. Armstrong’s production maximizes the full potential of each idea, from the screaming falsetto of “This Beautiful Machine” to the impending tension of “I Just Wanted to Fly” with its none-more-Gilmour incendiary solo which then resolves in a cathedral of organ notes. Drummer Kyle Fenton is hitting all the right beats on his kit, sublimely supporting the wonderment of this piece. When Armstrong finally reaches the lines, “I want to do it all again” or “I find the modern world so hard to understand”, the aching pathos in his voice is almost too much to bear. With the album’s success assured from this song alone, I doubt I will find a single song that surpasses it this year.
Many will have already heard the fine lead-off single “British Made” which represents the sound of the album as a whole and yet is perhaps the most conventional, making an ideal access point. It deals with the nostalgia felt for the ’60s E-type Jaguar sports car, much as the Spitfire was the focus of the previous song. A couple of much shorter songs follow, “Mary” and “Blinkers” both which make a stunning melodic impact despite their brevity. Again, Armstrong’s brilliant production skill plays no small part in these pieces – and the entire album – making a strong emotional statement.
“If Things Don’t Change” is another standout on the album, from its Steven Wilson-esque vocal opening section to Armstrong’s tasteful bass playing to its powerful melodic ideas to the final impassioned guitar solo. Greta Thunberg fittingly opens “The Same Stupid Mistake”, a reminder that even “environmentally-friendly” initiatives can fall into the same capitalistic trap of incessant consumerism which ultimately will not get us out of the hole we have dug.
“Regretful Refrain” employs a moody guitar solo to precede the wistful lyrics that follow, followed by more Floydian moments later on. It’s gut-wrenchingly satisfying on many levels. Still, right around here we could maybe do with a little bit of a full-on rocker (a “Not Now John” moment) to shake up the relentless roll of lamenting pieces, sublime as they are. Instead, the brief closing “A Better World” offers little solace despite the hopeful title, as we are left to reap the just rewards we have sewn with this devastating close.
Armstrong has crafted an artistic triumph, immediately accessible and yet multi-dimensional on a musical and lyrical level. The pacing is relaxed, inviting frequent repeat listenings. Aside from the sensitive and satisfying performance from drummer Fenton, and a piano appearance from guest Danny Manners, Armstrong dazzles with his abilities on all other instruments, vocals and the mixing board. This is not an album to be missed, a huge feather in Armstrong’s cap which hopefully will gain its rightful place in the classics of the progressive rock genre.
Released By: Gravity Dreams Music
Release Date: September 9th, 2022
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Robin Armstrong / Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Bass
- Kyle Fenton / Drums
- Danny Manners / Piano on “Heroic Materials”
“Heroic Materials” track-listing:
- I Recall (2.58)
- Heroic Materials (13.13)
- Industry (0.40)
- British Made (5.42)
- Mary (2.53)
- Blinkers (1.39)
- If Things Don’t Change (7.12)
- The Same Stupid Mistake (2.41)
- Regretful Refrain (6.01)
- A Better World (2.28)
“Heroic Materials” is available for pre-order here
Cosmograf delivers a concept album for their ninth release and what a whopper it is. Making a devastatingly emotional impact, “Heroic Materials” is one of Robin Armstrong’s finest moments musically, lyrically and thematically. His masterful production skills beautifully support the tasteful instrumentation, making this one of the most successful albums of the year