Side project, spinoff group, extracurricular association. There’s many ways to view a musician’s primary musical vehicle versus what else they do on the side. While DBA may have started as a fun project in which Geoff Downes and Chris Braide could indulge when not focused on their main bread-and-butter gigs, this Association has turned into something quite extraordinary in its own right. Solidifying their sound with the consistent support of Dave Bainbridge on guitars, Ash Soan on drums and Andy Hodge on bass, DBA has crafted a unique sound all their own, melding the worlds of pop, prog and rock like few others are able to do. Even their visual identity has been established in the past three albums, thanks to the legendary Roger Dean.
Key to the band’s success is catchy songwriting, a talent in which both Braide and Downes excel. Braide has recently won a BMI Pop Award in Los Angeles for co-writing Sia’s “Unstoppable”, becoming the biggest selling single in the USA. Downes has written numerous top hits with Asia, The Buggles and more. Fortunately, the two have been developing DBA to feature their more ambitious visions, extending their hooks and catchy choruses into lengthy, elaborate pieces of artistry. After 2021’s wildly satisfying “Halcyon Hymns” (see our review HERE and extensive interview with both musicians HERE), what new delights will 5th album “Celestial Songs” hold? Let’s find out.
Once again the band serves up a lush, orchestrated collection of songs which are often uplifting and full of encouragement. To that end, the added occasional narration from Barney Ashton Bullock is nearly worth the price of admission in and of itself. The jovial characteristic tones of his voice have the power to wake you from your reverie and realize what’s truly important in life. Add to that Dave Bainbridge’s presence, as he goes all-out with one celestial solo after another, which we’ll detail below. Again, worth the price of admission. With all of this talent going for it, DBA can hardly miss the mark.
Numerous upbeat singles-in-waiting are featured, first among them being “Clear Light”. The importance of Bainbridge’s guitar is quickly established, with his signature riff supporting the catchy chorus which Downes composed, alongside of Braide’s verses and lyrics. “Will To Power” is even better, the driving synth bass propelling the piece further as Braide’s lyrics inspire, “Can’t give in to nihilism, can’t synch up to pessimism, need to find the will to power.” Perhaps the catchiest of the lot is “On The Run” boasting a percolating rhythm which Braide likens to Talk Talk. At five minutes in length, this is made for massive radio airplay, were there still a radio format that cared about this kind of music.
The duo teams up with collaborators on a couple of tracks this time around, and they’re two of the album’s best. Francis Dunnery lends his songwriting and arpeggiated guitar to the nostalgic “Keep On Moving” which reflects on long-ago loves. This uplifting song goes to the next level during its lengthy keyboard solo which is surprisingly performed by Bainbridge before he switches to an emotive extended guitar solo. Apparently Downes prefers to play the role of layered architect at the keys but is happy to leave the solo flourishes to others. “Goodbye To You (Sister Shame)” gets a little help from friend Andy Partridge on the lyrics. Perhaps as no coincidence, this is the psychedelic “Beatles/Wings” track of the album, from its flanged drums and guitar to its keyboard progressions and backing vocals. Delightful.
A few ballads are included in the mix, starting with the opener “Look What You Do” to which Braide gives a soulful reading. “Heart Shaped Hole” is one of the longest tracks on the album, opening with an atmospheric entrance on warbling bass from Hodge and inspired Bainbridge guitar. The lyrics skillfully reflect the vapid hole that egoic pursuits ultimately reap, particularly when chasing fame. As Bainbridge’s multi-tracked guitars pick up the pace in the latter half, we almost approach classic rock anthem territory before coming back to a DBA closing vocal waltz. The album closes with the swooningly mystical “Beyond The Stars”, an absolute treasure. Downes explores a touch of ambient textures but primarily leans into his orchestrations, buoyed by Bainbridge’s flying guitars. For a moment towards the end, he even appears to be influenced by Patrick Moraz’s unusual chord progressions at the end of Yes’s “Gates of Delirium”. However, it’s Braide’s vulnerable delivery which seals the deal, “Beyond the stars, beyond the sun, Elysion.” Bullock has the last word, however, with a few phrases that split the heart open as the music gently washes our emotions over us.
Despite all of these strengths, there’s still something about the album that doesn’t flow quite as evenly as its predecessor. It may be partly due to the album’s running order: starting with a ballad doesn’t seem to do justice the overall impact of the other songs yet to come and it would have landed better later on. In addition, there are three songs which don’t fit into the previous categories and their inclusion seems to disrupt the album’s progression. “Darker Side of Fame” tells a fascinating tale of the pitfalls of stardom, but honestly this message is much more poetically conveyed in “Heart Shaped Hole”, and the almost-triumphant accompanying music seems quite at odds with the song’s message. “Hey Kid” feels like an unwelcome brief political interlude, whose sarcastic lyrics betray Braide’s more nuanced and poetic style. “Dear Petra” fairs much better, its sincere anti-war message finding an appropriate vehicle with which to bring the listener in, rather than to divide as “Hey Kid” does. Still, the album as a whole would have felt more cohesive without these three songs included, at least to this reviewer’s ears.
Above all, bravo to DBA for creating uplifting and engaging music in the 21st century. In many ways, it feels like this is the ideal vehicle for both musicians and that THIS deserves to be their day job, with other bands like Yes and songwriting obligations being on the side. Perhaps in their own minds and hearts, it is. The music is certainly worthy of it.
Released By: Cherry Red Records
Release Date: September 8th, 2023
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Chris Braide / Lead vocals
- Geoff Downes / Keyboards, vocals
- Dave Bainbridge / Guitars
- Ash Soan / Drums
- Andy Hodge / Bass
“Celestial Songs” track-listing:
1. Look What You Do (6.17)
2. Clear Light (5.00)
3. Keep On Moving (6.36)
4. Darker Side Of Fame (3.56)
5. Hey Kid (3.28)
6. Will To Power (6.23)
7. Heart Shaped Hole (9.06)
8. Dear Petra (3.56)
9. On The Run (5.09)
10. Goodbye To You (Sister Shame) (7.30)
11. Beyond The Stars (10.19)
Geoff Downes and Chris Braide find their sweet spot yet again as their DBA project offers delights unlike anything else in the pop/prog universe. Featuring indispensable support from Dave Bainbridge and their talented rhythm section, along with special guests, this “Association” is one of the best accomplishments in these musicians’ illustrious careers, no small feat