Well, here’s a treat to start our new year together. If you haven’t already discovered Lalu, please direct your attention to their new release “Paint the Sky”. It’s a remarkable album comprised of a stunning core band with numerous special guest appearances. The frontman in the core quartet – Damian Wilson – needs no introduction though it can be challenging to keep up with all of his bands, including his own solo album released just a few months ago. Here he is joined by drummer extraordinaire Jelly Cardarelli and the remarkable Joop Wolters on both guitar AND bass. Jelly and Joop – can’t you tell how fun this band is going to be? Holding the vision, the foundation and the band’s namesake is Vivien Lalu on keyboards. Having grown up with progressive rock musicians as parents (from ‘70s French progressive act Polène), Lalu has been steeped in this genre all of his life and then some. While he recorded two prior Lalu albums with notable musicians, “Paint the Sky” is the first to feature this lineup of musicians and, being released by Frontiers Music, will hopefully broaden the reach of this new incarnation.
Known more for a metal edge, “Paint the Sky” sees Lalu entering a decidedly progressive world with plenty of intensity but few metal elements. Indeed, he’s been listening to lots of Yes and other classic prog bands lately and that influence is rubbing off. He’s chosen a fabulous array of musicians to convey this vision. Wilson sounds absolutely righteous in this configuration, effortlessly delivering one soaring melody after another. Wolters’ bass holds considerable bottom end in the prog tradition while his guitar playing is inventive and colorful. The engineering of Cardarelli’s drum kit is sheer perfection, revealing what an incredible player he is. Reportedly he helped Lalu with the album’s production as well, delivering a slick, modern sound that unquestionably defines what 21st century prog sounds like. It’s a delight listening to these compositions in such a well-produced setting.
Given all of these strengths, it almost seems questionable to bring in a slew of special guest artists who make their mark on the material. Is there really a need for these cameos at all? Interestingly, several of the guests are keyboard players, too. Apparently Lalu doesn’t consider himself a scorching lead soloist so at times he wanted that element to come from, say, Jordan Rudess. Fair enough. But make no mistake – the core band of Lalu need no outside help and happily over half the album is performed solely by the four of them.
The album excels at songs that feel relatively compact but pack a punch in their complexity and dynamic musicality. There’s no 20 minute epics here, that’s not what “Paint the Sky” is about, rather it’s one killer track after another in quick succession. Opener “Reset to Preset” sets the mood immediately as Cardarelli instantly makes his mark as a drummer to take note of and Wilson’s voice completely wins over any newcomers. “Won’t Rest Until the Heat of the Earth Burns…” could easily be the best song of the album if it didn’t have 11 other competitors for that title. Wilson opens the song sounding remarkable like Roland Orzabal from Tears For Fears before a deliciously heavy riff from Wolters drives the song forward. “Emotionalised” continues the crunching riffage with Wilson throwing catchy melodies out of his mouth as if they were bread crumbs to flocks of hungry prog fans. And is that…a kazoo solo? In the middle of all these songs, a Beatle-esque vibey chord progression can get dropped in at any time. This general approach continues for more than half the album, each song buoyed by excellent melodic writing and performance.
A few longer songs veer into more proggy terrain and somehow these are even better than all else that has come before them. “We Are Strong” captures some of Wilson’s best moments on the album, truly spectacular delivery. The piece starts off with acoustic guitar runs and chirping nature sounds from the edge before a heartbeat bass thump takes us into the verse. If there was any track that feels it could have gotten a longer treatment, this is it. But at nearly 8 minutes it fits in with the overall approach of the album. “The Chosen Ones” made a strong initial impression with its accompanying video, Cardarelli shining brightly on drum kit, special guest musicians providing fireworks for brief appearances, and overall a simply triumphant track. “Witness To the World” finds Wolters excelling on both instruments: a beautiful bass tone getting that Chris Squire feel while his guitars range from chiming acoustic plucked notes to layered electric 6-strings to a swooping guitar solo. This moody piece is yet another one endowed with phenomenal melodies offered from Wilson’s voice, one of the best songs on the album.
Then we have two versions of the title track, both of which have their own identity even though the basic structure (and likely, some of the backing tracks) is the same. The vocal version is a powerhouse, Steve Walsh cameo’ing for a few lines here and there along with Wilson’s powerful performance – spine tingling . We get additional guest soloing from Jens Johansson and Alessandro Del Vecchio on the vocal version along with Cardarelli’s brilliant drumming, and then legendary Simon Phillips drumming on the instrumental version (would it be heresy to prefer Cardarelli here?). Tony Franklin covers the bass on both versions but Wolters is truly remarkable as he focuses on the electric guitar. The instrumental version feels like an entirely different song and in some ways is even more exciting. Here Wolters really shines on electric guitar, phenomenal lead playing along with some compressed chords that call to mind 80s-era Rush.
Even more diversity is brought to the album on three unique tracks: a short acoustic solo piece from Wolters, a brief introspective duet with Wilson and guest Vikram Shankar on piano, and finally the completely unexpected “Standing At the Gates of Hell” which takes a wonderful left-turn into an extended jazz improv. Here Wolters blows a few minds with his skilled 6-string runs, leading the way for yet another standout moment on this colorful album.
If the main mastermind behind all of this splendor – Lalu himself – hasn’t been mentioned much that is because he is omnipresent and yet somewhat incognito on his own album. Conducting the core arrangements and weaving layers of subtle but effective keyboards, he allows others to shine, even other keyboardists. But make no mistake – we are all here painting the sky together because of Vivien Lalu, and what a gorgeous sky it has turned out to be. Happily, this lineup is already at work on a followup and hopefully the rapturous response they have already received will mean this band will be a more regular feature on these pages and in our audio sound systems. For now, thank you Lalu for painting the sky so exquisitely.
Released by: Frontiers Records
Released on: January 21st, 2022
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Damian Wilson/ Vocals
- Joop Wolters / Guitar, Bass
- Vivien Lalu / Keyboards
- Jelly Caldarelli / Drums
“Paint the Sky” Track-listing:
- Reset To Preset
- Won’t Rest Until The Heat Of The Earth Burns The Soles Of Our Feet Down To The Bone
- Paint The Sky
- Witness To The World
- Lost In Conversation
- Standing At The Gates Of Hell
- The Chosen Ones
- Sweet Asylum
- We Are Strong
- All Of The Lights
- Paint The Sky
Bring together four top-tier musicians, sprinkle in an assortment of all-star guests who lend their collective talents to a dozen inspired songs and what do you get? In the case of Lalu’s “Paint The Sky”, you get one of the best albums of the year. Vivien Lalu’s vision gets knocked out of the park by his hand-picked band of virtuosos who deftly handle any style thrown at them. Solidly rooted in a modern style of progressive rock with affectionate glances back to the genre’s pioneers, Lalu has created a stunning work of art that sets a new bar for where prog can go in the 21st century.