SOUTHERN EMPIRE – Another World (Album Review)

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It’s been five long years since Southern Empire’s second album “Civilisation” hit the streets, an album which eventually brought them to great acclaim as fans discovered a new favorite band. Melding some of the best elements from the contemporary prog-rock scene, Southern Empire were clearly a force to be reckoned with and the hope was that they would soon release a massive followup. Four years on found fans growing impatient as the new album neared completion but, as it turned out, they would have to wait a while longer. During the final mixing stages, killer lead vocalist Danny Lopresto had a change of heart and decided to leave the band for reasons which are frustratingly vague. More than perhaps any other band member’s role, the lead vocal chair is a hard one to replace as it impacts a band’s very identity, and Lopresto excelled at his craft. What a position to find themselves in.

Fortunately, Southern Empire kept a good attitude and their fortunes have prevailed. Not only was the split amicable, with Lopresto’s songwriting, guitar, and backing vocal credits still intact, but the band discovered an impressive new singer and completed what will surely prove to be one of the best albums of the year. “Another World” finds the Australian quintet in a new frame of mind (if not quite another world, as the title would suggest), perhaps a little bit heavier but still drawing from a wide range of sources that produced a ridiculously gifted collection of songs. 

Reportedly new lead singer Shaun Holton used the song “Face The Dawn” as his audition and this mini-epic proves to be a quick way to win over any skeptics. Frankly, such a lavish 4-part suite would be the centerpiece of virtually any other band’s album, but here it’s just one slice of “Another World”. With a few nods to harder-hitting bands like Haken, Southern Empire pulls out all the stops for a thrilling ride into the Dawn. Every player is top-tier, from mastermind Sean Timm’s fluid keyboard diversity to Cam Blokland’s fiery fretboard mastery to Jez Martin’s fretless and fretted bass work. Drummer Brody Green is all over the mix, both on his kit and his “ridiculously high backing vocals”. Indeed, although they have a new lead vocalist, the band’s secret weapon has always been their dynamic vocal range which is featured in multiple sections of this piece to great effect. Add in some well-placed violin playing from Steve Unruh and you have a mini-masterpiece. The only misstep is a spoken-word excerpt – likely from an uncredited vintage film – followed by a smooth jazz break which halts the overall flow but is quickly salvaged by Blokland’s Holdsworth guitar moment and subsequent solos. 

“Moving Through Tomorrow” proves to be equally strong with a hypnotic chorus, a swooning middle section, and instrumental prowess from all members as the piece progresses. The band deftly toggles back and forth between being emotionally vulnerable and satisfyingly crunching.

“Another World” Artwork

Not to be outdone, “White Shadows” takes the epic modality even higher with nearly 20 minutes of symphonic brilliance. Opening with a lengthy Timms centerpiece on various keyboards and orchestrations, this piece serves up a satisfying balance of instrumental indulgences and catchy choruses. This time the Spock’s Beard-influenced jazz break works spectacularly well as Martin goes to town on his bass runs. We get additional soprano sax from Marek Arnold, Amanda Timms’ flute, and ultimately Holton’s most powerful vocal moments at the climax. Again, this would be the complete five-course meal on any other album but wait, there’s more…

Southern Empire excel at their shorter songs just as much as their lengthy epics. “When You Return” shifts our gaze to the stars amidst a narrated voice-over from Lisa Wetton, while the groove roots us firmly on the earth with Green adding hand percussion to compliment Martin’s funk on the low end. The dreamy middle section of Blokland and Timms is pure bliss as the multi-part vocal harmonies layer in. The scorching chorus is second-to-none, a standout track. However, the lead-off single “Reaching Out” isn’t quite as successful…while it wastes no time in launching head-banging-worthy jagged-edged riffs and vocal layers, its chorus just doesn’t land convincingly, perhaps due to its arrangement or production. The flowery Beatles interlude is a nice touch, though, a brief passing moment of fun. If that initial single from the new album didn’t overly impress you, fear not for the rest of the album far surpasses it.

Cam Blokland excels not only on the six-string, but on songwriting and lead vocals, too. While the rest of the album is co-written by all members (save Holton, as he came in after the material was already completed), two songs are credited solely to Blokland as he takes the lead mic. Both are given the full Southern Empire treatment but – perhaps because of the changing lead vocals and the fact that they’re the only ballads on the album – they stand out as being unique although still maintain the excellence of the album overall. Still, alternatively, they could have been saved for a successful Blokland solo album had the band chosen to go that direction and create an identity with one main lead vocalist. No matter, they’re more than welcome here and it’s a treat to hear Blokland’s expressive voice featured, clearly an integral part of the band’s success. 

Timms is extremely skilled and experienced as a producer so overall the album sounds crisp and polished, though it’s perhaps too polished at times. The album can tend to carry more of a sterile feeling rather than an organic one. Often Holton’s vocals seem further in the background, overshadowed by the force of the other instruments. Perhaps that was due to the overdubbing dynamics involved for him to replace Lopresto’s original lead vocal tracks.

What cannot be denied is the quality of the performance and the material itself. Should the band be able to make live gigging more of a priority, they would undoubtedly be incredible in concert and convert a wealth of new fans. Yes, it’s been a long wait for the new album but, having overcome such a daunting obstacle in losing a lead singer, Southern Empire have more than risen from the ashes as new worlds now await.

Released By: Giant Electric Pea Records
Release Date: September 4th, 2023
Genre:  Progressive Rock

Musicians:

  • Shaun Holton / Lead and backing vocals
  • Cam Blokland / Electric and acoustic guitars, lead and backing vocals.
  • Jez Martin / Fretted and fretless bass
  • Brody Green / Drums, hand percussion, ridiculously high backing vocals…again!
  • Sean Timms / Keyboards, programming, lap steel guitar, backing vocals.

Additional Musicians:

  • Danny Lopresto / Backing vocals, guitar
  • Steve Unruh / Violin and flute
  • Adam Page / Tenor saxophone
  • Marek Arnold / Soprano saxophone
  • Lisa Wetton / Percussion, narration on ‘When You Return’
  • Amanda Timms / Flute

“Another World” track-listing:

    1. Reaching Out
    2. Face The Dawn
    3. Hold On To Me
    4. When You Return
    5. Moving Through Tomorrow
    6. White Shadows
    7. Butterfly

    Order “Another World” HERE.

9.1 Excellent

Overcoming the unexpected departure of a lead singer - after a new album is already completed - would cripple many bands. However, Southern Empire demonstrate their adaptability by persevering and delivering what will undoubtedly be one the very top progressive rock albums of the year. You’d be hard-pressed to find superior musicians, songwriters, or vocalists than those featured in this Aussie band. “Another World” realizes the overzealous expectations set by their previous album, and takes the band ever higher

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 10
  • Originality 8
  • Production 9.5
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