No band is an island. Especially when it comes to modern progressive rock, influences from the 60s and 70s are ubiquitous. In the case of The Flower Kings, their inspirations have long been worn on their sleeves but now apparently they are on their album cover as well. Having duly established his Yes-cred by recording an album with none other than Jon Anderson, Roine Stolt apparently thought the time had come to ask Roger Dean to create the cover art for a The Flower Kings album. It’s a somewhat ballsy move but then again not too surprising given that Yes has long been referenced as a prime influence on the sound of TFK. And now the Kings have floating islands of their own to inspire and illuminate the music herein.
The band has had something of a renaissance as of late, reborn two years ago with two new musicians (on drums and keys) joining veteran members and releasing the excellent “Waiting For Miracles” in 2019. Now just one year later they have a followup double album “Islands” ready to continue the journey, its speedy completion and release made possible by COVID circumstances. The 21 tracks can seem daunting at the outset – no lengthy epic pieces here – but Stolt reassures the listener that it is all meant to weave together and be appreciated in one sitting, as if it is one big piece of music split into 21 parts. This reviewer is not convinced, however: the songs do not segue into each other like Flower Power’s “Garden of Dreams” suite, or even Transatlantic’s “Whirlwind”, and aside from a few repeated lyrical phrases they seem to have little to do with one another, musically speaking. This ultimately isn’t a problem, just a lot of material to take in, which is nothing new for a The Flower Kings release. Indeed, even the running time of previous album “Miracles” was just 10 minutes shy of the new album.
Happily, “Islands” features a bit of something for everyone. Unless you’re a “give me epics or give me nothing” kind of prog fan, it’s hard to imagine most The Flower Kings fans won’t find plenty to savor in this new collection which boasts a host of inventive songwriting, exquisite instrumentals and quirky short freak out moments. In the “songs” category, “From the Ground” is The Flower Kings at their most-accessible with a gloriously upbeat tune featuring smooth Stolt lead vocals. Hasse Fröberg takes his spotlight on “Black Swan”, a deliciously playful pop prog ditty in the Beatles/Queen vein (like Flying Colors and Neal Morse Band have been exploiting as of late) which even includes a spot-on Brian May moment. “Broken” serves up classic The Flower Kings with an outstanding middle instrumental section and a focused lyrical theme (even though its genesis may have many “too many”’s). “All I Need Is Love” nearly sounds more like a track from Fröberg’s other project “Musical Companion” until we reach the soulful Stolt solo section, one of his best solos on the album.
It’s a delight hearing Stolt’s vocals weave with Jonas Reingold’s fretless bass on “Northern Lights” and the spacious “Telescope”. “The world is opening like a rose, I watch it from my telescope” is sung before Stolt remarkably wails away on guitar, reminding us that this is one of prog’s top masters of the six strings. “Tangerine” is a wonderful bit of fun, Reingold’s bass being processed with a funky synth pad, cool jazz stylings offered by keyboardist Zach Kamins, and an ideal dual-vocal delivery from Fröberg and Stolt. “Between Hope & Fear” features a theme whose cadence brings to mind the theme from the original “Star Trek”. Speaking of outer space, things get a bit more orchestral with the longest track on the album, “Solaris”, a cosmic symphonic piece that highlights all the strengths of the band including Mirko DeMaio’s excellent percussion. With some choice Steve Hackett-esque moments and an occasional choir floating through the mix, this is an impressive piece that wisely takes its time to develop over nearly ten minutes.
Numerous instrumental pieces are scattered throughout, some of them being an always-welcome excuse for Stolt to shine on extended guitar jams and some of them being engaging and sometimes quirky ensemble jams. “A New Species” is remarkably diverse, starting off in an evocative mood and evolving into an amalgam of jams, jazz and juxtaposition. “Man In A Two Peace Suit” is one of several peak Stolt guitar moments on the album, flaunting a perfect tone and supporting effects. It all comes to fruition with the closing title track, a beautiful ensemble piece to finish the album and leave the listener floating on islands.
At 21 tracks, “Islands” boasts a high percentage of winners, but not every track is successfully positioned. Opener “Racing with Blinders On” offers much promise with an exploding rhythmic section and building tension, feeling like it’s the opening of an epic journey but then fades away with no relation to the next song. Likewise, “Heart of the Valley” is a lush Yes-ish dive which promises a deeper exploration than is ultimately delivered, ending when it seems like we’re getting warmed up. Still, sometimes the short observations can work sufficiently on their own, “Goodbye Outrage” and the lovely “Morning News” being prime examples.
Did we mention already – what a band! The relative newcomers absolutely shine with Zach Kamins’ symphonic keyboard mastery being integral at every turn, displaying creativity and ingenuity. With a drum stool that rotates nearly as frequently as Spinal Tap’s (albeit with less caustic results), The Flower Kings have chosen well in establishing Mirko DeMaio in the position and hopefully this will be a long-standing relationship. Unfortunately the album mix often chooses to keep DeMaio more in the background, at times sounding muffled. Although there can be argued reason for the mix, he’s too good a drummer to be hidden and so at times his missing clarity is a casualty. Jonas Reingold’s mix does not suffer the same fate and he is blessedly alive and well throughout the recording, an indispensable asset to the band as always, being one of the best bass players on the planet.
All in all, “Islands” is an excellent followup to the already impressive “Miracles” which preceded it, and an easy argument to support The Flower Kings’ long prosperous life for the foreseeable future. With this quantity of material it’s inevitable that the album is a bit of a “grower”, but it doesn’t take long for the flower to bloom and its nectar to be revealed. “Islands” gives ample reason for the listener to fall in love with the Kings once again.
Released by: InsideOut Music
Released on: October 30th, 2020
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Roine Stolt / Vocal, Ukulele, Guitars, Additional Keyboards
- Hasse Fröberg / Vocal & Acoustic Guitar
- Jonas Reingold / Bass, Acoustic Guitar
- Zach Kamins / Pianos, Organ, Synthesizers, Mellotron, Orchestrations
- Mirko DeMaio / Drums, Percussion
1 – Racing With Blinders On 4:24
2 – From The Ground 4.02
3 – Black Swan 5:53
4 – Morning News 4:01
5 – Broken 6:38
6 – Goodbye Outrage 2:19
7 – Journeyman 1:43
8 – Tangerine 3:51
9 – Solaris 9:10
10 – Heart Of The Valley 4:18
11- Man In A Two Peace Suit 3:21
Disc Two (43:01)
1 – All I Need Is Love 5:48
2 – A New Species 5:45
3 – Northern Lights 5:43
4 – Hidden Angles 0:50
5 – Serpentine 3:52
6 – Looking For Answers 4:30
7 –Telescope 4:41
8 – Fool’s Gold 3:11
9 – Between Hope & Fear 4:29
10 – Islands 4:12
Having been resurrected by a “Miracle” in 2019, The Flower Kings cement their benevolent reign of modern prog with the 21-track “Islands”. A band firing on all cylinders, the Kings display their creativity, quirkiness, skill and performance throughout this double album. Fall in love with The Flower Kings once again, or for the first time if this is your introduction to their kingdom.