Prog rock. The very words can be enough to send some running for cover. It can bring to mind the very worst excesses of pretension and indulgence, twenty-minute organ solos and seemingly endless concept albums called things like Tales of Topographic Oceans. It is for this reason alone that rock bands with any sense of ambition and musical progression have tended to be sidelined by the mainstream music scene, at least in Britain, which has favoured the more accessible meat ‘n’ potatoes rock of Oasis et al.
The last mainstream album to be adjudged prog-rock would be Radiohead’s OK Computer, way back in 1997. Such was the adulation and expectation heaped on the band’s magnum opus that they reacted by going in the opposite direction with the bare-bones electronica minimalism of Kid A. No British band since has really tried to explore the expansive sound world of OK Computer since, and many, including myself, have often wondered where Radiohead could have gone had they continued down that path. Flicker have provided that answer.
A concept album loosely based around the idea of a single day (like James Joyce’s Ulysses) of someone caught in the daily grind of modern life, How Much Are You Willing To Forget? begins with a minute of tense, twitchy guitars and synths, as a train announcer sets the scene for the start of the journey. We are then thrust into the frenetic intensity of ‘Go’, all swirling guitar lines (think Holy Bible-era Manics) and lyrics depicting the alienation of the individual feeling lost in the push ‘n’ shove 9-to-5 existence ( ‘the same old silent crowd that patiently waits to go..’) that so many endure daily, a theme shared with OK Computer.
This sense of alienation continues with the next tracks ‘Out There’ ( ‘Is there anybody out there?’ sings frontman Ellis Mordecai) and My Empty Head. Both coming in at around the 6-7 minute mark, they feature expansive sections of instrumental exploration, but neither outstay their welcome. There are more traditional prog-rock influences detectable here (Pink Floyd, Genesis) but not even a hint of self-indulgence.
This brings us to the album’s lyrical centrepiece Counting Time, the protagonist depicting the tedium and monotony of his mundane office job, overlapping vocals painting a bleak picture (‘my future’s stacked up on tables and buzzing through cables….threading my hope through the eye of a needle’). The chorus provides the cathartic sense of release that you associate with Radiohead’s finest moments. It’s another epic in terms of length, but gripping throughout.
Next track Everywhere Face is a concise slice of modern angst-rock that lifts the pace nicely, with Nirvana (not exactly prog rock!) the most discernable influence, one noted by the band in interviews.
‘Falling Down’ is the album’s bleakest moment, an apt title for the album’s theme whether intentional or not (bringing to mind the 1993 film about a man cracking under the strain and stress of modern existence). Featuring similar nails-down-the-blackboard style eerie strings to OK Computer‘s spiritual nadir Climbing Up The Walls, it conjures up a mood of catatonic despair before lurching into a mid-paced but intense-as-hell second half, Mordecai’s voice drenched in angst and distortion. If the album is a depiction of a mental descensus ad inferos, this is undoubtedly the lowest point.
In an instant, we are brought out of this dark soundscape by the flourish of Spanish guitar that begins Breathless, the longest track on the album and one of the best. Poignant lyrics (‘last night’s dream drunk to its dregs…..too afraid to look within…’) and a rousing, tumultuous climax would have made for a great finale to this album, but Flicker go one better.
It is the final track ‘Is This Real Life?’ that truly deserves all the plaudits. A haunting piece of immensely ambitious epic rock (especially considering this is their debut), it’s one of those transcendent moments in music that don’t come around too often. Over sparse, dreamy piano and strings, Mordecai seems disconnected from time and space itself as he asks ‘Is this real life or just forever…?’. The orchestral arrangement is simply stunning, even getting away with quoting Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto (yes, there’s more to music than the Beatles, Noel…).
It’s the perfect denouement to what should come to be regarded as a modern classic, if there’s any justice. Special credit should go to producer Marc Joy for helping to realize the band’s vision and give free rein to the ambitious, if always focused, arrangements.
In an era of Cowell-controlled careerists and the ubiquity of cardboard cut-out musical non-entities like One Direction ruling the roost, we need bands like Flicker to thrive more than ever before. Pigeonholing them into the prog-rock wilderness would be a major mistake. Prog rock….epic rock…angst rock…call it what you like. Just listen.
How Much Are You Willing To Forget? by Flicker (released 28 Jan 2013)
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