NINE SKIES – The Lightmaker (2023)
”The Lightmaker” is the new album by respected progressive rockers NINE SKIES, the band founded by the late Eric Bouillette. It’s an impressive and musically expansive concept album that reflects on the human condition, musically vibrant, challenging and ambitious, full of light and shade and with a wealth of diverse rock elements.
The new work tells the story of Rudy, who is now living his 1,001st and final life. The album retraces some of his existences through the viewpoint of several characters and the introspection of these various incarnations.
With this opus, it becomes clear that there surely are nine skies, as there is undoubtedly a seventh heaven. When people new to prog ask me, somewhat mockingly at times, “What is so special about Prog?”, my perennial answer through the past half century has always been: It is a soundtrack to a movie that is playing in your mind, where you are the producer, director, and cinematographer, and you decide how if makes you feel”.
”The Lightmaker” is full of all of the beauty and majesty of ’80s progressive rock, warmly gift-wrapped for arrival in the 21st Century and with classic Seventies in-between.
The album is dedicated to that supreme artist, Eric Bouillette, and he contributed acoustic guitar on the track ‘The Dreamer’ before his passing. His partner, Anne-Claire Rallo wrote the lyrics and is the band’s keyboardist, guitarist/pianist Alexandre Lamia has done an amazing job mixing and mastering a sonic delight, and the lineup is completed by David Darnaud on guitars, Alexis Bietti on bass, and Johnny Marter on drums.
Further, Achraf El Asraoui provide vocals on The Architect. The guests I discuss on each track because they all bring a unique flavour to the already impressive musicianship Nine Skies offer that simply writing them down on a list seems somewhat inadequate.
Make no bones about it, though. This band attract guests as they do because of their talent and the quality of the songwriting.
So, we have eight pieces of music on an album lasting just short of an hour and start with a short introduction piece, An Fánaí, which translates as The Wanderer. The track opens with wild winds before a gentle acoustic guitar creates an expansive sense of peace, but also the sense of exploration, alongside some church bells chiming.
After such a beautiful start to proceedings, we move into the album proper with The Explorer, this featuring the talents on vocals of Riccardo Romano (Steven Rothery Band, RanestRane), and this will be listeners chance to hear the lead vocalist on the band’s forthcoming tour later this year, and his lush tones strike you from the opening second against a foreboding organ and some lovely guitar notes.
As the track moves into its main sequence, there is a wonderful expanse to it before we settle into the vocals set against a lovely piano and some fine vocal effects. When Romano tells the autobiographical tale of The Explorer, his voice drips with emotion, and the band match this with music which veers between the loudly expressive (the bass melody here is especially strong) and quietly forceful.
The Dreamer follows, and this features The Room’s Martin Wilson on vocals. We start with some delicate orchestration, and when Wilson enters, it is again impressive, but in stark contrast to Romano, and therein lies the genius of the album by getting different vocal styles to tell the stories of different characters within the multitude of lives. Musically, there is a definite dreamlike quality. Just short of three minutes in, we get a gorgeous guitar burst, and this is followed by a spoken narration by Wilson.
What does become of a dreamer once delusion is over? The subject urges us to wake up to freedom, but he is never forgiven, and this is an interesting interplay, I believe, behind the story of this character transposed into our reality, and a mournful guitar solo beautifully imposes this upon our consciousness, those dreamers who want to improve the human condition can very often be condemned, never forgiven for their aspirations, especially by the establishment they condemn.
The Chaotic follows, with Arnaud Quevedo (AQ & Friends) and the wonderful Laura Piazzai (Imaginaerium) feature on vocals, with the incredibly talented keyboardist Adam Holzman, who is part of Steven Wilson’s live band.
As the name of the track implies, musically this brings a far heavier and, well, chaotic feel to proceedings and is as good a slab of hard rock you are likely to hear in 2023. The guitars are menacing, the rhythm section thundering, and the keyboards produce some interesting noises.
Lyrically, I find this one interesting, talking about the impact of the digital world upon our real lives, something which will only grow more profound with proxy servers expanding infinitely your sense online. Extremely clever and a hard-hitting number, there’s a thumping background of dystopian keys, drums clattering a gloriously complex rhythm, and general electronic noise before the guitar riffs turn up the intensity a notch further alongside Quevedo’s part. Following this, there is the most wonderful keyboard solo, as if a dark room has been opened to the world for the first time in a life, with the attendant breath of fresh air that brings, new life, new optimism before the dystopian chaos reasserts itself in the final minute.
The Lost features the extremely talented Pain Of Salvation man, Kristoffer Gildenlöw on vocals and bass. This track is a very interesting study of a man wondering, mentally lost, calling for his Mummy to pray for him.
We start with more chimes before Gildenlöw perfectly sings the inherent sadness against a lovely acoustic guitar which brings a classical sensibility to the piece. At the end of the first segment, an electric guitar cries to us over the continuing acoustic instrument in a passage which is so sad as to simply make you close your eyes and drink it all in. In the lost segment, the acoustic guitar continues, but set against some dark psych noises which stand in contrast to some of the gentle orchestration you hear as well, therefore contrasting moods, exemplified five minutes in when the track suddenly rocks out in an explosion of noise, the drums especially crashing in your ears. These moods continue to play against each other, and when it gets loud and heavy, it is glorious with the keyboards soaring above the reflections in the mind.
The Wanderer returns in an interlude, a brief acoustic delight featuring a choir of many voices.
The album finishes with two genuine epic-length songs, the first of which is The Haunted at eleven and a quarter minute featuring one excllent vocalist Charlie Bramald of Ghost Of The Machine. His contribution here is real highlight. This track is a genuine symphonic rock classic. It features some gorgeous haunting guitar work, and a band in total harmony. I can only tell you that when Bramald sings, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, the emotion crackling. There is a certain guitarist and violinist up there listening intently and smiling at this vocal shift from his colleague and friend.
Of course, the vocals rise to the occasion set by the band musically. There is some wonderful guitar work on this piece, a bass performance which is worthy of Squire and Entwistle at their best, delightful jazzy drum patterns, delightful acoustic guitar, with keyboards and piano creating a classic progressive pastiche. As the spoken words bring us the introduction to the final segment, the music is achingly lovely accompanying this. Charlie doesn’t panic, and neither do we listening to this incredible music, the synths quietly soaring, the piano talking to us.
And so, we come to the second epic, and the final track on the album featuring the wonderful John Mitchell on guitar and Marco Minnemann on drums, The Architect. Vocals feature the lovely voice of Achraf El Asraoui. This is a deeply reflective piece of music, and, in the opening passage, features some wonderful keyboard work against the pastoral band before they again bring their rock music to the fore.
Then some delightfully fusion work, also with a distinct psych & post rock passage, a more traditional classic rock segment which reminds me a bit of classic Rainbow, whale song effects, dreamy guitar against a soaring symphonic keyboard, marching drums with a classic guitar riff, so in essence we get the full spectrum of progressive rock music in this epic track, a thoroughly eclectic way in which to close this album.
”The Lightmaker” is progressive rock of the highest order. Nine Skies have returned with a stunning concept album reflecting on the human condition through a compelling reflection of the many distinct characters and lives of its chief protagonist.
Guest vocalists and musicians add a distinct flavour to each song, whilst the band produce intricate ensemble instrumentation as dense and sumptuous as you’d find on any prog epic, yet with haunting, emotive and fragile moments of pastoral and acoustic beauty. It’s a release that will undoubtedly reward you time and time again, the more you invest yourself within it.
Speaking of classic prog rock, “‘The Lightmaker’ is one of the best albums of the year for sure.
01 – An Fanai (Intro)
02 – The Explorer
03 – The Dreamer
04 – The Chaotic
05 – The Lost
06 – The Wanderer (Interlude)
07 – The Haunted
08 – The Architect
Anne-Claire Rallo – Keyboards
Alexandre Lamia – Guitars, Piano
David Darnaud – Guitars
Alexis Bietti – Bass
Johnny Marter – Drums
Riccardo Romano – Vocals (track 2)
Martin Wilson – Vocals (track 3)
Arnaud Quevedo – Vocals (track 4)
Laura Piazzai – Vocals (track 4)
Adam Holzman – Keyboards (track 4)
Kristoffer Gildenlöw – Vocals, Bass (track 5)
Charlie Bramald – Vocals (track 7)
Achraf El Asraoui – Vocals (track 8)
Marco Minnemann – Drums (track 8)
John Mitchell – Guitar Solo (track 8)
50-person choir (track 6)
Eric Bouillette (RIP) – Acoustic Guitar (track 3)