THE SWAN CHORUS – Achilles and the Difference Engine (2023)
UK Symphonic Neo Prog band THE SWAN CHORUS present their new release “Achilles and the Difference Engine”, a wonderful slice of accessible melodies. In 1979 multi-instrumentalists David Knowles and Colin McKay began writing songs together and formed a band called ‘Achilles’. The band played a hundred and one gigs playing their own progressive rock.
This album contains some of the songs they composed all those years ago and is dedicated to everyone involved with the band. Colin sings lead vocal on some of these songs, honoring the band and its members and friends. There’s many musicians collaborating, including stupendous lead vocals by John Wilkinson – the singer in the Genesis tribute band ‘Mama’, who will be releasing his first solo album soon.
“Achilles and the Difference Engine” is a brilliant album, masterly performed and full of very appealing musical ideas. Although it contains many ‘progressive’ elements I found it both refreshing and relaxing to hear music in 4-beats-to-a-bar. At places the music brings to mind mid-80s Marillion , others Kevin Gilbert.
Absolutely marvelous – such fun and full of light, with accessible prog melodies and diversity. A breath of fresh air indeed.
“The Waffle House Index” is a jaunty introduction in a rather bright and early atmosphere, perhaps even offering a breakfast treat to provide some tasty morsels. The instrumental keyboard dense presence is paramount, the ideal platform for some mercurial vocals, with Wilkinson having a reverential and overt tone reminiscent of Uncle Phil Collins, also Fish. There are sufficient dynamics in the arrangement to keep the focus homed in on the subject and as such, is an exhilarating and elongated opener.
Effortless change of pace appears on the pop-tinged “After Dark”, a piece that may come across as a proggier version of Aussie legends Men At Work who featured a delightful vocalist in (are you ready?) Colin Hay, the sunny track has that leisurely stop and start beach volleyball feel which is cool because of the title name. A swirly-twirly guitar rampage only adds coconut slivers to the daiquiri. Prog with a large dose of fun.
Then the Swan get really serious with “Being There”, a more typical crossover prog track with a classic impressive piano driven intro, though the vibe is maintained with reflectively mellow shimmers, crowned with extraordinary vocals, dripping in dramatic expression, always my weakness, particularly in a highly melancholic setting. The compelling lyrics and the heroic orchestrations show off some serious creative thought and execution, keeping the listener engrossed and captivated. Another curling guitar solo takes this into the heavens. Great tune.
Back to earth we come with two shorter tracks, first on the keyboard heavy onslaught that gives us more than “Cold Comfort”, a rocking, live in concert delivery, fresh and expansive with a zippy synthesizer flurry, only to be challenged by some huffing organ and more electric guitar acrobatics. The vocals have a slight Fish feel.
“Contender” is another rocker with a Danny Boy reference, shirt sleeves rolled up and pounding away at the ivories as the vocalist channels a vaudevillian Freddie at times, and even the e guitar has a little twang.
“My Little Vampire” showcases the prog element in vivid illustration, Wilkinson doing quite the Trick of the Tail-era workout on the microphone, at times its uncanny. Massive keyboard settings are mixed with tingling acoustic guitar arpeggios, slashed with a patented Phillips-ian solo that shrieks like a knife. An album highlight to be sure.
With its grandiloquent entrance, “No Idea” keeps the foot firmly on the accelerator, a razor-sharp delivery with torrents of background synths, thumping piano, and a fevered voice, swerving contrasts pushed along by an athletic pace. Though the theme may be one of confusion, the deliverance is secure and confident. The manic synth final section is breathtaking.
The guitar centric rouser “English Electric” is comparatively speaking a tad more bare bones, a rock piece perhaps better suited for the stage but halfway through, the composition transitions into an altogether different engine with fat bass tones, jangling guitar strings and a more meditative mood, before incinerating it once again with a rambling, bruising and rousing finale.
“Welcome home” has a slight angry tone, insistent buzzsaw guitar solo and a snarly disposition, not too far removed from Liverpool stalwarts The Teardrop Explodes, Echo & the Bunnymen or Big in Japan. Very enjoyable, and different track.
Finishing off with a gargantuan epic, “This Great Adventure” and its 13-minute running time, can only anoint this slick release with high honors. In fact, all the elements described above on the previous 9 tracks are found here in condensed form: technically profuse and inherently progressive, entertaining and riveting, honest and creative, undaunted and ambitious. A fantastic denouement and finale.
Adventurous, daring, diverse, definitely rogue, sophisticated, gritty, humorous, and playful, all these words (and those above) are what The Swan Chorus is about. Intrepid music and otherworldly vocals, what more could you wish for?
1 – The Waffle House
2 – After Dark
3 – Being There
4 – Cold Comfort
5 – Contender
6 – My Little Vampire
7 – No Idea
8 – English Electric
9 – Welcome Home
10 – This Great Adventure
Colin McKay – all instruments, lead & backing vocals
David Knowles – all instruments
John Wilkinson – lead & backing vocals
Les Norton – guitar
Dave Jones – bass
Peter Dover – additional drums