by Aaron Gidney
Recent Bad Elephant Music signing, Simon McKechnie returns with 2021’s ‘Retro’. The Progressive Rock composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist is certainly a classic example of a ‘journeyman’, writing for BBC, classical ensembles and Jazz Orchestras along with his Prog Rock excursions.
Opening track is a suitably epic 20 minute Prog opener, channeling classic Prog Rock influences, weaving in and out of multiple styles, time signatures and some excellently diverse musicianship. There’s something different about this though – it’s certainly not ‘Prog-by-numbers’, McKechnie adds his own avant-garde vibe that is both pleasantly surprising and well thought out without ever sounding cliche. There’s plenty of twists and turns amongst the opener and in some parts, a whiff of all the good bits of Belew/Fripp-era King Crimson.
Second track, ‘Retro’ certainly offers a different feel to the opener. An immediately, frantic, pop-tinged left-field diversion which demonstrates the diversity of Simon’s writing skills, influences and indeed, production skills. The clean early 60’s surf guitar licks bring a smile to the face, whilst Simon’s vocals on this track are most certainly reminiscent of the late, great John Wetton, which is always great to hear.
The Entrantress of Number opens with a frantic, angular string motif that sounds straight out modern avant-garde classical pieces, which is quickly layered with some odd-time signature Prog riffage. The use of the instrumentation and different styles/sections ensures that nothing overstays its welcome and there’s plenty of opportunity for the varying styles to come to the fore and show off Simon’s skills as a songwriter across different styles. Simon’s vocal timbre allows him to sit above the instruments in the mix and cut right through rather than getting lost in the mix. In addition, there’s been a great deal of thought put into the vocal harmonies and they seem to be executed at just the right time – whether to melodically/harmonically enhance the lead vocal, or to add some harmonic tension for many of the more left-field and avant-garde vocal lines.
Album closer (and the shortest of the four tracks), ‘The Return of the Beagle’ continues the stylistic mesh within a more condensed song structure – its nice to hear the ‘clash’ of classical against modern influences – part-folk, part-Mike Oldfield, part-King Crimson, part-Jazz – before ending abruptly – quite a feat!
There’s plenty of styles within this for Prog fans to grasp (dependent on their Prog genre preference/poison) – but most definitely for those with a penchant for experimental art-rock encapsulating both classic ’70’s influences but also some of the more modern jazz/classical improvisational elements a la Fripp and co. Good stuff!
1. The Origin Of Species
i. The Face Of Nature
ii. The Beagle
iii. Natural Selection
iv. Struggle For Existence
v. The Struggle
vi. What Could Be More Curious?
vii. Laws Of Nature
viii. The Origin
- The Enchantress Of Number
- The Return Of The Beagle
Mike Flynn – guitar solos on ‘The Origin Of Species’
Adam Riley – drums on ‘The Origin Of Species’ and ‘Retro’
Richard Horton – operation of Babbage Difference Engine Number Two on ‘The Enchantress Of Number’
Simon McKechnie – vocals and all other instruments