Is it possible for a sound to be really breakable? You occasionally come across music that suggests that it is. On Jon and Vangelis’ second album, The Friends Of Mr Cairo, Jon Anderson’s voice often sounds like crystal glass. On this album, the groups second, Aussie neo-proggers SJS deliberately create a frangible sound that suggests that it would be brittle to the touch.
There’s some debate as to whether SJS are a band or a solo act. SJS happen to be the initials of the projects main-man Stuart Stawman, whereas the groups other key members are Doug Skene, Graeme James and Chris Soulos, giving another potential reason for the band’s name. The band does not exist in the conventional traditional sense either. They work pretty much through file sharing, with the principal member being Stuart who originates much of the music. The members have all been to Stuart’s studio, but never at the same time. James and Soulos last met twenty or thirty years ago whilst Stuart, Skene and James met up at a Steve Hackett concert three or four years ago. Not the orthodox way of working, but employing internet relationships appears to work for them.
The overriding feature of the album is its melodicism. For all the bands playfulness and imagination, it never strays far from this. The music actually gives the impression of having been constructed, taking diverse elements and melding them together. One section may lean towards electronica then shift away towards a full-blown prog rock guitar solo, then decide not to bother. It is this uneasiness that gives the album its fragility, a sense of deliberate faltering, a creative unsteadiness. There’s an intangible element too, the sound is decidedly euphonic, helped to a large degree by the processing applied to the singer’s voice. This etherealism counterbalances the cryptically pointed meaning of the lyrics, dealing as they do with weighty subjects around the current state of the world, be they environmental catastrophe, the prospect of blaming in both the political and personal realms, or good old-fashioned looming romantic failure.
Although there are no great angular shifts in tempos in the music, it does retain great ebb and flow throughout. You wouldn’t say that the songs rise to great climatical endings either, but employs wonderfully crafted crescendos instead. This is true progressive rock in that it draws its influences from a wide colourful range. It partakes as much from Talk Talk and Spiritualised as it does from Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes, intriguing soundscapes and the simpleness of folk and world music are employed in equal measures. It is genre-blending rather than musical poaching.
The musicians involved all have healthy and impressive backgrounds. Stuart is himself a musician, songwriter, sound engineer and producer who encountered Dave Gilmour, Tears For Fears and Talk Talk along the way. Chris Soulos, a producer in his own right, is a top-class touring and session bass player, having worked alongside Jermaine Jackson and Chad Wackerman amongst others. Graeme James, is a masterful drummer, who also plays with the prog band Tramtracks and was called in to do a stint as drum tech for the mighty Alan White the last time Yes toured Australia. Douglas Skene is the creative maestro behind prog-metal outfit Hemina as well as being a member of the band Anubis. Franky Valentyn and Peter Clark make tasteful guest appearances on the album.
This is an intriguing release from the band. It is emotional, delicate, bitingly incisive and immediate. There’s no need to add grandstanding soloing to these songs, they are powerful enough as they are. But the band is expansive too, allowing themselves the freedom to deliver something haunting and vulnerable. Angels and Acrobats clocks in at over twelve minutes, Xombies at over eleven, allowing the band to show how to create long-form pieces imaginatively. The gracefulness of the album doesn’t deceive the listener though. There is some alluring power and insight at play here.
1. Nothing@All (7:49)
2. Go Slow (Part 1) (6:30)
3. Go Slow (Part 2) (7:43)
4. Xombies (11:11)
5. (In) Your Own Time (5:00)
6. Angels & Acrobats (12:43)
Stuart J. Stawman / vocals, bass, guitar, keyboards
Christopher Soulos / bass (2,6)
Graeme James / drums
Douglas Skene / guitar solo (1,6), bass (1)
Franky Valentyn / keyboards (4)
Peter Clark / congas (1)
Format: CD, Digital
Label: private pressing
Release date: November 19, 2021