- by Sean Hewson Rating:8 Release Date:2019-09-13 Label: Rocket Recordings
Much will be made of the fact that snooker legend Steve Davis is in The Utopia Strong. But it will come as no surprise to snooker fans or music fans (I’m both). The Nugget has long been known as a huge music fan in snooker circles and famously brought Magma over to London to play some gigs in the 80s. Music fans would have seen him pop up with increasing frequency as a DJ on the radio and at festivals and gigs. Indeed the band first met when Davis and Kavus Torabi (Gong/Cardiacs/Knifeworld/Guapo) DJed at Glastonbury in 2017 and hung out with Korabi’s Guapo band-mate, Michael York. That this is not a vanity project or novelty item for any of band is immediately apparent from playing their self-titled debut.
Emerald Tablet starts out pleasantly with bright electronic sounds. A nice guitar figure joins and it is like a lighter Tangerine Dream, but it is over too soon. There is more of a groove to Konta Chorus as the band combine sounds to build up a rhythm in much the same way as Stereolab used to. Over the electronic rhythm, Torabi layers some more guitar ideas. Again it is very light for this kind of synth-heavy music and all the better for it. It gives it a kind of hippie/pastoral feel and would fit in on The Wicker Man soundtrack. There is a bit more scene-setting on Swimmer as the synth chords build and a rhythm is added. Keyboards arpeggiate against each other and the rhythm drops out to let the synths hold sway for a minute of pretty ambience before the rhythm joins back in. Unquiet Boundary is a brief interlude of BBC Radiophonic Workshop sounds and ambient chords. There is more scene-setting at the beginning of Transition To The Afterlife but it’s a little more avant-garde this time. The combination of chattering electronic sounds with longer, drawn-out notes is classy. Some heavier synth sounds come in to give it the feel of 70s Tangerine Dream but it’s morning music, like they’re sound-tracking the dawn or the journey of the title. Pickman’s Model is another interlude before the big fella, Brainsurgeons 3, strides into view. A drum and bass groove starts it off quietly as light keyboards flutter by. The band let the song develop in its own time and again it has a weird electronic/pastoral feel like Popol Vuh, Pink Floyd or The Orb. After a few minutes, a pretty keyboard arpeggio brings the song’s groove into focus, keyboard and guitar lines engage and the track reveals itself to be a bit of a Chill/Trance banger. I’m reminded of Ultramarine and their combining of Dance music and Prog. I can imagine certain rooms, filled with certain people where this would totally go off as a floor-filler. The Utopia Strong follow this with the odd, stumbling Do You Believe In Two Gods? Which combines slightly discordant synths and guitar with a faltering rhythm to provide the only unsettling track on the album just when a little darkness was required. A female voice features on the last track, Moonchild. Again, it just brings an extra sound in at a crucial moment just to round off the album. The feel of the track is more ambient, closer to Klaus Schulze. The vocal tracks are built up and layered, creating an other-worldly choir and the feel of hauntological music as if it was from a slightly unsettling children’s programme from the 70s. The vocals are then left alone to slowly fade out.
Torabi has described the band’s overall sound as ‘accidental’ and The Utopia Strong does feel like a meeting of minds rather than a mapped-out project. There are interesting combinations of sounds from the worlds of Prog, Kosmische, Soundtrack, IDM and the Avant-Garde and they are presented in a light and welcoming way. Other bands in a similar area - Zombi and their off-shoots, Emeralds and there’s and label-mates Teeth of the Sea – often have a heavier feel to them. Neither approach is better but The Utopia Strong have succeeded in carving out a corner all of their own in a crowded genre. This album is in no way a novelty and the hope is that there will be more to follow.
Great album this. Lovely artwork by John and/or Chris as usual.