Label: Long Branch Records
Release date: 29-11-2019
Progressive rock, preferably shortened to just prog, is one of the most baffling genres out there. Although, how else could one refer to a genre that somehow includes David Bowie, Primus, and Tool as some of its pioneers? With inspirations stemming from rock, jazz, folk, and even classical, prog really is more of a hodgepodge of other, more long-winded genres that all came together to create… something. Most aren’t really sure what that something is, but it is made with a blending of artistic freedom, technical skill, and the love of a solo so long that it verges on becoming pretentious. And frankly, it’s great.
Exploring Birdsong wishes to carry the prog genre forward to a new generation as we leave the 2010s and enter the 2020s, and they have sixty years of talent to look back on and to hopefully become equals to. Last year, the guitarless trio from Liverpool humbly offered an echoing a capella cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper to little fanfare. More appreciated is their original single, The Baptism, whose enchanting and somewhat wandering melodies with competing piano and percussion show that Exploring Birdsong definitely know what they’re doing. True to prog form, The Thing With Feathers EP is more of a concept release, combining the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney with the true story of Kevin Halfpenny, which Heaney’s poetry is based on. Halfpenny, also known as The Henhouse Child, was an Irish boy who suffered severe neglect in being forced to live in a henhouse for over five years, developing major skeletal issues and a series of clucks for speech until his discovery in 1956. Coincidentally, highly prolific instrumental prog artist Buckethead has an in-universe backstory of also being raised by chickens, so The Thing With Feathers EP should sit right at home in the avant-garde, almost satirical world of prog.
Running water and simple notes of a piano laced with reverb open the album’s brief instrumental intro track, Hope. The calming mood is set and then immediately broken when The River begins, a peculiar melody from the piano seeming to ask questions to a faceless audience before being joined by a muted yet edgy beat from the drums, courtesy percussionist Matt Harrison. Almost out of respect, the music lulls itself to murmurs when vocalist Lynsey Ward makes herself known, her breathy yet carefully controlled voice blurring the line between sadness and anger. Almost imperceptibly, the track slowly morphs from unsure to proudly passionate, proggy riffs and slightly off-beat drums taking it to its successful conclusion. With no time to recover, The Sinking Question rolls in, both keyboard melodies and Ward’s moving vocals shifting after every line, making the listener keep on guessing just where this train is going. About midway through, the chaos settles, a pondering and repetitive note from the keys building up to something greater with the help of lightly tapped high hats. With utter disdain for the previous three minutes, once again the song changes in the last minute, the fire in Ward’s voice matched only by the aching drone of Jonny Knight’s bass playing.
Halfway through the album, the titular track is revealed to be a choral piece, a group of voices hauntingly humming as they ascend to a final, sharply-cut note. Coming off of this is the previously mentioned single, The Baptism, now seemingly more whole when nestled among the other songs on the EP. Even better a second–and third, and fourth–time, Ward’s powerful vocals combined with the almost unsettling dysrhythmia of the keys paint a beautiful and tragic picture, assisted by the funky groove of Knight’s bass and Harrison’s insatiable drums. It would be difficult to outdo what is no doubt the best track on the album, so The Downpour takes a surprising turn and offers a peaceful calm, deep yet soft notes from the piano assisting Ward’s spiritual lamentations. However, it would be foolish to think that this quiet would stay, and like magic, this track builds and builds to a pious crescendo. Ward’s words fall away to primal moans and finally an aching cry that erupts out of her, the drums, the keys, and her voice working as one as they play out the final rapturous notes. For some, this would be the glorious conclusion to this release, but the CD graciously comes with a bonus track. Deliverance may match in its title with the rest of the concept here, but in its execution, it is the funkiest, fastest, downright proggiest track the trio has offered yet. Taking very clear inspiration from the more classic prog bands of the 60s and 70s while still retaining a strong sense of self-identity, this track is both a welcome homage and the beginning of a new chapter in prog’s history.
The Thing With Feathers EP is a phenomenal release, the past and the present combining with sombre and religious undertones to create a beautiful concept work that leaves the listener begging for more. Exploring Birdsong have proven themselves in just under half an hour to be a band worth looking out for, and practically demand to be treated with the same respect as the likes of prog legends such as Genesis, Rush, or Yes. Fortunately, the trio has already been praised by the UK press (Prog Magazine, Kerrang! Magazine, Classic Rock Magazine) and had the honor of performing at HRH Prog. Now with this first official release, there is nowhere but up for Exploring Birdsong, so it would be in your best interest to keep up or risk losing out!
- Lynsey Ward – Vocals, keyboards
- Jonny Knight – Bass guitar, keyboards
- Matt Harrison – Drums, percussion
- The River
- The Sinking Question
- The Thing With Feathers
- The Baptism