Stephen Hawking famously said in his introduction to A Brief History of Time, that he had been advised that every equation included in the text would halve the sales in the mainstream market. I feel the same about analogies in music reviews, better just to get on with the task at hand rather than beat around the bush too much. Like him though , I will allow myself just the one.
Although all musical works starts with the same empty canvas, it is what the artist choses to create there that allows people to label and package the results. And if the simplest pop music can be seen as a mere shopping list of ideas and rock music perhaps a bold but basic cartoon drawing, progressive rock, for want of a better initial label, is often an intricate landscape painting, one which deftly blends subtle pastoral hues yet also has space to play with the dramatic colours and stark contrasts of the tumbling skies above.
Hollow Water, a name that references the fluidity, spacious nature and energy of racing rivers, whirlpools and waterfalls, began life as an instrumental 2-piece consisting of Alan Cookson and Huw Roberts, but with the inception of Rainbow’s End a wider team was recruited to bring this concept album to life, one garnered from across the western world.
And if the term concept album conjures horrific musical flash backs to the genre’s past excesses, of keyboardists dressed as wizards or 3 day long bass solos, fear not, the one thing progressive music is good at is…well, progressing. And although Rainbow’s End retains all that is great about the genre, it is also a product of the here and now, of the contemporary music scene, music which looks to the future a lot more than it glances over its shoulder to yesterday’s glories.
And talking of looking forward, the narrative driving the album is a futuristic, sci-fi tale; three acquaintances looking for an ever-lasting rainbow, which takes them into parallel dimensions where the very laws of physics behave differently. Very quantum!
But is there anywhere new to take sci-fi themed progressive music? Well, it would seem that there is. Hollow Water have a way of retaining some of the established structures of the genre; long, fluid musical statements, that not so much eschew the verse-chorus structure but more stretch it out, building dynamic, atmosphere and anticipation along the way. And where as of old the penchant was for long, meaningless solos and passages that seemed to have little relevance to the rest of the song, the hand played here is one of melody and meandering musical subtexts that rather than wander off at tangents to the musical direction instead just take a scenic route to the same destination.
The execution of the music is excellent, that goes without saying, anyone with such ambition is hardly going to arrive at the task without the relevant tools, but it is the imagination and scope of the piece, the composition and energy levels that are maintained that are the real joy. To keep the listener enthralled across such as grand tale, to remain focused on the story whilst subverting musical expectation, switching styles and pace and to do all of that and find something new to say, somewhere new to take the genre, that is a real skill.
Progressive rock has followed many twists and turns over the decades, from the clichés of its early years which are sadly still a short hand for those not in the know, to jazz fusions and neo-prog reinventions to popularist pastiches and everything in-between. What makes Hollow Water’s corner so appealing is that they manage to offer all the familiar tenets of the genre whilst giving them a contemporary feel. A concept album with roots in the past, that feels very much of today and looks unashamedly towards the future. How great is that?