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Pendragon - Men Who Climb Mountains CD (album) cover





3.65 | 215 ratings

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4 stars A new Pendragon album is always, for this long-term fan, a big event. And, as ever, Nick Barrett and his cohorts do not disappoint with yet another class slab of thoughtful progressive rock.

I ordered this from my favourite progressive rock store, Caerllysi Music, and was pleasantly surprised to see that the double cd had Nick's signature emblazoned over it.

It is a rarity that I mention bonus cd's, which is what, in effect, the second disc is, being an acoustic set performed by Nick at a mate's boozer. It is far better than that sounds. In fact, some of it is a revelation, given that the expansive sound we have always associated with Pendragon would not, you would have thought, lend itself to such a stripped out environment. Listening to Green and Pleasant Land, the standout track from Passion, is incredible. The lyrics, and the brilliant anger generated against the knobheads running my country, bringing it to the sorry state it finds itself in, is expressed even more pointedly in this setting than in the original, which I would not have thought possible.

But, to the main event. When you have opening tracks which sing and mourn as to how your beautiful soul will be saved, and end with such an expressive paean to the human condition, then you know that you are in for another treat. Every single review I read from professional journalists always seem to make an excuse for Nick Barrett somehow not having a particularly fine voice, but, patronisingly, state "hey, it works well here". Take no notice of them. There is nobody on God's earth capable of expressing this man's lyrics and music in such a poignant fashion as the man himself, so just enjoy.

The key to this album is the emotion generated from wildly divergent moods, and, with all emotional albums, it requires damned fine playing to bring it to life. Barrett is one of rock music's finest unsung guitar heroes, and his work here is staggering. Some of Clive Nolan's piano work, especially, is enough to bring the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, and listening to his staggering keys work on In Bardo makes you realise just how important a musician he really is. The rhythm section of longstanding bassist Peter Gee, who makes his instrument sing like a lead instrument in parts, and new drummer, Craig Blundell (replacing the incredible Scott Higham), move things along at a fair old pace. Blundell, by the way, is more suited to this album than Higham would have been. I believe, listening to this, that we have the reason why he left.

That is not a criticism of Higham. It is just that I believe, in about three albums time, or so, we will regard MWCM as being as important a change of direction as we now know Believe was when Barrett took the band from its overt symphonic leanings to a far heavier and experimental direction. This one retains much of what was good about that new era, but takes it in a far more song orientated direction, and the end result is a pleasing amalgam.

Some of the riffs on Come Home Jack, for instance, are thunderous, but are tempered by some quite exquisite moments, and the lost yearning inherent in the lyrics and guitar bursts is quite moving - this is not an album about mountaineers, per se. This is an album dealing with the human condition, written by a master songsmith going through a period of deep contemplation. No more, no less. As you listen to the song this segues into, In Bardo, the differing emotions come to the fore, the title itself suggesting a transition between differing states and phases.

The following two tracks constitute, to me, all that is best about this band and album. Two pieces of music which have to be enjoyed and contemplated as one, dealing with hugely diverse emotions. Firstly, we have the uplifting, major key, Faces of Light, which has the return of the delightful Tiggy accompanying Barrett on vocals. This leads into the altogether darker affair of Faces of Darkness, probably the one track on this album which comes closest to the musical ferocity of recent predecessor albums, and the sense of betrayal inherent in the lyrics and mood of the music is biting. The contrast between these two tracks is progressive rock at its best; thoughtful, challenging, and bringing something new to the table with each listen.

I have never been particularly good at interpreting lyrics, as such. That is not a bad thing, or a particularly personal criticism of myself. After all, the only person who really knows what he, or she, is writing about, is the author. What I can say, though, is that I am 50 next month, and it is fair to say that I have been rather thoughtful and reflective in the last couple of years, with close friends no longer with me. You could call it a mid-life crisis, I suppose. The lyrics and music on this fine piece of work shout to me. I get them. I understand, without necessarily knowing precisely what Barrett means by a particular set of words. The incredible final track, Netherworld, that destination of souls not quite saved enough to reach heaven, in particular, means so much to me, because I know I am not perfect, I have faults and fears. This album shouts out to me that one of my favourite band's and lyricist's is still able to move me and I can still relate to him and them in the same fashion as I could as a callow young man when they first delighted me with their music. Not a bad testimony to Pendragon, is it? It is very keenly meant on my behalf. You know, I often tell myself that "God only knows", as Barrett opines on Explorers of the Infinite, the longest track on the album. The music, in particular the symphonic soundscape created by the ensemble, simply oozes feeling and yearning.

Four stars for this. An excellent album which, I know, will be a precursor to a fine and outstanding new era for a fine and outstanding band. This is 64 minutes of pure and utter pleasure, and comes highly recommended.

lazland | 4/5 |


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