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Taal - Skymind CD (album) cover

SKYMIND

Taal

 

Eclectic Prog

4.09 | 131 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 'Skymind' - Taal (81/100)

I was recently introduced to the world of Taal through their debut album Mister Green, a melange of classic progressive styles the French act quietly delivered to the world back in 2000, without much in the way of fanfare to herald its release. Lamentably, there's every reason to believe Taal have gone their separate ways in the time since, Mister Green nonetheless struck me as the work of a band with great potential. Most of the prog rock subsets you can think of (including metal) were represented at some point on the album, with each song a new opportunity to divulge another influence. Though they ultimately struck me as window-shopping proggers in a search of style they might call home, Taal's passion for progressive music was clearly apparent in how well they could immerse themselves with each style, be it space or jazz rock, classical or folk, heady composition or avant-garde quirk. Theirs was an ambitious first undertaking, and there's merit is calling it an overlooked gem. Even so, Taal's all-encompassing approach suffered the lack of a distinctive, identifying character; this kept their music sounding like a series of song-length excursions into other bands' sounds, rather than a testament they might truly call their own.

With that preface, their second album Skymind startles me. Not only did they find themselves a distinctive sound in the three years between this and Mister Green; they managed to do so by broadening their dense ambitions to an extent unrivalled by the debut. Those, of course, being the same ambitions I thought had originally held Taal back from finding themselves in the first place. Strange things were clearly transpiring for Taal in the first years of the millennium. Skymind almost sounds like the work of a different band altogether. That's not entirely inaccurate, either. Taal effectively doubled their ranks, bringing in another drummer and permanent string section. This completely changed the game for them, and it shows in the music. If Mister Green was the work of a skilful prog rock band, Skymind is the product of a tightly-knit chamber rock ensemble, now with the scope and confidence to wield their eclecticism, but with no loss to the humour and energy of their earlier work.

I was actually talking briefly about this album with a friend last night. He described Skymind (I'm paraphrasing here) as 'classical music played by rock musicians'. It was funny, because a lot of the time I've spent listening to the album, I've had the opposite impression in mind. Regardless, this might go to show that the Taal circa Skymind is and should be judged by a different criteria as its earlier incarnation, which sounded like a prog rock band sounding like other prog rock bands. In my experience with the more eclectic side of prog, I've found it can take a long time before one can safely judge how good the music really is. I'm sure the same could be argued for all music in general, but it's especially true when bands are pushing ideas into their music like there was an 'Everything Must Go' closing sale at the Wholesale House of Riffs. Mister Green took me three or four spins before I could say I'd firmly grasped it. With Skymind, I'm seven listens in (and counting!) and I'm still hearing new things about it. It's not that Skymind is necessarily more jampacked than its predecessor; in fact, it feels as if Mister Green had quite a bit more content to wade through. The biggest change is the way Taal handled their ideas on Skymind, how they've strung them together. It doesn't feel like a rogue's gallery of prog rock styles most of us are already probably well-versed in. Their reach is as varied here as it ever was-- drawing in all between avant-metal and gypsy jazz-- but with Skymind, they became master of these influences, rather than the other way around. These compositions, however diverse they may seem at times, sound like they were written with fealty only to a style Taal were carving out for themselves. I was impressed by the skill with which they tackled each style on the debut, but it's another thing to be hearing them bring those ingredients alongside their own voice.

The biggest change, I think, that's empowered them to take charge has been the string section. Two violins, a viola, and a cello fill out Taal's newfound 'other half'. It's not unheard of that progressive rock band incorporates symphonic influences, but very rarely does a band integrate it to the point that I can't imagine hearing Skymind without the violins. They are a constant presence on the album, swirling about in a way that often compliments, and occasionally even competes with the guitars for my attention. The consonant arrangement for the string section remains the same regardless of the genre Taal are touching upon at the given time. Because the strings are so consistent in their colour throughout each eclectic shift, Skymind sounds coherent and whole.

While I don't think Taal managed to make vocals work in their style (Loic Bernardeau's tongue-in- cheek delivery sounds like a joke the listeners weren't let in on), Helene Sonnet's voice on "Blind Child" works well for the intended chanson-type tone they were going for. While vocals seem to pop up a surprising amount on Skymind, I still think of Taal as an instrumental prog band. Here moreso even than on Mister Green in fact, they carry so many of the qualities I'd attribute to instrumental progressive rock: dense, meticulously composed, and with the tendency of losing track of melody. It took a fair while longer for Skymind to grow on me relative to the debut, but in the end, Taal's second album stands a full head beyond the debut. Skymind does for me what many of these 'composer-rockers' fail to. Where the common tendency is to get mired in cerebral noodling, there is an emotionally palpable beauty to the music that sets Taal apart. Now that I've heard their magnum opus, I'm wondering what the hell ever happened to them. Though they weren't alone in their chamber rock niche, I've seldom heard a band of that style that brought a goodhearted humour to what they did. I imagine it's probably fruitless to wish it, but I hope one of the band members conjures some manner of necromancy, and brings Taal back for another record. Skymind is a damned fine contribution to modern progressive rock, and it's a shame they've never taken their sound further than this.

Conor Fynes | 4/5 |

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