It's hard to believe that it's been nearly 14 years since Landmarq's last studio album, 1998's "Science of Coincidence". Not that the UK-based prog-rockers were idle during that time. They toured extensively, including their first US concert at Progday 2000. They released two acclaimed live CDs, 1999's "Thunderstruck" and 2002's "Aftershock". And perhaps most notably, in 2006 they released their first ever concert DVD, "Turbulence: Live in Poland" (read my review here on Prognaut.) However, the road from the Poland concert to the early 2012 release of "Entertaining Angels" proved to be full of bumps and roadblocks for the band's members - including illness, family commitments and other musical projects.
In many ways this new album can be seen as something of a "comeback" effort for Landmarq. Question is - is this comeback worth the long wait?...Well, for me, as a long time fan, the answer is, "Yes, most definitely"!
With "Entertaining Angels", Landmarq not only live up to the quality of their back catalog, they exceed it. The band have clearly built-upon the template of their 90s neo-progressive heritage, adding new sounds and textures to the mix - with one ear always pointed in the direction of nuance and 'detail'. The darker, rockier elements are beefed-up to great effect in a few places, while alternately, the song-structures and arrangements are more varied and refined, and the melodies, more scrumptious and majestic than ever.
One thing that Landmarq have always been known for is their strong musicianship, and each of the players is in fine form here. Drummer Dave Wagstaffe (also known for his work with the Oliver Wakeman Band and Martin Turner's Wishbone Ash) knows just when to let loose (or hold back) for dramatic effect. Uwe D'rose's guitar playing is always precise, creative, and above all else, emotional. Steve Gee's 4, 5 and 6 string basses add melody and personality, whether holding down the bottom end or blasting up to the forefront. And lastly, keyboardist Mike Varty (also known for his work with Shadowland, Credo and Janison Edge) is sort of the 'secret weapon' of this album. He colors the music with a vast array of keyboard sounds (both classic and modern), and frequently takes the spotlight with some monstrously-good synth solos. Also of note, special guest musician Laurent Hunziker has a smaller, but quite welcomed presence - contributing some tasty, Supertramp-style saxophone to four tracks.
The band also seem to have taken their vocals (and lyrics) to a new level with this album. Anyone who reads my CD reviews will likely know that Tracy Hitchings has been one of my favorite vocalists since I first heard her with Clive Nolan's "Strangers On a Train" project in the early 90s. But I must say, she truly pushes her multi-faceted voice to new heights on this album, sounding, at different turns sweet, sinister, vulnerable, raucous and, dare I say it - sexy! Hitchings also contributes some intricately-woven vocal arrangements throughout the album (with some vocal help from Gee, Wagstaffe & Varty), and the thick, gorgeous harmonies add a new layer of richness to the Landmarq sound.
As for the individual songs...
The title track, "Entertaining Angels", kicks off the proceedings - beginning with a symphonic guitar/keyboard theme, then gradually building-up into a powerhouse melodic rocker of the highest order. "Mountains of Anglia" kicks the 'rock' up an extra notch with some rhythmic D'rose guitar, before evolving into a dreamy, Floydian groove for its second half.
"Personal Universe" and "Prayer" take the music in more of a tender, ballad-like direction, and both are highlighted by some beautifully nuanced vocals from Hitchings.
And, being a Landmarq album, there are, of course, some mighty prog epics to be heard!...
"Glowing" is a theatrically-minded epic presented in two parts. The first section builds on some of the familiar stylistic hallmarks which Landmarq fans love. The second part takes some surprising (but brilliant) turns into soulful territory - complete with breathy saxaphones, Hammond organ and a stacatto vocal section.
The 12 minute "Turbulence (Paradigm Shift)" expertly weaves through several divergent styles - from a bit of dark, mysterious mood music (featuring a guest cello spot from ELO's Hugh McDowell), to a fist-pumping hard rock section, to a melodious and poignant climax.
Closing out the album, and clocking in at over 16 minutes, is "Calm Before the Storm". This twisting, turning and darkly intense piece of music (presented in three interlocking movements) is nothing short of modern prog at it's finest. D'rose, Gee, Varty and Wagstaffe all get some spotlight moments on their individual instruments, and the way in which the whole band works to ratchet-up the tension on a pair of off-kilter unison riffs (heard in the second and third movements, respectively) is nothing short of breathtaking. Not to be outdone, Hitchings' vocal performance on this track is a pure stunner - utilizing both the aggressive and gentle sides of her voice.
Note: The initial "Special Edition" pressing on the album comes with a bonus disc featuring over 20 minutes of music that didn't make the main album due to the time constraints of CD. However, it must be noted that these bonus tracks (all of which were featured in early live versions on 2006 "Turbulence" DVD) are far from leftovers or throwaways. I definitely recommend purchasing the special edition while it's still available.
It also must be noted just how good the production, engineering and mixing are on this album. All of the sound elements ring out loud and clear, and the mix is consistently full-bodied and rich, whether listened to through speakers or headphones. One problem with many prog, rock and metal CDs today is that that they are mastered at too high of volume level, often to the point of distortion. This CD suffers from no such problems.
All in all, Landmarq's "Entertaining Angels" is a triumphant return for one of the most criminally underrated bands in modern progressive rock. It may also well be the album to beat for 2012...and it won't be an easy one to beat.
Reviewed by Jeff Matheus on March 20th, 2012