I first discovered the music of UK prog-rockers Touchstone with their 2010 double CD, “Live In the USA” (read my review below in "Reviewed Discography). As anyone who knows me would attest, that album hit me like a ton of bricks and made an instant fan of me. From there I moved backwards through the band's previous releases; “Mad Hatters” (2006), “Discordant Dreams” (2007) and “Wintercoast” (2009), and was further blown-away by the quality and consistency of their body of work. When a new Touchstone album was announced for 2011, I was certainly excited, but also a little worried that the excellence of “Wintercoast” and “Live In the USA” could prove to be a hard act to follow...
Well, as it turns out, there was no need to worry. “The City Sleeps” is arguably Touchstone's finest album to date - the work of a band firing on all cylinders and moving from strength to strength to strength. The album has deservedly built up a strong buzz since it's release last year, with glowing reviews from both the press and fans, as well as high rankings in various readers polls and “best of” lists. In fact, when Prognaut asked me to make a list of my Top 10 CDs of 2011, “The City Sleeps” was an easy choice for the number one slot. The album has even found success beyond the usual prog-rock circles, entering the UK Top 40 album charts at number 36. It is also the first Touchstone studio album to receive an official release in the USA.
The current line-up of Touchstone consists of Rob Cottingham (keyboards & male lead vocals), Kim Seviour (female lead vocals), Moo Moorghen (bass, backing vocals), Adam Hodgson (guitar) and newest member Henry Rogers (drums), who may already be familiar to some prog fans through his work with DeeExpus and Final Conflict.
On the their Facebook page they have referred to themselves as a “progressive-ish” band, and I personally like that summation. Touchstone, in my view, have created an overall “sound”, as opposed to just a by-the-numbers “style”. The way in which the proggy keyboards, hard-edged guitars, dueling female/male vocals and epic arrangements all fit together is very distinctive and never sounds like a clone of any other band, past or present. The new album expands the band's sound in a few subtle ways, offering a wider variety of musical moods and textures.
The album kicks off in grand style with the rip-roaring “Corridors”, aptly displaying the band''s knack for mixing melody with muscle. Hodgson gets in some major hard-rock riffage on this one, and vocalist Kim Seviour pushes her voice to dynamic new heights. The song ends with a classically-tinged synth melody which is briefly reprised at the end of the album ("Corridors Epiphany").
The intense 10 minute prog epic "When Shadows Fall" is actually a 'sequel' to an earlier Touchstone track. "Shadow", and continues that song's twisted story of assassinations and revenge. One element that instantly drew me to Touchstone's music is what I call it's 'theatricality'. This track has it in droves - using dynamics, pauses, and sudden mood changes to build a sense of tension and release, much the same way that a good movie soundtrack might do. The dual lead vocals definitely pull the listener into the storyline, while Cottingham's distinctive keyboards help to color in the scenery.
"These Walls" is an intense rocker that blazes by in just over three minutes. It has a chorus that sticks in brain, and the angry lyrics offer a great showcase for the rockier side of Seviour's voice, which, though always strong, seems to have increased in power and range with this album.
"Throw Them To the Sky" juxtaposes a jerky, proggy rhythm on the verses with a driving AOR feel on the choruses - the result is pure magic. The guitars and keyboards both play important roles on this one, and the middle-eight section sung by Cottingham briefly takes the song into more of a synth-pop direction. I can certainly imagine this one becoming a concert classic.
"Sleeping Giants" is a lush, keyboard-dominated ballad with an understated (but beautiful) arrangement and exceptional dual lead vocals. With Seviour in the spotlight as frontwoman, I think that press reviews often overlook just how good of singer Cottingham is, and how important his rich, lower-end vocals are to the overall Touchstone sound. He certainly proves his vocal worth here. Lyrically, the song is an exhortation for good, humble people to rise-up and overcome the evils around them.
As it's title would suggest, "Good Boy Psycho" is the album's quirkiest track. Opening with a metallic guitar/bass duel, there are several unexpected musical twists to be heard in this six minute mini-epic. The way in which the intensity level rises and falls at key points is a testament to the band's well-honed arranging skills. As I said earlier, 'theatricality'. The rhythm section of Rogers and Moorghen are particularly impressive on this one, helping to hold together the frenetically-paced arrangement.
On the mellower end of the spectrum, "Horizons" begins with a slightly folky feel and impassioned Kim Seviour vocals. The tempo (and intensity) gradually builds-up, culminating in some fine guitar/keyboard interplay.towards the end. "Half Moon Meadow" takes a similar course, beginning with a hauntingly beautiful melody built around soft guitars and vocals, but ending on a surprisingly heavy note with some nimble-fingered soloing from Cottingham and Hodson. In an interview with "Classic Rock Presents Prog", Seviour discussed the song's unusual lyrical concept - "It tells the story of a young, naive character who thinks she's going to rescue everybody and how she's looked after by a male character who says she can't"
The album climaxes with the epic, eleven minute title track, "The City Sleeps" - another conceptual 'sequel', this time to the title track from their previous studio album, "Wintercoast". To me, this one is a true example of modern progressive rock at it's finest. Filled to the brim with drama and dynamics, the song snakes through several different twists, turns and detours (from symphonic, to headbanging, to elegiac), and along the way allows all five members of the band an equal chance to shine. There are even two special guest appearances within this song - a blistering guitar solo from John Mitchell of Arena, and a 'spoken word' interlude by actress Anna Maria Wayne (daughter of Jeff Wayne, the creator of the popular 1970's concept album "War of the Worlds").
Produced by Touchstone, mastered by Tim Turan (Grey Lady Down), and mixed by the aforementioned John Mitchell (Arena, It Bites, Kino), the technical aspects of the sound are all of a very high standard, and the CD sounds particularly deep and rich through headphones.
Also of note is the striking cover art, created by none other than Touchstone's own guitar man, Adam Hodgson. If he ever wanted a second career aside from the guitar, Hodgson could probably do quite very well for himself creating album covers for other prog and metal acts.
All in all, "The City Sleeps" is an album that is not to be missed, from one of the most exciting band's of the modern progressive (or "progressive-ish") rock scene.
Reviewed by Jeff Matheus on March 9th, 2012