I was very excited when the post lady pipped and handed me the envelope that I knew would contain what is being heralded as “A stunning new album in the finest tradition of progressive rock and space rock” because being a bit of an ageing hippie I’m partial to both a smattering of prog and a healthy double dipped dose of space rock. But this hasn’t been the records only accolades and “the space opera that Pink Floyd never wrote” and “a prog rock War of the Worlds” whetted my appetite for this record even more.
This eponymous album is out on Cherry Red on the 28th of April and was recorded both in New York and London and has been co-produced and mixed by Youth of Killing Joke fame (I like a bit of Youth I do).
Sontaag are essentially Richard Sontaag who plays instruments, came up with the concept, did the composition and also co-produced and Ian Fortnam who adds vocals and also helped with the concept and the story, with additional musicians Milo Venter (drums) and Amanda Cross (female vocal). The album was mastered by Michael Rendall at Meridian and the whole, quite nice artwork package was directed and photographed by Julie Kendall.
The concept is apparently that “The Ancients, through a long process of trial and error, had discovered the secret of synthesizing essential energy from harmonic sound, giving them the power to reanimate extinct planets by utilising giant orbiting generators. But life came at a price. The newly supplanted inhabitants of MP-5 were compelled to provide the musical fuel for The Great Harmomodulator simply to stay alive”. Mmmmmm I like a good sci-fi story a la “Space Ritual” etc.
The song titles alone look promising; The Great Harmodulator, Minor Keys of Anguished Weeping, Interstellar Genocide, The Skull-Scraping Caterwaul….amongst others. All in all there’s 13 tracks on Sontaag so it’s time to take the protein pills (Cheese sandwich) and put my helmet on (they’ll be my headphones actually) and blast off into what the bumph says is a “stunning and immersive listening experience”.
The music lives up to expectations it has to be said. The opening track Empyrean kicks off with desolate swirling synth pads and a soaring lead guitar line and sets the scene very nicely before the driving rock beat and bass line get things moving at a pace…all with that great lead line over the top. It’s a good start it has to be said and the tune breaks into spaceyness before resuming the driving beat. It’s clever and accomplished…and really quite good. Ok it’s a bit grandiose but isn’t that what great prog’ and space rock are about?
The Great Hoarmodulator introduces the story and sets the scene on MP-5 with a spoken word narration over a multi-layered sequenced musical backdrop that is a bit Tangerine Dream in parts (this is no bad thing!). there’s a lot going on musically within the noises and headphone wearers will love it.
The third track is Spaceshifter and is clearly very much influenced by Hawkwind (it even mentions Sonic Assassins) and the lead guitar playing is quite reminiscent of Huw Lloyd Langton and again this is a good thing! It’s derivative this particular track, but it fits with the story and is a great, if all too brief, rock out tune.
Minor Keys of Anguished Weeping is back to the more symphonic swirling swathes of sound that continues the story with spoken word before morphing into a really nice synths and guitar tune that is really quite beautiful, as is Serena Serenarum with its female vocal pad taking centre stage and playing off the soaring guitar.
Interstellar Genocide is space rock done proper and again is reminiscent of Calvert era Hawkwind.
I’ll not dissect every tune on the album suffice to say I quite enjoyed Sontaag and it’s spaceprog in the finest tradition. The story is suitably sci-fi and it’s told well both from a spoken word perspective and a musical perspective with distinct musical parts to the album to complement the narrative.
There are bits of Hawkwind, bits of Pink Floyd, bits of Tangerine Dream and bits of Steve Hillage…and many others, but Sontaag works and manages to stand apart from its influences to create its own sound that is very pleasing overall. It will definitely get played a good deal I think and I’d really like to see the band do the whole record as a live, expanded set with full overblown stage show to go with it. If you enjoy any of the bands and musicians I’ve mentioned in this review then you’ll enjoy Sontaag. Pour yourself a syn-and-phonic, sit back and enjoy the show that unfolds before you – it’s really rather pleasant.