Next time you hear an old song by seventies and eighties FM mainstays Foreigneron the radio, try to remember that multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, who was with the band for their first three albums, had long before Foreigner’s time been a member of the very first incarnation of the venerable King Crimson, his saxophone work especially adding tasty highlights to each band’s music. Oddly enough, that fact came back to me as I listened for the first time to the first track on the Lukas Tower Band’s After Long Years. It’s not that this band sounds particularly like early (or any other) King Crimson – well, okay, the guitar hook on that song had me humming “In the court of the Crimson King. . . .”- but the interplay among the instruments, particularly saxophone and guitar, on Indian Beard sure put me in mind of that great old band. And there are other such moments on the album, too, but the Lukas Tower Band is in no way a mimic of King Crimson or of any other band.
In their promotional materials, the band attempts a provisional description of their music: “Camel meets Clannad meets Steely Dan.” That’s actually a very good place to start, although, again, you shouldn’t expect to hear a lot of the sound of any of those bands’ sound in the Lukas Tower Band. They also compare themselves to Steeleye Span, and that’s the group I’d invoke if I had to give a very quick and rough idea of this band’s sound. But the jazziness suggested by their comparison to Steely Dan is there, too, and the melodic progressive rock of Camel is also clearly audible. All these influences or similarities make After Long Years a very pleasant and interesting CD to listen to, although I find it a bit too leisurely, a bit too tastefully laid-back to sustain my full interest through all eleven long tracks (all but four clocking in at more than six minutes, many of them stretching to more than seven).
And then there are the lyrics. I’m an English teacher, so you can imagine how I feel about an album whose lyrics are drawn from the poetry of Coleridge (both Indian Beard and Le Pocal d’Olives borrow from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), Wordsworth (Lalla Rookh leans on “Tintern Abbey”), Walter Scott, and the like. Right: I’m predisposed to hate it. Leave poetry, even bad poetry, to poets, and write your own lyrics, I say. But this band does a pretty good job with the verses they borrow, although I wouldn’t say that the music in any significant way “suits” the words. Whereas, for example, Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner sets the tense story to dramatic (if at times melodramatic) and powerful music, both of the Lukas Tower Band’s songs based on the “Rime” are mellow, jazzy affairs, and I can’t say that the music in Le Pocal d’Olives adds much to lines like their take on the famous “Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink,” which here becomes just “Water everywhere, water everywhere, water everywhere.” The lovely vocals of lead singer Angela Maier ride above what seems to be their typical arrangement: guitar and saxophone closely doubling a melody while the bass and drums provide interesting counterpoint and accents. In this song, too, as in many others on the album, the vocals often join the guitar and saxophone, so that the melody is tripled – a very nice sound in moderation, but almost a tic on many of the songs on this album.
The players themselves are clearly very skilled, and, although there’s some virtuoso work here, it never seems meant to show off the players’ skill; the songs are paramount, and all the instruments and vocals seem determined to create a certain atmosphere in each song. As I say, there is a sameness to that atmosphere from song to song, despite the songs’ very different subjects, but it’s nice to hear this kind of ambition. I’m going to single out as favourites Dreams to Gell (2), which reminds me terribly, especially in its bass line, of Donald Fagen’s I.G.Y. (and thus reinforces at least partly the band’s own Steely Dan comparison); Wanderer, which features particularly splendid work from bassist Gerhard Heinisch, guitarist Wolfgang Fastenmeier, and saxophonist Albrecht Pfister; and (back to Steeleye Span!) Thomas the Rhymer, although I still prefer Steeleye Span’s song of the same name (this is a different song but obviously one that tells the same Walter Scott-inspired story). That said, there isn’t a clunker on the album except for one of the bonus tracks: Lucy, which reworks jazzily and emotively one of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems – a poem that was bad without being set to music but which actually becomes worse in this treatment. That one misstep aside, though, the CD is a good one. The album and many of the songs may be a trifle too long, but, although it mightn’t sustain close attention, neither is it tedious – the talents of the band’s members individually and in ensemble guarantee that.
It’s not an album for all tastes – not even necessarily for fans of any of the bands I’ve mentioned, though if you’re a particular fan of Steeleye Span, I can’t imagine that the Lukas Tower Band’s somewhat similar but jazzier music would disappoint you – but it’s very good work of its kind. Incidentally, the band has been around for twenty years, and their longevity no doubt accounts for their technical excellence; it would be nice to see them gain a larger audience for this disc. Oh, and if you’re wondering who the hell this Lukas Tower guy is – well, there is no Lukas Tower. The band, the website tells us, was named after “one of the St. Lucas church towers in Munich,” their home town. There’s one fewer mystery to be solved in the world of progressive rock!
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10