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Emslie, Alan/Soft Monster: Floating/Emotive Bay/Heavy Driven/Dark Matter
If you head on over to the website of Alan Emslie you'll see that this Scottish musician is an in demand percussive powerhouse whose talents are utilised by orchestras, bands, and well anyone really. He also runs a recording studio and somehow, along the way, found time to amass a lengthy solo and band recording catalogue.
If, like me, you're not already familiar with the man behind all that then this would appear to be the perfect time to jump on board, Emslie deciding to announce the arrival of a new solo album later this year with a four album remastered retrospective of his early work. Taking in efforts released between 2001 and 2005, the drum master reveals an understanding of varied and wide progressive sounds that while reminding of bands gone by (Genesis/Rush etc) also catch a waft of the more current scene, Porcupine Tree (remember, by current these albums are 13 to 17 years old!) The Pineapple Thief and beyond.
Back in 2002 Emslie along with Euan Drysdale on keyboards and John Irvine on guitar were going under the name of Soft Monster and their album was called Floating (3/5). Any trio working in the progressive sphere run the risk of Rush comparisons and while Emslie does draw favourable nods to Neal Peart the end result in truth is more Genesis-like in nature – even if the sound of a certain bunch of Canadians does also play a part. However with a more keyboard dominated sound, there's also a jazzy undercurrent as well as something altogether heavier. The whole album is instrumental, allowing the three-piece (although Irvine doesn't feature on every song) to really stretch out while still sticking tightly enough together to appeal to fans of more song based compositions. "Da Monstas" a prime illustration of where Emslie and Drysdale roam freely while never forgetting that their efforts need to be accessible enough to make them as enjoyable to listen to as they clearly were to play. A dreamier side of things, as suggested by the album title, often comes to the fore, "Floating" and "Ooger" showing that Emslie, while a fabulous percussionist, has the craft to know when to keep it simple and allow his keyboard-mate to take centre stage – something he does with an assured confidence. However, whether through the threatening and cleverly percussive "Approaching The Ice" or guitar led "Three Rooms" what is laid out here is varied, yet engaging and bodes well for what was to follow.
Ditching the band name to 'go solo' in 2002, Emslie teamed up once more with Irvine on guitar (although the album is still keyboard infused – not sure who's playing them though…) to offer an Emotive Bay (3.5/5). Opening with "Downforce" there's a clear link to what came before and yet with more obvious beats and an almost techno-feel in places this piece immediately introduces a tougher beast. When a synth roar of engines rips past like Michael Schumacher tearing up Spa Francorchamps in his Ferrari (remember the year…) you're left with no doubt what this heavier beast's 'downforce' is but just as you think you've got a handle on this connected but different approach, the Jean Michel Jarre on a downer of the album's title track veers off in another direction completely. With the jazzy feel of "The Distortion That Drives Us" again pulling in echoing piano and humming bass, once more we're left to ponder the diversity on show and the scope of styles being cohesively displayed. "Something Wrong?" offers up whispered vocals to add atmosphere to swirls of synth and take us into a more ambient setting while the lengthy "Beyond The 11th Dimension" takes us on possibly the most overtly prog workout so far. Drums, guitar and synth all given their time in the spotlight and all coming together to illustrate the power at this album's disposal. Different but similar, Emotive Bay was a slight step up from the confident Floating, while still hinting at more.
And more arrived in the shape of "Bitter Boy", a snarling snapping vocal that veers into a shout being a brave attempt to move the sound of 2003's Driven Heavy (3.5/5) into new directions. A little like Peter Gabriel shouting for attention, while admirable it has to be said that in places these vocal excursions prove more of a distraction than an aid to understanding, but they aren't awful, just a little over enthusiastic – possibly to make up for the less accomplished approach? "Help Me" moves back into instrumental mode, howling synth and guitar beating a new path and successfully so, before "Simple Groove" proves anything but. Irvine is back once more on guitar and it has to be said that his riff heavy approach here suits the Emslie powerhouse drumming to a tee; offering some unexpectedly potent results in the process. The Rush like atmosphere of Floating appears again in "Through The Valley" but in a less obvious manner and with deep in the mix spoken word sections there's a real sense of growth and maturity shown in what is a subtle but clear change in direction. Add in the biting, and more successfully vocal led "Something In Your Eyes" and there's no denying that this potent attack suits Emslie and his band mates down to the ground.
The last offering in this retrospective campaign is 2005's Dark Matter (4.5/5) and if Heavy Driven had been a confident step up from an already strong base, the clarion call of opener "Misanthropic Myopic Man" shows this album simply bypassing whole stories to take you straight to the top floor. Emslie's vocals have morphed into short sharp barks and give the perfect indication of just how quickly he learns and improves. What was once a weakness is an immediate strength as a prog metal masterwork plays out. As ever the landscape he paints continually shifts, "Incomplete" moving back to a more keyboard led approach and yet with more vocal punctuations and a hard, heavy, uncompromising guitar presence, the surprisingly Genesis/Marillion like breakdowns are hit it out of the park good. "Charon" adds a mid-paced enigma to proceedings, while "All The Time" adds an off-kilter growl of Discipline era King Crimson to the mix. And yet as the guitar shimmer of "Two Threads" brings this excellent album to a close what's abundantly clear is the individual stance Emslie and his collaborators insist on taking.
There's clear growth from album to album here and yet, considering these four outings span only five years, the growth and diversity from Floating to Dark Matter is really quite breathtaking. Not that the early albums are anything other than interesting and intriguing and on their own Floating and Emotive Bay stand as good introductions to the work of Alan Emslie. However by the time you take in Driven Heavy and especially Dark Matter you really are beginning to wonder why you've (presumably) never heard this man's music before. This is an excellent body of work from a clearly talented drummer, musician and songwriter. His new album can't come quick enough.
Soft Monster: Floating
1. Ooger (2017 Remastered)
2. Da Monstas (2017 Remastered)
3. Floating (2017 Remastered)
4. Pushing Free (2017 Remastered)
5. Doughnut Warden (2017 Remastered)
6. Approaching The Ice (2017 Remastered)
7. Behind The Dark Mirror Machine (2017 Remastered)
8. Three Rooms (2017 Remastered)
1. Bitter Boy (2017 Remastered)
2. Help Me (2017 Remastered)
3. Big One (2017 Remastered)
4. Meditation (2017 Remastered)
5. Simple Groove (2017 Remastered)
6. Causeway (2017 Remastered)
7. Through The Valley (2017 Remastered)
8. Something In Your Eyes (2017 Remastered)
9. Bitter Boy Instrumental Mix (2017 Remastered)
10. Downforce Live Rehearsal (2017 Remastered)
1. Downforce (2017 Remastered)
2. Emotive Bay (2017 Remastered)
3. Watching The Waves (2017 Remastered)
4. The Distortion That Drives Us (2017 Remastered)
5. Groovy Jelly (2017 Remastered)
6. Quarqaba (2017 Remastered)
7. Something Wrong? (2017 Remastered)
8. Beyond The 11th Dimension (2017 Remastered)
9. We Went To Bed Too Late (2017 Remastered)
1.Misanthropic Myopic Man (2017 Remastered)
2. Incomplete (2017 Remastered)
3. Dark Matter (2017 Remastered)
4. Charon (2017 Remastered)
5. Living Monster (2017 Remastered)
6. All The Time (2017 Remastered)
7. On Your Knees (2017 Remastered)
8. Two Threads (2017 Remastered)
Added: February 11th 2018
Reviewer: Steven Reid
Related Link: Alan Emslie on bandcamp
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