Coalition – In Search Of Forever (progressive rock)

Orbital Productions ORBCD0012012, 2012, CD & DD album, 1h 11m 23s

£7.49 (Amazon DD) $15 (CD from CD Baby)

I felt an overwhelming sense of familiarity when I first saw this album, but I couldn’t work out why. The first thing I thought of was Return To Forever, but that band’s album covers had very little in common with this one. It was several days before it came to me: the fantasy artist Rodney Matthews published a book of his work by the same title in 1985, and although the album art itself doesn’t resemble his pictures, he was a prolific typeface designer, and the one used here looks very like his work. I don’t propose to labour this coincidence, but I think it’s inevitable that such associations colour our perceptions to some degree, and the strange visual worlds I explored at Matthews’ hands as a teenager may have an influence on my imaginative response to this music. The relationship between musical feelings, visual impressions and literal meanings is a complex one, that links album artwork, lyrical content and musical performance into a dense web of signification, and although this recording is rich in musical meanings independently of any visual component, I can’t ‘un-see’ the cover, and I have to assume that it provides a valid clue to Coalition’s artistic intentions.

In Search Of Forever sits quite comfortably in the mainstream of progressive rock, if such a thing can be said to exist. It is structurally and rhythmically inventive, with frequent changes of direction, augmentations or diminutions of pulse, irregular metrical groupings and complex formal structures. In the harmonic and melodic arenas, although the writing displays a great deal of sophistication and expertise, it is much more conventional in its materials, sticking to tonal, consonant territory throughout; in other words, it has tunes you can hum, which is no kind of a criticism. Steve Gresswell’s keyboard work and Phil Braithwaite’s guitar playing are both of a very high standard, and the writing is often organised to showcase their skills, with a lot of tricky, rapid passage-work, as well as a wide variety of textural and atmospheric techniques. The keyboards in particular elicit a wide range of colours and timbres, often in the unfashionably FM regions of the sonic spectrum, making particularly striking use of flute and choir voices redolent of the 1980s. As I understand Coalition’s working practices, the material was largely complete before it was set before singer/ lyricist Paul Bulger, and I have to admit that the sound is consistent with such an approach; I certainly don’t get the feeling the compositions were written to articulate the lyrical meanings, but despite this, there is still a sense of mutual reinforcement. Bulger’s delivery does not draw attention to itself, or ape the technical fireworks of the other band members, but delivers words and melodies with clarity and simplicity.

The central theme of this album seems to be transcendence of a tarnished materiality; the final song focuses very much on the latter, lyrically speaking, but the music is optimistic in tone, suggesting a starting point rather than a destination. Although the lyrics are my primary reason for ascribing such meanings to the record, the compositions frequently build towards an upper register peak that evokes the kind of movement depicted on the cover, where human figures ascend rapturously into the sky, each with a single arm upraised. The idea of a progressive spiritual voyage is evident in the song titles: ‘Spirit Guide’, ‘Rise Of The Phoenix’, ‘The Journey’, ‘In Search Of Forever’… the music leaps and soars in a way that does nothing to contradict that impression. The arrangements are full of drama, moving from quiet intimacy to driving intensity to concordant majesty to… well, you get the idea.

Coalition have not set out to represent the breadth and complexity of human experience. There is nothing here that I could identify as humour, or irony, or as overtly critical or subversive, and there is certainly nothing that could be called dysphoria, or any hint of despair or anger. The band look moderately rock and roll in their promo photo, but I think they’re secretly flower children, and In Search Of Forever, if it has a high concept, is about love and peace. To call its tenor one of simple positivity would do it a disservice however; although its emotional resonances are in comfortable areas, such as optimism, exhilaration, and a kind of pleasurable melancholy, it is still a thing of subtlety and complexity. Its consonant harmonies shift through finely shaded nuances that forestall any desire in the listener to simply park their affective response: this is music to listen to actively, a serious minded, large-scale work, articulating a sophisticated take on a complex idiomatic vocabulary, that never shies away from accessibility and even entertainment.

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