The Inner Road – Ascension (progressive rock)

Orbital Productions ORBCD0012013, 2013, CD & DD album, 1h 18s

£11.49 CD £7.12 DD
AscensionSteve Gresswell is a prog auteur of the old school, producing music that is not particularly progressive stylistically, but which makes use of a sophisticated and complex approach to composition and orchestration. I’m familiar with two of his projects, this one, and Coalition, a band with a similar sound that incorporates vocals; in both cases he is the principal actor, although he clearly prefers to work with collaborators, and all tracks on Ascension are credited to him and Jay Parmar, who plays guitar on the album. The previous record, Visions, was a collaboration with guitarist Phil Braithwaite on apparently similar terms. Despite his variety of collaborators, there’s a singleness of vision to all of the recordings I’ve heard featuring Steve Gresswell, probably aided and abetted by the fact that he plays bass and drums as well as keyboards on all of them (at least I assume he does, but this latest release comes without any performance credits on the packaging). ‘Prog rock’ as a style has always been a broad church, historically encompassing extreme avant-gardists along with relatively conventional musical minds interested in fusing the complexities of one musical interest with the power and energy of another. The Inner Road’s approach represents a mature, post-experimental form of the latter tendency, and is situated in a tradition of creative practice that gelled into a stable form during the 1980s. The compositions on Ascension don’t make a feature of technical complexity, although they are performed to exacting standards of technical precision, but they share a basic sonic architecture with more shreddy fare; the recording, the playing and the compositions are all about clarity. Clarity of sound, clarity of execution, and the clarity of unambiguous, cogently articulated musical ideas, all point to a particular unspoken philosophy of art, a sort of musical hyper-realism.

The sound of Ascension is an incremental development of the sound of Visions; it is very clearly an articulation of the same vocabulary, the same lexicon of melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and indeed timbral materials. The sound is rockier, although the bass and drums are written in a similar manner, with the guitar more prominently featured in both arrangements and mix. The dominant instrumental voice on Visions was Gresswell’s keyboards, his synth leads and choral and string pads in particular sticking in my memory; they are certainly a significant presence on Ascension, featuring prominently from the start in the arrangement of the eponymous opening tune, but the balance has shifted, and Parmar’s guitar is more often the central element around which the arrangements are constructed. The majority of the album is taken at a steady mid-tempo pace, with its slowest passages, like the delicate opening and middle of ‘Altered Reality’, serving as introductory or transitional materials, rather than as the meat of a composition; where they put their feet on the gas, of which the same track is probably the most pronounced example, there is power, it is sometimes pretty heavy, but it’s never exactly fast. This is clearly a deliberate creative strategy; not only are the tempos approachable, but the rhythms are direct, the melodies are shapely and the harmonies are consonant. The music is entirely accessible, and demands very little of the listener in terms of active interpretation or affective discomfort; although it’s a frequently loud, punchy affair, with insistent, driving grooves, it’s a record to lean back and drift away with, with a listening experience as close to ambient music as it is to much of the outer fringe of rock to which my critical ear is more often directed.

The general vibe of this music is extremely positive and uplifting; in fact I’d go beyond positive and suggest that it encodes a positivist artistic philosophy; it’s a music of certainties, of clear-cut aesthetics, and of artistry as the central creative virtue. In other words, it’s about great playing and beautiful sounds. Its emotional narratives follow elegantly sculpted arcs, rewarding sustained attention with a sense of complete closure, while the phrasing has the symmetry and inevitability of Classical music. Dynamics are a vital aspect of the compositional palette, and most of these tunes visit several distinct levels along the way. The narrative feel of the album is melodramatic, partly as a consequence of this sophisticated use of dynamics, which depends as much on the transformation of texture as it does on changes in volume, and partly due to the frequent use of abrupt, logical but un-modulated key changes, a feature of Steve Gresswell’s compositional approach that is equally in evidence on Visions. It’s this theatricality that gives the album a sense of forward motion and progression in spite of the more or less steady-state emotional tenor that pervades it. It’s a record with a pronounced sense of journey. Ascension is not anything like as twisted or disturbing as most of the rock music that graces my intensive listening stack, but it’s a creatively and emotionally generous piece of work, as well as an impressive achievement of sustained compositional effort and meticulous attention to detail, realised through absolutely top-notch performance and production values. The Inner Road draw on a well-established musical language to present an extremely polished sophomore release of irresistible rhetorical force and impeccable musicianship.

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