Unitopia are not a band given to rushing things. Formed in 1996 in their native Australia it took them the best part of nine years to release their first album, More Than A Dream. Now we have their second effort the huge, sprawling, grandiose double CD set called The Garden (Inside Out Music, 2008).
Drawing on their inspiration from classic progressive bands such as Genesis and Yes, Unitopia have come up with a truly epic work in both scale and execution. In doing so they have run the risk of falling into the age old prog-rock trap of being seen as a touch over indulgent.
However the end result, a hundred high quality minutes, dispels that fear with some superbly written, and constantly intriguing music.
The over riding triumph of this album is the band’s stunning musicianship. Unitopia consists of lead singer Mark Trueack, guitarist Matt Williams, keyboard player Sean Timms, drummer Monty Ruggiero, the additional percussion of Tim Irrgang, and bass player Shireen Khemlani who adds some atmospheric vocals to her bass playing skills.
Clearly there is a strong collective belief in what they aim to achieve. The Garden has all the band's constituent parts working together to such great effect that each has a hugely influential contribution towards the end result.
The instrumentation is totally flawless throughout and along with some intricate writing manages to keep your attention focused, despite the album’s massive scope.
The album itself is presented with some exquisite artwork that conjures up images of The Garden, a place of ‘kaleidoscopic delights’. Despite this, it isn’t a concept album as such. Sean Timms describes it’s theme as ‘hope coming from despair’. However by the end of the second CD, I had long since stopped looking for a link and just sat back to enjoy the power and drama of the music.
Opening with the modest introduction of “One Day”, it moves quickly into an epic centre piece written around the album’s title. Running smoothly through its six parts totalling over 22 minutes, “The Garden” has all the pomp and grandeur of prog at its zenith. Yet it is never over laboured, forced, or pushed, and flows from idea to idea in a multi layered musical tapestry of creation.
Lyrically it can become a touch predictable, but musically it conquers any doubts and provides a valuable addition to the collection of any admirer of classic prog rock. There is a tangible volume of care and craft to justify the time spent on its production.
Superbly packaged both visually and musically, The Garden is indeed a place of ‘unearthly delight’.
It would be wrong to highlight any particular instrument on such a work but quite often the keyboards of Sean Timms take the music into an altogether higher place. Nicely balanced vocals from Mark Trueack are vaguely reminiscent of early Gabriel era Genesis. “The Garden” moves with such precision and momentum that it successfully locks the listener in.
If “The Garden”, with its beautifully uplifting finale, forms the centre piece to the first CD, the five part “Journey’s Friend” ignites the second. In addition there is a lot more. These includes glorious symphonic sounds, a nicely balanced use of effects and samples, jazz keys, soaring guitar solos, and atmospheric additional vocals from bass player Shireen Khemlani.
The exotic and uplifting “Angelique” is stunningly effective, as is the satisfying “Here I Am”. On the two-part “I Wish I Could Fly” they achieve something quite extraordinary. The music literally floats on air with lightness, managing to evoke a genuine sensation of flight with a sense of breezy freedom.
“Inside The Power”, does the same, in a balanced way with the final word of its title. Both of these examples illustrate how much thought and skill have gone into the album's production. “Give And Take” maintains the interest. The driving, “This Life” keeps the momentum. Whilst the tender, “Love Never Ends”, develops into something quite sublime in its mid-section.
There are subtle nods towards the early Beatles on “When I’m Down” which opens with a recording introducing the first ever stereo record from the Fab Four era. “Don’t Give Up Love” opens with some lush Brian Wilson, “In My Room” style harmony.
The scope is huge, and the result is hugely successful. If anything, this work could have been two equally pleasing albums, built separately around the central themes of both disks. Having said that, I can argue against myself by saying that, in this double format, it is best heard in one highly absorbing sitting.
This of course is how we used to rush home from the record store clutching for example, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, before immersing ourselves. Unitopia has managed to provoke a similar sense of wonder with an album that really has to be explored and deserves recognition.