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Album review: ESP - Invisible Din (2016) ; ESP 2.0 - 22 Layers of Sunlight (2018)

ESP  first two albums.jpg

Invisible Din and 22 Layers of Sunlight

ESP began as a two-man band comprised of guitarist/producer/multi-instrumentalist Tony Lowe and drummer Mark Brzezicki, ably supported by a stellar cast of collaborators. Lowe first came to my attention as the guitarist for the live launch of the 2015 David Cross and Robert Fripp CD Starless Starlight (which Lowe produced) where his understanding and appreciation of one of the most classic and memorable progressive rock melody lines was on display; on Invisible Din he handles guitars, keyboards, bass and vocals. Lowe wrote and produced the album and, along with Cheryl Stringall (who provided the exceptionally well-presented CD package) he’s also the co-founder of Sunn Creative, a socially aware record label which operates on ethical business principles, including a commitment to environmental and social issues.

Brzezicki is best known for his work with Big Country, though prog fans will associate him with Procol Harum; he’s well regarded in drum circles and boasts an impressive session CV. These two musicians assembled some great names from the prog scene to play on Invisible Din including early exponents and more recent practitioners; bassists Steve Gee and Phil Spalding; John Young on additional keyboards; vocalist John Beagley; David Jackson on saxes and flute; Yumi Hara on harp; Pat Orchard on acoustic guitar; and David Cross on violin.

Lowe has said that the concept behind Invisible Din was “the songs evoke a man’s childhood memory of illness and a ghostly, healing presence of beauty as he ventures into the realms of the astral world. The music and lyrics encompass the yearning we have for that elusive other, the dream partner, crossing the line between reality and fantasy as he ventures into the unknown.” On repeated listening it’s obvious the concept stands up really well. There’s a Floydian feel to some of the material, partly down to the exacting production values but also because the work is remarkably melodic. It’s evident that each member understands their individual role within the group, producing densely layered lines of largely instrumental prog of the highest order. There are three lead instruments available at any one time playing over a solid, busy rhythm section. The lyrics are concise but well constructed and the vocal delivery, by Lowe, Brzezicki and Beagley is sympathetic to the storyline and pitched to convey appropriate emotions: reflection; elation; longing. The keyboard patches are accurate reproductions of 70s analogue sounds and I can detect influences as varied as early Genesis, post-Gabriel Genesis, UK, a little Pawn Hearts-era Van der Graaf Generator and maybe some 10cc art-rock. I’m not suggesting the sound is derivative in any way and if I were to suggest a sonic comparison, I’d plump for one of the modern Italian symphonic prog acts because of the use of the flute.
When Invisible Din launched in 2016 I thought that ESP represented a new standard-bearer for symphonic progressive rock. Subsequent releases have veered more into post- or alt-rock territory though they have maintained good-sized chunks of symphonic prog, the content perhaps reflecting the changing line-ups.

Following the launch of the debut album I pronounced that I wanted to hear more from them. A year and a half later 22 Layers of Sunlight was produced by a more settled outfit, with Lowe and Brzezicki being joined by Peter Coyle (ex-Lotus Eaters) on vocals plus bassist Pete Clark and keyboard player Richard Smith; ESP Invisible Din was more of a Lowe/Brzezicki-led collective which though showcasing the talents of a variety of guest musicians including David Cross and David Jackson (whose collaboration CD Another Day coincidentally arrived on my doormat the same day as 22 Layers of Sunlight) and vocalist John Beagley, would have been a nightmare to organise as a touring entity.

Coyle brought the 22 Layers of Sunlight concept with him, an original, cautionary tale of global tech-monopolies and AI that has increasing relevance in modern society. It was good to hear the instrumental layers are all still there, with the opening track God of Denial and its subsection The Code shifting seamlessly from angular post-rock guitar riffs to a couple of bars of lead synthesizer that wouldn't be out of place on a proggy Steven Wilson album and then to orchestrated soundscape, all neatly tied together by Coyle's clever lyrics.

Algorithm contains some post-Hackett Genesis drum sounds and a dual vocal passage that strongly reminds me of Sigur Rós, then the title track has a cinematic orchestrated movement that gives way to a quality prog workout before reprising the chorus and main melody, though overlain with some gorgeous guitar soloing.

Ride through Reality allows the players to let rip, it's an instrumental with a little vocalising, partly jazzy but also reminiscent of Lamb Lies Down-era Genesis instrumental blows, brief but not short on quality. Smiling Forever is another post-rock composition, laden with Mellotron string patches before it also goes full-Floyd with beautiful, tasteful slowburn guitar and after a vocal reprise blends into the laid-back Don't Let Go section of the longest track on the CD Butterfly Suite with flute Mellotron patches.  Traveling Light is the excellent instrumental part of this track, harking back to the sounds and complex rhythms of Genesis circa 1973 with some great synthesizer and organ work and more tasteful guitar, which eventually resolves into a very Hackett-like, disturbing riff before Sensual Earth continues with similar sounding themes, alternating analogue synthesizer lines and expressive guitar.

Gunshot Lips is a more modern-sounding track, its urgency dissolving into trance grooves before the driving beat resurfaces, though it retains the multiple layers of the more cinematic and prog pieces. When he introducing the song at a gig at the Half Moon in London, Coyle confessed he didn't know why it was called 'Gunshot Lips'. Final track Ballad of Broken Hearts is an orchestrated, melodic piece with a deceptively pop-y structure overlain with harmonic splashes of guitar and lead synth. It's quite optimistic sounding until about three quarters of the way through when it slows and becomes more proggy and reflective as Coyle sings 'is this all I can hope for?'

You can tell it's an ESP album - there are certain similarities in quality of voice between Coyle and his Invisible Din predecessor Beagley - with the same degree of originality and a greater feeling of consistency on 22 Layers, though there are probably more excursions away from the undeniably symphonic prog feel of Invisible Din. It's certainly a worthy sophomore effort, expertly crafted with excellent writing and musicianship, impeccable production and once again, a beautiful presentation.

I think of ESP Invisible Din as a Lowe/Brzezicki band but after seeing ESP 2.0 live, where Coyle took on the role of the front man, the group appeared to be more democratically organised than its predecessor. Both albums are well worth adding to a prog collection though I’d suggest that Invisible Din is one that any symphonic progressive rock fan would enjoy most.

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