Album review: ESP Project - Phenomena (2020)
Tony Lowe’s ESP Project (ESP, ESP 2.0) has been around in various incarnations since 2016 and since I’ve been a fan of their music from the very beginning, I had high expectations of the fifth album PHENOMENA. I was also pleased to hear that was going to be made available as a limited edition CD after the digital-only sales over peak pandemic.
The quality of the presentation is evident before you peel off the shrink wrap - Cheryl Stringall’s artwork has been a consistent high on all the releases - and there’s a pleasing precision and consistency regarding the production, too, with Lowe commanding an immaculately clear sound. I was a little concerned with the lack of a drummer (Lowe plays all instruments, though I imagine the drums are virtual) but it turns out it’s not a problem; THREE and THE RISING boasted a stable line-up but PHENOMENA is just Lowe and vocalist/lyricist Damien Child, and guest vocalist (and long-term collaborator) Alison Fleming singing on the last track SEVEN BILLION TINY SPARKS.
FIIRST FLIGHT is quite Floydian, with its sound effects intro, lovely atmospheres and some really stately guitar, but the steady groove immediately marks it out as ESP. The track is guitar driven, with the keyboard chords primarily creating a widescreen cinematic backing and a melody line provided by the vocals. There’s a short but interesting instrumental mid-section which veers between melodic and experimental before a classic ESP keyboard line is introduced at the end of the song.
BEFORE SATURN TURNED AWAY is melodic crossover prog, running along at a steady pace. The rhythm pattern lacks a little invention during the first couple of verses but there's a slow, mellow middle section which is more proggy with some nice understated synthesizer lines followed by sedate orchestral washes which add a nostalgic feel. There is also a greater range of keyboard sounds, including stabs of organ.
TELETHESIA hits the ground running, again maintaining a steady pace. The instrumental break after the second chorus is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s A MOMENTARY LAPSE OF REASON until a burst of church organ presages an energetic workout leading up to some Mellotron and synth and the last vocal section.
On first listening FEAR OF FLYING comes across as perhaps the most straightforward track on the album. For the majority of the piece it’s clicking along at a brisk, constant pace, but there’s so much else going on, with short arpeggios and sound effects.
LIVING IN THE SUNRISE has an elegant symphonic opening befitting the bucolic title before going full-ESP. There's a hint of menace in the riff behind the vocals and the keyboard chords add to a vague feeling of disquiet. There are moments during the instrumental section where I'm reminded of NEVERMORE from the first UK album, but the mood lifts once again during the chorus. It’s a well-constructed track that has some similarities with WIND AND WUTHERING-era Genesis.
SLEEPING GIANTS is initially fairly slow-paced. I like the contrast of lyrics describing geological records, old things, and the mention of DNA, modern technology: 'Finger painted genome/Edits blueprints to reality'. It may be the shortest track at 6'08 but there’s still enough time for the song to develop, taking on a disturbed atmosphere before shifting up a gear for a long instrumental middle section where the guitar / keyboard balance is near perfect, and the track ends with a final verse and tectonic sound effects.
SEVEN BILLION TINY SPARKS is almost two tracks, a long instrumental piece replete with a Genesis-like synthesizer opening which gives way to tasteful, slowburn guitar with keyboards blending into the background and a section of lead guitar over 80s Crimson-like knotted guitar. The piece then slows and gets a bit spacey, conforming to the second part of the track, possibly indicated by a note on the inner sleeve: 'Except Song 8': Vocals-Alison Fleming.’ Damien Child’s vocals on the rest of the album may be his strongest performance with the ESP Project – and his lyrics are at a creative peak, but Fleming's voice is very suited to the theme and to the feel of SEVEN BILLION TINY SPARKS where Lowe provided the lyrics.
The album is crammed full of accessible, symphonic rock music with some nice progressive flourishes and effective snatches of experimentation. The key to the ESP sound, clearly in evidence on PHENOMENA, is Child's vocal lines providing the melody, bolstered by Lowe's precise layered instrumentation and sumptuous production. It’s another album that has drifted away from the debut’s symphonic prog, but some great playing, thoughtful lyrics, and the definitive ESP stamp make PHENOMENA another class album.