Through little more than some enjoyable songwriting and plugging a much-needed hole in modern progressive music, London’s Messenger managed to convince a whole lot of people, myself included, with 2014’s impressive debut Illusory Blues. Playing a style of folky progressive rock combined with a refreshing modern punch, it was an album that at first I thought was merely decent, but as it came towards the time to make my end-of-year lists, it grew on me so much as for me to list it as my favourite debut record of that year. Modern progressive bands generally tend to ignore what soft-spoken folk music has to offer within the prog realm, and few groups that do include folk elements always feel dated and out-of-touch with modern influences. Messenger balanced this, with a sound partway between the atmosphere of Anathema and the folky melancholy of Bon Iver, combined with excellent melodic songwriting. It was equal parts modern and traditional, and I felt that they were the perfect group to fill the progressive folk gap in the modern prog canon.
I came into Threnodies with high hopes, which as we all know, is the worst thing to approach an album with. I come into writing this review with several of my high hopes fulfilled, and several of them not. This is truly an odd follow-up, I must admit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very good, but for a band that managed to nail such a good style on their first record, changing their sound up the way they have done on Threnodies is always going to raise some eyebrows, regardless of how good the songs here are. Essentially, much of the folk that I felt made the debut so unique has been left out entirely on this sophomore, though all of the songwriting quality that made the debut so enjoyable is still here. There are strong influences from psychedelic rock and 70’s hard rock here, which make this a very different record from its predecessor in terms of mood.
But fortunately for me, the band haven’t lost much of their compositional skill. The songs here are still well written and memorable, despite the rather different sonic palette. “Oracles of War” is the most obvious demonstration of their development, as well as the intense second movement of opener “Calyx”. The band pull out some tones reminiscent of Mastodon or Kingston Wall, as well as plenty of bits straight out of 70’s jam rock. It’s psych jamming, and it’s often pretty damn heavy and explosive. Think aggressive Hammond Organs, strained vocals, tribal drums, that kind of deal. “Oracles of War” almost sounds like a doom metal track at times, and there are multiple moments that give me glimpses of other modern throwback groups like Motorpsycho or Anekdoten. The new influences open up all sorts of worlds for excellent instrumental performances though. The drumming is free-flowing and passionate, and the abundant use of guitar effects of all sorts is far more varied and impressive than before.
But it’s not all different. Fans of the Radiohead side of their debut will not be disappointed, with plenty of songs showcasing the same stretched vocals and smooth atmospheres, sharing sounds with Anathema and Gazpacho again. “Nocturne” and the first half of opener “Calyx” have the best examples of this, with some excellent high-range vocals and guitar effects holding a beautiful verse melody. “Nocturne” also brings to mind some more modern influences from the edgier side of 2000’s indie rock in groups like Mewithoutyou. But much of this has been dressed in the 70’s atmosphere of the heavier sections, which is where the comparisons to Anekdoten really come through – Messenger find a very similar atmosphere to a record like Until All the Ghosts Are Gone on“Balearic Blue” and “Celestial Spheres”.
Threnodies is definitely a different tack from Messenger, and while I definitely respect artists that do whatever they want and don’t repeat themselves, I do feel that they have departed from the beautifully niche style of their debut album a little bit soon. But regardless, there are good songs here, and the band have made an album of smooth modern psych-prog that many will enjoy, just don’t go expecting a true sequel to Illusory Blues.