It’s hard to imagine how 2016 could get any better at this point. After a disappointing first couple months, this year has kicked into high gear with some truly classic releases. Nine Stones Close last released an album back in 2012, and they’ve gone through some important line-up changes since then. I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect to like, let alone love, their new album “Leaves”, but they’ve gone and proven me wrong. There’s quite a bit to tell, so I’ll get right to it.
First up, the physical changes should be mentioned. Three of the five band members off of 2012’s “One Eye on the Sunrise” are gone. Brendan Eyre (keys), Marc Atkinson (vocals), and Peter Vink (bass) are all gone now, being replaced by Christiaan Bruin (keys), Adrian O’Shaughnessy (vocals), and Peter Groen (bass). Adrian Jones (guitars) and Pieter van Hoorn (drums) remain, however. If you know much about the progressive community, you will have already noticed that the band lost some incredible players, most notably Brendan (Riversea and Northlands) and Marc (Riversea). In fact, the blow is so huge that I was very worried about the future of the band. Brendan happens to be one of my favorite keyboardists, and Marc is literally in my top three favorite vocalists ever.
There have been some stylistic changes, too, and I think it’s important to mention them before going into details about the various performances and such. Nine Stones Close have always taken hefty influence from Pink Floyd, so their music is slower, psychedelic, and very atmospheric. “One Eye on the Sunrise”, the masterpiece it is, has a very slow and spacey feel to it. With “Leaves”, however, the band has embraced a new style; one that has me excited. While some Pink Floyd influence is still prevalent, my first impression of the album actually involves grunge, specifically Alice in Chains and a bit of Soundgarden, too. I know that much of the prog community hates grunge, but I personally love it. Gritty guitar licks, emotional and raw vocals, and heavier riff-based portions started to tip me off, but it was the slower tempos and the dissonance of the vocal harmonies that really excited me. In essence, “Leaves” is everything I always hoped Alice in Chains and Soundgarden would become!
I hope the band doesn’t mind my observations here. When I break down the musicians’ performances, too, the grunge factor is even stronger. Adrian Jones, guitarist and heart of the band, does an incredible job here. His guitars are distorted, hardened, and even heavy at times. He is omnipresent on this album, really driving everything else. His work here is brilliant in that it can really be grasped and appreciated. Peter on bass and Pieter on drums prove to be very important here, too. Their rhythm work is vital to the plodding tempos and the start-stops that feel so nostalgic, not to mention that they have such a rich sound in the mix. Christiaan (also known for his solo album “Days of Summer Gone”, a personal favorite album of mine) provides keys on the album, and (I suspect) some of the composition for the cello and violin present at points. He amazes me here because his instrument doesn’t normally fit in the grungy sound, but he makes it work with finesse and utter brilliance at times. Somehow, the keys make the music even more emotional and weighty.
Adrian O’Shaughnessy steps in for Marc on vocals. As much as I love Marc’s voice, I feel like his rich, melodic voice would have been out of place on this record. Adrian’s voice is perfect, reminding me of Lane Staley (Alice in Chains, obviously) and Paul Mackie (Pallas). That means that Adrian’s voice reaches its peak perfection when it is slightly off key or a little shrill. Not to say that he sings off key here, but his voice has a hardened edge that suits the heavier style of “Leaves”. On my first listen, it took some time to process the wildly different style of singer, but having heard the album several times now, I’m thrilled that they found this guy!
So, the changes in line-up bred a change in style, and it has become an earworm for me. “Leaves” is stunning in its deliberate, detailed songs, as there are only five tracks here. They are all about 10 minutes or more in length besides the opening track “Complicated”, a wonderful little song that introduces us to the higher range of Adrian’s vocals. Each track is simply outstanding, however. My favorites are “Goldfish” and “Lie”, though that’s not really fair, as I love “Spoils” and “Leaves”, too. “Lie” just has this addictive groove to it, and “Goldfish” has some luscious space that feels just right. “Spoils”, though contains a really heavy portion near the end that grabs my attention every time.
Nine Stones Close have created more than a solid album here. They have crafted an album with razor edges, glorious climaxes, and raw emotions. They are heavier, more grounded, and, well, they rock! If you like the idea of a more progressive version of the early 90’s, jump on the wagon. This album will not disappoint.