This might not be all that surprising, but Invention of Knowledge – the brand new joint venture of Flower Kings founder/guitarist Roine Stolt and YES frontman Jon Anderson – sounds exactly like what you’d expect. That is, if what you expect is a hybrid mesh of sweeping, Flower Kings-style song structures and ethereal, epic YES soundscapes, with Stolt’s stylistic guitar work (with some nods to Steve Howe-ish guitar noodling as well) and Jon’s dreamlike lyricism. And if that’s not your cup of tea, well then you probably won’t like this album. I’d also venture to guess that you probably don’t like The Flower Kings or YES, either.
Leading up to the moment I actually got my first listen of this album, I wondered whether my expectations would be well-founded. To bring together two prog juggernauts like Stolt and Anderson is to combine two of the best writers of progressive music, together representing classic and modern eras of composition. Not every supergroup can be Transatlantic or Bad Company; many collaborations, in fact, produce only vaguely interesting, superfluous, and self-gratifying work. Invention of Knowledge, however, is nothing but a mature distillation of its writers’ individual craftsmanship – as became immediately apparent with my first full listen through the record.
The writing throughout is vibrantly colorful without becoming monochromatic, expressive without being excessive, inventive without being too experimental, and familiar without being a rehash of old ideas. In my interview with Roine, the guitarist emphasized that he and Jon simply brought themselves to the creation of this record. That is, neither was attempting to emulate previous works or crowbar themselves into the other’s creative space. Jon wasn’t resurrecting lost ideas from an abandoned YES album concept, and – despite his inevitable stylistic tendencies – Roine too sought only to forge new material. So although the overall sound of Invention of Knowledge was in no way surprising to me, its content was still fresh with its own unique identity.
Perhaps this is due, at least in part, to the fact that the collaboration was initially conceived of by InsideOut owner Thomas Waber, well before anything was written. Back during 2014‘s Progressive Nation at Sea cruise, Jon joined Transatlantic onstage to perform some of the more iconic YES numbers, which proved to be the occasion of Jon and Roine’s first meeting as well as the concrete evidence that they could indeed work well together. With Waber’s prompting (and their schedules cooperating), both writers got to work. That lack of a personal agenda on either Anderson’s or Stolt’s part facilitated their ability to write something new and interesting, devoid of undermining expectations.
The writing of the album was (perhaps appropriately) another trans-Atlantic project: Roine recording pieces of songs and sending them to Jon’s inbox, Jon musing over them, adding his own parts, and sending them back – sometimes within the space of an hour. The album was written and recorded entirely in this back-and-forth fashion, though some of its pervasive familiarity is the result of the “Flower Kings trio” of Jonas Reingold (bass) and Felix Lehrmann (drums), who joined Roine in the studio. Their contributions imported much of the unmistakeable Flower Kings mantra into the project, tightening the album’s overall cohesion through the familiar core they create. Invention of Knowledge also features a handful of other musicians for its full musical compliment, amongst them a previous collaborator of both Jon’s and Roine’s in Tom Brislin (piano, organ and synthesizers), as well as Lalle Larsson (piano and synthesizer) and Michael Stolt (bass and Taurus pedals), in addition to guest backing vocalists Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain of Salvation), Nad Sylvan, Anja Obermayer, Maria Rerych and Kistina Westas.
Invention of Knowledge is lush and symphonic throughout its 66 minutes of duration. Each piece consists of all the melodic components of Stolt/TFK headspace, blended with all the unusual timbres and phrasing of Jon Anderson’s singing. Unlike some Flower Kings and YES tunes that can tend to wander, however, The Invention of Knowledge has very little loosely constructed space to speak of. This contrast might have something to do with the lack of any elongated instrumental sections, which feature prominently on TFK records but are conspicuously absent on this release. Stolt’s nuanced writing still creates plenty of unique instrumental moments, however, as well as niches for Anderson’s vocal inserts. Spacious guitar orchestrations, backed by synth and strong rhythmic elements, provide the necessary supporting structure for the long verses Jon writes, as well as recurring refrains.
Though nine tracks long, Invention of Knowledge actually consists of only four compositions. Three suites, broken into smaller segments, comprise the progression of knowledge: “Invention” (23:10) moves through three movements, “Knowing” (17:45) consists of two parts, and “Everybody Heals” (13:20) follows with three sub movements, before the epic-length, standalone track, “Know…” (11:20), concludes the album. High points for me are the sublime and anthemic “We Are Truth,” as well as the odd-metered ballad “Chase and Harmony,” and the jazzy, Muzak conclusion of “Everybody Heals, Pt I.” I could spend a significant amount of time deconstructing each of these pieces individually, but I think this is the kind of music that benefits from being heard rather than described.
As a whole, Invention of Knowledge is a moving piece of writing, full of swirling philosophical truths that will mean something to you one day and something else entirely the following year. It modulates with each successive listen in a way that is difficult to pin down with words. Jon’s lyrics descry a supremely uplifting view of human capability, a perspective that is almost immediately identifiable. “We Are Truth,” the second movement of the “Invention of Knowledge” suite, is particularly anthemic, expressing bold self-awareness through “faith in the heart,” “faith in the soul,” and confidence in ourselves as “truth made in heaven.” And yet, even as the album continues to explore the exquisite nature of unrivaled human identity, it simultaneously points to something bigger through its exploration of the mystical and the miraculous – elements that human beings might never fully understand. All told, the concept looks backwards as well as forwards, evaluating the creation and acquisition of knowledge as man has matured into his modern-day incarnation, seeing with rose-colored glasses the often unseemly progression, and looking with staunch optimism into the future.
Here’s the bottom line. If you’re a fan of either YES or The Flower Kings, then it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll love this record. The natural pairing of Stolt and Anderson probably didn’t have a lot of naysayers, but if there were any, The Invention of Knowledge should silence them completely. The writing is rich and nuanced, packed with varied instrumentation and additional vocal parts tucked away into the mix. In other words, there’s much that will surprise and delight even with each listen. Perhaps this was a conscious, creative decision on the parts of Anderson and Stolt, to invite the listener to join with them in the lifelong voyage of discovery.