Once an artist has achieved near perfection, it can be quite a daunting task to review their further efforts. Robin of Cosmograf has been very active in the last few years, and his offerings are always top tier in every way. Last year, he released “The Unreasonable Silence”, which was certainly his best album yet, a true prog classic to me. This year he is getting ready to release “The Hay-Man Dreams” on July 14th, and I find it to be a more than solid offering that fans will love.
Cosmograf is basically a solo project from Robin Armstrong; as he sings, and also plays guitars, bass, and keys. His guest musicians are always fantastic, too, and this time we experience efforts from Rachael Hawnt on vocals, Kyle Fenton on drums, a guest spot from Matt Stevens of The Fierce and the Dead on guitars, Rachel Hall on violin, and David Allan on the spoken word narration. Robin’s style of music has always been Floydian in foundation, and so the music is generally progressive rock with lots of room for twists and turns.
“The Hay-Man Dreams”, however, is significantly more influenced by classic rock than any of his past albums. There is more grit and riff to this album, and even the vocals feel more inspired by classic rock bands. Robin’s guitars, too, are far bluesier and rock oriented than on other albums, and his bass guitar is far bulkier and fuller. His Gilmour influence has always been notable, but that is all but gone on this album. Instead, there is far more in the way of bluesy musings and straight up riffing, and these differences add character to the album overall. The use of piano seems to be more prevalent on this album, as well, with plenty of gorgeously performed passages, such as on “Melancholy Death of a Gamekeeper”, where it is paired with some very classic rock inspired guitar work.
The album, however, retains the trademark melancholy and narration of Cosmograf, which makes for an interesting combination with the typically haughty vanity of much classic rock. On the previous album, “The Unreasonable Silence”, I noted how Robin seemed to have gone outside his comfort zone a bit with some wild-eyed passages, and I loved that. This time around, he seems to be contrasting his usual subtlety with pure rock. Many of the tracks offer very elusive touches that really make them great, but you often cannot put your finger on why the song grabs you so well. On the other hand, other tracks showcase classic rock attitude and rumble in all their glory.
A perfect example of this dichotomy is the relationship between “Trouble in the Forest” and “The Motorway”. The former is one of the subtlest songs I’ve heard this year (possibly due to the ambient effects from Matt Stevens), and yet the progression here is significant and transcendent, as the song seems to hang in midair. “The Motorway”, in contrast, starts softly, but then transitions into a rock song with grit and wind in its hair.
As always, this album features a fantastic concept. Cosmograf has always been about the longings and struggles of the human spirit. Robin’s music is also always ominous and thoughtful, whether in composition or in lyrical concept, in order to facilitate that concept, too. Robin’s imaginative lyrics are definitely a high point for each and every album, and this album is no different.
The concept here revolves around a farm hand who dies tragically. His wife builds a scarecrow as a sad monument to him, and it seems to contain the spirit of her lost love. This “hay-man” observes the world around him as the years pass. He sees the problems in the world that skirt the edges of his vision, and he also dreams and longs for the wider world around him, seeing as how he is rooted in the same field for all time. His sadness and yearning for other places and things make up the emotional content of this album. He questions his own humanity and emotional ability, and it seems to me that his dreams and that question itself verify the humanity still writhing within him.
All of this is played out in some fantastic tracks. “Tethered and Bound” opens the album with a sense of depth and dread. It presents the erecting of the hay-man, and the music is suitably sad and melancholic. I love it. The above mentioned “Trouble in the Forest” is certainly my favorite track with tons of accents and emotions. I also like “The Motorway” for its wild splendor. Every track is full of the expected rigor and melody, too.
“Hay-Man” is a fantastic end for the album, and I’d like to share some thoughts. The song begins from the wife’s perspective (I think) as Rachael takes over vocals for the first half. You can feel the love and the sorrow as she seems to understand the fate to which she is abandoning her love. It’s almost as if her own longings for other things besides the field are transferred to the hay-man. Or perhaps this is a new woman who is discovering the scarecrow and pondering his existence. Anyways, the song is melodic and bluesy, but transitions into a heavier offering, and then again into more delicate ideas, including some beautiful violin from Rachel.
Overall, I won’t lie and say that this is my favorite Cosmograf album, as I like both “The Man Left in Space” and “The Unreasonable Silence” better. However, Robin always delivers, and I’m not disappointed in this release. This album is not only interesting in its concept, but it is also sublime in its contrasting compositions. I really love what he has put together here, and I know fans will eat it up eagerly.