Bad Elephant Music has an eclectic array of bands; and, while I don’t always mesh with all of them, I still admire what they offer to the world. Mike Kershaw happens to be one of the artists that I really like, and he has a new album, called “Arms Open Wide”, that is releasing on August 17th. I feel like it might be his best yet, too.
Mike hails from the UK. He covers vocals, keys, and programming himself, but is backed by Gareth Cole on guitars, Leopold Blue-Sky on bass, and Stefan Hepe (Gandalf’s Fist) on drums. The album also features Stuart Nicholson (Galahad) on guest vocals and Owen Kershaw on spoken words.
I really liked Mike’s last outing, “What Lies Beneath”, with its pastoral tone and even Floydian textures. The musical style of this new album is a bit more daring and a little more “out there” than I expected. As a result, it doesn’t hit you as instantly as the smooth prog rock of his earlier works, but I think the pay off is bigger. On this album, I would even say that Mike forays into the world of post-prog somewhat. The songs aren’t as straightforward or simple, mixing rougher textures with unorthodox beats, piercing synth, indefinite song structures, and almost this sense of chaos (in a good way). It’s difficult to describe because it is something pretty far removed from neo-prog at times, or whatever I would have labelled his earlier outings, but at the same time you can still here his signature melodies and sense of musicality. Overall, this album is darker and grittier and more grounded.
Mike’s voice, as I stated in my last review for him, is one that is a bit rough in texture, but quickly becomes an endearing part of the music. His keys are also a major highlight, offering purity and something to lift your head in the middle of the darker music. Gareth’s guitars are also a pleasure, with pealing solos and steely licks playing up against Mike’s melodies, not to mention the excellent acoustic playing through the second half of the album. Leopold’s bass and Stefan’s drums are also real winners, adding to the frenzied yet smooth feeling of the album.
The album begins with a four-part suite called “Fear”. The tracks flow into each other, and I’m assuming they are addressing the fears that are peddled to the masses, especially with Mike hailing from the Brexit-torn UK right now. I have to say that this suite is one of the most unconventional, multi-textured offerings I’ve heard in some time, and I love every second of it. Overall, the lyrics are all about paranoia, angst, fear, etc.
This opening suite is my favorite part of the album. “Fear Factory” dumps us into the thick of this grey musical style I have been describing. It begins rather hectically, almost with this post-metal sound to it, but then does eventually descend into a smooth ending that is atmospheric and beautiful. “Facing the Fear”, seemingly an answer to the first song, starts with an atmosphere of synth, as if you were floating. Indeed, the whole song feels that way, occasionally grounding you with roaring guitars. “All That Matters is the Fear” features Stuart Nicholson on vocals. I happen to love Stuart’s voice, and so this song hits the mark big time for me, especially with the sincere synth and pleasing grooves. Finally, “The Fear Inside Me” turns its attention to personal space, and so the music follows suit. It ends this suite with inner musings and synthy passages, but there is this rumbling beneath the surface that reminds us of the fear and tremors from the first three tracks.
The second half of the album is a bit happier and lighter than the opening suite. This is represented by the joyful melodies and the acoustic guitars that are more prevalent here. Still, the music is excellent, and I’m particularly mesmerized by the acoustic guitar that is so clean and even technical at points. My favorites in this section are “Keys to the Kingdom”, which has this wandering feeling to it but also this interesting electronic interlude that I really like; and “Dark Spaces”, with its ominous and uncertain feelings. The last half is definitely easily to process, but I almost feel like that was necessary after the chaotic brilliance of the first four tracks.
Mike has a wonderful album on his hands, from the amazing artwork to the leery lyrics to the truly interesting music. I can tell that he is growing musically and also becoming more self-confident in what he can achieve. And I think he’s achieved quite a bit on this new work, especially the opening suite, which is one of the best things I’ve heard this year. This is definitely an album that progressive rock fans should keep in their sights.