When bands dare to change, I admire that. It doesn’t always mean that I will love the changes, though. Nine Skies is on their third album now, and so far I’ve liked the debut and now this new record. I didn’t like the second one. Go figure. The new album is called 5.20 and it released on June 4th.
Nine Skies is a French band. The lineup is huge. It includes Aliénor Favier on vocals; Eric Bouillette on guitars, mandolin, violin, and keyboards; Alexandre Lamia on guitars and keyboards; Anne-Claire Rallo on keyboards; David Darnaud on guitars; Achraf El Asraoui on vocals and guitars; Bernard Hery on bass; Fabien Galia on drums; and Laurent Benhamou on saxophones. Guest spots include Steve Hackett on guitar, Damian Wilson on vocals, John Hackett on flute, Cath Lubatti on violin and viola, and Lilian Jaumotte on cello. Many minds went into this record, and I think the results speak to this.
A few years ago, I reviewed the band’s debut called Return Home. It was a beautiful, modern, fresh album that mixed rock, metal, and jazz, and celebrated human emotions in a metropolitan setting. Great stuff. However, their second album came along in 2019, called Sweetheart Grips. I really didn’t enjoy it. There was something uninspired and even a bit cacophonous about it, like things didn’t line up well. I didn’t bother reviewing it just because I knew I didn’t have nice things to say. The band clearly tried some new things, but those things just didn’t jive with me.
Well, the band is back with another record, and I almost skipped listening to this one, just because I didn’t want to end up in the same situation again. I’m glad I did, though. 5.20 is a gorgeous, delicate, and illustrious album. It chooses a quieter, more reserved mood with lots of strings, flute, sax, and piano. Adding Steve Hackett’s excellent solo on “Wilderness”, his guitar style instantly recognizable, and also adding Damian Wilson on “Porcelain Hill”, were both great ideas that communicated the style and sound they wanted to achieve. I can tell that the band wrote this album carefully and peacefully.
Let’s talk about those two tracks. “Wilderness” is a beauty, for sure. The track has a great chorus, gorgeous acoustic guitars, and the epic solo from Hackett. It isn’t a rocking or showy track, but instead reserves this greatness for subtle moments and perfect notes. “Porcelain Hill” is even better. Maybe it’s because I’ve been craving some Damian Wilson vocals lately, but this track absolutely hits the spot, if you know what I mean. Damian sounds fantastic, and he phrases the vocal melodies and lyrics so damn well. The track comes across as emotional and grand, and I love it, especially the central hook.
But the rest of the album is superb, as well. One of my favorite things about the record is the shorter instrumental tracks, like “Beauty of Decay”, an acoustic affair, and “Achristas”, a piano piece that is potent and lovely. The piano throughout the album is incredibly good, in fact. “Dear Mind” is probably my favorite of these tracks, though, with its cinematic ending and stunning keys.
Other great tracks are “Colourblind”, the opener with emotive sax and a wonderful chorus; “Above the Tide”, a folksy song with some truly spellbinding string-laden and percussive moments; and “The Old Man in the Snow”, a gentle and nostalgic song with John Hackett’s splendid flute and some fantastic percussion. “Smiling Stars” ends the album much in the way that “Colourblind” opened it, with grand progressive rock with saxophone segments.
Nine Skies is developing and experimenting, and I think this is their best work to date. This album doesn’t pretend to be overtly technical or bombastic, but instead chooses a quiet, artistic, and classy atmosphere in which to celebrate melody and charm. This is a whimsical record: one that will sound great as you sit back and focus on nothing else.
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