Lifesigns – Altitude

I don’t always know what I’m going to write when I begin a review.  My mind isn’t always made up about the album I’m discussing, you see.  I haven’t felt as divided in opinion about an album in a long time as I do about the new Lifesigns album.  And I’m not even sure why.  The new album is called Altitude, and it released back on March 8th.

I think that March release date could have something to do with my reaction.  The band had contacted me in February about reviewing the album, which I was excited to do, but the album never arrived.  And so I didn’t hear it, and I sort of forgot that it released at all.  I was in the middle of a major move at the time, so I wasn’t totally focused.  Anyways, a different member of the band reached out recently and provided the album.  By this time, though, I think my interest had faded ever so slightly.  I can be weird like that.

Lifesigns is a band from the UK.  This is their third album, a follow-up to two absolutely fantastic records.  The band is mostly intact, except for a new drummer.  The lineup here is John Young on keyboards and vocals, Dave Bainbridge on guitar, Jon Poole on bass and vocals, and Zoltán Csörsz on drums.  Guests spots include: Robin Boult on acoustic guitar, Peter Knight on violin, Juliet Wolff on cello, and Lynsey Ward on backing vocals.

Moving forward, I’ll just bluntly tell you what I do like, and what I don’t.  I really like the Lifesigns sound.  Their music is smooth, slick, stylish progressive rock.  John uses some amazing synth tones, and his vocals and keys are probably the best things about the music over all.  Every time he brings in a funky keyboard line or launches into a spectacular solo, his playing just feels larger than life, yet somehow also grounded and expressive.  I’m also a big fan of Dave’s guitars and Jon’s bass.  Dave’s guitars have meat to them, and he performs some massive solos here and there.  Jon’s bass is probably my second favorite thing about their style, as it bounces and throbs with deep life and enthusiasm.  Technically speaking, this album is flawless.  These are seasoned and expressive musicians.

One thing I really like about Lifesigns’ compositional style is the way they do musical breaks.  Many of the songs float along, some with emotion and others with restraint.  However, there always comes that one moment in the song where the music suddenly transitions; the entire band suddenly breaks into a satisfying, sustaining groove or rhythm that never fails to enchant.  They’ve written this way since their terrific debut album, and it still thrills me.

What didn’t I like?  I don’t feel like this album has the inspired feeling of their first couple records.  I didn’t feel the moments of sheer mind-blowing brilliance that I expected; I don’t feel like any of the melodies are as overwhelmingly perfect or immensely nourishing as they’ve written in the past.  Maybe it isn’t fair to compare the band to the perfection of past works, but I can’t help it.  Their self-titled debut, for instance, is one of my all-time favorite debut albums.  Their second album, Cardington, was basically just as good.  I expected that level of music, and I don’t feel it is here.

I hate to say it, but I think I can pinpoint two reasons why this is.  First, Martin is no longer on drums.  I don’t even remember them announcing his departure, but he is quite a loss.  His style was so vibrant, subtly technical, and inventive.  I feel like an entire layer of the music is missing, that being some of the most angular, interesting transitions and beats.  I almost wonder if the band knows this, too, since the drums seem to be mixed into the background somewhat, and there are lengthy portions without drums at all. 

I would also point out that this album feels significantly more pastoral.  Their first couple albums pulsated with energy, but this album is quite laid back.  I like that sort of music, so this is just an observation.  On one hand, I think Lynsey’s backing vocals at points add some diversity and life to the music; I also love the violin and cello on the opening epic.  On the other hand, aiming for these tones may have derailed the band’s identity a little bit.

Yet, even when writing all of these things, I can identify songs I really like when looking at the tracklist.  The opening title track is fantastic, being a 15-minute piece with lots of keys, strings, and expression, and also that strong musical break I mentioned above. This song feels like the focus of the record, and some of the other tracks feel like padding to this great opening.  I also really like “Ivory Tower”, again with a strong musical break and a wonderful climactic last few minutes.  “Fortitude” is another good one, though it takes some time to get interesting.  The keys and melodies in the second half are tremendous.

I do feel like the album ends on something of a whimper, though.  Starting with “Arkhangelsk”, a 57-second interlude that is more atmospheric than anything, the album starts a downward tempo trajectory.  The next song, “Last One Home”, is an extremely subtle song, save for one guitar solo, and even though it is six minutes long, it doesn’t feel like anything happens during that time.  The album ends after this with a reprise of the title track.  And, while it is beautiful, it doesn’t add much to the album overall.  In fact, that could be said about most of the songs on this album: they are beautiful, but they don’t really add much overall.

Lifesigns has a lovely album here, and it is certainly solid.  I don’t feel like any song on this album can come close to competing with absolutely any song on their last two records, though.  I like the folk accents and Lynsey’s vocals, though I do wish they were used more, rather than sparingly.  If this is a listener’s introduction to the band, and they really like it, I am happy about that.  When they visit the first couple records, they will probably love those even more.  For my part, I may listen to this from time to time, but it will certainly never have the staying power of their previous works.


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