Cosmograf – Heroic Materials

Some albums produce mixed emotions, not over their quality, but over their themes and content.  Robin of Cosmograf has always been an excellent lyricist and conceptual artist, and his new album is no exception.  More than any in the past, though, this one gives me a heavy heart.  The album is called Heroic Materials and it releases on September 9th through Gravity Dream Music.

I’ve been a fan of Cosmograf since 2013’s The Man Left in Space.  Yet, through all the various excellent records that Robin Armstrong has produced since then, I don’t think any have affected me on an emotional level like Heroic Materials.  I mentioned The Man Left in Space because that one, too, is pretty emotional, though removed in some ways from our everyday life because of its space concept.  Heroic Materials hits much closer to home.  This album includes Robin on vocals, guitars, keys, and bass, with help from Danny Manners on piano and Kyle Fenton on drums.

Where even to begin with this one?  I think the music is innately influenced by the concept, so let’s start there.  This is the story of a man who served in WWII as a pilot, but that really isn’t the point.  The story is more like an old man looking back on the days where he felt he mattered, and now he feels like he doesn’t.  He remembers the people he’s lost, the places he’s been, and those beautiful machines—his plane and automobile—and how much power and control he felt through them.  As the world changes, humans do not, and every promise of good things to come ends up being false.  So instead of being a man left in space, this is about a man out of place, but one that may have good instincts about where the world is headed.

Heroic Materials, then, comes across as wistful and nostalgic, like a vintage dream.  As the old man ponders the past in connection with the hopeless present, he cannot help but feel like humanity is circling the drain, so to speak.  He misses the days of freedom and energy, but as new things become old, he feels his life growing old, as well.  The music here is often very sad and ponderous, though it is still progressive rock in style.  I get all kinds of emotions ranging from pride in his past and in his country all the way down to despair as those things change.

One thing that should be noted is Robin’s vocal performance.  I don’t think he’s ever sang in this style as much as he does here.  The style in question features plenty of elongated, vulnerable notes, and this seems to be a theme throughout the record.  The effect of this is that Robin’s vocals feel directly connected to the concept of the album, almost as if the main character is tired and distressed.  Robin really nails this part of the sound, and I feel like this is due to the way the world is right now.  Perhaps the tiredness and distress I hear in his voice are real in some ways.

Being alive today, I can see and feel the same things that might have inspired this record.  I’m not British, obviously, but I can understand the pride and golden nostalgia that this album portrays.  I think I have learned a bit of that through Big Big Train’s material, as well.  I can think of counterparts in the US to everything that Robin mourns and celebrates here.  I can appreciate the nuance that the various guitar solos and beautiful keys betray as every moment of this album feels innately emotional and exposed, laid bare.

I like all 10 tracks.  From the misty reflection of “I Recall” to the organ-heavy darkness of the title track, and from the striking pride of “British Made” to the sad melody of “Mary”, this album has a first half that is full of character.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard such antique texture in an album for some time; I feel like Robin is a skilled production designer.

I think the second half has some of the best moments, too.  “If Things Don’t Change” has a sinister darkness to it, almost like Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet.  I love the organ and the melancholy instrumental portions, but I think the higher energy rock segments are what really sell it.  That goes for “Regretful Refrain”, too, a mostly instrumental track that builds the emotion into a final minute with emotional vocals.  The closer, “A Better World”, is maybe my favorite overall.  I like how it gives us a contrast: melancholy deliberation on the past drenched in rain played right up against a heavier second half that is perhaps a sign of hope?  I don’t know for sure, but even though this album is heavy-hearted in various ways, I don’t feel sad as it closes.

Cosmograf has long been an excellent source of inspiration, storytelling, and musical distinction.  Heroic Materials is all of that, as well, but something more.  The emotions are so mixed, and yet so familiar.  These feelings of watching the world go to hell, but also having an undying love for it and the way things were—that is something difficult to balance.  The album makes the promise to rebuild the world, but also understands that we have to live through its demise before that can happen.  It is foreboding, yet determined, one could say.  As much as I love the technical expertise here, the album is affecting me on a heart level even more than a brain level.  And I’ll probably be processing it for some time.


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