No disrespect to powerhouses Transatlantic, The Flower Kings and whomever the prog audience deem fit to be called a super group, my choice for a group of super veteran musicians would be Lifesigns, a dazzling outfit that currently has a few insanely talented players, namely the Ionic Dave Bainbridge (who is easily my favourite guitar player for the past decade or more) , the maestro John Young on lead vocals and keyboards needs no introduction, the classy Jon Poole on thundering bass guitar and a world class drummer (as well as compatriot) Zoltan Csörsz. The added 5th musketeer is sound designer Steve Rispin, an accomplished engineer who influences both studio as well as live output! Their three studio albums are extraordinary examples of refined, complex yet still accessible symphonic prog of the very finest quality. From their 2013 self-titled debut that featured bass legend Nick Beggs and drummer Frosty Beedle with guests Steve Hackett, Thijs van Leer, Robin Boult and Jakko Jakczyk onto 2017’s magical Cardington (a personal fave), landing Bainbridge and Poole as well as more guests Menno Gootjes (Focus) and Niko Tsonev (Steve Wilson), finally arriving to Altitude , a 2021 release that settled the band into a loyal and homogenous unit that has now recorded a live album in the Netherlands, the object of this review.
The setting for this live concert is the now quite famous Dutch venue, the Boerderij in Zoetermeer in August 2022, presented here as a 2 CD set, with the first being a best of compilation while the second is more aligned with the Altitude album. A dozen masterful tracks that will provide any listener the seal of absolute quality in terms of pristine sound (Dank u wel, Mr. Rispin) within the context of exceptional tunes played by off the charts musicians.
The concert kicks off with engines on and motors running, as the colossal “N” swerves into the collective spirit of the moment, an enthralling epic that acts as a willing anesthetic for the major sonic surgery that is about to begin. Thrilling from the get-go with a dancing piano motif that leads the crew, eventually blending in a variety of synthesizer and organ tonalities, a growling bass menace coupled with drumkit gymnastics, vacillating between bombast and serenity, all the while serenaded by John Young’s rather fabulously convincing voice, the entire arrangement drenched in dramatic enthusiasm. The attention to detail is paramount, such as the slivers of electric guitar slashing across the stage, the fertile synth runs and dressing up with majestic mellotron to add to the thrill. Stimulating music by any and all accounts.
“Open Skies” is a John Young solo song, a bubbly little framework upon which a catchy theme takes hold, featuring a blistering Bainbridge rumble that would make Allen Holdsworth blush and the contributory bass and drums in complete harmony. A churning organ barrage is a highlight that leads to wild applause.
‘Clap along to Zoltan’ is said in the microphone and the crowd willfully obliges on the sleek “Different”, as Young’s bluesy rocker voice grabs the attention, heavy pillar guitar in tow, Poole staggering along with the bashing beats in on the ride. An ornate piano and oboe patch preps the next phase, an intrepid vocal theme gushing with class and a chorus that sears into the nodes, eventually slipping away, slipping away. The interplay is razor sharp, the mood otherworldly and, well, …different. A poignant finale.
From their debut album, and according to Young, a joyful song about the apocalyptic termination of mankind “At the End of the World” is astonishingly upbeat, like endless musical rays of sunshine warming the skin. No hint of rage or anger, at least until halfway in, Zoltan revs up the wrists, arms, legs and feet and shoves this arrangement into a more bombastic realm, Young leading the fast-paced but still enchanting chorus into overdrive, with tons of harmony vocal backing. A scorching electric lead raises the roof!
Beginning of a new world will rely on the imposing “Impossible” enchanting the ears, and this is certainly an extremely catchy lyrical ballad with a singalong chorus for the ages. Yes, its accessible but otherworldly heartfelt and infectious. The Zoltan propeller is effective in keeping this amazing piece solidly entrenched as a highlight track. But when Dave scours the heavens, the prog element really shines through, a wickedly impossible solo that just keeps on giving.
“Altitude” is also longitude as this is a nearly 16-minute epic that forcefully stamps the prog seal on the proceedings, a typical stretched out framework for both melody and instrumental prowess to showcase their worth. The spotlight beam is on Young’s piano and voice, as ‘the tears roll right down my face’, then some tumultuous drum shuffles, choir voices and Poole’s guided missile bass shifting the whole into elevated overdrive. Loftiness is reached when guitars and synths join in in the rarefied stratosphere. Once beyond and in orbit, the mood becomes serene and galactic, more piano, and dried cheeks, a violin patch adding drama to the cosmos. An echoing vocal section with manic jazz flourishes from the Mad Hungarian as well as Bainbridge using some slide technique, really show the incredible creativity of this crew. More weeping, more ivory, more ‘empty space’. The apotheosis is achieved when the arrangement reaches its apex, a paroxysm of unabashed pleasure and sonic bliss. The crowd applauds but is not over just yet, the afterglow needs to kick in first, with Young caressing his synthesizer in carnal delight. A very “Gates of Delerium” feel for the outro. What a glorious high! (Excuse the pun).
The bouncy “Gregarious” recalls the opening tune “N” in that it incorporates the same irregular rhythm but this time adding a monstrous verse and chorus. Convivially stating “all the things we do, all comes down to you, how we sanitize”. A coarse tone on the savage guitar foray, full of piss and vinegar really hits the mark. Band member introductions of course.
High above on the horizon, there is the “Ivory Tower”, borne out of a tremendous melody that can only be measured by the passion expressed from the voice. Life is a roller coaster for us all, no one has had a perfect ride and this piece certainly finds a proper way to describe the pitfalls. As such, it’s a bittersweet ballad about “finding my way home” and while perfection cannot exist, this beauty is a gem, nevertheless. The dynamic” falling down” section gets hot under the collar, finding a new direction is not easy (except musically it seems).
The mood veers now to jazzier perspectives with the cool cat “Shoreline”, a song about salvation that serves as a platform for some tingling electric piano, Zoltan proving he can flex with the best, like a steaming locomotive. The words “Save Me“ and a roiling organ need no further ornamentation, though Dave slaps off another guitar fizzle and John whips his synth into shape. “Fortitude” keeps the melancholia alive, another splendid epic track that has the perfect balance between melody, chops, contrast, atmosphere, and technique, perhaps the most experimental track here with tons of variations, solos spots and boundless energy. So much so, I find it hard to believe I am listening to a live concert, as the sound is pristine beyond a Caribbean blue green lagoon. This is clearly due to Rispin sitting at the board, as he is a musician/engineer with a prominent role in the band.
The magnificent “Last One Home” wades in serene majesty, a soft undertow of melancholic reflection, blessed with a crushingly imposing melody sung to absolute perfection, and anointed with a masterful guitar solo that explains why Dave Bainbridge has been my top guitarist for the past decade. Restrained, profound, sincere, and devastatingly painful, a bluesy lament like you have surely not heard since Gary Moore left our world (I am sure he is applauding from above). A thing of beauty.
The finale instrumental “Kings” has a tingling keyboard intro that sounds like some thing from the Far East, before it explodes into a furious melange of riffs, rolls, rocks and shoals, a slight hint of Zeppelin that was awesome to behold (Ed- Stop with the poetry, will you!).
Easily the finest live album I have heard in a very long time.
5 Dutch windmills