Album Title: Paint The Sky
Label: Frontiers Music
Date of Release: 21 January 2022
This record has to be one of my most anticipated releases of 2022 and it’s a delight to be able to finally bring you my considered thoughts about it.
I’ve been a fan of Vivien Lalu for quite some time but I’m certainly not the only one. A quick look at the discography for the keyboardist, composer, and producer, and you’ll see how integral the Frenchman is to the progressive music world, both rock and metal. From contributing keyboard solos and producing records to composing both for his own endeavours and with others, the list is impressive. Shadrane, Shadow Gallery, Tomorrow’s Eve, Minds Eye…the list goes on. It’s hardly surprising either, given the fact that Vivien Lalu was literally born into the world of prog, the son of Noelle and Michel Lalu, musicians from a 1970s French progressive act by the name of Polène.
Under his own Lalu moniker however, ‘Paint The Sky’ represents just his third release. In 2005, Vivien released ‘Oniric Metal’, followed up a mere eight years later by ‘Atomic Ark’. And now, the better part of nine years on, we finally have ‘Paint The Sky’. Boasting a new line-up, the composer, keyboardist and producer is joined by none other than Damian Wilson on vocals, drummer Jelly Cardarelli, and Joop Wolters handling both guitar and bass duties. But that’s not all, because there’s a whole host of guests who have been invited to take part on the record. Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess is one, as Steve Walsh (Kansas) and Simon Phillips (Toto, Judas Priest), not to forget Simone Mularoni (DGM), Jens Johansson (Stratovarius), Alessandro Del Vecchio (Jørn Lande, Hardline, Revolution Saints) and Tony Franklin (Roy Harper, Whitesnake, David Gilmour, Jimmy Page). And, as if it wasn’t already impressive enough, there’s even a guest vocal slot by Gary Wehrkamp of Shadow Gallery and an appearance from Vikram Shankar (Redemption, Silent Skies).
Are you salivating yet? I think you’ll agree that this is an impressive line-up of guests from across the spectrum of progressive music. But what is equally impressive is the music that they have helped to shape. Without doubt, Vivien Lalu has come of age and whilst previous solo efforts were absolutely worthy of praise, then ‘Paint The Sky’ takes things to a whole new level.
Lalu himself contacted me last year to alert me to this new album, and when trying to tentatively, almost shyly, describe the direction and sound of the music, suggested that he had wanted to explore a “modern, Yes/metal” sound. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been the biggest Yes fan if but for a couple of reasons. Firstly there are the vocals of Jon Anderson who, despite being a great vocalist, was one that I never fully warmed to. Secondly, as a lover of heavier music, I found some of the music way too light and a little overindulgent. Sacrilegious views in some quarters I fully admit.
However, what Vivien Lalu has done here is to take that 70s prog essence, beef it up, and make the music more succinct overall, with not one of the tracks extending beyond eight minutes. This is a collection of songs; detailed, technical, and progressive in nature, but songs first and foremost. At over 63 minutes, it’s on the cusp of still being too long, but on this occasion, I can let it go. Why? Because when you take these aspects and then bring in vocalist Damian Wilson, a voice far more to my tastes, inject some killer melodies, and wrap it all up in a rich, vibrant production, you have musical nectar. The whole experience is aural bliss. And the great thing is that this music will almost certainly appeal to fans right across the prog spectrum, uniting many of us with stunning music that we want to listen to again and again.
Make no mistake that there is barely a minute wasted anywhere on ‘Paint The Sky’, so each and every song deserves a mention. However, to do so would lead to the longest review in history. Instead, I shall highlight a few of my favourites, thereby leaving some mystery intact, allowing you to uncover some of the gems yourselves when you get hold of this album. And believe me, you will be buying this, even if Frontiers are apparently not making any effort to maximise the gorgeous Travis Smith artwork, releasing the CD in their usual bog-standard jewel case. I really wish Frontiers would consider a different approach – a hardbook version, or even a decent digipack would look so much better as far as I’m concerned.
That said, it’s all about the music and on that score, I have to commence proceedings with the opening track, ‘Reset To Preset’ because it sets the tone for the entire album perfectly. Vivien Lalu somewhat self-deprecatingly refers to the music as a ‘dumbed down’ interpretation of Yes, but you can hear the influence of one of his greatest inspirations writ large across the song. In my eyes, it isn’t dumbing down, it’s cleverly incorporating influences to achieve something much more aligned with Vivien’s own musical vision. Damian Wilson puts in a commanding performance, whilst Lalu himself liberally laces the material with his sounds and textures without overpowering or dominating the music. There’s a terrific ebb and flow to the material, whilst the more metallic elements are demonstrably present, particularly in the chunky guitar riffs and notes, complimenting the more subtle passages perfectly. The lead guitar solo towards the end is fabulous, but then so is just about everything about the song. Catchy, varied, technical, but eminently enjoyable from the first note to the last.
If you’re looking for something more ‘progressive’ in the classic 70s sense, then look no further than either of the two versions of the title track. The first boasts the vocals of Steve Walsh, whilst the second, which closes out the album with full-on instrumental flamboyance, features the expert drumming of Simon Phillips. I love the way that they sound both similar yet also so different, a compliment to both the composer and the musicianship from each and every artist that features. If I had a preference, it’d be the first version, just because I find the two vocalists’ performances within it so engaging. To be honest though, it’s like asking me to pick a favourite child.
‘Witness To The World’ is the first of what I would argue is a devastating one-two of tracks that are more immediately accessible thanks to gorgeous melodies. The bass in particular plays an important role in the song that spends a lot of the time in slow-burn territory. Wilson’s captivating voice, the rumbling simplistic bass, and the sensitive, almost minimalist feel of the song all come together to create scintillating melodies that finally release into heavier territory topped off by a sumptuous lead guitar solo.
‘Lost In Conversation’ follows and if anything is even more stunning. It has more of a pop-like quality to it thanks to the chosen hooks within the AOR-tinged chorus, but it just feels so mature and effortless, as if everything that the band touched turned to gold on this song. I love the whimsical prog minimalism into which the track descends for a time, before rebuilding and then launching back into the warm embrace of the chorus melody. This is easily one of the songs of the year so far and I fully expect this to remain the case until December.
‘Standing At The Gates Of Hell’ is book-ended by some of the heaviest and most abrasive material on ‘Paint The Sky’ whilst at the same time delving into genuinely minimalist experimentation, lacing it with jazz-infused prog, led initially by the guitars of Joop Wolters before Lalu takes up the baton and runs with it in what becomes one of the longest instrumental breakdowns on the album.
And finally for this review, I have to mention ‘The Chosen Ones’. In my notes, I wrote just one word: ‘wow’. I stand by this sentiment, one that gets stronger with every passing listen, eventually pushing ‘Lost In Conversation’ every inch of the way. Drummer Jelly Cardarelli is fantastic, offering arguably his best, most flamboyant performance, whilst Jordan Rudess adds extra colour with a keyboard solo. But for me, it’s the strength of the melodies that smack me around the face, sending shivers down my spine every time I hear them, especially when used so sparingly and then heavily contrasted with quieter interludes for maximum effect.
I could so easily go on and pull out so many other nuggets of brilliance, but I’ll let you discover these for yourself. I cannot stress just how wonderfully satisfying, entertaining, and enjoyable ‘Paint The Sky’ is. Whatever your preference when it comes to progressive music, I absolutely guarantee that there will be plenty for you to enjoy within ‘Paint The Sky’. It has technicality and flamboyance aplenty, but crucially, it is never present at the expense of the songs themselves. With performances out of the top drawer from the band and guests alike, there is literally nothing that I can fault with this album whatsoever. I adore it, and I suspect that you will too. Prepare to hear the first genuine candidate for the best album of 2022, I kid you not.
The Score of Much Metal: 97%
Check out my other 2022 reviews here:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: