[Cuneiform Records, 2017]
Intro: Paris Gravouniotis
Translation: Niki Nikolakaki
08 / 03 / 2017
A groundbreaking band from Denver sprang up in the 80s wanting to explore the golden rule between avant-garde, fusion, prog rock and classical music based on experimentation. The buzz of course is about Thinking Plague, who having as leaders guitarist Mike Johnson and bassist / drummer Bob Drake have released three full length albums from 1984 to 1989 with In This Life rightly being considered their best. The common path of the leader of Hamster Theatre Dave Willey and Mike Johnson helped the latter to convince the first to reactivate Thinking Plague after 10 years of absence. With a renewed line-up they released In Extremis (1998), perhaps their top album and one of the best examples of progressive music of the 90s. After five years and for the first time without Drake in their credits, they released an even more quality album called A History Of Madness (2003). An empty decade followed until the release of Decline And Fall (2012), with an ambiguous feedback from fans and critics. It remains to see if this year’s project is able to reintroduce them in the elite of avant-prog.
Experimentation in the service of art
When a band releases their seventh album after 36 years of progress it can be judged by some as counterproductive. But if we look closely at the total of 20 years they were at a standstill, we can conclude to the fact that Thinking Plague are the creative field of their leader Mike Johnson and whenever he has something to “say” artistically he reactivates the band, which naturally honors him. Having now firmly Dave Willey by his side, he released Hoping Against Hope. The first thing one notices is the enhanced role of the singer Elaine Di Falco, contributing with her piano and accordion. Overall the musical arsenal is richer than the one in the previous album, since a touch of flute and oboe colour the final result.
Through the six compositions of the album we see the whole range spreading along and the scope of influence of Thinking Plague. For example the opening The Echoes Of Their Cries is an example of experimental progressive music, with the well-meant abstract introduction followed by a hard guitar riff and the characteristic avant female vocals, including unexpected changes subsequently, rich orchestration and dark environment.
Thus Have We Made The World follows the same stylistic context, constituting a full composition that will fascinate the demanding listeners. The shorter in duration Commuting To Murder and The Great Leap Backwards invest in obscure avant-garde atmospheres bringing to mind the works of Henry Cow, Art Bears and Univers Zero. The introduction of acoustic guitar, oboe, accordion of the ten-minute epic of the homonymous track does not prepare us for what is going to follow, where once again they demonstrate the ease with which they can move between melody, atmosphere and experimentation. The 13-minute long A Dirge For The Unwitting that closes the curtain is perhaps the richest composition of this album. The guitar work by Johnson and Bill Pohl (for the first time second guitarist as a regular member) reflects the influence of Fripp in their sound, while the rhythm section of Willey / Chestnut is the backbone where the liberated jazz ideas by Mark Harris (saxophone, clarinet, flute) and the other musicians find a breeding ground.
There is no doubt that Thinking Plague not only managed to overcome their previous work, but also to release a project that will featured in many lists this year. Hoping Against Hope will delight any listener seeking difficult and special music that is not tiring but rewarding. Let us hope for a similar continuity and not another long break!
8 / 10
For those who feel they were born at the wrong time and did not catch up with the flourishing of the RIO scene, the Americans Thinking Plague is the best answer and hope. Worthy successors and defenders of a particular genre they revive with dedication, consistency and respect with every new album. This year’s Hoping Against Hope ranges between Henry Cow (of the Western Culture era) and Art Bears with whatever good this implies, filtered through a personal and fresh perspective that doesn’t fail to be felt to the nostalgic ones and attract new listeners at the same time. Dark melodies and unpredictable rhythms that evolve in a revolutionary way with the vocals here being presented more as an additional instrument despite their established role we are accustomed to. The excellent production enhances the homogeneity of the result despite the elaborate nature of the orchestrations. This is a serious candidature for one of the most serious and qualitative works of 2017, thanks to the talent, chaotic imagination and creative power of Thinking Plague.
8.5 / 10