Sunday, 14 February 2016

Mantra Vega's 'The Illusion's Reckoning' - Album Review

Since leaving Mostly Autumn in 2010, singer/songwriter Heather Findlay has been relatively quiet - at least publicly. Her only release of original material came back in 2011 in the form of an EP called The Phoenix Suite, which sounded quite different from what fans of her previous work were used to. That being said, I liked the EP from the off, and still play it pretty regularly to this day. The raw, stark production really gives Findlay's voice room to breathe, and is totally different from the epic wall of sound that characterise Mostly Autumn's sound. It was produced by Chris Johnson (Mostly Autumn; Fish; Halo Blind), someone who Findlay has worked with often over the years. Her other two solo releases, an acoustic live album with Johnson and a collection of acoustic reworkings with her touring band at the time, were both enjoyable; but it was the full debut solo album that we were really waiting for! Bits of news about Findlay's work kept coming out on social media, but nothing concrete was announced until the formation of Mantra Vega - a new project based around the songwriting team of Findlay and American keyboardist Dave Kerzner (Sound of Contact). Not having heard Sound of Contact's acclaimed debut album Dimensionaut I was unfamiliar with Kerzner's work, but I looked forward to the fruits of this labour. Last month, Mantra Vega's debut album The Illusion's Reckoning was released, and it proved instantly to be worth the wait! Joining Findlay and Kerzner in this venture are guitarists Dave Kilminster (John Wetton; Roger Waters; Steven Wilson) and Johnson; bassist Stuart Fletcher (The Seahorses; We Could Be Astronauts; Halo Blind); and drummer Alex Cromarty (Mostly Autumn). All four of these musicians have played with Findlay at some point during her career, and they all have a great chemistry, helping to bring Findlay and Kerzner's songs to life so well. Other musicians that contribute to the album include Troy Donockley (Iona; Nightwish), Angela Gordon (Mostly Autumn; Odin Dragonfly), and even the progressive giant Arjen Anthony Lucassen (Ayreon; Star One; Stream of Passion; Guilt Machine; The Gentle Storm) contributes a guitar solo to the album's epic title track. Soundwise, The Illusion's Reckoning is more what you would expect from Findlay, but with a few twists and turns thrown in for good measure. There are hints of the early, folky side of Mostly Autumn, but with added big atmospheric keyboard arrangements and a rock rhythm section to back them up. It has a retro, organic feel in parts, and a spiky rock feel in others. The combination works well, and despite the wait for something new from Findlay this album really delivers.

After the beautiful atmospheric spoken word number Every Corner, which really helps to set the tone for the album, single Island comes on and wows with it's smooth vocal melodies and gentle keyboard lines. There is something about late 1970s Fleetwood Mac about this song, as the mix of accessible melodies and fairly dense atmospherics  recalls that legendary band. Findlay sings the song, but Kerzner backs her up with some great vocal harmonies, and even takes the lead sometimes. He does not sing very often on this album, but he helps to add a little diversity when he does. One thing is clear, and that is that this album contains possibly Findlay's best vocal performance to date. There is lots of variation in her delivery, but her trademark warmth shines through often. There is a lovely guitar solo from Kilminster too. The floatiness of Island then leads into the slightly gothic rock of Veil of Ghosts, which actually reminds me a little of the Mostly Autumn song Ghost ironically. Donockley adds his deep vocals to the song, which adds to the slightly haunting feel. The song really comes alive in the chorus however, which is the album's heaviest moment, with soaring harmony vocals from Findlay, Gordon, and Irene Jansen - Findlay's The Theatre Equation colleague. Donockley's contribution extends to adding a really effect-heavy guitar solo to the song also, which sounds like something from an old Pink Floyd album. It works well within the slightly dark, murky mood of the song. From spiky rock to a gorgeous ballad, the album then moves onto Lake Sunday, which is the sort of song we have come to expect from Findlay over the years. It is a really beautiful, with some playful vocal melodies that stick in your head as soon as you hear them. It is quite a hypnotic song, with lots of repeating themes that make the song so memorable. Johnson's subtle guitar patterns ring through, especially during Findlay's wordless vocal sections. There is also a nice keyboard-led atmospheric instrumental section towards the end of the song, where Fletcher's bass also shines through with some inventive riffs. Mountain Spring is another rocky number, but with an organic feel with hollow-sounding drums and driving acoustic guitar. Findlay has a fair amount of grit in her vocals, and Kerzner's growling organ helps to create a early 1970s rock vibe. The dry sounding electric guitar chords in the chorus are reminiscent of the sound developed on The Phoenix Suite, but added to the organic feel of Mantra Vega's established sound - it works well however. Gordon contributes some solemn recorder lines throughout too. The album also contains an acoustic version of this song as a bonus track.

In a Dream, co-written by Kerzner's Sound of Contact bandmate Matt Dorsey (who also plays mandolin and some extra guitar on the song), is a lovely folk number that really recalls those early Mostly Autumn albums. Findlay plays low whistle on the song, and it is that instrument that brings about that comparison. The song is piano-led however. although the low whistle does play a key role in shaping the main melody of the piece. The song does build up as it moves along however, with a gang vocal choir leading the way as Cromarty's drums point the way to something big, but the crescendo never comes, instead giving way to Findlay's two sons singing the song's main melody which works really well. What could have been an anti-climax turns into something really strong, and that is the mark of a well-written song. Learning to be Light has quite a dry, sparse feel with Cromarty's drums actually dominating the mix. Again, this song recalls the sound Findlay used on The Phoenix Suite, and it is good to see that vibe has not totally been discarded. There are lots of great subtle guitar flourishes from Johnson however. There is one moment where he lets rip with an explosion of bluesy lead guitar, and others where his rhythmic playing almost sounds like a solo in itself. I have always felt that Johnson is a very underrated musician, so it is great to see him getting in he spotlight more on this album. Another classic Findlay ballad, I've Seen Your Star, follows and showcases her gorgeous voice in the best possible way. Only acoustic guitar, harmonium, and bansuri (a type of flute played by Remko de Landmeter) accompany her vocals, and it works as a good contrast to follow the percussive Learning to be Light. Findlay rocks well, but I have always felt her real strength lies in ballads and the gentler end of music. Her naturally warm voice really shines on this type of song, and this is as good an example as any. After a short reprise of Island, we reach the albums epic title track which is also the album's final song. Johnson's ringing guitar riff heralds the song's arrival, but Findlay soon demands with a commanding vocal delivery, that uses her higher register more for a floaty effect. It is not a heavy song, but there is a certain rock class to it. Kerzner's dramatic keyboards and piano add to that feel, and Cromarty's precise drumming drives it. Despite it being nearly ten minutes long, the song never feels long or outstays it's welcome. Johnson's guitar work is excellent again, and Kerzner even shows off with a short keyboard solo. The standout musical moment however is Lucassen's shredding guitar solo that is probably the craziest moment on the whole album. He really lets rip, and it fits the song perfectly. Overall, The Illusion's Reckoning is a great debut from Mantra Vega and an album that puts Heather Findlay back on the map. She is touring the album with her solo band (which includes many of the musicians that contributed to this album) later in the year, so I urge you all to make the effort to go and see her play this excellent album live.

The album was released on 22nd January 2016 via Black Sand Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Island.

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