Review Summary: An excellent symphonic prog album from a criminally underrated band.
The story of Cressida is in many ways a frustrating one. Formed in 1968 the band was active for a mere two years before they broke up in late 1970 prior to the release of their second album, Asylum. Despite being short-lived the band would later be recognised as pioneers of symphonic prog, a form of progressive rock which, as its title suggests, incorporates elements of classical and orchestral music.
The band’s self-titled debut was made up of fairly short, melodic and predominately mellow tracks that were reminiscent of sounds associated with the Canterbury scene. It was after the release of their debut that the band suffered their first real setback when guitarist John Heyworth left the band. Heyworth had been heavily involved in the song writing of their first album penning half of the album’s twelve songs. Heyworth’s replacement was found in the form of John Culley who was recruited before the band began recording their second album.
Asylum begins in a similar fashion to their debut with title track featuring some excellent keyboard playing courtesy of Peter Jennings. The song, which has a similar feel to some of Caravan’s shorter compositions, provides a perfect introduction to the album and also showcases, for the first time, John Culley’s subtle yet effective guitar lines that complement the rest of the music perfectly throughout. Following the title track we are greeted with the first of the album’s two epics, Munich (or to give its full title, Munich 1938: Appeasement Was the Cry; Munich 1970: Mine to Do or Die). At almost ten minutes long, Munich stands as one of the band’s finest songs featuring some brilliant orchestral arrangements that sit perfectly alongside Angus Cullen’s excellent vocals and John Culley’s beautifully melodic guitar playing. Driven by haunting vocal melodies and outstanding musicianship, the song manages to incorporate everything that the band have previously shown themselves capable of into one well thought out composition that stands as one of the band’s finest achievements.
The album’s middle section is mostly comprised of shorter, simpler and ultimately less memorable songs that feel somewhat weaker in comparison to what came before. The one and a half minute Survivor, composed by vocalist Angus Cullen, is perhaps the most forgettable of these songs but it still manages to remain interesting, mostly due to Jenning’s excellent use of the Hammond organ. Cullen’s strongest composition comes in the form of Lisa, which features a guest appearance from jazz flautist Harold McNair who provides an extra dimension to a song which is already rich in depth thanks to Graeme Hall’s orchestral arrangements.
While Munich is for many reasons considered the definitive Cressida song, album closer, Let Them Come When They Will is arguably just as good if not better. Opening with an infectious vocal melody accompanied only by Cullen’s acoustic guitar, the song soon progresses into an incredible jam session with John Culley and Peter Jennings, on guitar and keyboards respectively, in particular showing what talented musicians they are. The song is once again graced with some excellent orchestral arrangements and also features a superb vocal performance from Angus Cullen particularly during the song’s middle section where he is able to show the true extent of his vocal range with an almost operatic style. Like Munich, Let Them Come When They Will is a masterpiece of symphonic prog that shows the large amount of talent present within this sadly short-lived band.
While not without its flaws (the dip in quality towards the middle of the album being one of its most notable) Asylum remains an excellent and truly fascinating progressive rock album which, when at its most captivating, could rival anything accomplished by more well-known acts making similar music around the same time period. The album’s two standout tracks, Munich… and Let Them Come When They Will, deserve to be hailed as classics within the symphonic prog genre and are undoubtedly the highest points of the band’s career. In a way it’s these extreme highs that contribute to the album’s biggest downfall; it’s feeling of inconsistency. In comparison to these two epics some of the other songs feel as though they could be classed as filler despite none of them being particularly weak per se.
Sadly Cressida was one of those bands that never achieved the level of success that their music warranted and as a result their music is often overlooked, but for those interested in the origins of symphonic prog or indeed the history of progressive rock in general, Asylum is an album that shouldn’t go unnoticed.