Review Summary: Anubis dare to travel into uncharted lands with a drastic change in formula for album writing; the result is proof that Anubis are as strong as ever
‘Anubis’ are a fairly small group in the progressive rock scene who hail from Australia - yet they are a shining diamond in the rough landscape of unsung prog bands as they fill the niche for pull off concept albums with impressive prowess. However unheard of they may be, the release of ‘Hitchhiking to Byzantium’ remains a brave turn in direction for the band as its concept is not story-based like the group’s previous two releases: ‘230503’ and ‘A Tower of Silence’. Whilst their other two albums follow a story line, ‘Hitchhiking to Byzantium’ circles around the concept of the journey of life, where each song are stories which focus on different aspects on it, from dwelling on regrets to growing apart from old friends - essentially they are treading in unknown waters with this new album.
The most noticeable change that this new formula of album-writing brings is lyrically. As the album is based around a personal concept to the band members rather than a set story, there has been more of a lyrical contribution from other members of Anubis; where in the previous two albums, the lyrics and concept were written only by vocalist Robert James Moulding and keyboardist David Eaton. The shared contribution of lyrics shows that Anubis are becoming ever more tightly knit as a group, which certainly shows in this album as a whole both lyrically and instrumentally. Although some instances of the lyrics in ‘Hitchhiking to Byzantium’ don’t compare to ‘A Tower of Silence’, they are far more down to earth than in Anubis’ fictional works and far more relate-able – in no way are the lyrics any less brilliant, but this new album presents an emotionally charged side of Anubis that we have never seen before.
Like Anubis’ previous albums, ‘Hitchhiking to Byzantium’ features a wide variety of songs, from the ballad-esque ‘Crimson Stained Romance’ to the borderline mainstream rock ‘Dead Trees’, and the token progressive rock epic ‘A Room with a View’ which clocks in at almost 16 minutes. There are songs that echo instances of their past work, for instance; the atmospheric keyboards of ‘Tightening of the Screws’ and ‘Fadeout’ resembles that of ‘The Passing Bell’ and the vocals in the beginning of ‘Blood is Thicker than Common Sense’ would sound perfectly at home nestled within the songs of ‘230503’. There are also strong resemblances to other progressive influences in this new album, from the Floyd-ian title-track ‘Hitchhiking to Byzantium’ to the Tull-ian flute solo within ‘A Room with a View’ - the band have established an iconic sound, but have not detached themselves entirely from other progressive rock artists. The similarities between ‘Hitchhiking to Byzantium’ and Anubis’ previous two albums may cause some people to cry ‘wolf!’ at their songwriting being unoriginal, but there are equally many instances of brilliant originality in ‘Hitchhiking to Byzantium’ which show how the band has developed in this new release.
The band have attempted to push the boundaries in their music in this new album whilst also retaining their iconic sound; guitarist Douglas Skene states that he ‘purposely forced’ himself to play in a different key to bring out ‘a unique and beautiful side of Rob’s vocals’ in ‘Tightening of the Screws’ – which is certainly evident as he manages to pull off an impressively high key for a man to sing. Other new and exciting instances in the vocals which I find especially impressive are the frequent trade-offs by using different vocalists, panning and filtering like in ‘Blood is Thicker than Common Sense’ and ‘A Room with a View’ - the vocals in the former are notably brilliant in the mid-section. A recurring theme I've noticed throughout this album is its unpredictable progression both within and between songs. ‘A Room with a View’, 'Blood is Thicker than Common Sense' and ‘Tightening of the Screws’ are prime examples, where you get blindsided with different riffs, tempo changes and mind-blowing solos you would never think would appear. The songs can work just as well standalone, yet the album is crafted as one continuous flowing journey of music despite the absence of a story line.
A final point I’d like to make is about the ending to ‘Tightening of the Screws’ - the end solo is easily the greatest part of this album, if not the greatest part in music of this year. The keyboards create an intense atmosphere to back and eventually mimic the mesmerizing guitar solo, and the bass and drums subtly compliment them without distracting attention yet are just as skillful. It’s not a solo which shows how fast and how complicated the guitarist can play; much is the downfall of progressive rock solos, but how refined. Words cannot do this solo justice - you’ll have to judge for yourself by listening to it.
Overall, this album is a fantastic piece of work which carries on the impressive track record of Anubis, even when they step outside their comfort zone of story-based concept albums. Although the subtle change in their sound is not groundbreaking, they have certainly developed as a group even if it isn't obvious upon first examination. Anubis show no signs of wavering, and to quote them: ‘you can’t change your legacy’ – I certainly hope this is true in their following works as ‘Hitchhiking to Byzantium’ is, for me, the best album of 2014 so far.