Review Summary: A brilliant flame that burns brightly; though its longevity may be called into question, true to form, its majesty and power is undeniable, tackling a universal human subject with the requisite nuance, honesty and humility.
Despite its inherently ephemeral nature, life can be born from and give way to many rippling effects, with concepts like "six degrees" and the Butterfly Effect demonstrating some of mankind's most uncanny connections. For example, one day you could have some random guy in plug.fm play one lead single from a relatively unknown neo-progressive band, and the next thing you know, you've spun their albums so many times and overanalysed one in particular so much that you get just the tiniest bit sick of them.
The first time I heard Numbers, the big single with a dedicated music video, I knew it was the one song in that "internet DJ" session I immediately wanted to hear again, containing some inexplicable quality and magic. Sounding at once pulsing and pounding yet delicate and intricate, the melodic attention to detail with all the varying mellotron samples intercut with the throbbing bass line in the chorus creates an instant sense of visceral gratification, tied to the speed necessary to give such a gateway hook the credence needed to feel truly exciting. And even this is before the room-filling solo or the explosive build-up just before the third verse. More than anything, Falling Satellite's biggest asset is dynamic arrangement; the pacing explodes and contracts at just the right points to remain engaging all the way through.
Which is a very good thing, as this is something of a concept album, loosely tied to the idea of life itself, its power and the meaning of its loss, somewhat inspired by frontman Jem Godfrey's father passing away shortly before its release, and featuring the Sunlight Suite, an active progression of this concept, on what would be the side B of the record. Numbers makes a more gratifying thesis statement than even the true first track, First Day, with lines such as "death is for the breathing, life is for the leaving" and "no winners, only losers" highlighting the intangible yet ephemeral nature of life. Towerblock, and especially Signs, highlight nostalgia, growth and the past's factor into the future, with almost opposing views on the matter, brilliantly reflected by the choice to use different lead singers for each (guitarist John Mitchell having penned and performed vocals on Signs).
Those two tracks especially also highlight a weird dichotomy of the album, with Jem's ties to pop music production melding with his progressive roots and desires, and the weird battle he has to perform to marry both. This had mixed results on the aptly titled Experiments In Mass Appeal, but the approach finds greater success on the inherently all-encompassing Falling Satellites. The album features a few typical ethereal interludes and outros, as well as a piano ballad to end the main course, but the rest of the body of work is full of surprises and energy, no song demonstrating this more than Towerblock, which starts out with a distorted refrain leading into a very homely sounding verse on a typical sounding but vividly performed recitation of Jem's childhood, before the passage is punctuated by the sound of smashing glass just before you hear...a dubstep breakdown. And not just in the sense of blown out bass and wub effects; the staccato rhythm is immediately jarring, the chopped and screwed samples truly throwing the listener off their game, all before it explodes in this glorious synth-prog marvel where Jem declares how fine he is with leaving behind what came before having got what he wanted out of it. Truly, Mr. Godfrey.
John Mitchell's take on the idea of misplaced nostalgia comes through on his biggest lyrical contribution to Frost* to date, Signs, which even in its loud choruses is much more melancholy about the situation. "Telling your parents you hardly know them; bury your head in the sand" is a much more despondent take on wasted youth than Towerblock's wry undercurrent of reluctant acceptance, but in being much closer to the general worldview of weighing childhood vs. adulthood and the future comes perhaps the most "standard" song on the album, with airy, somewhat New Wave, verses off-set against a general, yet powerful, hard rocking chorus. The second half is truly stunning, however, with a slowly building tempo based on a riff that almost sounds like a Breaking Benjamin cut backed by sections with vivid tremolo, gorgeous synth string chords and a closing section with the bass backing the keys and the guitar maintaining the chordal focus.
Though not inherently a surprise, a welcome change comes with the final track before the major star of the album, with Lights Out presenting a slow, gentle, soothing mix of neo-prog and any assortment of modern soft pop acts, particularly those that had already met at the intersection between pop, electro and smooth R&B such as Savage Garden. The song has been interpreted by at least one YouTube commenter as about an unborn child dying in the womb, an assessment which is probably correct, lending credence to the album's overarching theme and tone and also to the brilliant but sparse guest vocals of Tori Beaumont. Though among the simplest and shortest songs on the record, following a pretty standard verse-chorus structure, the melancholy beauty of the song is pulled off wonderfully, with a wispy outro fading just as it should, the silence following a short gap before Falling Satellites' centerpiece.
Though the overarching progression of the Sunlight Suite can be hard to divine, one thing is instantly noticeable; the main riff of Heartstrings is just untouchable. Called the "tyrannosaurus riff" by Jem on the earlier DVD release of Rockfield Files, the name fits. The octave-based lick is already captivating simply on the keyboard, but the simultaneous eruption of bass, guitar and drums hits with the impact of a descending star, and it may be the single best moment on the album and of the band's career. The duet between Godfrey and Mitchell from then on has its fun edge to it, with a suitably cluttered soundscape in the chorus backing the anxious urgency of the lyrics, calling into question the length and weight of the journey so far and to come. The keyboard solo that comes afterwards is simple in theory but brilliant in execution, with the 6/4 mix-up of the main riff clashing brilliantly against a chaotic drum line. John Mitchell would later credit drummer Craig Blundell for aiding his music endeavours with a manic energy not unlike Keith Moon, and it is in this section, that best balances pop sensibilities with the chaos of experimental neo-prog, that you can best hear this.
Heartstrings' bending and winding riffs on the way down blur into synth chords that slowly morph into the soft soundscape that comprises Closer To The Sun. The first half of the song features an ethereal, even spiritual quality to it, with the most oblique yet poetic lyrics of the lot backed by a sound that wouldn't be too out of place in the early 90s against softer cuts from acts like Seal, who were trying to make soft synthpop meld with both the disco revival and the adult alternative scene, a mindset which almost mirrors that which comprises Jem's background and what gives Frost* their unique appeal. Despite all this coherency, Closer To The Sun is the only track I have notable gripes with. I imagine others may have less patience for some passages in the album that repeat just a few too many times, though I believe they punctuate the right moments and represent the best aspects of their songwriting. However, Closer's first half is so quiet that even the mild modulations do not seem like dramatic variations, and it's not until you get into the lead-in to the guitar solo that the experience feels different. That guitar solo, by the way, was handled by one Joe Satriani, though this may be hard to tell, as it features none of his trademark tricks besides the lightning-fast descending tremolo that makes up its back half. The song is a great time from here on out, with a keyboard solo directly following the Satch that soon explodes into a soundscape of fervor before moving into a more haunting bass riff with echoed refrains of the title that soon lead to a very ambient but loud transition into the next track.
Featuring the unwieldy title of Rage Against The Dying Of The Light Blues In 7/8, the song is a rollercoaster, with gritty vocals punctuating loud synth fuzz blasts and some of the fastest fills on the album. Indeed, this is the one song with no bass guitar to speak of, all bass being synthesized, and if any song deserved to be made almost entirely of cold artifice, this is it, with a very cynical outlook (in case the title wasn't a giveaway) and indirect mention of Jem's father's funeral before the expected reference to the nursery rhyme of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust". Rage features both the album's loudest moments and some of its quietest, the long callouts in the chorus almost being swallowed by roaring, pumping bass lines that modulate every which way, but also featuring a stripped down piano section after the final vocal take that leads into an earnest violin performance. None of this is intended as an insult, by the way. Rage is an absolute journey that always keeps me on my toes every time I listen to it.
The climbing tension of the closing moments of Rage fall into a revision of the Heartstrings riff, bringing us to our final real track of the Sunlight Suite, Nice Day For It..., an admitted send-up of old prog instrumentals like Genesis' Duke's Travels, though with the drum solo highlighted against a piano breakdown, I also detect some newer prog influences, especially the more metallic takes of Dream Theater. Not quite an instrumental, it is nonetheless a six minute onslaught of technicality, skill and sound, with the right passages used at the right times. The slowed down second half of the "velocirifftor" sounds a lot more erratic under the context of a riff that doesn't sound as constant as is used in Heartstrings, which also makes every stop-start sound more dramatic than the next. In what may be the album's most shining thirty seconds, the callout from First Day is used in a more explosive context just before an incredible guitar solo, whose overdubs on the descending line penetrate everything and end this somewhat indulgent but nonetheless impressive display of instrumental acumen with absurdly good pacing and framing.
Hypoventilate, a name alluding to the first song they ever put out, is a very blurred and smudged take on the Heartstrings riff, almost to the level of vaporwave, that acts as a final interlude before Last Day, an incredibly stripped down and somber take on the final moments of a man's life and his realisation of what it all adds up. "The things we leave behind slowly lose their meaning, like children's handprints in old concrete" is a poignant statement to leave the album on, though it is fitting the actual final words spoken return to his memories of spring before a few final piano chords close the song, the suite, and the album...well, sort of.
The album features two bonus tracks, though I find one of them fits quite well into proceedings and I enjoy them both all the same. Of all the lyrics in Falling Satellites, the meaning of Lantern was perhaps the hardest to directly interpret, though it definitely portrays a spiritual and murky vibe, with an echoey keyboard that almost sounds like a xylophone being played underwater, and another call-and-response between Godfrey and Mitchell. It is the song that most rigidly sticks to verse-chorus-bridge, but with no percussion to speak of, it still presents a unique vibe from everything else. But special mention must be made to British Wintertime, whose lyrics are an absurdly simple but still vivid and powerful tale of one's confession of love, and the song's title belying the ultimate sonic tone of cold, echoey but homely and sparkling keys. The somewhat fragmented repeated refrain of "something that I've got to say" driving the feeling of homeliness all the way before the song moves into a piano line that slowly speeds up and crescendos into a powerful vision of the song's thesis statement once again highlights the album's biggest asset of dynamics, with the loud and soft moments coming in at just the right time for the best payoffs, the most sense, and in the case of Rage, even the biggest surprises. British Wintertime's closing piano almost sounds like a Minecraft background song of all things, corny but suitably soothing.
Falling Satellites is an absolute journey, but its accessibility is also a key asset, with great use of hooks punctuating the more surprising and varied moments of the album. To me, this is what Frost* represents most both in background and sound, and is both why I value this album highly as a progressive rock effort and also why I believe it's better than both Milliontown and Experiments In Mass Appeal. It most understands dynamics, pacing, hooks, sonic clarity and impact, but never does its songwriting feel particularly clinical even at its most conventional moments. A lesser performance outfit wouldn't be able to make the Heartstrings riff work for as long as it does, but Jem Godfrey is absolutely understanding of the power of a good hook and yet how to make it most interesting to more discerning listeners. Much like other favourite albums of mine such as Pretty Hate Machine, the detail present means I am finding new things about it even after having heard it dozens of times.
Though therein may lie a flaw that will make some listeners distant from it, which is that some influences are not hard to spot at all. Alongside the aforementioned Genesis tribute, the skeletal structure of Numbers is so obviously The Police's Synchronicity I on steroids. More cynical listeners may find the soft turn of Lights Out or the dubstep influences on Towerblock to mean the band are simply chasing trends rather than attempting to find their own image, though there is no accounting for taste. Though I did not immediately care for Towerblock, there was still a tint to it that gave it an identifiable edge, and it never takes long for this edge to reveal itself on any song, save for Closer To The Sun, whose impulses simply don't hit as hard quickly enough, and Last Day, which is deliberately sparser than everything else.
There's something for everyone here, and though I don't imagine everything will entice everyone all at once, giving the album at least some cold distance, Falling Satellites finds more than enough unity in the various images presented to feel like a superb album statement, and more than enough excitement to simply be a thrilling listen. It comes absolutely recommended to anyone who can accept the idea of a grand presentation of the intersection between neo-prog, pop sensibilities, album-oriented rock and soudscape-y synth electro. Trust me, it's not as dense a listen as a description like that sounds, and that is what makes Falling Satellites brilliant.