Review Summary: Milliontown is occasionally more "proof of concept" or EP than truly great album, but Frost*'s symphonic neo-prog identity is immediately established here, with some great hooks, flourishes and production to boot.
Frost* recently released 13 Winters, an artbook featuring remasters of all their studio albums, a few other discs of odds and ends, and of course a whole bunch of commentary on their entire career up to now. With all this recollection being done by the band unto themselves, I thought it only proper to do the same with my view of their work. After all, the reviews of their first three albums comprised some of my first reviews here, but with the exception of the Experiments review, were all too damn wordy. So this is an attempt to do three things: to trim the fat of my old critiques, re-evaluate their work now that each album is exponentially older, and touch on the remastering efforts per album.
In any case, there is no better place to start than with Milliontown, their 2006 debut and often considered their best work. Spoilers, Falling Satellites is literally my favorite album of all time, but the near fifteen years after Milliontown's release have been kinder to it than one might think. My criticisms of this album have always been that it's much more of a really good EP than a landmark LP; six songs isn't a lot of space to provide tons of content or ideas, even at just shy of an hour long. Every song on here is at least good, but only a few are truly great. But the ones that hold up well and truly hold up, whether because they were prescient of the directions prog would take in the time since its release or because they just stand up as great tunes to this day.
There's definitely more than enough classic prog worship to go around, though, and the first track Hyperventilate is definitely the biggest example of such. It's an instrumental odyssey with a few motifs revisited across its seven minute runtime, but for the most part goes wherever it feels like the jam takes them. The Frost*iness comes into the track in the form of its cinematic sound, with giant, fading synths, swelling chimes and bells, that smooth flute and piano intro, and some triumphant sounding melodies in the back-end. Hyperventilate also hints at what separates Milliontown from the band's latter two albums the most, and perhaps what gives the album its place as the fan favorite.
Frost* has had only two consistent members throughout; keyboardist and vocalist Jem Godfrey and guitarist John Mitchell. Milliontown marks one of the more egalitarian efforts they have put out, with a roughly equal amount of obvious hallmarks of either member coming through throughout the entire project. Hyperventilate and The Other Me feature some nasty guitar shredding that give the two tracks more of an improvisational feel that clearly comes from Mitchell, as Godfrey's style has always been much more careful, calculated and sometimes over-produced. You can absolutely tell which of the two is most responsible for Snowman, a slow and atmospheric synth-driven harmony-filled ballad. In any case, the counterplay between these two parties certainly gives the album an edge of “in the moment” performance that the other albums admittedly lack.
But this is certainly not to disparage Godfrey's writing, or his more careful attitude when it comes to doing so. Most every track's pacing is on point, a credit to Jem's background as a pop song producer and songwriter; he understands the power of the push and pull, when to restrain the sound and when to power slam it into everyone's earholes for maximum impact and catchiness. But he's also able to twist his pop background out of what could have just been a corny penchant for hooks and into something that still resembles the ethos of prog rock: to push sonic boundaries.
Perhaps the most underrated track on the album is The Other Me, a heavily industrial inspired atom bomb of a track with a giant swaggering rock beat and probably the man's best vocal performance on the album. It's a sometimes pretty but mostly gritty and demented take on electro-rock, with a glitchy and stuttery bridge really paving the way for Towerblock ten years later. Even many “industrial rock” bands were afraid to truly lean into their electronic side and just opted to make groove metal with some synths and samples, but even though this certainly isn't as hard as KMFDM or Ministry, it still packs a hell of a punch in its weird blends of styles coalescing into what feels like a prescient prog rock single.
Unfortunately, some of the album's other attempts at more straightforward songwriting just feel lightweight, at least with the hindsight of what the band would accomplish even on Experiments. No Me No You is easily the weakest song on the album, riding a few simple and stiff hooks only bolstered by the band's always strong symphonic embellishments. But without a powerhouse performance, the song's few tricks get stale up until the bridge, featuring a few madcap samples that quickly inject some energy into the track again.
Mention must also be made of the album's lyrics, which are a bit too esoteric considering the great pains Godfrey's production goes to to provide atmosphere and mood per most tracks. Snowman is really the only exception in this regard, with a truly haunting picture of loss, whatever form it may truly take, and analysing what is past before having to move on. True to its name, it gives me chills, even as it still sounds like a ballad not quite playing to the band's strengths.
Underlining the whole package is the production, mostly driven by Jem Godfrey himself, and is what basically gives this album its identity. Some of the album's compositions can sound too old-school prog (Hyperventilate gave me very strong Kaipa vibes), but it's all elevated by cinematic, but synthetic, flair. Frost* would lean into their dense rock sound on Experiments, and much more into electronic embellishments on Falling Satellites, but Milliontown sounds the grandest, the most lush. The synthetic edge of the instrumentation may be a turn-off for some, but if any symphonic metal band like Nightwish or organ-driven high-prog band like Ayreon performed these songs, they would not be nearly as gripping, especially with how often instruments can trade passages on here.
The two tracks yet to be discussed demonstrate this quality the best, and are easily the highlights. Black Light Machine is just fantastic top-to-bottom; every hook, vocal or instrumental, Godfrey-performed or Mitchell-performed,, hits with the force of a sledgehammer but with the beauty of a Beethoven sonnet. The two guitar solos in the first half are also, simply, some of the best of the genre around the time of release, with a nigh-perfect escalation of playing power on the part of John Mitchell, revisiting motifs but upping the ante with more speed, more verb, just plain more power. The track's second half is a real barn-burner too. The keyboard breakdown and solo give off some serious Sonic 2 Chemical Plant Zone vibes, with its short harpsichord-ish bleeps and bloops giving a very rough techno background to a frenetic keyboard solo filled with as many slides and pitch shifts as blazing fast arpeggios. By the time the song hits its explosive ending, it has gone through so many high octane emotions, each moment one-upping the last, that it's easily sealed its status as a modern prog classic.
The title track remains a modern standout, a 26 minute opus with a very old school presentation in structure but a modern neo-symphonic take on production and composition. The opening vocal passage and following instrumental riffs are big lynchpins to center the entire song around, especially close to its end, but otherwise Milliontown is suite-based, separated into very distinct blocks of four or five minutes of particular composition. Of particular note is the “Only Survivors” portion, a delightful piece of symphonic pop that remains a sweet sounding earworm despite being in 7/8 time. It's after this part that a giant cinematic section slams into the song to re-introduce some gravity to proceedings; the triplet flows even make it sound a bit like the Halo theme, but that's certainly not a bad thing. Overexplaining the song further would rob it of its surprises, but it would also likely sugarcoat how slightly overlong it is; Jem himself has never been happy with the song's length, and the revisit of the intro riffs just before the final big tempo change could have used some culling.
All told, however, it's a great ending to a very solid album whose sound is equal parts symphonic step forward for the genre and loving tribute to the prog giants of yore, with only a few moments that either play it too safe or feel underdeveloped, especially with the context of the band's following work taken into account. Frost* would go bigger, bolder, and certainly noisier with their sound, but there's definitely an instant magic that sets Milliontown apart in their discography, and certainly from their contemporaries who were largely struggling to fit into the 21st century.
Finally, a quick word on the remaster. The 13 Winters artbook calls all three albums remixes, instead of just EIMA as is advertised. I'm a production dummy so I don't know how true this is, but there are definitely notable differences in Milliontown beyond volume EQ, mostly for the better. In fact, this album features the most notable change of the bunch by shifting the track order around, moving The Other Me to after Black Light Machine, which is probably for the best as it makes the album less lop-sided. Various fades and cuts were also added to BLM and the title track, overall making them better. However, Milliontown's intro sample from The Prophecy is gone, likely due to sample clearance issues. A shame, as it gave the song a ton of character. Overall, however, it's a great new way to listen to this old album.