Review Summary: Though some prog albums are more adventurous, more atmospheric or more explosive, none are moreso altogether than on this cinematic nigh-masterpiece.
How does one review an album that's so integral in crafting their personal tastes and desires in art? When I got shown lead single Numbers in an online DJ session, I felt like a whole new world had opened up to me. How many of your favorite songs of all time can you pinpoint the exact setting that you first heard them? As a wise band once said, the songs you grow to like never stick out at first, but the first impression of Frost* I got was immediate and striking, enough so for me to actually sit down and listen to the album; a rare feat, as I am always late to the new hotness. So just bear in mind, this rating is not a 5/5 because of some production problems and overlong interludes, and just barely missing the mark of true innovation to be a trendsetter even in neo-prog, but it is a 5/5 in my heart; it is the most irreplaceable album of my life. My one desert island disc.
Numbers was a brilliant single, not only setting the stage for what else to expect from Satellites but also just being one of the biggest bangers of 2010s rock. The song is guided by a blistering riff, performed on what I can only describe as a key-ironing-board, and aside from John Mitchell's sweeping guitar work, the rest of the band is struggling but managing to keep up with Jem Godfrey's freneticism. It's the best kind of opener: kicks you in the face, doesn't mess around, but still goes down easy with some ear-candy riffs and soaring harmony work, while leaving its inspiration accessible enough for newcomers to latch on to. Let's be honest, it is just The Police's Synchonicity 1 on steroids, right down to the 6/8 riff.
But Falling Satellites comes from a school of neo-prog indebted to the old school only in song construction and melody choices, not in production or instrumental make-up. Frost* leaned all in on their synthetic-symphonic side on this album, demonstrated on Milliontown at various points but sounding more vibrant and all-encompassing here. Towerblock, the album's second song, is a good index for what did and did not change for the band for their only album released in the 2010s. The pace modulates in the way you'd expect a more jam-sounding prog song to do and it features a dramatic chorus that elevates the already lofty material of looking back on the physical remnants of your past and literally watching them disappear. But what did they add to stand out?...Well, dubstep.
I was always taken in by how earnest and tasteful the EDM touches were on this album, especially on Towerblock. If progressive rock is about moving forward, why not utilise some idioms from a genre that could only have taken off as time has gone on and music production has improved? Jem legitimately realised how explosive and exciting electronic music could be, even though it has mostly been used in neo-prog for atmosphere rather than thrills. The layers of stuttering synths and samples in the intro and outro serve to bolster the song's nervous, erratic energy, making for an engaging listen every time.
That said, it does highlight an album wide scuff-mark of the production being loud and compressed. While not exactly Pain Remains or Death Magnetic, prog purists may cry foul at Satellites' lavish sound design coming at the cost of hiding some of its more virtuous moments. The remaster fixes some of these instances, but muddies others. Some extra harmonies on Heartstrings give the song even more depth on the 2020 version, but stripping the sound back even the tiniest bit also robs some of Satellites' precious intensity, especially on Nice Day For It (whose vocal track was actually botched on the reissue's first pressing). In an era where prog was either overly sweet organ-driven fare or Dream Theater knock-offs that glide damn close to Sumerian-core, it was great to have a rock album that sounded heavy without downtuning and distorting all of their guitars, but even I can concede it's a bit full-force at times.
It makes some of the album's smoother moments necessary additions. Signs, mostly written by guitarist John Mitchell, remains my least favorite track; his vocal chops are simply not up to par with Jem's, who can soar. But the buoyant slow burn of the track's pacing highlights the deliberate divide between the call-and-response pop song chorus and all the little soloriffic song digressions that are clearly more John's brainchild than Jem's. By the time it reaches the accelerando outro it certainly doesn't lack for intensity, even if it doesn't quite demonstrate the ingenuity of the rest of the album. The following Lights Out is a straightforward electro-piano ballad about a child's stillbirth, featuring twinkly piano lines and zither-like sliding guitar work. Its placement on the album is perfect as a palette cleanser, but were it not for the dire subject matter, it might be at odds with the rest of the album sonically if it wasn't drenched in electronic gravitas.
Past this point, Falling Satellites introduces the “Sunlight Suite”, a six-song run that is the pinnacle of this loosely defined concept album. Jem Godfrey called the project his midlife crisis album after his father passed away, failing to publish a book he had worked on for years simply because he ran out of time. It's too broad a subject to fit into an hour-long story, making this album's lyrics less Mindcrime and more Promised Land. But every song except for British Wintertime confronts the harsh reality of life's fading nature by design head-on, and it's a great match for the album's general intensity as well as its quieter moments. Numbers' frantic countdown goes well with the sudden anxiety spike of an existential crisis, and Towerblocks and Signs cover the growing regrets that come with ageing, both in failing to live up to past promises and to reclaim a future quickly slipping from one's grasp. Lights Out quickly flips the perspective back to the start of life, but the real thematic meat comes in that six-song suite.
Heartstrings opens with what has been called the “tyrannosaurus riff” by Mitchell. Sweeping very quickly across three octaves and sounding dense and heavy when bass, keys and lead guitar are playing it all at once, it is a suitably mammoth riff, possibly the best of the 2010s entirely. The back-and-forth between Jem and John on the chorus also lends colour to proceedings, even if much of the song's construction besides feels by-the-numbers. Not in a bad way; Frost* knew to get in and get out, especially when their big cinematic suite was just starting. Heartstrings is one of neo-prog's biggest successes, embracing a streamlined songwriting style to enhance the parts of the genre that lend themselves well to portentousness, like the gorgeous synth-string work or that goddamn riff. Nothing gets in the way of anything in this song, despite the giant blocky production; it's cinematic, it's sweeping, but it's also just a banger.
Closer To The Sun is a far slower and softer affair that sometimes leaves me tepid, and certainly highlights the suite's reliance on sweeping string interludes to segue between songs, but it picks up in the second half with a keys vs. guitar section courtesy of Joe Satriani, and features yet more daring but tasteful use of explosive EDM production, helping to punctuate some of drummer Craig Blundell's best beatwork. Who knew such a solipsistic record could sound so spirit-lifting?
The Rage Against The Dying Of The Light In 7/8 is truth in advertising, and back to back with Nice Day For It makes for Falling Satellites' most tense and explosive moments. If you want classic prog rock fare, this is where you'll find it most, as each song has endless solos, random bridges, and a new hook every thirty seconds. The album's name is mentioned in Rage... as a metaphor for the inevitable failure of human endeavour just from the fact that we'll die eventually, all of us. It puts that one Thrice album to shame for a harrowing existential climax, but it's still tons of fun to hear the band experiment with abrasive electronic textures while retaining the instrumental alacrity that attracted so many people to this genre in the first place. Every false stop in Nice Day For It gives me anxiety; it's like the songwriters were trying to one-up themselves over the course of six minutes, and it's a new high every time it happens.
The suite ends with Last Day, a quiet and short piano ballad about an old man's last moments, and the album concludes with two more ambient-inclined tracks in Lantern and British Wintertime, the latter featuring a magical outro that just grows and grows in a manner similar to Signs but without the loudness war. Falling Satellites may not have an A-to-B story like a real concept album, and it may not have a real orchestra like a symphonic metal album, but it has the understanding of the pacing of a movie,with the climaxes and comedowns in the right places, and the cinematic qualities of a really good soundtrack where the string sections sound integral to the atmosphere, and not basic embellishments to the initial rock compositions.
And that cuts to the heart of why Falling Satellites is my favorite album of all time, even if I can't “objectively” say it is the best. Bands like Black Midi are better at pushing prog forward, Steven Wilson and even Dream Theater are better at telling actual stories, and the genre has no shortage of virtuosos that can outplay these middle aged men any time. But who else can tastefully but forcefully adapt electronic and symphonic elements into a genre in dire need of modernisation, to bring a level of grand emotion to a genre too often tied to cold, sterile flashiness or the same old tweeting sounds? Who else could do all they could to make the album sound world-encompassing in their image, while maintaining their sense of fun through endless catchy riffs, hooks, solos, fills and just little moments to add colour to an album whose cover is literally black and white? Falling Satellites' creative DNA is easily traceable, but the final result is indelible, even nearly seven years later. By now, it feels like the album is written into my DNA as well.