The Further Side
"The progressive rock and metal genres are awash with projects that operate outside the boundaries and the constraints of the musicians’ day jobs. And it’s a double-edged sword to be honest. If you’re a glass half full kind of person, you’d be saying that we can hardly moan about new music from what is more often than not a group of highly talented and creative artists. However, if you’re a glass half empty person, your argument will inevitably be that, as a project, we are less likely to see follow-up albums and even less likely to see the music in the live arena. Of course that’s not always the case, but these concerns remain valid.
Me though, I’m a glass half full person. And so any new music that features musicians that I greatly respect is a reason to get excited and celebrate. In this instance, it is difficult to think of a more mouth-watering collaboration than that which goes by the name of Nova Collective. Allow me to explain.
For some time now, there has been a mutual respect and appreciation between UK progressive rising stars Haken and the US prog juggernaut that is Between The Buried And Me. In 2015, the two bands shared a stage for a trek across Europe but the links apparently go even deeper.
The embryonic beginnings of Nova Collective can be traced back to email conversations in 2014 between Haken guitarist Richard Henshall and Between The Buried And Me bassist Dan Briggs. The internet chats soon turned into the sharing of musical ideas and before long, something approaching full songs were being created. At this point, a couple more musicians were recruited including original Haken keyboardist Pete Jones and drummer Matt Lynch who Dan had worked with in Trioscapes.
Now, I love my progressive music but I’ve made no secret in the past about my general apathy towards instrumental prog/fusion. Too much of it strikes me as being an exercise in showing off, of demonstrating technical prowess at the expense of anything approaching a listenable and enjoyable composition. I’m also not the biggest fan of jazz, another element weaved into the Nova Collective tapestry. So despite the clientele involved, I remained unsure whether I’d actually like the music that was offered.
I’m actually laughing at myself as I write this because how could I have ever doubted these particular musicians? ‘The Further Side’ is unequivocally the exception to my self-imposed rule.
I like this album. I really like this album. Naturally as you might expect from a quartet who fuse prog with jazz, classical and other world music, the complexity is very high across the board as is the technical prowess and the individual dexterity of each member, demonstrating beyond doubt that they are in complete control of every note.
However, as long term readers will know, I’m not one to go into detail about the technicalities on offer because I can’t. I simply don’t know enough about what is going on to be able to adequately comment upon it. Instead, what I try to do is focus on what I can communicate more clearly and that’s what the album sounds like, what I like about it and the effect that the music has on me.
On that score, let me begin with one of the biggest factors at play here and that’s the warmth and the richness of the material. I don’t feel, as is so often the case with this kind of music, like I am being preached at or on the end of some superior, condescending musical speech. I feel included and I connect with the music on many levels.
For something so intricate, each of the compositions feels like a cohesive and well-rounded piece of music that is welcoming and inviting. The tones and effects that the band use are myriad but are clear, precise and the overall production has done wonders to draw out the very best of each of the four musicians and their respective performances. It is clear and vibrant but with an organic feel to it, meaning that Nova Collective don’t fall into the trap of sounding sterile or over-produced.
Then there are the occasionally subtle or more overt references to the music of the musicians’ day jobs. Overall, Nova Collective sound commendably unique and bristle with originality. However, here and there, the keen-eared amongst you will be able to pick out references to either Between The Buried And Me through Dan’s bass work or flashes of Haken via Richard’s guitar playing. I rather like this if I’m honest. I like the challenge that the music presents but I also welcome a touch of the familiar, especially when those familiar sounds and techniques are so good in the first place.
As if to immediately stomp their authority, Nova Collective begin ‘The Further Side’ with one of the most complex and riotous tracks of the six that comprise the debut. It starts off with a cheeky and intriguing melody created by a keyboard and guitar duet. Before long, the drums enter the fray alongside the bass and we’re off. What ensues is a near ten-minute voyage into largely unknown and unexplored territory that incorporates all of the aforementioned influences and ingredients to the full.
The drumming from Matt Lynch is incredible, flitting from subtle deftness to driving power as the composition dictates, embellishing everything with intelligent and dextrous fills that are beyond my comprehension. Pete Jones’ keyboards are all over this track too, utilising what comes across to me as a plethora of different tones and effects, either creating gentle atmosphere-inducing soundscapes or up front and centre in a more lead capacity. Riffs that border on more modern djent territory are suddenly usurped by more urgent lead licks or simply disappear cleverly to phoenix into something entirely different. Tempos change, the mood changes, the intensity shifts and I’m left dazed, confused but thoroughly entertained thanks to the deft song writing abilities and the use of enough melody to retain my eager interest.
The remaining five tracks do, to a greater or lesser extent, share many of these wonderful facets and as you’d expect by now, the quartet deploy them with skill and intelligence.
I personally think that the beautifully deep, resonate and pulsating bass work of Briggs is one of the stand-out features of ‘Cascades’. I even like the use of keyboard effects that I might normally dismiss callously as ‘hideous jazzy lounge musak’, but in the context of the song, it actually works rather delightfully.
Featuring a sumptuous and breezy melody that in entirely in keeping with the title of the track, ‘Air’ has become my current favourite on ‘The Further Side’. The melody is made so wonderful because it involves every member of the band. It enters after a quiet opening and then later in the piece. And on both occasions, it sets my hairs on end and it makes me smile. In between, I also enjoy the oriental-sounding melodies that are introduced, the sense of drama that builds and with it, the forceful drumming from Lynch and more commanding bass work from Briggs.
To these ears, ‘State of Flux’ introduces a few nods to the neo-prog movement thanks to more huge swathes of keyboards and more pronounced and indulgent guitar solos from Richard. Things get a little science-fiction and weird in the middle but again it is handled sensibly and adds to the song rather than undermine it. I have to say it is another of my personal favourites as it all comes together so well and it flies by despite pushing the ten minute barrier once again.
‘Ripped Apart and Reassembled’ is the shortest composition on the record but at a shade under six minutes, it still has plenty of time to weave some magic. It contains some of the most dramatic and heavy segments on the record with Briggs’ bass sounding extremely aggressive at times. But the more subtle and experimental ingredients are never far away, weaving themselves into the tapestry with apparent ease.
It is then left for the title track to conclude proceedings. It kicks off in a very familiar way if you’re either a Haken or Between The Buried And Me fan but before long, the song meanders off those more well-travelled paths to explore other climes. There’s an air of mystery created as the composition matures and I love the way that it falls off the metaphorical cliff to be saved by a really excellent jazz piano interlude from Pete Jones, to then whisk this impressive finale in another direction entirely. A sense of the theatrical is soon built on and overlaid with a heavier, more menacing veneer before returning full circle to reintroduce more of the jazz-influenced piano. Jones then turns all classical on us, providing the foundation upon which the four can see out the album with one last grandiose flourish.
I’ve said until I’m blue in the face but the abilities of these artists involved are completely staggering. And not just in terms of their performances; in terms of the song writing as well. For the first time in ages, possibly forever, I am listening to an instrumental progressive jazz fusion album and I am not bored to the very core of my soul. Instead, I want to press play and listen to it all over again. Maybe I am maturing and with that, so are my musical tastes? Quite possibly. However, I think it has more to do with the fact that Nova Collective have actually written music that is intelligent and challenging but that is also vibrant, melodic and engaging. Bravo, Nova Collective, bravo." - Man Of Much Metal