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Album: SJS - The Unlikely Event | reviews, news & interviews

Album: SJS - The Unlikely Event

Album: SJS - The Unlikely Event

Effulgent meltdown epic number two from the Aussie neo-prog combo

'The Unlikely Event' – spluttering grandeur

Just as love's downward spiral can deconstruct a lover's sense of self, so SJS's plangent post-modern prog deconstructs itself as it ebbs and flows toward gorgeous but muted crescendos.

On the band's second album The Unlikely Event, lovely melodies stop dead and mutate. Electronic interjections – like leaks from a nerve centre or a super-computer – fizz, throb and splutter out. A searing guitar solo, bent on rockist glory, suddenly falters, chokes and has to regather itself. Uncertainty and impermanence rule.

In 2017, English musician-producer-engineer Stuart Stawman launched his Australia-based project with the stunning 66-minute The World Without. Like the new album (which also features drummer Graeme James, guitarist Douglas Skene and bassist Christopher Soulos), it intersperses Stawman's songs about looming romantic defeat with polemics on the parlous state of the world. "110 Stories" and "The Blaming" deploy found sound bites from 9/11 and other catastrophes to comment on the cultures of political and personal blame. What sound like NASA Control and Apollo astronaut exchanges bookend the centrepiece trilogy "End Trope"/"Circle Seat"/"Descent" – in which a latterday Major Tom, not adrift but existentially alienated, disconsolately observes Earth. The piece is so haunting, it costs subsequent tracks impact.

Lyrically more cryptic than The World Without (and more economically crafted), The Unlikely Event expresses dismay at environmental meltdown and suggests love is the only hiding place. Problem is, love doesn't work. Stawman, who half sings, half talks throughout, has a hushed, intimate voice that makes the most of his hopes, anxieties and ironic comments about an elusive object of desire: "She's feeling higher than Christ / She has a long way to fall"; "You look so pretty / Won't you come and live with me"." In "Angels & Acrobats", he casts himself as an abject circus clown, Smokey Robinson-style. As on the previous record, he repurposes a nursery rhyme (this time "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe") to bittersweet effect.

Stawman's vocals often sound "treated", as if they're sung through a dying vocoder, but he should trust their purity more, as when he scratchily warbles "I'd like to tell you that I'd never betray you / But I already did." (There's delicious ambiguity here – did he already tell her, or already betray her? So, too, in the line "She will love you to bits." Deconstruction, indeed.) The singer's falsetto is not as keen as Thom Yorke's, but it's still a vulnerable and touching instrument. 

Of the album's six songs, "Go Slow (Part 2)", "Xombies", and "Angels & Acrobats" achieve transcendently proggy grandeur – via scudding fusions of synthesisers, mellotrons, even folky mandolins – but the frosty instrumental "(In) Your Own Time" could be Krautrock or electronica. None of the numbers offers a hint of catharsis or release – unlike, say, Ravel's "Bolero," Yes's "Starship Trooper" or Pink Floyd's "Echoes" – so one feels compelled to listen to them over and over again, their mystery and beauty accruing.

Stuart Stawman's vocals often sound 'treated', as if they're sung through a dying vocoder, but he should trust their purity more


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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