Crystal Palace – Still There (2022)
German band Crystal Palace is not an unknown band to me and I own several of their albums. In general these are good albums and in recent years the line-up has been fairly stable and the quality of the albums is also fairly constant. As stated, I like them but usually you don't find their albums in my annual lists. And, I can tell you that, not this time either, but Still There is one of their better albums and maybe even their best so far.
It is a concept album about a young woman who leaves gloomy England to move to the metropolis Berlin together with her boyfriend. She goes in search of selfexploration and happiness and initially seems to find it. Gradually, however, life becomes more and more difficult for her and she finally decides to take her own life. Before she decides to jump off a watchtower, she carves the words Still There in the wall next to the stairs during an earlier visit. For the detailed story you can use the easy to follow texts.
Where exactly should you place Crystal Palace's music? I would call it heavy neoprog in which keyboards and guitar divide the attention well and played by very skilled musicians. However, as far as I'm concerned there is a downside and that is……..yes, the vocals. Yens Uwe Strutz (Yenz) is a fine bass player, but vocally he is not of the same quality. His accent is not really disturbing, but also does not contribute to a suitable counterpart to the fine music. With 75 minutes it is quite a long album and every now and then my attention fades a bit.
What makes Still There better than all predecessors? So far my favourite was Scattered Shards, 2018. They have taken more time to work out the songs well and in terms of melodies there is simply more to enjoy. The songs are mostly longer then on the last few albums and that works very well. Opener 126 Steps immediately creates an oppressive atmosphere and in Leaving this Land the imminent departure from England is well motivated. Guitarist Nils Conrad immediately shows that he likes to play some heavy chords, but can also play tasty solos. The frequent use of rhythmic parts, by solid drummer Tom Ronney and Frank Köhler on keyboards, creates a fairly modern sound as far as you can speak of that in prog rock. Every now and then it fringes between the wonderful piano pieces and the somewhat plaintive vocals of Yenz and that is a pity. The chosen vocal lines sometimes seem a bit forced. A song like Dear Mother has a bit of a pounding rhythm and asks for steady vocals and it doesn't seem to harmonize in the nice quiet passages either. The pounding passages in this song provide variety and a spoken text, by the female protagonist, is quite enjoyable and provides a better understanding of her motivation.
The songs flow very nicely into each other and there is plenty of variation in tempo and atmosphere. Shadows is a bit shorter song and again I am distracted by the wandering vocal parts and that's a pity, the background vocals can't disguise this either. The Unquiet Window is a wonderfully lingering song and here Crystal Palace is at its best with great guitar work and full keys.
As the main character's life in Berlin becomes heavier, it is clearly noticeable in the music too. A Scream from the Wall contains real progmetal passages and I don't really prefer that, but it does have a function in the story. Bombast can also be found in the following songs, it gets really heavy and this is sometimes at the expense of the melody and that is why Still There will just not make it to my year list of 2022 and that is no shame because it is / was one of the best years with many very good albums.
The title track is the highlight of Still There and if you don't know Crystal Palace and want to give it a shot then I would put this song on. Very nice.
So, a well-developed concept album by a good band, but here and there a bit too heavy for me. Unfortunately, the vocals are also a downside for me. The level is musically very high and you can’t say the same of the vocals despite all the effort. The cover is not my taste at all, but there are probably other opinions to be found. It reminds me of Marillion’s Brave a bit, the story has a lot of similarities too, but not quite of the same level. But do give this a try , this album deserves that.