Unitopia – Seven Chambers (2023)
Many times I have tried to understand and then appreciate the music of Unitopia. I have only partially succeeded so far and that is very unfortunate because I really love Mark Trueack's voice and keyboardist Sean Timms really is a fantastic musician and composer. What's the reason I didn't get through? There is the large amount of saxophone pieces with very often jazzy playing as a result and that does not really suit me. As mentioned, it's a shame because there are so many beautiful pieces of prog in the music of these Australians. Take for example the long track The Garden from the eponymous album that is sometimes so beautiful and then.......saxophone and other wind instruments (and a lot). Furthermore, I wasn't really enamoured with Matt Williams' guitar work, which for me went too much towards Steve Howe. Very skilled but doesn't touch me.
After this intro we go to the new album Seven Chambers and that is really a surprise. Trueack and Simms have stayed, the saxophone has disappeared and a new guitarist has joined, John Greenwood, and he really is a completely different guitarist and his style suits me much more. The advanced songs Mania and Something Invisible already show a completely different sound and I love it. The beautiful atmospheric pieces but also the hectic pieces such as the one at the end of Mania remain and by adding the omnipresent Steve Unruh, who plays violin and flute, there still is a slightly wider palette of instruments.
The album Artificial dates from 2010 and is actually the last real original album so there is a lot of time in between. After this, the live album, One Night In Europe (2011) and an album with covers, Covered Mirror (2012) were released. A lot has happened since then, especially concerning health issues. Trueack has gone through a deep valley and the lyrics on Seven Chambers are sometimes very dark and melancholy but also show struggle and victory. The voice of this great, English-born fellow is still a joy to listen to. Often compared to Peter Gabriel, not a bad one, his voice has warmth but also a touch of rawness and he really feels his lyrics and you can hear that.
Seven Chambers was released on double CD and that was not the intention at first, but due to a surplus of inspiration there turned out to be too much music that really could not be missing. There are a total of seven songs on it and you guessed it, a lot of long tracks. I personally think that a single cd with seventy minutes would have been sufficient though.
As mentioned, in terms of line-up a lot has changed, the new rhythm section consists of, and you do read that correctly, Chester Thompson on drums and Alphonso Johnson on bass so if this isn’t a guarantee of quality. And where you would expect this to mean that more fusion or jazz could be heard, the opposite is true.
We open very orchestrally with Broken Heart starting very quietly with vulnerable vocals from Trueack who candidly talks about his health problems, literally in this case. It immediately becomes clear that Greenwood has a completely different way of playing and as the intensity increases we are treated to a rather sweet and accessible, certainly by Unitopia standards, chorus. More than eight minutes that show a new sound in which the violin replaces the horns and shows a firmer edge towards the end.
Something Invisible is a really beautiful song with very nice and subtle guitar work by Greenwood. The recognizable lyrics will touch many of us, as they did me, and are so beautifully sung. Timms shows how good he is and keyboard parts and orchestral pieces are interspersed with heavier pieces and at the end a solo on violin follows that turns into a wonderful guitar solo. Really beautiful. Pure joy for six minutes.
Bittersweet is the next song and in terms of title I suspect the worst. Is this going to be a very sweet song? Initially yes, but Trueack sings it so beautifully that it is still acceptable to me. (a kind of My Inspiration on Redemption by Mystery) but then comes the end. What's going on here? Is Unitopia going on the dance tour? Modern rhythms and jazzy keyboards alternate and all kinds of unhealthy, but oh so tasty, food acts as lyrics and that has everything to do with health riscs because Trueack has struggled with that too. Witty but not necessarily beautiful.
Mania is a long track of more than twelve minutes and for me symbolizes the new Unitopia. Touching lyrics, beautiful vocals, wonderful guitar work, and a melody that sticks in your head. But just when you think you've heard it, they come up with surprising twists and turns that show how good these musicians are. For me this is the song that brought me back to this classy band and I am very happy with that. The heavy ending fits the title perfectly and is great with staccato rhythms and heavy guitar. I'm flying yells Trueack.
The Stroke of Midnight closes the first CD and here too we hear a beautiful melody and again those beautiful arrangements on the keyboards because Timms is a true master in this field. Greenwood tastefully colours the holes with very subtle guitar loops and the long, dramatic violin passages create a subdued atmosphere. Very serene.
On disc 2 there are only two songs that are both very long. Helen and The Uncertain both clock in at twenty minutes and are another testament to the qualities of this band. Variety trumps and especially a lot of tasty prog with one beautiful melody after another. A lot more (prog)rock and a lot less jazz and that fits me like a glove.
I feel like this change in style will please a lot of people, but also the already existing fans of Unitopia will enjoy Seven Chambers because the quality is dripping off. I'm all over it and I'll listen to this album often. It's nice that they're back and I hope that Trueack, even if he's sitting down like at the recent concert, will continue to sing for a long time if his health allows it. Fingers crossed.
On the cover we see a heart and that says it all.