When you think about the music of Australia, the average person is likely to think “didgeridoo” before they think “progressive rock.” Yet Australia has produced a number of great acts and musicians in the spectrum of progressive music over the years. The March 2016 debut album from newly formed Southern Empire proves that the progressive rock scene in the Land Down Under is still alive and well.
These guys recently landed the coveted opening track on Prog Magazine’s cover CD with their song “How Long” – and upon listening to the album in its entirety, the exposure is well earned. Southern Empire covers a lot of musical ground with complex compositions that reward the attentive listener, while at the same time including sufficient pop sensibility to make them enjoyable for a casual listen as well. Their sound mixes upbeat melodic rock, heavy prog, jazz fusion, world music, and long instrumental passages—all with plenty of catchy hooks thrown in to keep the listener engaged and along for the ride.
Keyboardist Sean Timms formed Southern Empire after the disbandment of his previous band, Unitopia (a band that did, on occasion, use didgeridoo). In fact, some of the material on this album was born out of the desire to record another Unitopia album, with some of the ideas for these songs stemming from former Unitopia vocalist Mark Trueack’s concept and vision for that album. As a result, it’s hard to avoid the comparison with Unitopia. With Timms as main songwriter, there are definite similarities—for example, both bands use complex arrangements to tie together diverse genres. However, Southern Empire definitely has a sound of their own, especially in the vocal department. Where former Unitopia frontman Mark Trueack created a sound reminiscent of Fish or Peter Gabriel, Southern Empire frontman Danny Lopresto has a bit harder edge that would be just as adept at singing the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, or Queen (which, by the way, he does for his “day gig”). The vocal harmonies also kick it up a notch, with all members of the band contributing to some very tight and well-produced background vocals.
The first proper song on the album is “Forest Fire.” This is probably the closest thing to a single on the album… to the extent that you can consider a 7-minute song a single. It’s a catchy, upbeat tune with a driving bass line that starts off with a fairly standard structure of intro/verse/chorus/etc. But to keep things proggy, the song closes with a 2-minute instrumental section featuring virtuoso soloing from Timms and guitarist Cam Blokland.
The song receiving the most widespread promotion is “How Long.” This is where the composition really starts to be more complex and diverse, both in terms of structure and instrumentation. After an ethereal extended intro of keyboard and guitar, the listener is hit with African drums and auxiliary percussion combined with some superb soprano sax soloing from Adam Page. The overall effect almost leaves you wondering if Béla Fleck and the Flecktones hijacked your stereo for just a minute. The song continues with the catchy verse and chorus that seem to be Southern Empire’s trademark. An extended bridge introduces classical piano and Latin beats to the mix. The overall result is an eclectic track that takes a few listens to fully reveal itself, even if the lyrics are a bit repetitive compared to the rest of the album. The mix of sounds may appeal to fans of Spock’s Beard, while the saxophone and jazz fusion elements may appeal to fans of The Flower Kings.
The true crown jewel of the album is “The Bridge That Binds.” This 28-minute epic track in 9 movements is ear candy for any true prog fan. The influence of bands like Transatlantic and Dream Theater (especially their 90s-era work) really comes through. “The Bridge That Binds” combines all the essential aspects of Southern Empire’s sound into an expansive prog tour-de-force: catchy vocal hooks, powerful melodies, heavy riffing, delicate jazzy sections, and virtuoso soloing. The song integrates diverse instrumentation, including tenor saxophone, flute, violin, congas, and flugelhorn – in fact, it would seem that the only instrument this song doesn’t have is didgeridoo (sorry, guys… someone had to say it). Fans of the band Frost* may enjoy the integration of catchy hooks and pop sensibility into an epic arrangement on this track. Opening with an instrumental movement that channels Dream Theater’s classic “Metropolis Part 1,” the song then moves into upbeat vocal territory. The voyage continues through jazz saxophone, blues guitar, blazing solos, multi-part vocal arrangements, and even incorporates elements of grunge on “Let the River Run Red” before transitioning abruptly to an airy flute solo. The song continues to build to a powerful yet tastefully restrained grand finale. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this song is the ability to tie such a complex epic together in a coherent way.
The album closes with the sublime “Dreams and Machines.” Clocking in at only 5 minutes, this song shows the lads can show some restraint and still turn out a great tune.
Southern Empire is a fine start from these Aussie veteran musicians. Highly recommended for fans of Unitopia, Spock’s Beard, The Flower Kings, Transatlantic, Dream Theater, and Frost*—yet worth a listen for any prog fan. But seriously, guys… don’t forget the didgeridoo next time.
Southern Empire Line-up:
Danny Lopresto: Lead and Backing Vocals, Electric and 12-String Acoustic Guitars, Mandolin
Cam Blokland: Electric and Acoustic Guitars, Banjo, Backing Vocals
Jez Martin: Fretted and Fretless Bass, Flugelhorn, French Horn, Melophone, Backing Vocals
Brody Green: Drums, Hand Percussion, Backing Vocals
Sean Timms: Keyboards, Electric Guitar, Lap Steel Guitar, Theremin, Alto Saxophone, Ukelele, Melodica, Backing Vocals
With Guest Musicians:
Steve Unruh: Violin, Flute
Adam Page: Soprano and Tenor Saxophone, Flute
Tim Irrgang: Congas, Darbukka, Tamborine, African Drums
Oliver Timms: More Cowbell on “The Bridge that Binds”