The Northeast corner of the U.S., New England, likes to think of itself as one of the more cultured parts of the nation and it certainly produces some of the most sophisticated and inspired popular music. Like many of its politicians however, it suffers casualties.
Rhode Island’s Arc Iris, which had developed out of the solo project of ex-The Low Anthem’s Jocie Adams, to become at one stage an eight-piece band, became noted for its complex blend of old and new music, with sweeping arrangements and a unique intertwining of melody and rhythm, built around the talents of the multi-instrumentalists Adams and Zach Tenorio-Miller, the dynamic evocative cello of Robin Ryczek and ingenious percussionist Ray Belli. You’d expect something stellar from a woman (Adams) who actually spent some time as NASA scientist.
It is hard to pin down the band’s style, to identify any genre. They mix and match them like few others that I have experienced. Intriguingly, their new label brands them as ‘pop-prog’, a new marque, and one that I now wouldn’t dispute. And they produce top quality covers, such as that of Fiona Apple’s ‘Every Single Night’.
Two very well received albums were released, in 2014 (eponymously titled) and 2016 (‘Moon Saloon’), the latter recorded in five days as they had been invited to support St Vincent on her UK tour (as indeed they did in 2014, when I was fortunate enough to catch them), as well as a 2018 album, ‘Foggy Lullaby’, a reworking of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’, and an album they had toured in 2017.
Despite changing labels between the first two albums, everything seemed to be going swimmingly. And then…
First, they lost their manger, then their booking agent, and then to add insult to injury their contract with label Bella Union. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some of the band parted company, notably Ryczek, another one on the fringe of the regular rock and roll business with a history even more out of the ordinary than Adams’; she set up a music school for teenagers in Kabul, Afghanistan, at the height of the Taliban insurgency. That takes some bottle. I understand it’s still going strong.
Some might give up but not this lot, they’re made of sterner stuff. They found a new label, the Kentucky-based Ba Da Bing Records, which humorously insists it has “no connection with strip clubs”, a reference to the Bada Bing fictional strip joint in The Sopranos’, and set about writing and recording ‘Icon of Ego’ with the core trio of Adams, Tenorio-Miller and Belli.
‘Icon of Ego’ thus represents a fresh chapter, but unburdened by what had become a weighty staff roster, the slimmed-down band has set out to pursue the goals it originally sought, while championing its own versatility and ability to overcome adversity. True to their roots they chose to record it at Providence, Rhode Island’s Columbus Theatre, home to silent movies and vaudeville during the 1920s.
The album questions the concept of celebrity, fame, and idol worship, asking what makes an icon? And how do people fall under the spell of a charismatic other, or an entity? What is it like to be that icon?
It may be politically influenced but it also stands as a catalyst for our times more widely.
‘Icon of Ego’ opens with another ‘re-working’, ‘$GNMS’, which is that of the jaunty folk track ‘Money Gnomes’ fromthe debut album and which includes lines that remains so apt today: “Love has no place in a dreary world, obsessed with shiny things” and “Why must riches make us thieves? “
But the banjo and drum brushes are replaced here by analogue synthesisers, and samples courtesy of Tenorio-Miller, a master at this craft, a heavier drum beat from Belli, and a more complex arrangement all round. There is also an imposing strings contribution towards the end which seems tailor-made for the now in absentia Ryczek to let go when performed live; I hope that it isn’t merely synthesised. The constant is Adams’ engaging, almost childlike, falsetto voice. Actually, I’m not sure I don’t prefer the original version though I’m sure this one will grow on me over time.
It is soon clear this synthesised-sampled sound has replaced the previous folk-y one, which was generated by acoustic guitar, clarinet (Adams’ first instrument), banjo, and trumpet, on the album as a whole.
It is there, though not quite so evidently, on ‘Dylan & Me’. Now you can’t get much more iconic than Bob, nor have much of a greater ego, and presumably it is he to whom they are referring, with lines such as “changing times / you could not have been / waiting to be remembered / a trophy in so many eyes / a Renoir for the great pretenders.” There is some irony here though, and maybe they are self-parodying, Dylan having infamously “betrayed” the acoustic guitar in favour of the electric one four decades ago while Arc Iris does its own betraying right here on this album.
What the track lacks in melody it more than makes up for in its dense complexity. You find yourself wondering how they can ever replicate this live. But they do, believe me. Just the three of them. I’m just a little perturbed though about how Jocie Adams’ voice has been manipulated on this song. At times I thought I was listening to St Vincent, at others to any one of a number of in vogue Nordic artists. I prefer Jocie au naturel, if she’ll pardon the expression.
There is a change of tone on ‘If You Can See’, a much more optimistic and cheery track which focuses on their ability to make it through the bad times together and suggests we can all do the same if we make the effort to forego pre-set ideas of a dystopian present and future. A keep-your-chin-up song, if you like and the nearest they’ve come to hit single material if a tad schmaltzy.
The official video below features a cast of hundreds from Providence, which seems to be a pretty hip sort of place.
‘Turn it up’ is another track measured in an unusual time signature, this time initially guitar-led, and in the manner of 1970’s prog, giving Ray Belli in particular the opportunity to express himself. It could be a Yes track and that is some recognition to bestow. And there’s more to come.
The title track comes midway through the album and is a slow burner, drifting into anthem territory from the moment Adams asks “Did we kill the Machine?” in a voice so highly reminiscent of Jon Anderson.
In contrast, ‘Chattermachines’ gets into the groove straight away and keeps up the pace throughout. It’s a lengthy track at almost seven minutes and one that I want to see performed live as soon as possible. It ticks all the boxes – beautifully arranged, intelligently worded, instrumentally invigorating and terrifically atmospheric. It is the sound that used to echo around venues like the Hammersmith Odeon, The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, The Manchester Free Trade Hall and the Birmingham Hippodrome amongst others all those decades ago. A fantastic song. I can’t stop listening to it already.
‘Beautiful Mind’ is a lighter number that opens with the bass line of a 1960’s British pop track, while the later strings interjection over synths is perfect.
The pace slows with ‘Everybody’s Counting on Her’, the first ballad on the album, with Adams adopting more of a Blues vocal before it suddenly moves dramatically up-tempo.
The synth opening to final track ‘Suzy’ and Adam’s vocalisation again suggests some influence coming from St Vincent and her recent ‘Masseduction’ album with elements of Fiona Apple thrown in, in the chorus. Then it suddenly explodes into dense hardcore prog and I’m left wondering, is there any other band on Earth producing a sound like this at the moment?
When I sat down to review this album I never expected it to grow on me the way it did after the relatively tame opening of the re-imagined ‘Money Gnomes’/‘$GNMS’.
I certainly did not expect to find myself listening to what I am sure will become a modern prog classic, and one performed, unbelievably, by just three people. As I said earlier it is, or rather was, no simple matter to locate just where Arc Iris were in the overall scheme of things. No longer is that the case. I’ve been fortunate enough to review or hear performed live two excellent prog albums this year, Trembling Bells’ ‘Dungeness’ and the re-issue of Curved Air’s ‘Second Album’.
Quite unexpectedly a third has arrived. Whether or not Arc Iris consider themselves to be exponents of progressive rock there are without doubt many thousands of 1970s veterans of the likes of Yes, King Crimson, Genesis and others, out there who have been patiently waiting for something like this. If they have anything in common with me they are going to love it.
Icon of Ego was released on Oct 12th via Ba Da Bing Records.
Arc Iris has embarked on a U.S. tour from 15th October. There are tentative plans to visit the UK in the early part of 2019, for the first time in three years.
The group has always (in prog fashion) embraced theatricality, with an array of costumes, flares, and light rigs, occasionally enhanced by choreographed dance moves. It is understood a new routine will accompany ‘Icon of Ego’ – based performances.