Richard Poulin 26-Jan-2008 Many Directions

Science is the art of measuring our own human ignorance. Well, when you start thinking you have heard everything under the star that shines on Planet Prog, here comes a humbling reminder that not everything has been done. Well, much music has been created, we all know that, and most of what we hear consists in simply extending threads left loose by previous creators. And then, there is music that shamelessly borrows paths already beaten, but that uses so many of them, and jumps so rapidly from one to the other that the final result is something one has to characterize as original and new.

Heartscore’s ‘Many Directions’ proudly belongs to the latter category, and is to me one of the most enchanting discoveries for 2007. It is hard to describe the surprise that happened to me when I first heard this gem. A surprise that starts by ‘What the (fill the blank) is that?’, and is followed by a total freezing out (of surprise). This album falls very short of being a masterpiece, and one is forced to stop everything one is doing and pay attention to what is going on.

‘Many Directions’ is Heartscore’s third effort. This German ‘group’ used to describe itself as a ‘two-man virtual band’. Well.... everything heard on the first two albums (‘Sculptures’ in 2003 and ‘Straight to the Brain’ in 2004) was played and/or sung by Dirk Radloff and either Olivier Hartstack (on vocals on both), Tim Warweg (on drums) or Stefan Platte (trumpet) – the latter two on the second album). This time, German man-orchestra Dirk Radloff does absolutely everything on ‘Many Directions’, like Paul McCartney (on his first album, minus Linda’s humming) or Mike Oldfield (on Tubular Bells) used to do in the old-fashioned way a long time ago. The instrumentation is deceptively simple: mostly lots of guitar (electric, and some acoustic also), various keyboards, programmed drums, and lots of catchy vocals and harmonies. And it DOES sound like a band, I must say.

There is so much to say about the incredible qualities of the music heard on that album. First, most of the music is made of short tracks (< 5 min) with song structures, except for the last one, ‘The Miller's Wife’, a short mini-opera or –epic by Heartscore’s standards at 10:02. But the compositions are so packed full with clever melodies, brilliant arrangements, simple but effective ornamentations, superb harmonies (one keeps forgetting this is all Dirk Radloff’s monumental studio work) that even a 2-min tune weighs a lot by any musical standard. One quality of Heartscore’s/Radloff’s music is its catchiness. Many tunes (e.g. ‘One Way Ticket’, ‘Fire’, ‘There's been a death in the opposite house’, ‘The Story Of The Ashes And The Flame’ etc.) could easily become instant radio hits, and yet, despite their obvious pop music qualities, they conceal complexities worthy of the best work done by the Beatles, and more. Progarchives has labelled Heartscore’s music as crossover prog, which is not far from the truth, actually, if that does not sound like a bad thing to you. Conciseness AND complexity are two of the essential qualities of the finest music known to man, all categories confounded, and Heartscore’s music is a brilliant example of what keeping compositions well focussed and soberly but tastefully arranged can do.

How can one best describe the music heard on ‘Many Directions’? As mentioned earlier, obvious references can be pinpointed, but only stylistically speaking. We’re talking here about a singer who sounds in solo like Ric Ocasek (The Cars) doing an impression of David Byrne, but with very good results. Since that comparison is quite close to the truth :-), it has some very idiosyncratic characteristics that may or may not please everyone – especially he sings on all tracks. But it has very endearing qualities to this critic, and one must insist on the excellent harmonies (think of the best of Yes, for instance), which are used pretty much everywhere, and helps to makes this one-man band sounds credibly like an ensemble. In general terms, the keywords ‘pop’, ‘Beatlesque’, ‘Led Zeppelin riffs’, ‘melodic’ would be the most accurate here. Dirk Radloff seems to have matured into one of the most accomplished one-man band I have ever heard. His compositions are crafted with incredible intelligence, an unusually bright sense for catchy memorable melodies coupled with an infallible taste for dead-right arrangements and compositional complexities that transform something that could sound totally disjointed into fluid, seamless music with all the landmarks of classics. So, short, infectious tunes with progressive inflexions (with the same sense that one would use the word progressive with Gracious! and some of the best songs by the Beatles). The exception is the mini-epic (‘The Miller’s Wife’) which ends the album at towering heights. A truly brilliant suite (and symphonically progressive in the most traditional sense, including woodwinds and brass) with a theme that sounds very naive with its standard, crooner-style chord progression, but that quickly develops into a breathtaking minidrama with its numerous sections. And the approx. 50 min are over and you are left with the certainty that this ought to be a classic (although it will need far better exposure!). In the other 13 (shorter) tunes, you get, among other things:

- a chamber rock piece (‘Another Dark Lady') that seems directly out from a Kurt Weill play,
- a romantic song (‘What Lips My Lips Have Kissed ‘) with harpsichord-like acoustic guitar, which could well be out of an ‘Electric Light Orchestra’ album, but with far more elegance....
- one of the real ‘pieces de resistance’, ‘One way ticket’, some syncopated dance music with one of the most infectious rhythm one can conceive of!
- and math metal, and McCartney-esque gems, and medieval prog metal (!!), with enough complexity under a pop varnish to satisfy the tastes of the most gourmet prog lovers.

Despite the fact that Heartscore’s tunes are melodically catchy, the progressive elements are there, always subtle and deceptively simple at first. Take for example ‘There's been a death in the opposite house’ : it not only contains a fantastically catchy melody, infectious harmonies, but some of the most intricate rhythm guitar work in brilliant counterpoint with the refrain parts one could ever think of. And enough time signature changes during its mere 4:47 to humble a Yes fan who would think that ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’ is the nec plus ultra of complex prog :-) As a result, this simple tune leaves you breathless and realizing how so much can be said and expressed within 5 min. And similar tour de forces are found again and again throughout this incredibly rich and consistently strong album.

Quite notably, Radloff is a fine guitarist a little a la Jimmy Page (an often heard comparison) but with the economically brilliant style of a George Harrison or Martin Barre, for example, and his axe work gives an important dimension to the music. Often the tunes are little prog metal gems (even math metal, like on ‘Many Red Devils’) sung –oddly enough - by someone who would have a cleaner pop voice. His style sometimes sounds also like Ron Jarzombek of Watchtower/Spastic Ink’s fame, which makes the final result even more intriguing and unique.

And as a footnote of interest, it is worth mentioning that as in all previous efforts by Heartscore, all lyrics are actual poems from various ‘American poets’ (no author is identified, however). I Googled a few titles, and names such as Emily Dickinson (‘There's been a death in the opposite house’) Langston Hughes (‘Kid Sleepy’), Edwin Arlington (‘The Story Of The Ashes And The Flame’) come up. It would have been nice and fair and instructive, though, to have these authors mentioned somewhere.... especially for people outside the USA who have not been much exposed to that literature.

In short, ‘Many Directions’ is one of the most unbelievably original and pleasant albums to which I have had the chance to listen in 2007. It’s a must have for anyone with a curious mind and, strangely enough, it is prog you can play in any civilized reunion of people ....

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