“A Trip to the City Of Dreams” - Anthony Phillips’ new Private Parts & Pieces album reviewed by Alan Hewitt.
A new album in this series is becoming something of a rarity these days and it has been several years since the last album. Mind you, Anthony has been far from idle in the intervening period as the pages of TWR can testify. This series of albums began life as an outlet for some of the music which might not automatically lend itself to the more commercial kind of albums which record companies are always pushing their artists to deliver. Having been fortunate to have found such an outlet for this music, Ant has over the years brought a veritable treasure trove of music to his fans which in turn also served to demonstrate his versatility as a composer for not only guitar but also for keyboards too
It is that command of the keyboards which is demonstrated here on City Of Dreams, which is the first album to feature almost exclusively music composed on synthesisers since 1987’s Slow Waves Soft Stars album. That album however, made some concession to the more warm and natural sound of the acoustic guitar. No such concession is made here though and what we have is an altogether more abrasive sounding album which took this listener by surprise in much the same way that the synthesiser-based 1984 album did all those years ago.
The album opens with the dramatic City Of Dreams and Piledriver, both of which are evocative of aspects of a modern city scape, there is no room for romanticism here I’m afraid and this is Ant at his most dissonant. King of The Mountain, takes us out of the city and into the landscape for a majestic and ethereal depiction of a frosty other world which includes that rarity of late, an electric guitar solo which soars eagle-like over the entire piece.
From the arctic conditions of its predecessor, Coral Island takes us somewhere altogether warmer for a few moments of serenity and languid beauty which to my mind remind me of some of Ant’s brilliant wildlife music.
Astral Bath to my ears has definite echoes of some of the more surreal moments of Back To The Pavilion before we return to the city for City Of Dreams II, a recapitulation of the previous theme which leads into Air & Grace one of the few piano based pieces on this album. The natural sound of the piano may initially jar against the decidedly frosty nature of the synthesiser pieces but any acoustic performance by Ant is welcome and this one should definitely serve as the basis of a song at some point in the future its air of wistful romanticism certainly deserves vocal accompaniment.
Tuscan Wedding, is a brilliant evocation of the sound of distant bells summoning the witnesses to a wedding in the Tuscan hills. Stately and restrained, with undertones of melancholy humour, this is a personal favourite of mine. From the grandeur of the Tuscan hills we are back in the razor sharp world of the synthesiser for Mystery Train I although to my ears there is nothing even remotely train like about it!
Sunset Pools demonstrates that even something as quintessentially unnatural
as a synthesiser can, on occasions, bring forth something of almost fragile
beauty, this is another track which reminds me of some of the music from Slow
Waves Soft Stars.
The aquatic theme is continued with Sea & Sardinia, a twilit coastal grotto shimmers with aquatic life - simple but more than effective.
Watching While You Sleep definitely belongs in a film soundtrack. A truly majestic sounds cape in which there is little motion but plenty of emotion - beautiful stuff! Night Owl too brings to mind some of the music from the first Missing Links album, and in particular parts of the Land Of Dragons Suite. The Deep doesn’t really need any comment, a broad synth scape builds a majestic and dramatic evocation of its subject worthy of one of David Attenborough’s wildlife spectaculars.
City Of Dreams III contrasts somewhat irritatingly with its majestic predecessor and the dissonance continues with Mystery Train II which once again, does nothing personally for this listener’s ears I’m afraid. Star’s End is much better, once again, a serene and tranquil piece the like of which Ant does so well. Doom Flower is a misleading title, there is nothing doom-laden whatsoever about this scintillating track.
Night Train To Novgorod at least has a train-like motion running through it but is bizarrely not in the least bit evocative of a train journey to this legendary corner of the USSR should sound like to my ears - a delight nonetheless! Sea Of Tranquility does exactly what it says in the title - nuff said!
39 Steps, has a feel of repressed drama to it which is retained as we enter the Lake of Fire albeit very briefly before we emerge from the dark into the Realms Of Gold another classic slice of Ant’s synth work and one of the genuine highlights of this album - a gem or should that be a nugget of burnished gold?!
The City Of Dreams theme returns for the fourth time but begs the question; why? Perhaps in this case to serve as a superb foil for Days Of Yore another all too rare acoustic moment whose warmth is soon replaced as we go Across The Steppes, a magnificent evocation of the frosty vastness of its subject. The piano driven Act of Faith has a somewhat Christmassy feel to it and is another of those tracks which I think Ant should definitely expand upon and make into a song.
Grand Master, owes nothing to chess and everything to the likes of Gandalf, a superb evocation of the world of magic and mystery which once again gives way to another recapitulation of Mystery Train although this time the aura of mystery is in keeping with its predecessor.
Anthem For Doomed Youth, is another classic slice of Ant at his majestic best. A noble theme replete with just the right amount of pathos makes this the emotional heart of the album which is brought to a close by The Homecoming another emotionally tinged track bringing things to a suitably retrained close.
As usual, there is so much to listen to in an album by Ant. There is evidently
quite a lot going on throughout this album and it is perhaps one of the few
of the Private Parts & Pieces albums to have some kind of theme (albeit
undefined) running through it. Like its earlier predecessor; Back To The Pavilion,
this is a somewhat episodic and bitty album which is difficult to get to grips
with at times. That said, as usual with an album in this series, the effort
of getting to grips with the music is rewarded with some further gems that add
more lustre to Ant’s catalogue.