Concept driven ‘classic’ progressive rock has had a bit of a bad run recently – well, for this cynic at least, anyway. Neal Morse’s album and Dream Theater’s He-Whomst-Must-Not-Be-Named have left a sour taste in the mouths of many, especially for the latter’s hollow and copious ballads. Imagine my surprise when Azure.’s debut album comes and flaunts classic prog worship; 19-minute conceptual narratives and power ballads like they’re going out of fashion. With Wish For Spring, Azure. has breathed new life into the seemingly doomed prog stereotype with daring vocals, exciting song concepts and a pinch of sex appeal that makes for one of the strongest prog records from this year so far.
Wish For Spring finds that rare balance between ambition and competence that many concept-driven albums strive for. Though rather than having an all-encompassing story or a single central theme, Azure. confidently switches between themes of fantasy (‘Azure’, ‘River Dragon’), social commentary (‘Tell Me It’s For Absolution’, ‘Fairy’s Tale’) and personal topics, like friendship (‘Friends’, ‘Piglet’) and sex. The lattermost is refreshing to see done well in such a typically dry genre; some prog automatons would fidget uncomfortably trying to imitate human emotion to no convincing avail, but Azure.’s sensual delivery in the masochistic and trip-hoppy ‘My Body (feat. HETTIE)’ and the tender ballad ‘Awake, Some Mornings’ gives progressive rock some much needed hot-blooded humanity. Hey, sex sells. Nowhere in Wish For Spring will you find indifference or complacency in any of the tracks’ themes; each one feels genuinely heartfelt and enthralling with a variance that keeps the record from stagnating; especially the ballads (take note, Dream Theater).
Suitably, the longer and more progressive tracks like ‘Azure’, ‘Larks That Were Never Really There // Dawn Chorus’ and closer, ‘Fairy’s Tale’, follow more narrative driven concepts. Song structures feel moulded around their narrative host without sacrificing the track’s flow or awkwardly forcing progressions. The relatively straightforward ‘Piglet’, ‘Friends’, ‘Tell Me It’s For Absolution’ and ‘My Body’ are all surprisingly more to my tastes than the longer tracks, being addictively catchy with their hooks and choruses; the latter of which may just be my favourite song of the year so far. Though the eccentric shifts in tone between each song would make Wish For Spring feel more like an agglomeration of tracks rather than a coherent album, the consistencies found in poppy synth melodies and Azure.’s cornerstone vocals provide the record’s vital common thread.
When performed exclusively, Azure.’s clean poppy singing, angelic high notes and screams of attitude are nothing short of superb. On the rare occasion, however, concoctions of the latter two are less than the sum of their parts. Where ‘Friends’ has the best chorus I have heard all year, what with Azure.’s jaw-dropping climb to the album’s highest note; the final chorus of ‘Azure’ is a little too ambitious in pitch and assertiveness against the relatively restrained instrumentation, overshadowing Galen Satepley’s excellent guitar solo preceding it. The inclusion of vocoders in ‘Bathing in Lunar Pond’, ‘Tell Me It’s For Absolution’ and ‘Azure’ are interesting additions without acting as unnecessary substitutes, and nicely compliment the context of their respective song. With very few exceptional cases, Wish For Spring has outstanding vocals which impresses more times that I can count; Azure. is easily one of my favourite upcoming vocalists I’ve heard in recent years.
Even without the vocals, the instrumentation in Wish For Spring is solid enough to hold its own; from the dreamy and driven finale in ‘Larks…’ to the cheery jig nestled in the heart of ‘Fairy’s Tale’, there are very little few times where the song’s riffs and melodies become boring or predictable. Though for all the album’s strengths, there is a glaring inconsistency in the production; comparing for instance, the beginning of ‘Azure’s dry snare and lacking bass to the lush drums and booming bass synth in ‘My Body’, it’s evident that the more progressive songs feel less ‘full’ in the mix than the power ballads and poppier tunes. Individually, it’s not too apparent, but switching between the two styles of songs brings an uncomfortable distraction.
Despite a few questionable moments in vocals and production, the stellar moments in Wish For Spring innumerably outnumber them, resulting in a record that’s a clear improvement from Azure.’s 2015 EP, (Dreaming Of) Azure. Whilst the unpredictable progressions and immersive fantasy narratives and satisfy all you classic prog fans; the catchy hooks, outstanding power ballads and infatuating vocals can melt even the iciest of hearts of the most elitist of prog snobs. Azure.’s Wish For Spring brings some welcomingly refreshing songwriting and feel-good pop flair to the otherwise barren modern ‘classic’ prog scene; it’ll be exciting what this new blood comes up with next.