Waiting for Miracles (2019, 84.35) ***½/TT
|House of Cards
Miracles for America
Ascending to the Stars
Wicked Old Symphony
The Rebel Circus
|Sleep With the Enemy
The Crowning of Greed
House of Cards Reprise
We Were Always Here
Busking at Brobank
Given that ex-Kaipa guitarist Roine Stolt formed The Flower Kings back in the early '90s and has consistently used sampled Mellotron, it seems odd that it should take until 2019 for them to record with the real thing. Perhaps a new keyboard player (Zach Kamins, replacing Tomas Bodin), not to mention a studio equipped with one have made the difference? Mind you, a digital one's also in evidence in the 'making of' video, so it's difficult to know what we're hearing, so assumptions have been made. It seems that the band utilised a 'back to basics' approach for the recording, using tube amps (this is radical?) and vintage keys, while playing live to tape (admittedly, slightly more radical these days). Incidentally, a closer look at said video makes me think that this was recorded at Abba's Polar Studio, not least a quick flash of their impossibly rare Yamaha GX-1, so I presume the Mellotron used here is Abba's old machine.
Perhaps surprisingly, Waiting for Miracles is only the band's thirteenth studio release, although several of those are double discs. This one only just tips into that category; I'd have been tempted to edit it down to below eighty minutes, but there you go. So, does this differ in any qualitative way from the band's previous twelve releases? It's quite clearly a TFK album from the off, but, despite its (relatively) considerable length, it manages not to sprawl too badly, at its best on Black Flag, Wicked Old Symphony and Steampunk, although their more irritating tropes (the propensity for stretching out unnecessarily, the vocals) are still present and (in)correct.
Kamins (I presume; Stolt also plays keys) adds Mellotron to nearly everything, although the waters are muddied a little by the presence of a two-piece string section on some tracks. He generally uses the machine with great restraint, with strings and/or choirs on almost every track, notable moments including the pitchbent strings on The Bridge and some splendid volume-pedalled ones on The Rebel Circus. Well, not a bad album, given that I went off the band a long time back, with some genuine vintage keys at last. Will they follow up with another similar? Only time will tell.
After ex-Kaipa guitarist Roine Stolt's return with The Flower King in '94, he assembled a band to play its material live, taking their name from his album. In stark contrast to the recent crop of Swedish bands, brand leaders being Änglagård, Anekdoten and Landberk, not to mention the dark side of their exact contemporaries, Spock's Beard, TFK's sound was light and
fluffy upbeat, with a positive Yes kind of vibe about them. Nothing wrong with that in principle, but from the off, the band displayed their love of jam-influenced arrangements, which were to drag them down musically in years to come. Also, despite keyboard player Tomas Bodin's frequent credits for 'Mellotron', I've had it confirmed by the man himself that they've always used 'first-generation samples', taken from a friend's M400. So, er, why not borrow/hire said machine for recording? At least Spock's Beard usually went the extra mile when necessary... They debuted with 1995's Back in the World of Adventures, a reasonable enough record, although thirteen-minute opener World Of Adventures does, frankly, go on a bit, and do I detect something of an Uli Jon Roth influence in the guitar work? Its best moments are (as would become a hallmark of their career) not so much whole pieces, as moments of inspiration, little bursts of melody shining out from among hours of waffle, such as the nearest World Of Adventures gets to a 'chorus'. On the fakeotron front, Bodin sensibly sticks to volume-pedalled choir chords, the odd string part here and there or little flute melodies, avoiding Crimson/Genesis-style overkill, helping to hide the sounds' sampled origin.
Like Spock's Beard (there are many parallels between the bands, ending up with members of both working together in Transatlantic), The Flower Kings are incredibly prolific, sticking at least a full-length CD out a year until recent times, when they seem to've slowed down. 1996's Retropolis was their second full-band effort, featuring moments of brilliance swimming in a sea of mediocrity, sadly, a résumé of their entire career. In fairness, the album's a perfectly pleasant listen, it's just that most of the material's pretty unengaging. Highpoints include parts of the title track, There Is More To This World and the energetic Silent Sorrow, but no one piece is truly satisfying, with huge chunks of music that would actually have improved the album by their excision. Another naughty 'Mellotron' credit for Bodin, the bulk of his sample work being hefty slabs of slightly insipid choir, with the occasional upfront flute, string and cello part, spread fairly evenly across the album's length. An hour-plus album a year clearly wasn't enough, as '97's Stardust We Are is a grossly distended two hour-plus double CD, which could very easily be trimmed down to an under-an-hour single by the simple expedient of ditching most of disc two. Like their previous efforts, it's perfectly pleasant in the background, but closer listening reveals a lack of real ideas and an over-reliance on highly-arranged yet nearly content-free material. Its strongest tracks are opener In The Eyes Of The World, the considerable grandiosity of Church Of Your Heart and the last few minutes of their first foray into really long-form composition, in the 25-minute form of the album's title track. The 'Mellotron' is still credited, although the 'Tron string samples on Just This Once are very obviously that, with the rest of the use being similar to Bodin's playing on the band's first two albums.
Did I say 'long-form composition'? We had no idea what was coming... All of another year on and The Flower Kings present us with another double, FlowerPower, the first disc of which is taken up by an HOUR-LONG multi-part piece, Garden Of Dreams. So; is it any good? Well, as with the band's first three albums, parts of it are good, parts of it are... less good. Why oh why can't this band learn to edit? Most authors need a good editor at their publishers to actually make their meisterwerks readable; why shouldn't it be the same for prog bands? As a result, the best things here are snippets of Garden Of Dreams and the slightly Focus-like Power Of Kindness, with the interminable Astral Dog (eight minutes of pointless noodling) and the bulk of the second disc being largely a waste of space. The usual samplotron from Bodin, although the completely bonkers choir on part 13 of the title track, Dungeon Of The Deep (before a fakeotron part) and the same on Hudson River Sirens Call 1998 are real. The same year brought another album, unbelievably, although, in fairness, it was a fan club-type release (the first of several), Édition Limitée Québec 1998, which hopefully needs no translation. Wonderfully, it's only 45 minutes long, too, making listening to it less of a chore than usual, as does the quality of the music, including the first Flower Kings (as against solo Stolt) studio recording of their 'anthem', the triumphal The Flower King and an abbreviated Humanizzimo, Piece Of Nizzimo, also from Stolt's solo release. More fakeotron than on some of the band's albums, with some radical string pitchbends on Duke Of Nuke and strings, flutes and choirs on most tracks.
Presumably having temporarily exhausted themselves, 1999 brought no new studio album, although they filled in the gap with a double live, Alive on Planet Earth, which acts as a kind of 'best of', although they'd actually released a real one the previous year, Scanning the Greenhouse (****), possibly the band's most satisfying album. Alive on Planet Earth is actually pretty good, not even overlong by the band's standards, highlights including another version of The Flower King (this time generally available) and the closing section of Stardust We Are, cutting out most of the intervening noodling. There's one gratuitous cover, Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, which, as with so many, adds little to the original, but overall, cautiously recommended as an alternate Flower Kings starting point to Scanning the Greenhouse. Having rested on their laurels for quite long enough (cough), the band came back with another full-length single disc in 2000, Space Revolver. Once again, it's a collection of decent bits and one genuinely memorable piece, the otherwise slightly silly Chicken Farmer Song, with an excellent descending harmony vocal line that makes it stand out from the pack. Bodin's back to credited 'Mellotron' again, although it obviously isn't, of course, with plenty of samples all over the record, particularly notable on closer I Am The Sun (Part Two), with a major flute part. The band's second fan club release, the imaginatively-titled Fan Club CD 2000, appeared the same year, gathering together various oddities (as you'd expect from an album of this type), including interesting takes on The Beatles' Across The Universe and Genesis' Cinema Show, the former possibly and the latter definitely recorded for tribute albums. Usual amounts of fakeotron, with (amongst others) flutes and choirs all over Celtic-flavoured opener Return Of The Giant Monkey Boy and strings and choir on Cinema Show, used rather differently than on the original.
2001's The Rainmaker is exactly what you'd expect; another Flower Kings album, stylistically identical to its predecessors. Would it be fair to say these guys are in a rut? Long, long albums, too much noodling, too many bits that sound like Yes... I'd be lying if I said anything here especially stood out; the only thing that particularly caught my attention was Thru The Walls: imagine a quiet version of Genesis' Return Of The Giant Hogweed and you're there, sense of menace thankfully intact. This is getting a bit tedious, but the 'Tron samples are as usual, maybe used a little less than before. Incidentally, the early 'special edition' (rip-off money-maker, these things), includes a nice take on Wagner's Ride Of The Valkyries, as Excerpt From Valkyrian, with ridiculously fast samplotron flutes on the jaunty Mr. Hope Goes To Salzburg. Another year, another entirely excessive Flower Kings release... Unfold the Future is another two-discer, that might've made a passable fifty-minute effort, frankly. Better tracks include Black And White and the semi-ambient Christianopel, although the bulk of the ludicrously overlong set is meandering and largely pointless, a less typical example being the jazzy The Devil's Danceschool. Samplotron? Yes, although not as much as on some of the above. The same year's The Fanclub CD 2002: A Collection of Flower Kings Related Music is exactly what it says on the tin, actually making for a more varied listen than their regular releases, although given that it's long out of print, it's only relevant if you can find a naughty download. More notable tracks include opener Carpe Diem, with its distinctly Focus edge, while Bodin splatters accordion, of all things, all over his Surjamten. Samplotron on several tracks, seemingly related to Bodin's involvement.
2003 brought two live albums, the double Meet the Flower Kings (also available on DVD) and the single-disc Live in New York: Official Bootleg, both similar in concept, the double being an 'official' release. Both consist of a mere handful of tracks, Meet...'s seven (spread over two and a half hours...) actually only being six, as Garden Of Dreams is split into two, while ...New York's dominated by another (unsplit) version of Garden Of Dreams. It's difficult to constructively criticise Meet..., as it clearly harbours no proselytising ambitions, being aimed fairly and squarely at the faithful, who seem to like nothing better than a series of overextended epics; good luck to them, I say. As a fan club disc, ...New York is, in some ways, even more a 'fans only' release, although its inclusion of two shorter songs (I exclude four minutes of bass and drum soloing), makes it marginally more listenable for the casual observer. And yes, both albums contain the usual complement of samplotron. 2004's Adam & Eve is practically indistinguishable from their previous two or three studio albums, at least stylistically, making it a very dull listen indeed for the non-committed, not even slightly helped by its (by-now customary) considerable length. The band's combination of Yes-like chord sequences and what could be viewed as 'organised jamming' seems to be set in stone by this point in their career, effectively excluding anyone who doesn't delight in this particular musical mixture. Best tracks? More 'best intros', really, Timelines and Drivers Seat both starting well, before reverting to the usual. Bodin does his usual samplotron thing, although it barely even excites comment by this point.
Later that year, the band received the entirely imaginary 'most inappropriate album title of the year/decade/millennium' award for another live effort, BetchaWannaDanceStoopid!!! Er, no, actually, no thanks. Or is it a Swedish joke? The album seems to be more jam-based than previous live efforts (which may be the source of its title), with no previously-available material included, although you'd have to be a pretty committed fan to be happy to trawl through a full-length disc of this stuff. Worst track? Bellydancers From Hell is the customary bass/drums solo spot, which is every bit as dull as it sounds. Samplotron? Not all that much compared to previous releases, with some particularly bad strings on BetchaWanna (Daytripper). Fanclub CD 2004 is a mercifully (relatively) brief release, featuring the band's usual wider stylistic variation than usual on their fan club issues. That isn't actually to say that it's particularly interesting, just more varied than usual. Very little samplotron, the main use being the flutes and strings on Mr. Hope Goes To Circus and the flutes on Petit Heritage. Yet another live album appeared the following year, BrimStoned in Europe (actually credited to 'the band's instrumental offshoot', Circus Brimstone), featuring more of the band's pseudo-jamband approach, along with a couple of familiar numbers. Is it interesting? Not really, no. The same year brought their last fan club disc to date, Harvest: Fanclub CD 2005, a typical set of outtakes, mates' stuff and the like, including eleven minutes of the rather dull Moon Safari, admittedly before that outfit's full conversion to off-Broadway unpleasantness. Bits of samplotron here and there on both releases, but nothing to get even remotely excited about, frankly.
Their next official studio effort, 2006's Paradox Hotel, is yet another double disc (how many's that now? Four? Excluding 'special editions' and live sets?), its discs being subtitled Room 111 and Room 222, for some reason. To absolutely no-one at all's surprise, it suffers from the usual 'lack of editing' problem, going on and on and on... Sorry, guys, but you've become entirely formulaic, seemingly doomed to endlessly repeat yourselves, possibly (or possibly not?) to live up to your audience's stunted expectations. The band don't seem to be especially worried by accusations of unoriginality either; they still sound like a ropey version of Yes most of the time, particularly on Pioneers Of Aviation, which 'features' a church organ/pseudo-monosynth part that cuts Close To The Edge, er, a little too close, while The Unorthodox Dancinglesson (sic) rips Crimso's Red something rotten. A double live album from the album's supporting tour, Instant Delivery: The Flower Kings in Concert, Tilburg 013, April 19th 2006 (only available on the limited-edition version of the DVD of the same title), is a good half new material, the remainder being an abbreviated 'best of', with more samplotron (particularly on the older tracks) than on the studio release.
What the hell is going on with the sleeve design on 2007's The Sum of No Evil? A VW camper/goldfish hybrid? Anyway, the actual music is a slight improvement on recent efforts, although the usual problems persist: overlong album, overlong tracks, too much sub-Yes blather, although opener One More Time is fairly decent, helping to bump the overall rating up by half a star. The following year's Carpe Diem: The Flower Kings Live in U.S.A. is, at least, a single-disc set, although all the usual caveats regarding song and disc length apply. Yes, Bodin adds some samplotron to both of these releases, without swamping either. The band seem to be on some kind of extended sabbatical at the moment, with no new studio release for four years at the time of writing. In fact, 2011's "Tour Kaputt": Official Bootleg, Live @ De Boerderij, The Netherlands Nov 2007 is their first release of any kind in three years and is a four year-old recording, making me wonder what Stolt & co. might be planning for the future of the band. The album is yet another two-disc set (and another live release with accompanying DVD), although several of their better, earlier tracks make it more palatable than other recent efforts.
Sabbatical over... 2012's two-disc (although 'short' enough to fit on one) Banks of Eden is actually their best release in years, although, as always, a serious edit would've done it a world of good. Plenty of good, melodic sections, including one that sounds an awful lot like Refugee's Grand Canyon (hey, only so many note combinations, eh?), unfortunately dragged down by acres of meander. Still, possibly their best since their early work, which has to be a bonus. Samplotron? All the usual, nothing out of the ordinary. The following year's Desolation Rose is, unsurprisingly, very similar to its predecessor, with no particular stand-out moments on the 'regular' release, although I really quite like the gentle, faintly jazzy Interstellar Visitations from the second, 'bonus' disc (why do these bands do this?). Restrained samplotron use, making it all the more effective when it appears.
So; where do you start with The Flower Kings? DO you start with The Flower Kings? I find them extraordinarily frustrating, as they consistently come up with good melodic and harmonic ideas, only to smother them to an untimely death with hour upon hour of bombastic extraneous arrangement, ruining potentially good music by insisting on wildly overdoing it at every possible opportunity. Just because you're a 'prog' band, doesn't mean you have to be 'prog' the whole time; their '70s forebears mostly knew when to rein it in (although, in fairness, TFK's chief influence, Yes, often had trouble in this department). It makes you (or at least, me) wonder whether Yes, ELP et al. might have recorded albums of a similar length had the technology allowed; I have a nasty feeling they might, although neither of those bands produced anything longer than eighty-something minute double LPs and only one each at that. OK, each also produced a triple live, but not the equivalent of a triple or quadruple every year. Did they? No, they didn't.
Anyway... For what it's worth, my personal recommendation as a starting (and possibly finishing) point for the band, as I mentioned earlier, is 1998's Scanning the Greenhouse, which compiles most of their best early tracks, viz. In The Eyes Of The World/World Of Adventures/The Flower King/There Is More To This World/Stardust We Are (closing section)/Retropolis, plus a couple of brief, lesser efforts. Actually, I'm having trouble thinking of any other particularly memorable tracks; maybe Space Revolver's Chicken Farmer Song, but that's about it. Much potential, mostly wasted; shame, really. Of course, the band have their fanbase, who clearly love their self-indulgent Yes/Phish crossover sound, but personally, I would love them to write a forty-something minute album of reasonably concise material, doing what they do best in an unextended format. They won't, of course; they slipped into their groove a long time ago and aren't likely to climb back out of it any time soon. You may well love the band and are horrified at my pithy dismissals of most of their oeuvre; sorry, but I can't manufacture enthusiasm for something I mostly find as dull as ditchwater. The Flower Kings are one of a tiny handful of bands at whose gigs I have literally begun to fall asleep on my feet and exited early (the deadly dull Dream Theater and Jadis are other notables); I tend to find that when that happens, my unconscious is trying to tell me something. And what it's telling me is, "Go and listen to something more interesting".
OK, so why would I bother with a 'bootlegs' section for a band known to only (until 2019, that is) use samples? Well... As I've mentioned elsewhere on this site, in April 1999, I offered to lend the band my M400 for a gig at the Classic Rock Society in Yorkshire. I was picking it up from Streetly (UK Mellotron HQ) in the Midlands the same day after a much-needed repair/upgrade and heading on to the gig anyway, back in the days when I was still prepared to give the band a chance or three. Tomas put it at the front of the stage and used it extensively, favouring the flutes over the strings or choirs, for some reason. Afterwards, I was appalled to observe a couple of gear nerds peer round it to see what he had in his rack. Er... right. Sad to say, I don't have a recording of the gig; apparently, it does the rounds on bootleg sites, but is of fairly poor quality. Shame. n.b. Should any of you have a copy of this, PLEASE let me know... Of course, if I ever get to hear this slice of audio verité, does that mean this whole page suddenly finds itself shoved into the site's 'regular' section (note: no longer relevant), given that it'll finally contain a review of a genuine Mellotron 'release'? Only I can tell you that; that information is available on a strict 'need to know' basis and you don't need to know.
As a footnote, my old mucker Gary Knight, before we met, did exactly the same thing for a London gig the following year, only Tomas put his (black) machine at the back of the stage and barely used it, making it near-invisible/inaudible to the audience, including my good self, to the point where I had no idea it was there. Incidentally, I feel obscurely bad for being so dismissive of their output; they're lovely chaps, polite and friendly, none of which actually improves their music.
See: Roine Stolt | Tomas Bodin | Kaipa | Kaipa (samples) | Agents of Mercy | The Tangent | Karmakanic | Progfest