Album review: STEVE COCHRANE – La La La: Variations On A Happy Song

Spirit Compass Music [Release date 02.07.12]

‘La La La: Variations On a Happy Song’ is Canadian prog rock artist Steve Cochrane’s metaphorical meditations on the human condition. It’s a thematically linked suite spread over 9 tracks on which sharply contrasting dynamics underpin the musical light and shade of its subject matter. Delicate, introspective pieces are juxtaposed by enveloping symphonic bombast and punctuated by the repeated ‘La La La’ variations theme.

‘La La La: Variations On a Happy Song’ is a multi layered prog rock album with real depth of meaning and complex but accessible music that nuances all the early prog favourites such as Rush, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Yes and Jethro Tull. And somewhere at the heart of it all is Steve Cochrane’s musically thematic see-saw that balances the on going conflict between good and evil.

This is a broad based concept album rooted in early prog rock and shot through with ambient tones and rich instrumentation that relies as on evocative moods and heartfelt lyrics. It’s also an album that could do with a more rigorous structure to underpin the vacillating musical arcs that give the suite its dynamic imprint.

Steve unveils his mission statement on ‘Birthright’, a verse of which is beautifully sung by Aimee Matuszcza. Despite uncovering a recurring dark side to mankind, Steve ultimately propagates a positive message, reflected in the song’s lyrics:‘There’s no greater song to sing, Than the one inside your heart, There’s no greater life to live,  So isn’t it time to start?’ 

As with many contemporary prog albums, Steve makes use of a quite/loud dichotomy, contrasting introspective sketches with slabs of symphonic bombast that reflect his lyrical themes. The music is a coherent blend of shifting time signatures, moods and dichotomous themes.

He’s particularly good at representing the competing elements facing the narrator, by contrasting musical dynamics within the same song. This is especially so on the portentous ‘Just Clouds’, which cleverly juggles the good/evil axis through some disparate musical feels in the same line. But in some respects Cochrane’s micro musical sophistication is his macro weakness. At times, the repeated vocal refrains appear to be a clumsy way to wrench the project back on track. Sometimes he swamps us with an enveloping sound while almost forgetting where the exit door is, to allow a seamless passage to the next part of the suite.

On the other hand, a concept album has to be strong enough to draw the listener into the narrative and then let us be guided by strong musical passages and Cochrane is very skilled at this.  He opens with the polyphonic vocal collage, (with echoes of Gentle Giant) of ‘Alarm Clock Overture’. It’s rooted by an exploratory bass, acoustic and Celtic tinged guitars with chanted vocals as part of layered prog sound.

He sets out his theme on the folky ‘Makes Me Want To Sing’, and the weightier ‘Towards Ideal’, with its uplifting guitar break, potent bv’s and Peter Gabriel style vocals. A bright acoustic guitar leads to a second vocal that sounds like Jon Anderson and Yes: Away on a path of light, to explore unknown lands; climb the highest mountains, behold the view of giants; launch into the stars, discover friendly planets; build fantastic cities, inhabit them with Gods’.

Steve’s restless musical vision is reflected in his changes of pace, the diverse instrumentation and ready use of ethereal and angelic backing voices. ‘A Song’ sounds like one of those Ian Anderson acoustic link pieces, but is bolstered by rich harmony vocals as Steve let’s his suite breathe, before returning to the ‘La La La’ theme.

The substantial narrative of ‘Just Clouds’, packs a portentous, ambient feel, which again reflects the ambivalence of his lyrics, as you are never quite sure if the narrator (representing the good) is going to triumph: Storm Clouds are gathering, Farewell, morning sky, The promises of sunrise, And hope appear to die, Just a lot of rumours, Of how all hope will die’.

Steve’s heartfelt lyrics are phrased over incredible heavy crashing chords, leading to a rumbling bass-led landscape, on a perfect an example of the music evoking the lyrics. The staccato keyboard break is reminiscent of Jethro Tull, but the music twist and turns again towards another mini climax, before a growled chant is counterweighted by an uplifting vocal and a crescendo that reaches back to the theme.

The lyrical ambivalence pulls the discerning listener deeper into the narrative: as Steve momentarily paints a dystopian world in which: ‘Uncertainty becomes home”, and  “New adventures, Never been tried before, Progression, innovation; Beyond each creaking door’. 

His optimism is  in danger of being swamped by dark forces  and the delicate equilibrium is nicely reflected by the acoustically sketched prelude of ‘Beauty & Defiance’,  which gives way to banks of synths, crashing percussion, and a reprised ‘La la la’ vocal collage that mirrors the song title.

The hymnal ‘Birthright’ again evokes the Peter Gabriel Genesis era prior to Aimee Matuszczak definitive vocal and a big choral sound. ‘I Found My Wings’ finally returns us to the ‘La La La’ titular refrain and the positive reprise of ‘ It Makes Me Want To Sing’, as Steve finally concludes that we do after all live in: ‘A time and a place for the whole human race’.   ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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