Album review: CLEARLIGHT – Impressionist Symphony

CLEARLIGHT - Impressionist Symphony

Gonzo Media Group [Release date 23.05.14]

Clearlight’s ‘Impressionist Symphony’ celebrates the 40th anniversary of the post-‘Tubular Bells’ album ‘Clearlight Symphony’, cut on the fledgling Virgin label all those years ago.

It once again brings together three former Gong members Didier Malherbe, Steve Hillage and Tim Blake alongside multi instrumentalist Cyrille Verdeaux and assorted players on an enjoyable but patchy album.  At its best it boasts moments of sparkling interplay, but at its worst struggles for a musical identity.

There’s almost a parallel to be drawn between the perennial questions, ‘can white men play the blues?’ and ‘can rock musicians play classical music?’ The potential answer to both is yes, though there’s not always enough evidence on this album to warrant such optimism.

Nothing much has changed in the 40 years since ‘Clearlight Symphony’.  The attempt to crossover musical genre’s still struggles with underpinning interesting musical ideas with real structure, but perhaps that not the idea with an ‘Impressionist Symphony’.

Cyrille Verdeaux’s busy piano playing and multi instrumentalism explores a neo-classical fusion with prog and spacey edges. He pulls the compositions in different and unpredictable directions. But if variety is the spice of life, there’s not enough substance or structure to explore a symphony as a whole.

The spirited solos and sonorous moods do occasionally make a connection with the lavishly illustrated CD booklet. The piano and guitar parts fleetingly capture the feel of a painter’s brush filling a canvas – the different hues, colours and textures – if not the picture as a whole.

The opening ‘Renoir En Couluer’ for example, is a guitar and violin-led overture with proggy elements that doesn’t quite convince us that it’s going anywhere.

The humorous pun of ‘Time Is Monet’ (all the titles come with beautifully illustrated paintings) explores an undulating piano, flute and string led melody. It features Craig Fry on violin playing double lines with Cyrille, over Paul Sears’ cinematic percussion splashes. It ebbs and flows like a gentle tide and with an emotive undertow.

‘Pissarro King’ is even better, opening with flighty piano and synth squalls over Neil Bettencourt’s gentle brushed strokes, as Vincent Thomas-Penny’s synth guitar threads its way though a wall of sound.

Back in the early 70’s this would have been considered very progressive and indeed it still sounds exhilarating today. Named after Camille Pissarro the Danish-French Impressionist painter famous for his realistic paintings, ‘Pissarro King’ is succinct, jaunty, melodic and has a sense of place. Unlike other parts of the album, Cyrille’s contribution is almost understated, as he lets the melody breathe and his impressions percolate.

‘Degas De La Marine’ is more complex, with crashing chords, double piano and synth lines and sampled trumpet that collectively roll over you like gentle waves. A Chris Kovax synth line leads to a subtle change of pulse and a contrasting jazzy groove. It’s certainly impressionistic but struggles to make any sort of meaningful connection with the painting that apparently inspired it.

The fusiony ‘Van Goch 3rd Ear’ is bolstered by Linda Cusma on Chapman Stick and features Steve Hillage on guitar and Christophe Kovax’s synth progression over Paul Sears’s crisp cymbal work. Two thirds of the way through it pauses and heads in a completely different direction, full of intertwined guitar and sythn lines.

Again it’s one of several sparkling moments that frustratingly doesn’t really go anywhere. The slowly evolving ‘Gauguin Dans L’Autre’ features Tim Blake on Theremin on a potently dynamic piece.  Hillage’s delicate guitar and Blake’s twirling synth colours add to a wall of sound, and a slow building finale with a feverish B movie feel, before a quiet resolution.

The polar opposite ‘Lautrec Too Loose’ features Cyrille’s uplifting piano line, a tic-toc percussion and Vincent’s soaring guitar figure, backed by what is credited as Remy Tran’s cosmic sounds. It’s everything the album as a whole aspires to be. There’s clarity of purpose, a discernible progression, a concise solo and ever present flowing piano lines, leading to a climatic vocoder break. Strip away the symphonic pretensions and you have a fusion band doing what it does best.

The closing ‘Monet Time’ duet, is a sonorous violin and piano minimalist end-piece to an ambitious project that for all its sparkle leaves you asking, where’s the beef? ***

Review by Pete Feenstra

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