Album review: THE JOHN WILLIAMS SYNDICATE – Out Of Darkness

Pete Feenstra chatted to John Williams for Get Ready to ROCK! Radio.  First broadcast 30 May 2021.


Wulfrun Records [Release date 06.04.21]

‘Out Of Darkness’ is an exercise in aesthetics. Everything from the name of his Wulfrun label which connects John Williams to his home town of Wolverhampton, to the business of melodic songs and well crafted lyrics suggest sensory value.

Then there’s the accompanying glossy 32 page booklet featuring Tim Hobart’s abstract art, John Offenbach’s portrait of Williams and Philip Marshall’s graphic design.

There much to live up to, but 10 well crafted songs are gathered together in an optimistic titled album full of sumptuous melodies, intricate arrangements, sensuous phrasing and sparkling instrumentation.

Everything is given purchase by John Williams’s idiosyncratic vocal. His close-to-the-mic whisper has a wistful feel and is a cross between The Connells (check out the single ‘74-75’), Stackridge’s James Warren and by his own admission the influence of Nick Drake.

He cleverly alternates his lead vocal between verses and lines with his co-singers, before occasionally settling in duet mode to make the best use of his range and keep the songs fresh and vibrant.

‘Out Of Darkness’ draws on several facets of his 46 year career as a singer songwriter, recording artists, A&R executive, record producer, manager, plugger, journalist, photographer and more.

He’s surrounded himself with top quality players on 5 self penned titles and 5 co-writes, as he sticks closely to the pop rock sensibility that has brought him success over the decades.

Not for nothing does he tell us in the liner notes that: “I wanted to be an A&R man who produced records like Micky Most, George Martin, Chris Blackwell and Tony Hatch.”

His thoughtful production gives the songs plenty of space to breathe and showcase a variety of pristine vocals embedded in layered instruments and punctuated by brief, but telling solos that always support the song.

His wears, his influences on his sleeve, as he shifts from the 60’s and The Beatles in particular, to 80’s electro pop, though the quality of the songs override the stylistic and timeline hops.

The multi instrumentalist James Hallawell’s co-write ‘Close To You’ for example, features a George Harrison style slide and Fab 4 bv’s. Then there’s the sonorous horns of the reflective ‘Nothing’ which is the kind of timepiece Williams delights in, albeit the lyrics are a little twee: “I used to twist and shout, on the magic roundabout.”

‘Out Of Darkness’ has an essential pop-rock feel that will surely be embraced with open arms by mainstream radio, but has a potentially wider appeal.

The choice of ‘Syndicate’ as the band name for his 15 strong ensemble suggests a strong sense of musical purpose. An array of instruments explore different textures, while 5 vocalists (in addition to Williams himself) bring enough contrast and variety to make an essentially MOR album sparkle.

This is particularly so on ‘New Flag’ which features the timeless Petula Clark. Together with Isabella Coulstock, she provides the perfect counterpoint to John Williams gentle vocal. It’s an essential pop single on which the open vowel line: “And it’s so easy”, allows the song to fly.

Surprisingly perhaps, it’s not the opening track. That spot is reserved for the equally catchy Iain Matthews co-write ‘Loud And Clear’, which in little over 3 minutes manages to span the 60’s, 70’s and even 90’s.

The opening jangling Rickenbacker guitar sound evokes both The Byrds and The Searchers, while Jane Burgess’s violin could have come straight off Bob Dylan’s ‘Desire’ album.

There’s even an Al Cooper style organ break, while Williams vocal is one step removed from The Connells (check out the single ’74-75’).

No matter, the various influences are building blocks for something unique. ‘Loud & Clear’ has a lilting melody and an uplifting chorus that radiates optimism. It’s a fine example of the music evoking lyrical intent. The fact it flows so eloquently means you can even overlook the occasional sugary cliché: “You are a beacon in a raging sea.”

‘Luminescent’ is different again. It moves from a minimal voice and piano intro into Paul Visser’s 80’s sounding synth pop arrangement featuring former Propaganda vocalist Claudia Brücken.

Initially it feels slightly out of place, but is later paired with the Pet Shop Boys style dance beats and Ben Walker’s exaggerated strings stabs on ‘You’re On My Mind.’

The 2 songs illustrate the diversity of an album that incorporates ‘Spanish Song’, a slice of partly Spanish sung contemporary r&b with neatly overlapped vocals and a distant, but significant guitar line.

The carefully sequenced album gradually builds a subtle tension which is beautifully resolved by the percussive and meditative ‘You Got Me From Hello’.

It’s a triumph of interwoven vocals – a lovely balance between Williams lead vocal, Slicko Di Caprio’s ‘call and response’ section and Isabella Coulstock – and Guy Barker fills the groove with a subtly muted trumpet, alongside a melange of vibes and violin on truly mesmerising track.

‘Never Want To Be Without You’ sounds a distance relative of ‘Loud & Clear’, before a beautifully woven vocal part. Amber Prothero’s pristine diction gives the hook a mantra like quality while Charlie Williams gnawing guitar line  draws the listener into some ethereal tones. The the final line before the fade; “I never want to see you frown,”  reminds me of Quantum Jump’s ‘Neighbours’.

There’s just enough time for Ben Walker to add some harp sounding acoustic guitar on ‘Don’t Give Up On Me’, with echoes of Williams’ namesake the Australian classical guitarist, on another track with a lovely horn arrangement.

‘Out Of Darkness’ counterbalances poppy familiarity with stylistic diversity.  Everything is consistently shot through with glistening harmonies, poppy hooks and the primacy of the song.

It’s one of those albums that finds you muttering to yourself:  I’m not really into pop-rock, but I like this very much. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

Josh Taerk’s latest Sunday Session was streamed on Sunday 20 March 2022 at 21:00 GMT (16:00 EST). Josh’s next session is Sunday 22 May.

Check out previous videos here:

David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 GMT, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 8 May 2022.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020 and 2021 Finalist) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 GMT as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 3 May 2022.

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