The name Billy Sherwood is one that I imagine will not be familiar to most people. Certainly, when I had the promo for Citizen arrive, I will admit that my reaction was “…Who?”
As it turns out, Billy Sherwood is probably best known for having had a short stint in the band Yes from 1997 to 2000, to whom he returned earlier this year by the personal request of bassist Chris Squire before his death, and being a record producer and solo artist in his own right. I will freely admit that I’m not hugely familiar with Yes, so this is probable why his name had escaped my notice, but I have to say, his career is certainly rather interesting to look over, as he has worked with Paul Rodgers, Toto, Motorhead, Asia, Air Supply and Deep Purple in various capacities over the course of his career.
So, with that much talent and a reputation like that, you’d expect Citizen to be an excellent album, right? Well…I can’t say it is an album that I am personally going to be listening to a lot after this review goes up, as I am not a big enough fan of progressive rock for it to do much for me, but I can’t call it a bad record either, because it really isn’t: it is a well put together record that I can see appealing to old school progressive rock fans quite a lot.
One of the things about progressive rock is that you often spot artists who are more focused on pushing the envelop than producing something that a perspective audience will actually find interesting to listen to (in essence, giving rise to the stereotype that progressive rock is the realm of musicians with more talent than they have songwriting restraint). Certainly this is why I usually avoid progressive rock and progressive metal when given a choice, despite having a health respect for the talents of the musicians in the genre. However, while there is certainly an element of truth to the stereotypes connected to progressive rock (as embodied best by Dream Theater and Emerson, Lake & Palmer), it wasn’t always known for being like this, as several of the early bands who fall under the progressive banner didn’t actually have material which bludgeoned you to death with technicality, but instead integrated tasteful use of complex ideas into the music, effectively producing material that you didn’t have to be a musician to enjoy due to it being an enjoyable listening experience in its own right and which musicians could appreciated due to the surprising complexity of the material on display.
For me personally, this is the type of progressive rock that I can respect (even if I don’t necessary enjoy it), and Billy Sherwood certainly seems to be thinking along the same lines as me, as the material on this record definitely does not fall under the progressive banner in the way that one might expect if you only had stereotypes of the genre to judge from. The material, on first glance, is actually not that complex and, while it would be a huge stretch to call the record “poppy”, you certainly could enjoy this record without digging too deeply into the performances, as the atmosphere of the record is surprisingly similar (if more upbeat) than what you can find on alternative rock albums. However, closer listens cause the record to open up more and reveal that there is a lot more going on than initial listens might suggest. It’s a record which has an atmosphere that makes it sound epic and it’s hard to deny that it works well.
On top of this, the performances, as expected, are top notch. You can certainly tell that the musicians know their way around their instruments and use those skills tastefully to create a record that even my non-prog loving ears could appreciate. Certainly, one of the things I really must commend Billy Sherwood on is that all of the songs flowed naturally: there were no sudden jumps between ideas which felt like they had no connecting logic to them, but everything felt like a natural progression of ideas which worked wonderfully. I think my only main criticism is that Billy Sherwood’s singing voice doesn’t quite give the songs the life they need to become more than enjoyable listens, but he doesn’t necessarily have a bad voice: I just couldn’t help thinking that a better vocal performance would have improved the record more (indeed, the songs Sherwood isn’t on lead vocals felt much stronger to me).
The production is also fairly good, with the only complaints I have being the production on the vocals (I’m not entirely sure whether they’ve been Auto Tuned or it’s a deliberate aesthetic choice, but I still don’t like the somewhat mechanical production sound on them much) and the mastering (which is a bit louder than I’d like, although it’s not the worst example I’ve heard by any measure). Much to my joy, the bass guitar is given the proper space it deserves in the mix of Citizen and I have to say that I could not be happier to hear a bass guitar in a rock album again, as I’d almost forgotten what it sounded like!
…Well, OK, no, I hadn’t, but still, I love it when I hear a bass guitar clearly in a rock record due to how infrequently they end in appearing in what I usually listen to.
Ultimately, while this record isn’t one I personally would listen to a lot, I will freely admit that I enjoyed listening to it and would find little issue in recommending it to fans of old school progressive rock. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to recommend this to newcomers to progressive rock, but, if you’re wanting something which avoids the usual stereotypes of the genre, then you could do far worse than starting here.
Citizen will be released on the 6th of November on Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.