Civilisation is the second full release from ex-Unitopia keyboard maestro Sean Timms' new project Southern Empire. Although his band mates might bridle at the implication that they are merely adjuncts to a Timms enterprise, there is no escaping the fact that this bears all the hallmarks of his previous incarnation. The same encyclopaedic, dizzying musical reference and arrangements mixes with a global eco-warrior sensibility, although more controlled, mature and less overbearing than in the previous incarnation.
The very names 'Empire' and 'Civilisation' betoken large themes. One expects a weighty body of work, and so it is something of a disappointment that the opening track Goliath's Moon is what might be termed a bit of a loosener, a hokum tale full of sound and fury which definitely signifies nothing and is empty at its core.
This carping, however is a bit like complaining at being offered a starter when you didn't want one, because what follows is breathtaking in its glittering musicianship. At its core, the stupendous epic The Crossroads (a piece of unfinished business from Unitopia days) not that the two tracks which sandwich it, Cries For The Lonely and Innocence and Fortune aren't epics in their own right. Southern Empire don't do things by halves and this collection is a whole bucketful of epic in every sense. Soaring keyboard themes, urgent frenetic drums, multipart complex compositions, multi tracked vocals, stunning guitar and violin work. Stunning everything work, to be honest. Metaphorical peaks are ascended and then stripped back to reveal a post-apocalyptic landscape. Yes, time is still running out in the oncoming ecological disaster of our own making, a paradoxically eternal Timms theme. The message hasn't got any less urgent or put any differently from Unitopia More Than A Dream. However the odd (well more than odd) clunky lyric is unlikely to distract the audience from the almost overbearing display of pure musicianship. Only the biggest of big books of epithets can possibly do justice to the unremitting virtuosity of it all. Southern Empire have an almost uncanny ability to weave themes together expertly switching style effortlessly.
I can't think of any other release that I have heard which displays such non-stop talent in such a wide range from smooth jazz to shredding guitar by way of some dodgy pastiche. It seems odd to criticise, but at times I find the effect disorienting and disengaging as if there's an emptiness somewhere at the core. However, in saying this, I am probably being unduly harsh when I should be praising the wonderful closing sections of The Crossroads, the symphonic grandeur of Cries For The Lonely and the sheer exhilarating majesty of Innocence and Fortune. This album sets out to be huge and it is big in every way, from the artwork through to the production it is a glossy and occasionally spectacular piece of work.
**** Andrew Cottrell
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