Perfect Beings

Inside Out, 2018

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


For the musically ambitious progressive rocker—a phrase which is more or less a redundancy—the great white whale of the genre has long been Tales From Topographic Oceans, that expansive and innovative (or, depending on your perspective, bloated and disjointed) four-suite, 81-minute, 1973 double album from prog pioneers Yes.

Many have attempted to follow in Yes’ oversized footsteps, spinning out albums comprised of 20- or 30-minute (or longer) suites rich with complex orchestrations, tricky time signatures, and head-spinning transitions. In recent years perhaps the most noteworthy example is Transatlantic’s The Whirlwind—but to my mind few if any have achieved the kind of sustained appeal that Perfect Beings somehow pulls off with this approach on Vier.

Vier—the German word for four—is a fitting title in at least three respects: in authentic Topographic fashion, the 72-minute album is made up of four extended suites; the band, formerly a quintet, is now down to four full members; and finally, it’s a cheeky pun on the fact that this is actually the group’s third album. And indeed, one of the reasons this album works at all is that the band is both earnest in its musical ambitions and playful in the way it approaches what has become the hoary cliché of a four-suite prog album.

It’s probably been important for the core trio behind Perfect Beings—Ryan Hurtgen (vocals and piano), Johannes Luley (guitars, production, occasional keys), and Jesse Nason (keyboards and more keyboards) to maintain a sense of humor over the past couple of years, as the band just seemed to be gaining momentum after issuing its first two well-received albums (self-titled and II) when their rhythm section up and quit. This album sees Luley adding bass to his duties in the studio, with guest Ben Levin behind the drum kit (since replaced by Sean Reinert of Cynic). The songs are all co-credited to Hurtgen, Luley, and Nason.

So: the music.

While Yes is an obvious antecedent, the Pink Floyd influence is at least as strong in the tone and arrangements of Luley’s guitars and Nason’s synths, which ring and burble and slam and soar with great inventiveness and drama. (The fact that they add sax to several segments adds to the sense that these guys listened to Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here a lot.) For his part, Hurtgen helps make this sort of over-the-top compositional monster work by employing multiple different vocal “looks” over the course of the album. His regular singing voice is clear and powerful, with a pleasant lightness to it, but he also has a dazzling falsetto, as well as a kind of speed-riffing trick he pulls out at times where he crams as many syllables as he can into a line and delivers them in a rapid-fire chant, like a monk on meth. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The fact that he deploys the latter gimmick sparingly—notably in the very first segment of the very first suite—allows it to be effective each time he does. The opener, in addition to some thumping lead bass and atmospheric synths, also features a sort of chant/motif—“enter the center”—that’s repeated at least twice more across the length of the album, offering an important thread of continuity. (The lyrics are said to be about “an awareness of humans becoming fused with machines and technology,” but I honestly found them so abstract that I often gave up on making sense of them and chose to hear them as pure vocal sound—in which context they worked quite well.)

From the start, the group strikes an effective, entertaining balance between nimble, athletic instrumental diversions and the vocal portions of these tracks. Equally important, in spite of the frequent shifts in tone, arrangement, and time signature, the suites generally flow well and feel cohesive. Luley’s production—crisp and clean, but never cool, always warm, helps immeasurably in this respect.

Picking out favorite moments is a challenge on an album whose tracks intentionally flow together into a nearly seamless aural experience, but for the sake of argument, here are a few: the smart addition of smoky, atmospheric sax to the moody final segment of opening suite “Guedra” (“Enter The Center”); the way the mellow opener to suite two (“The Persimmon Tree” segment of “The Golden Arc”) develops an idea using keys and special effects and then morphs it into a much bigger and bolder arrangement of the same snaking, intricate melody in the following segment (“Turn The World Off”); the silvery, Gilmouresque guitar that takes over on “America”; and the looming, then thrumming, then keening synths on the opening sequence (“The System And Beyond”) of suite three (“Vibrational,” co-produced by Nason).

In fairness, I didn’t love every minute; the brief death metal screams included in the all-over-the-place “Everywhere At Once” feel jarring rather than clever. And while suite four (“Anunnaki”) is excellent overall, it too has both ups and downs. The dynamic opening jam (“Lord Wind”) features 1971 vintage Rick Wakeman synth textures before diving into an agile, muscular jam that’s among my favorite sequences on the whole album. Then the horn-dominated “Patterns Of Light” offers a fun prog-soul mind-meld—until they push a step too far into atonality. And yet… the group’s rather quirky sense of tone often works in their favor, as when “A Compromise” develops into a sort of airy, piano-and-horns yacht rock thing before adding a wonky little synth figure. Here, these contrasting elements work—and then, because it’s prog, they jump-cut to the court of the Japanese emperor for a bit of solo koto in the lead-in to “Hissing The Wave Of The Dragon,” a segment that’s distinctly Eastern right up until it starts interpolating with “Enter The Center,” like a time loop circling back on itself.

The album finishes up with characteristic flair as Hurtgen and background vocalist Robin Hathaway trade chants of “oo-la-la-la-la” as Luley plucks a pretty acoustic melody. And then Nason dials up the synths and “Everything’s Falling Apart” dissolves into chaos before surging back and cutting off abruptly—a not-entirely-satisfying but suitably offbeat finish to this twisting, turning musical journey.

Is a four-suite, 72-minute album too much of a good thing? It’s true that this is an album that demands the listener’s full attention to even begin to get into it; it’s a headstrong anachronism in an age when the A&R guys are telling everyone their single needs to hook the listener in the first five seconds. All that matters in the end is that these songs are superbly arranged, expertly performed and thoroughly entertaining. Vier delivers an hour-plus journey through classic prog and back, dipping into rock, soul, lounge and jazz along the way, by a troupe of fearless musical explorers thoroughly unleashed.

Rating: A-

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