Phantasia On The High Processions Of Sun, Moon And Countless Stars Above
27th April 2015 – Basick Records
01. Universes Forming
02. Solar (Bringer Of Chaos), Lunar (Bringer Of Light)
04. Time Dilation
05. New Star
09. Astronomer Royal
10. Ballad Of The Space Time Continuum
11. On The Wings Of Astral Projection
Descriptive terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘technical’ can often be synonymous with ‘spiky’, ‘abrasive’ or ‘challenging’ – but that isn’t always the case, as instrumental trio Heights prove most emphatically with their first release through Basick Records, the concisely titled Phantasia On The High Processions Of Sun, Moon And Countless Stars Above.
It has been nearly two years since the band released their last, all too brief, offering – the Trick Of The Light EP - and it’s been closer to five since their last long-form release, From Sea To Sky. However, with drummer Jamie Postones spending much of the interim touring the world with TesseracT, the relative inactivity of Heights is understandable.
One of the more particular challenges faced by instrumental bands lies in setting a theme that ties together an album’s worth of material, making it more than a nice collection of sounds. As Phantasia‘s voluble full title suggests, Heights have looked to the heavens for their inspiration here – but, interestingly, their song titles are drawn pretty much equally from science (“Time Dilation” or “Perseids“) and mythology (“Aeolus” or “On The Wings Of Astral Projection“).
Neatly, this bringing together of different disciplines also seems analogous to the band’s approach to the music itself – coming from both the head and the heart. Heights’ songs (and they really are songs, despite the absence of vocals) feel like the product of an iterative process comprising almost equal amounts of jamming on grooves in a practice room together and protractor-and-graph-paper calculations to develop their intricacies.
Heights definitely sit at the gentle end of the progressive spectrum, a point underlined by guitarist Al Heslop’s apparent decision to unplug his distortion pedal completely, opting instead for the rich, warm and clean tones one might more readily expect from a jazz guitarist. Where a fuzzier tone is required, it is more likely to be provided by bassist John Hopkin. So, despite the expectations that the inevitable ‘TesseracT side project’ tag may set up, Phantasia could not be defined as progressive metal, but more as a warm, soothing and calming progressive hug, or ‘prug’, if you like.
Nevertheless, Phantasia is brimmed with spidery riffs, dynamic shifts and enough polyrhythms and time signatures to give a even the hardiest metronome a mental breakdown. The results are compelling to the point of compulsive. Phantasia is as densely layered as a tulip bulb, but still possesses the simple, delicate beauty of the flower itself, and while it may take many listens to fully appreciate precisely what the band are doing, it’s still immediately welcoming and captivating.
Despite only being a trio, overdubs an additional layers are used remarkably sparingly, which gives each of the three musicians space to let their contributions breathe. In turn, Phantasia feels like the product of a very equal partnership between them, with nobody dominating proceedings. There’s also a pointed absence of traditional guitar solos or other ‘look at me’ type tricks, so whilst very clever, the record shows its smarts in an understated, textural fashion rather than ramming a flurry of taps and sweeps into the listener’s ears.
With all this in mind, it feels like the ideal way to experience Phantasia would be laid out on a remote hillside somewhere, watching the aurora borealis play out far above one’s head. Whilst this probably isn’t possible for most, a darkened room with the Cosmos documentaries playing on a muted television would probably suffice.
In short, Phantasia is little short of a work of quiet genius. It will hook the listener in immediately, and reward repeated spins with a (celestial) procession of revelations. For those moments when one may want to hear something intricate and interesting, but not have one’s face half-shredded in the process, there really aren’t many better ways to spend an hour than in the company of this album.