Whenever I hear someone throw around the term “instrumental prog”, my mind instantly conjures images of bearded men bludgeoning multi-stringed monstrosities with metronomic precision. Either that or I expect streams of lithe arpeggios and endless guitar histrionics (sometimes these elements are even combined into one song!). This saturation of like sounds in modern prog makes it easy to forget that there are artists out there who have chosen solely instrumental music as their muse and who do truly strange and innovative things within their subscribed genre. To that end Patrick Healy’s “Setting a Course for Tomorrow” is one hell of a strange journey, and an invigorating breath of fresh air for experimental instrumental music.
Nestled somewhere amongst the maelstrom of jazz fusion, classical/orchestral, electronica, and progressive rock lies the core of the sound of the album. No two tracks sound alike, and this refusal to bow to any particular genre convention makes for an intriguing and multifaceted listen. Rich orchestral strains surround the listener like a cosmic blanket, and the overall vibe is spacey and contemplative. The soundscapes at play, ambient at times and at others wholly supportive of the melody, grab the listener and refuse to let go. Jazzy saxophone intermixes with pounding synths and unhinged percussion, while a tasteful and emotive guitar screams for attention above the din. For large stretches of the record, I felt like I was listening to the soundtrack to the coolest noir space detective film that never was, Sam Spade driving around on one of Jupiter’s moons cigarette in hand, some dark and futuristic city in the background.
That is a victory of this record then, that it can at once be many things while also retaining a unique identity all its own. The songs demand the listener’s full attention, and a casual “one headphone on” experience this is not. There aren’t many egregious displays of technique on hand here (although make no mistake, this music is expertly played) only a masterfully constructed ode to dynamics and atmosphere. Every solo feels necessary and earned, every bend and run emotive, which is refreshing to see in a genre where that sense of restraint isn’t always apparent or heeded.
Sonically the record sounds great, the acoustic “real” instruments all pop and sound warm as they should, while the synthetic elements don’t sound overbearing or detract from the experience. The warmth of the saxophone and the guitar immediately draw the listener’s attention when in play, as they should, and basically become beacons in the song whenever they are used, cutting through the spacey atmosphere. Being a closet fan of 80’s synths and the driving sound of soundtracks from this era, “The Backbone of Night” instantly caught my attention, the pulsing synth line leading to unintentional head bobbing. At times it is heavy, but not in a metallic sense. The operative term here would probably be “dense”, and these moments truly shine as epic climaxes to the album’s story (real or imagined).
The record ultimately won’t be for everyone, as Healy takes his time developing these songs and atmospheres (although track lengths are kept surprisingly brief). The music rarely feels as though it meanders too long before finding its theme and stride, the soundscapes and melodies kept each other in check and supported each other well. For all of the genre and stylistic hopping going on, the overall package is very concise and the mix of disparate elements really works. This is good, because with so much hinging on experimentation this overall cohesion is key. Finally, I would highly recommend listening to the record in sequence, as I feel it is a more complete experience from beginning to end when digested in this way.
I enjoy records like this, and was pleasantly surprised at how different it ended up being. It is challenging and inspired in all of the right ways, and truly made me feel like I was transported somewhere else for its brief run-time. When the final guitar melody faded out at the end, I was left wanting more. For me, that is the mark of great music, and the essence of great prog. Ambient, atmospheric, cinematic, ever-changing, challenging, and truly experimental music is what you will find on “Setting a Course for Tomorrow”, and it is a journey that is worth taking. Just try to make it back to Earth when it’s all over.
- The Emerald Horizon
- Shadow over Innsmouth
- The Villi People
- The Backbone of Night
- Battle of the Area Six
- Setting a Course for Tomorrow
- All Good Things…