Ellesmere – Stranger Skies (2024)

Ellesmere - Stranger Skies (2024)
Artist: Ellesmere
Album: Stranger Skies
Genre: Symphonic Prog
Label: AMS Records
Year Of Release: 2024
Quality: FLAC (tracks)

Tracklist:
1. Northwards (6:50)
2. Tundra (6:44)
3. Crystallized (5:13)
4. Arctica (4:17)
5. Stranger Skies (12:18)
6. Another World (11:43)

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Personnel:
– Roberto Vitelli / bass, keyboards
– Giacomo Anselmi / guitars
– Mattias Olsson / drums, percussion
– John Wilkinson / vocals

With:
– Tomas Bodin / keyboards (6 outro)
– Clive Nolan / keyboards (1 intro)
– John Hackett / flute (5)
– David Jackson / saxophone & wind instruments (3,6)
– Graeme Taylor / acoustic guitar (3 prologue)
– Bob Hodges / keyboards (5)
– Stefano Vicarelli / mellotron, minimoog, additional keyboards
– Riccardo Romano / backing vocals, 6 & 12-string acoustic guitars (2,5)

More than most other genres, I think prog rock and metal have the keen ability to capture the feeling of season and their changes. Some prog projects focus on nothing but this, but regardless bands that choose that sort of these for songs or whole albums just sound a certain way through their tones, scale usage, and tempo. Ellesmere certainly smacked of a bit of that before with prior projects like Wyrd which I reviewed over four years ago, but it seems to have been stepped up a few notches here with Stranger Skies along with the overall breadth of progged-out instrumentation and world-building.

Ellesmere still sees Roberto Vitelli (bass, keys, songwriting) at the helm of the project, but just like Wyrd there’s a number of prolific lifers when it comes to prog rock performance including some returning ones like Mattias Olsson (drums), Tomas Bodin (more keys), and John Hackett (flute) with additions like David Jackson on saxophone and wind instruments, Giacomo Anselmi on guitar, and Riccardo Romano on backing vocals and 12-string acoustic guitar. Speaking of vocals, for lead we get John Wilkinson on vocals which, if you heard a Genesis influence with Ellesmere‘s music before, Wilkinson’s voice will definitely drive that comparison home as he sounds like a pitch-perfect take on Phil Collins’ legendary English croon circa their Wind & Wuthering LP.

The result is Stranger Skies feeling like the adventurous album it’s set up to be, probably better than Wyrd and I loved that album. Six tracks here, the first four of which capture the cold of a winter-stricken world with an approachable whimsy. It doesn’t feel like an oppressive kind of cold, it simply colors in the world in a specific way with tracks like “Northwards” and “Tundra”. “Northwards” for its part is a wonderful intro to the album and to what Ellesmere has to offer nowadays which feels compositionally tighter than previous work at the natural expense of more variance in the tracks. This is fine for me! This is still progressive rock through and through, and there will of course be moments of movement and progression even within songs of average length. This one for example has a triumphant and explorative opening with tons of charm from robust horns and other orchestral touches – it’s like the opening sequence of a fantasy movie – and it gives way to stately ’70s-styled prog rock replete with the sounds of synths, rock guitars, and Wilkinson’s evocative singing.

“Tundra” is a little less epic, but no less worth your time. It really captures that wintry feel with delicate synths and lovely melodies that bring to mind a fun snow day in a forest even as the lyrics reference the tundra being a ‘most unforgiving place‘ in the chorus. It’s very upbeat and a good change of pace from “Northwards”. You can hear a lot of Rush influence in the overall structure as well, like something that would go well on Signals. I really enjoy this track. “Crystallized” is the album’s acoustic interlude, just stretched to a song-length piece that settles into some catchy melodies and adds saxophone and the rest of the band on the backend to flesh it out. “Arctica” closes out the album’s A side with the shortest song yet that rests between the journey that “Northwards” sets you off on and the more playful modality of “Tundra”. This is where the vocals are the most bold and I admit it’s a lot of fun to yell out ‘arcticaaaaaa!’ along during the hook.

The last two songs represent a warmer world meant to foil the cold of the first half, something that’s immediate from the opening notes of the title track. Instruments and atmosphere feels warmer, there’s organ, flute, and synth that defrosts the coziness established on the first half, and at over twelve minutes long, it’s the biggest trek asked of you on the album. It seems to be a bit of a fish out of water tale as our protagonist notes on the alien nature of the creatures around him and wishing to return back home with no direct knowledge of how to achieve that. It does feel tense, but there’s quite an air of majesty that beckons you to enjoy the admittedly weird scenery as well. I love the progression of this track and how the melody led by flute starts low and increasing in scale and volume with each repeat.

“Another World” closes the album off with a runtime right on the heels of the title track and it’s probably the most rock-oriented yet with a more dense instrumentation and quicker pace during key moments. Again, the sounds are warmer than before and verses are suspenseful, flanked by light sax and synth leads that create a textures and uneven path for us to traverse through the song. It’s the most showy of the tracks here, closing out Stranger Skies with a bit of a bang though I will say the last couple minutes are a gentle delight with a piano lead and atmosphere that feels psychedelic and unknown, like you’re walking through a portal and seeing time and space flash before your eyes, hearing disembodied voices and the rumble of our existential fabric as you test its limits to enter a new world, or is it the old world that our protagonist wished to return to?

Progressive rock is always a great call in winter because it can provide that sort of sonic escapism or complement your snowbound reality with ease – Stranger Skies does both to awesome effect. I feel comfortable saying it’s Ellesmere‘s most adventurous work yet and while I do miss a bit of that Emerson, Lake & Palmer sonic adventurousness that was on Wyrd, it’s still here in its own way, but thematically and laser-focused to make this album special. A big recommend to classically-tuned prog lovers like myself who want something both modern and throwback – 2024 is off to to a daring start with projects like this to soak in.
By David Rodriguez, everythingisnoise

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