Dutch Progressive Rock Pages (The Netherlands) - Jan13

The fifth album from Canadian Steve Cochrane over a period of 20 years builds on his previous releases but pushes into new directions, the album being a suite of nine thematically connected parts starting with an overture and building through various feels and emotions to a finale.

As suggested from the title, La La La: Variations On a Happy Song has uplifting basic themes that are reused in different ways throughout but it is not all lightweight sweetness with no substance and there are numerous twists and turns along the way.

With a long history in bands Cochrane developed an interest in MIDI during the '80s and this set him along the road of realising his musical ambitions alone. From pure MIDI with classical influences for 1991's Heroes Awaken he added vocals and guitars on 1995's To See It Made Real building on this foundation for 1998's The Purest of Designs. 2007's With Or Without began as a more acoustic, song-based album but developed an art rock feel during recording.

La La La... sees Cochrane (vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards) working with Arman Faguay (percussion, vocals), drummers Kevin Richard and Richard Rizzo (drums) and vocalists Murray James-Bosch, Leslea Kervourst and Aimee Matuszczak to produce the most polished work of his career so far.

There's a strong acoustic streak that runs through the album, folk-inspired but with electric guitars, symphonic keys and grand crescendos interspersed with pastoral guitars and darker moods. Influences from the likes of Steve Hackett, Gordon Giltrap and Guy Manning are noticeable with the pieces being apparently more complex and layered than his previous work.

Alarm Clock Overture is exactly that, a wake up call that starts as a folky singalong, multi-tracked "la la" vocals building into a prog guitar and keys scene-setter. Cochrane's picked guitar is good and a nice theme develops that is heard throughout the album. This is a very good opener, Cochrane's predominantly acoustic guitar having echoes of flamenco and Steve Howe. The bass seems a little off here and there but this is an upbeat and uplifting intro that moves through a number of phases with good use of female vocal in a feature spot for Kervourst.

The folk influences of Alarm Clock Overture build to a steady peak and move into Makes Me Want To Sing. This is the first lyrical vocal from Faguay who certainly has a good voice but some may find him a bit of an acquired taste as he has some strange inflections. The backing vocals are also good but the melody and lyrics are a bit sappy for my tastes, a little too happy-clappy and folk but there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. The bass has a great twangy sound and the guitar solo is good.

Red Sky is a laid back acoustic number, a bit Lifeson-esque with vocal atmospherics that acts as a brief change of pace before the edgier Towards Ideal. Here the electric guitar comes to the fore with acoustic support. The vocal refrain from the opener reappears and there are flashes of Rush at their most pastoral in the vocal delivery and structure. The folky elements still hold sway, lyrics dealing with philosophical and spiritual matters, with guitar interjections echoing the vocal line. Cochrane produces an uplifting solo and the album generally picks up from this track.

A Song is a simple but very well presented acoustic number, nicely developed and played with familiar themes returning once again.

The longest and probably key track of the album is next, Just Clouds, starting with distant sustained guitar that slowly builds with hints of Rush and Genesis. There is a sense of foreboding that bursts open with old school keys, the return of the twangy bass driving the piece along. This is good, the previous lyrical positivity taking a knock as hope appears to fade but things appear resolved and all is well with the world again culminating in a kind of folk hoedown vocal fugue that is quite Gentle Giant. The instrumental section is strong with unorthodox guitar choices and spoken word chanting lead to a change of feel by the end of the track as the lyric seems to convey doubt.

Beauty & Defiance is a fine follow-up to Just Clouds, an extended acoustic guitar intro with hints of Steve Hackett leads into slowly building keys that fade into an insistent acoustic pattern with variations. Sparse drums accompany the returning female vocal refrain and the second half of the track is very good, rhythms building against the vocal, dieing away to flow perfectly into Birthright. This almost comes across like a hymn with ethereal female backing over a song of redemption and rediscovery. Aimee Matuszczak is featured here, her contribution resolved in a guitar and keys crescendo. A prayer-like spoken section culminates in another fine vocal from Matuszczak and a choral section to finish - "there is no greater song to sing than the one inside your heart".

The Day I Found My Wings bookends nicely with the opener, similar themes and sections with variations giving flashes of Manning. A percussion section sees various themes recapitulated before a final guitar solo (ever so slightly wobbly) and another vocal fugue as a nice way to finish.

This album is well thought out and presented and certainly has a great deal of depth but it just doesn't grab me all the way through. The first couple of tracks are very pleasant without becoming any more than that but the album does grow in interest later on and thematically it does seem to follow a journey, good overcoming evil by the end.

The playing is pretty good throughout and Cochrane is a fine musician, predominantly on his acoustic guitar. The writing is solid with some excellent moments and overall, despite my initial reservations regarding the lyrical content, it is a very enjoyable listen. I'd say that in addition to the above reference points it is probably worth investigating if you are a fan of Jethro Tull or Renaissance too.

Reviewed by Jez Rowden