Whilst the mainstream has, to a large extent, been content to dig only so far into progressive rock as bands such as Porcupine tree and Katatonia allow, a scratch beneath the surface reveals some truly astonishing acts pushing the boundaries of what can be expected from an album. One of the most unique and beguiling of these acts is the wonderful Fen who have evolved from darker, more metallic origins to become a truly diverse and ambitious band incorporating numerous influences into their sound. Slug Comparison is the similarly adventurous solo project from Fen’s vocalist/guitarist Doug Harrison, and, like Fen, it sees Doug exploring a wide array of musical styles to deliver an album that is both fascinating and beautiful in equal measure.
Opening with ‘Bringer of doom’ it is immediately apparent that Doug has spent a lot of time on getting the sound just right. This truly is a beautifully produced album with a rich, expansive sheen and perfect separation between the various instruments (for goodness sake take the highest quality version your system can handle – your ears will thank you for it) and this is important because Doug likes to employ anything and everything he can get his hands on to draw the song out. Instantly appealing, ‘bringer of doom’ incorporates subtle and intelligently used electronic effects, swathes of warm synth, chugging guitars and, over it all, Doug’s rich tones float wonderfully. It’s impossible to name-check the myriad influences here, but what Doug does so successfully is to draw together the music of the past and present, hinting at a love of eighties synth here, sketching out a touch of seventies prog there, and yet between the strong production and Doug’s own ability to weave the elements together so well it never sounds anything less than fresh and original. The album veers neatly into poppier territory with the utterly wonderful ‘you’ve seen me’ which sounds like a clash between Radiohead and Genesis covering Alice in chains. With a rich falsetto chorus and wailing guitars there’s so much going on that you’ll never absorb it all in one listen, but you’ll be so keen to return to it that you’ll soon have the song by heart. ‘Summer ‘99’ is similarly breezy, recalling the twisted indie sensibility of bands like Pavement and the pastoral longing of David Gilmour. The brightness, however, doesn’t last and ‘short of hell’ is a dark, menacing track built around a reverberating, hypnotic beat that expands out into a somnambulant piece replete with grating chords and a stark vocal performance. Plunging even further into darkness, ‘evil walks’ opens amidst waves of drone and a bass line taken direct from John Carpenter’s unsettling soundtrack work. With subtle electronic stabs and a gothic feel, ‘Evil walks’ offers up Slug Comparison’s darkest thoughts set to a suitably dissonant soundtrack.
After the claustrophobic darkness of the previous two tracks, the opening to ‘long live the night’ proves something of a relief with its gentle acoustic work and folk elements, not to mention some stunning slide work. Of all the tracks here, ‘long live the night’ is the one that most captures the feel of vintage Pink Floyd with its rich, lyrical feel and stunning musicianship and if you were to only preview one track from this album before taking the inevitable decision to purchase it, then this should probably be the one. A piece of work that evolves from humble origins into a full-on progressive epic, ‘long live the night’ is a truly wondrous piece of work that draws the listener headlong into Doug Harrison’s wonderfully diverse world. This is grandiose, theatrically-inclined progressive rock at its finest and if any artist has ever truly captured that wonderful mixture of excess that abounded in the heady days of the Gabriel-led Genesis, the Waters-led Floyd and King Crimson, then it is Doug Harrison with this stunningly inventive piece of music. More of a symphony than a song, ‘Long live the night’ is a stunning musical endeavour with a powerful anti-war message and a deft use of light and shade that sees it swell to a stunning crescendo awash with the sound of battle and crushing riffs. In contrast, ‘the dark with divinity’ is a short song with beautifully phrased harmonies and an instantly memorable melody whilst ‘something to bear’ is the sound of heartbreak, raw and bloody and instantly recognisable to anyone who’s ever suffered loss. Reminiscent of the typically English progressive of artists like Steve Thorne it’s also unassailably gorgeous and it leads the listener to the gentle, rippling ‘common room’ which closes the album on a note of gentle melancholy tempered by a sense of cautious hope.
Slug Comparison is more than just a side-project, it is a labour of love from one of the UK’s most enigmatic artists and it deserves to spread far and wide. Featuring contributions from Randall Stoll (also of Fen), Mike Young (Devin Townsend and Fen) and Mike Southworth (Fen), Doug Harrison has drawn the very best out of these musicians and created something truly mesmerising. An album that draws upon numerous influences, it still has its own voice and character and, like all great music, it stirs the senses, taking the listener on a voyage of imagination and emotion. The immediate pleasure that can be gained from the album, however, is as nothing compared to its lasting impact and multiple listens reveal the extent of the compositional depth, with each new spin (or whatever it is you do with these new-fangled MP3 thingys) revealing some new facet that previously sat contentedly in the background. If you have yet to discover either Fen or Slug Comparison, this is the perfect introduction and it is a wonderful addition to the collection of any music fan. Simply wonderful.
There’s no excuse not to check out this wonderful album – just click the embedded player below!