Album Review: Anderson/Stolt – Invention of Knowledge by Nathan Brooks

I don’t get on well with modern progressive rock. Contemporary prog bands appear to have little interest in actually progressing rock. Instead, they’re content with recording uninspired attempts to relive the 1970s, and leaving the innovation to other experimental rock genres. It’s not just younger bands either; prog veterans who are still going like Yes and Kansas haven’t interested me since the 21st century began. However, there is hope. Former Yes singer and ‘Prog God’ Jon Anderson is back. Together with Swedish guitarist Roine Stolt, of the relatively tolerable prog band The Flower Kings, he’s formed Anderson/Stolt. This year, they released their debut album Invention of Knowledge. Is it the prog record I’ve been waiting for?

To me, a major issue with prog in general are lyrics. Even during its peak years in the ‘70s, prog bands mostly sang songs filled with pretentiousness and bland mysticism. Some did rise above this. Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull tackled key issues, from religion to mental illness, while staying grounded in reality. Unfortunately, Anderson is the other kind of songwriter. His lyrics have alienated listeners for decades, and this album may well be the pinnacle. Packed to the brim with nonsense assuring us that “even the strongest ones can change the given light” and how it’s “all in the countenance of life”, Invention of Knowledge is a lyrical train wreck. Nothing Anderson sings about relates to the real world or the listener; it feels like an awkward yoga session intended to help me “find myself”.

Album Review: Anderson/Stolt – Invention of Knowledge

That said, Anderson sounds phenomenal. On their own his lyrics may be an ostentatious mess, but they’re spectacularly brought to life through his voice. Prog singers have sounded like they’re delivering cheesy power ballads for a while, so hearing Anderson’s unique vocals again is a joy. Every word is delivered with the same strength and personality that always ensures he stands out. There are times where he slightly overestimates his range, and in some of the quieter moments his tone is rougher than it once was. But he’s 71 , for goodness sake, and he dominates this album.

That’s not to say Roine Stolt doesn’t play a vital part. For me, progressive rock has lacked in the texture department recently. The genre doesn’t feel as dense as before; no matter how crunchy the bass guitar, or how loud the snare drum, I can’t shake the feeling of emptiness. The same cannot be said for Invention of Knowledge. This genre aims to elevate rock to the same heights as classical music, and Stolt has produced some of the most orchestral sounding prog I’ve ever heard. A thick array of synthesisers, grand pianos, bass guitars and even a Portuguese guitar dance around each other elegantly, creating music that’s complex, but not overcrowded. Stolt also has a number of surprisingly memorable guitar solos – especially on the tracks Invention and Chase and Harmony – and even experiments with some backwards guitar on Knowledge.

Lack of definition makes it hard to grasp

Unfortunately, the album often lacks focus. There’s a certain improvisational quality to both the vocals and instrumentation. Melodies aren’t usually stuck with for long, with new ones constantly introduced. It prevents the album from feeling repetitive, but it also means each song struggles to find an identity. The instruments used across the album stay fairly unchanged, so each track needs its own riff or melody to distinguish it. I’ve listened enough times to recognise what makes each song its own, but the lack of definition means it’s difficult to grasp on your first few listens. Fortunately, the album develops more of a direction later on. Songs have clearer structures, and melodies are regularly revisited. The final track, Know…, even reprises elements from the earlier song Knowing, rounding off the album neatly and grandly.

Progressive rock has been stuck in the past for way too long, which is why it’s so nice to hear such a forward thinking album. It’s by no means flawless and in my opinion we are still a long way off from the lofty heights of the ‘70s. However, Anderson/Stolt’s Invention of Knowledge remains a significant step in the right direction.