Australian Ben Craven follows up his 2011 album Great and Terrible Potions with Last Chance to Hear. As with his previous albums, all songs were written, performed, produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by the artist, with only one intriguing guest appearance, more of which in a bit. If undertaking every task himself was not impressive enough, the fact that the album manages to sound like the work of a well-honed and established band, is a major achievement that should be applauded.
The majority of the album is impressively instrumental, with only three pieces containing lyric. Huge sonic landscapes have been carved out of the ether to captivate and enthral. First and foremost a guitarist, Ben’s tracks are infused with plenty of tasty fret-work. Check out Spy in the Sky Part 1 and Last Chance to Hear Part 2 as prime examples. Craven is no slouch on keyboards though, making great use of synths to add textures and dynamics across the album, even creating an effect synth and guitar duel with himself on the end of Spy in the Sky Part 3. When keyboards are used as a lead instrument, it is mainly the piano that takes to the fore, and none more so than on the beautiful closing track, Mortal Remains. It is a piano ballad that somehow manages to be optimistically sombre!
Of the two songs featuring Craven on vocals, the album opener Last Chance to Hear Part 1 is a deliciously upbeat and frothy number, displaying an amusing lyrical bent to Craven’s writing. The song section takes up the first half of the track, before being superseded by a frantic instrumental closing, performed as if it was indeed your last Chance to Hear.
The other Craven vocal occurs on The Remarkable Man and really stands out from the rest of the album, as it has different textural qualities from the other pieces. Whereas Last Chance to Hear Part 1 set the tone, and provided a perfect introduction to the album, The Remarkable Man just seems a bit out of place, and doesn’t really blend in with other pieces. Consequently it is my least favourite song of the album. That is not to say it is inherently poorer or in any way not a worthy song, if anything it actually emphasises just how good the rest of the album is.
So I mentioned an intriguing guest, three tracks that had lyrics (note I didn’t say three songs had vocals) and that Craven only sings on two songs. So it shouldn’t take the detective capabilities of Sherlock Holmes to work out that the other track with lyrics is the one featuring the guest – none other than Captain James Tiberius Kirk himself, AKA William Shatner. Although that may be somewhat surprising on a prog album, anyone who has heard Shatner’s remarkable cover versions of songs like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, will know that his musical career is one that tackles things from interesting angles. His contribution to Spy in the Sky Part 3 is superbly brilliant, and I have to say he practically steals the show! The fact that Spy in the Sky Part 2 and Part 3 are brilliant pieces of music makes Shatner’s characteristic spoken delivery even more remarkable. To ask Shatner to contribute to the album was a bold and inspired move by Craven and one that has paid off in spades.
The album is accompanied by a DVD, the centrepiece of which is Craven talking about the album’s inspiration and the meanings of each track. As I prefer to make my own mind up about music, and wanting to focus on the album as a whole, rather than hearing snippets in isolation, I didn’t watch the DVD until after I wrote the above review.
Parts of the interview were a bit of a revelation, others confirmed my initial thoughts. What does come over is what a decent and well-rounded individual Craven is, as well as his passion, not only for his own creations, but for music as a whole. There are five musical tracks on the DVD, only one of which, the video for The Remarkable Man, is duplicated on the CD. I now have a better understanding of the thoughts and reasons behind The Remarkable Man and how it fits in with other parts of the album, and I have to say that the video captures the inspiration for the song brilliantly.
The three TuneLeak video tracks are works in progress, that were posted on Craven’s TuneLeak website to give people an indication of where his new music is heading. It is a nice idea and worth having the slightly different versions in one place, accompanied by some publicly sourced videos. The Dr Komodo video in particular is most amusing. Finally, there is the pre-Shatner version of Spy in the Sky Part 3 which remains a great song, but emphasises just how much Shatner’s contribution turns something great, into something brilliant.
Overall, Last Chance to Hear is a fantastic album that just gets better on every hearing. The album has a great flow and the music is uniformly of an exceptionally high standard. Have no doubt, this is a major release in the prog world and should make a lot of more established and popular acts sit up and take notice. There is a new kid in town about to steal their thunder.
Mark Hughes: 10 out of 10