|Tom Byrne CD's Review
Reviewed here: Tom Byrne's first two albums, The Last Druids
(2002) and The Eye Of The Cyclone (2003)
The Last Druids
Home recorded in 2002, and now available on Statue Records, The Last Druids is Tom Byrne's first
album and a highly original piece of work, being based upon 6 fragments of history from Dark Ages
Britain. These were preserved together in a single annal but each represents different events and
people. Although this is an instrumental album, Tom has made a cohesive whole from this material,
with an album consisting of six tracks with a unified musical flavour.
That flavour is a fusion of celtic music with progressive rock - to my ears, skewed more towards the
former. Tom's primary instrument is the keyboard, and this is a very keyboard dominated album, in
terms of feel and arrangement more than instrumentation. There are a number of extremely convincing
sounding synth samples here, bringing harpsichord, tympani, violins, choral effects and chimes to the
party. The opening track, 'The Region Of The Summer Stars' threads all these voices with dreamy
synth sweeps and skillfully withdraws some voices to bring in others, such as a fabulously authentic
sounding cello voice. There is something hauntingly familiar about this blend of melodies, layered
arrangements and celtic nuances - at 5:25, a piccolo starts up, and that "what-does-this-remind-me-of?"
feeling falls into place. The succeeding melody over an ascending three-chord progression reinforces
this: it's intensely reminiscent of Mike Oldfield's early work (Hergest Ridge or Ommadawn more than
the better-known Tubular Bells).
Elsewhere, monkish choral effects and sepulchral bells are blended in with the odd bit of unsettling
synth noise, and it becomes apparent that Tom's music works best when he finds a darker theme...on
track 2 ('The Dragons Of Dinas Emrys'), for example, there is one light, poppy section where the
strings bring to mind late 60's TV ads for a slimmer's bread called Nimble, which doesnâ€™t really
square with the title of the track. Whenever the prog influences loom largest is when the music really
starts to function. These prog influences tend to be more textural, with the celtic influences being
mediated by the choice of instrumentation and melody line. But they can also be heard in the structural
complexity of this stuff: which is at first difficult to discern due to the skill with which the themes are
interwoven. (Being almost entirely instrumental doesn't help much, either!)
The interesting thing about this is that each individual theme is simple at heart, typically consisting of a
two-, three- or four-chord progession, with layers of keyboard and (some) guitar overlaid on this. But
given the scope of each individual composition (most are over ten minutes in length), different themes
emerge, recede and return seamlessly - you really can't see the joins, and one result of this is that you
recognize passages of music, but never feel as though the album is repeating itself, or consists of
disparate sections bolted together.
The remaining tracks are 'The Battle of Badon Hill', 'The Great Conflagration', 'A Short Life' and
'Knowing Another World' - none really expands beyond the palette used by the two opening
compositions, and I came away with the feeling that Tom is better at atmospherics than arrangement,
which was basically too celtic for my taste. But this is nonetheless a highly accomplished piece of
work, and merits the success that Tom has had with it.
The Eye Of The Cyclone
The second album in what threatens to be a conceptual trilogy, Eye Of The Cyclone was recorded in
2003, and like its predecessor is now available from the resources listed at the end of this review. Tom
bills this as a space rock album, but it seems to me to pick up where the Last Druids left off, with the
opening passage of Part 1 (the album consists of Part 1, lasting 30 minutes, and Part 2, lasting 19
minutes) hitting all the same reflexes. However, there are a couple of touches here and there which hint
at the spacier direction: the Oldfieldisms are overlaid with an additional swathe of synthy sweeps and
treated spoken vocals (these I did not enjoy). True to his talents for thematic development, Tom adds
some nice harmonized electric guitar parts at around the three minute mark and some phased acoustic
guitar, over a reasonably prog / psych chord progression: but the lead voices are, er, stereo flutes...
This is not quite the cosmic blanga that might be expected, although it would be possible to rearrange
this track as a Hawkwindesque space rock opus with some additional punch on the bass / drums / guitar
- having said that, some rock percussion kicks in at 7 minutes, placed surprisingly high in the mix, and
this propels Part 1 in an altogether spacier direction. I would even so still like to hear Tom's excellent
synth playing underpinned by something louder and cruder than is allowed by his keyboard player's
instinctive bias towards the melodic and the harmonic over the rhythmic.
One interesting diversion at around 14 minutes is an 80's motif, featuring a syncopated bassline, synth
lead and muted guitar...the addition of an atonal synthesizer voice a minute later adds interest, and I
think this could be an avenue for future exploration. It does not stay around for long, being subsumed
back into the main theme, which weaves along for another few minutes, before Part 1 really comes to
life after 22 minutes or so. This begins with a new passage where everything works perfectly, seguing
back into the main theme again, but this time with all the stops pulled out on the arrangement. With
some properly spacey synth voices at the forefront of the mix, it bounces along excellently. In terms of
heaviness this is nowhere near Hawkwind (say), but at last Part 1 is really starting to exude conviction
and commitment - there's even a bit of punky thrashing on the guitar, with the other instruments
backing off in a couple of places to let it be heard. This lattermost section of the track is by far the
most enjoyable, coming to a close at 30:51 with a great bit of wobulated synth.
Dark, treated Gregorian vocals and an excellent bit of arranging open Part 2, and are joined by muted
and then melodic lead guitars. The momentum built up towards the end of Part 1 has not been lost, and
the Oldfield nuances come across strongly given this more muscular treatment, which includes some
good atonal keyboard work. A second theme coming in at around 3:20 brings us more into Kansas
territory, although this is diffused by the onset of more spoken lyrics. A pastoral movement succeeds
this, Cor Anglais voice to the fore, I think: and as a result, the spaciness that came through more
strongly towards the end of Part 1 has now completely vanished - but we've not slipped back into the
mists of time to the Last Druids. This is a more mature composition and a stronger arrangement.
There's even a hint of an epic Western theme here, invoking the peaks of Monument Valley, Utah in
35mm slow motion if you really let yourself get carried away, even though it's played with virtually a
solo piano part! But Tom does not let the piece drift off course for too long, and brings things around
to restate the main theme from Part 1, driving the tempo upwards to close out the album.
Overall, The Eye Of The Cyclone is a stronger effort than The Last Druids, and I suspect represents a
further development in Tom's musical career, away from the celtic elements of his first album, if not
quite arriving at the definition of space rock. I am interested to see where he goes next, and
recommend that you should at least check out sound samples at one of the following places:
The Store of All The Worlds
A third CD by Tom Byrne, I had expected this to be a
break from the thematic connection of his first two
albums - "The Last Druids" and "Eye Of The Cyclone",
both of which I've already reviewed on this site. Tom
had indicated as much, describing "The Store Of All
The Worlds" as an album of Dystopia-themed songs.
(Dystopia being the opposite of Utopia, of course.)
However, on the back of the CD case, what do we see
but thumbnail images of "The Last Druids" and "Eye Of
The Cyclone", respectively subtitled as "The Shattered
God Vol.1" and "The Shattered God Vol.2". It turns out
that this CD forms Vol.3 in the series. Yes, we have a
fully-fledged trilogy on our hands!
Several guests appear on the album, Tim Pringle providing vocals on all but one track, with guitars by
Michael Blackman of Alien Dream in a couple of places and Kevin Williams of Fate's Cruel Joke doing
six-stringed things on the title track. Otherwise, Tom himself handles everything...¦
The CD opens with The Store Of All The Worlds. Picked / strummed guitar and some teeth-on-edge
synth effects immediately mark this out as a departure from Tom's earlier work, at least in intent.
However when the main theme kicks in it's very obviously a Byrne piece: undulating, melodic
keyboard-based progressions underpin the startling vocals (I don't like this bloke's voice at all - not to be
unkind, but IMHO he can't sing, basically) and burble about fairly amiably and aimlessly until an odd
middle section featuring a not-altogether-successful guitar solo puts in an appearance. The guitar sound
is pretty overdriven and synthetic in a digital effects unit kind of way, and given this sound (and what the
song is doing) the solo really needs to grab control of proceedings and dominate everything else. But
that's not what happens. Instead, Mr.Williams plays a melodic solo, over a minute long, which ends up
supporting the song rather than vice-versa.
Phive starts off with a moodier atmosphere, stronger drum programming and another dark guitar intro
again giving way to an optimistic theme. Some sweeping synth voices work well here, steering the
number clear of Tom's tendency towards the pastoral which is decidedly not my cup of tea. As the track
speeds up and acquires a whooshing flanged guitar buried in the mix, the darker strain begins to
predominate...¦although this track acquires the sensation of being the soundtrack to a mad fairground ride
gone wrong - like a confused dream in which a rollercoaster gets crossed with a ghost train.
The Litany Of The Taints (oh, what a terrible pun) is a more whimsical effort, with jaunty melodies and
jangling guitars offsetting the layered keyboard voices. The overall effect is pretty psychedelic...¦but: the
singing is nothing short of appalling on the verses. I feel like a heel writing something like that, because
lord knows it's not easy to do. On the choruses, Tim lifts his voice up and actually sings rather than
intones, which helps greatly. The Buddha In The Internet is more typical Tom Byrne, skittering along on
a mix of treated acoustic guitars, almost spinet-like keyboards and upbeat drum programming. The lyrics
are spoken (not sung) by Tom, and quite the best thing on this track is the beautiful phased two-chord
keyboard figure placed at the end of each verse, which brings 'Spirit of the Age' to mind. The lyrics
come across as something of an oddity, which I think is augmented by the spoken delivery. I can
imagine this song being much more effective were they sung.
Fifth Generation features more oddball lyrics about televisions and refrigerators, paired with another
weird, jaunty little piece of music, and Tim is back on the vocals too. The incidental vocoder'd robot
voice is the best bit of singing heard yet. A new wave / power pop chorus is quite good, but aside from
that, the uncomfortable juxtaposition of words and music reduces this to the level of a novelty song.
There are some better moments in the jerky, staccato middle section and coda, but the increasing
dominance of keyboard voices is not to my taste. As with the other songs on this CD, this one is fairly
short, and Tom has obviously decided to make an album consisting of concise songs rather than the long
thematic pieces he has done on earlier albums.
They're Taking A Piece Of My Head features a tense but distant synth pad with a vocal sample in the
foreground...¦an effective opening, as with many of Tom's pieces here, but there is always a discontinuity
between these intros and the main themes which usually pop up on a platform of sunny-sounding
keyboards. This is one of the better songs, with a really good hook made up of a three-chord
progression in a minor key, but then it all falls apart in an unhinged seaside funfair soundscape... To be
followed by Mushroom Omelette, which sounds like a country and western number that got spiked with
LSD. The surreal and / or silly lyrics (take your pick) emphasise this, calling to mind the kind of brittle,
jangly psychedelia of the late 60's rather than the driven, spacey jams of the 70's variety. Some good
things here are done with an extremely authentic sounding flute voice, and there's a deft touch of reverb
on the vocals along the way.
Three Minutes features another vocal sample, referring to the three-minute warning of nuclear annihilation
that was expected in Cold War times. The air raid siren sounds and a terse, clipped guitar stabs away in
what is basically a punk song, where Tim's vocals work quite well. There are some echoes of the
Stranglers here, with a stentorian bass run or two, and very Dave Greenfield-ish keyboards, broadening
out into a middle eight solo. It's a shame the song doesn't last three minutes but you can't have
Grey Goo is musically the strongest song on the CD, featuring some snappy chord progressions, again at
a pace that's pumped up to New Wave speeds, but once more the simply dreadful vocals, and lyrics that
are frankly little better, wreck any hopes this had of turning into a really decent song. What a shame,
since the keyboard solos are pretty good, and then at last, the single best bit of music on this CD appears
in the form of Michael Blackman's guitar solo: the first one, which soars. He adds a second solo which is
more low-key, and after some more keyboard soloing, comes back for a third bite at the cherry.
Basically the coda to this number is about five minutes long and consists of alternating lead passages on
guitar and keyboard. Again, I think there's a Stranglers influence at work, and I was reminded of the
coda to 'Down In The Sewer' on their first album. I enjoyed this last five minutes of Tom's album,
which is more than I can say for just about everything that preceded it.
So, there may be a conceptual connection with Tom's two earlier albums, but musically this could
scarcely be more different. Gone are the lengthy instrumental developments and celtic elements: instead it
appears that Tom has opted to do something completely at odds with those ideas, turning in an album
which is basically an attempt to crank out short New Wave-influenced pieces in keeping with the
Dystopia theme. I have to say, I think it did not work at all. There would be a number of reasons for
this, and the main one is perhaps that Tom's style of composition does not lend itself to short songs as
against extended development of themes. Secondly, I think the people with whom he chose to
collaborate did not work out (this would include the lyricists, where the words were written by
contributors rather than by Tom himself) - although Michael Blackman is exempted from this criticism.
There were some moments along the way that had real quality to them, but despite being Volume 3 of the
Shattered God, this album is after all a side-trip in Tom's career. The definitive Tom Byrne album is still
out there, waiting to be captured and recorded, but this isn't it.