REVIEW: IAMTHEMORNING – “The Bell”
One of the more unique and unexpected bands to make a splash in the progressive rock world in recent years is the Russian duo Iamthemorning. Combining the strong classical piano stylings of Gleb Kolyadin and the ethereal vocals and lyrics of Marjana Semkina, they have crafted a unique sound of chamber music, folk, and of course progressive rock. Following the success of the award-winning ‘Lighthouse’ the band is set to release new work ‘The Bell’ in early August, and it is one their fans will be excited to delve into.
The album is divided into two sections and takes the form of a 19th-century song cycle in which each song is separate in itself but is still part of a unified whole and based on a common theme. The theme for this song cycle is human cruelty and how people respond to it. The album title and artwork is derived from the history of safety coffins, a mid-19th-century invention that was created due to the public’s terror of premature burial. Safety coffins often had a bell that was attached to a string, which was then attached to the (hopefully) deceased, the idea being that if you were buried alive, you could ring the bell and get saved. Iamthemorning extend this into a metaphor for hope, no matter how low you are, or how hopeless things seem.
Part one of the album starts with “Freak Show” and the main theme of cruelty and people’s indifference to it in others begin with the opening lines: “No one seems to care That I break into million pieces, oh They just stand and stare As I break into million pieces more” the distinct vocals of Semkina are heard before the haunting melody begins slowly and quietly. As the song continues, it builds with energy and power as additional instruments are incorporated, and it is one of the few songs on the album that one can truly identify as rock music and progressive rock in any standard understanding of it. In this way, it more closely resembles the previously mentioned ‘Lighthouse’ but by and large ‘The Bell’ is quite a quiet album. The song finishes with a short Spanish guitar, which rounds it off very nicely.
We soon come to the more folk-oriented “Blue Sea” which tells the story of a woman who has been drowned in the sea, whether intentionally or not is a bit ambiguous. The main instrumentation is the ever-present piano and a lightly strummed guitar. The quiet melancholy and folk nature of this song, and the one following “Black and Blue” reminds me a bit of the work of Nick Drake, and what he did emotionally with simple guitar lines. “Black and Blue” as is suggested by the title is a story of an abusive relationship, which builds with musical darkness and intensity as it progresses.
The second part begins with “Ghost of a Story,” in which themes of ghosts and the recovery from grief are combined. The standard duo of voice and piano are joined by strings, guitar, and later in the song solid bass and drums as well. Despite being less than 4 minutes in length, it has a lengthy instrumental section at the end, adding more of a rock flair and is one of the most memorable moments of the album. The band has also released a video for this song, featuring a stripped-down, live chamber recording with just piano and voice.
The second part of the album, in general, has more of a rock feel to it than the first, the additional instruments blend perfectly with the vocals, which to my ears have a lovely Kate Bush quality to them; high, airy, but with a depth which is not always obvious on the first listen. Of course, the vocalist is only half the band, and Kolyadin gets plenty of chances to shine as well and show his virtuosity. Electric keyboards are the standard in most progressive rock bands, but none of these appear on the album, only the intensity and pure beauty of the real grand piano. “Lilies,” the third song of the second half, is a prime example of him showing just what he can do on the piano. His playing is lyrical and delicate at times, and others thunderous and technical, and brings out the full depth and range of the instrument.
The two remaining songs are among my favorites on the album. “Salute” is the longest track on the album, though only 7 and a half minutes in length. It brings back the harder rock energy and the approach of the opening track. The song moves into the dark thoughts and moods of what is clearly an abusive relationship: “Hope is lost The world is burning We might have lived But missed the warning/ Hope is lost The tables turning Who was alive is Condemned to burning.” As the pain in her voice grows and becomes more bitter, so does the music, and much of the latter half of it is taken up by driving progressive rock, and some very memorable guitar solos, mainly electric, but the Spanish flair comes back at the very end. It’s my favorite song from the album and is a perfect mix of the quiet introspective moments that make up the majority of the album, and the more aggressive and progressive side of the band heard on earlier albums, all held together by the lyrics and passionate vocals of Marjana Semkina.
The album closes with the title track and is told from the perspective of one in their grave. Previous themes and images from earlier songs are incorporated into the lyrics. The song is performed entirely by the duo, just piano, and voice. At times quiet and peaceful, the song also contains heavier and very intense moments, a sound that needs only a grand piano and well trained human voice to build and carry. It’s a beautiful and emotional closing to the album.
Iamthemorning have taken a slightly different and often more stripped-down approach to their sound with ‘The Bell’, while at the same time retaining the uniqueness that garnered them so much attention in the first place. They create a beautiful, haunting, and near-seamless fusion of traditional classical music, folk, and progressive rock, and in doing so have a sound that is unlike any other in modern progressive rock. While not quite the masterpiece that ‘Lighthouse’ was, this album will certainly satisfy their fans and newcomers alike. Recommended.