Echolyn and the Flower Kings
(from Mei, 2002)
Having already established themselves as one of the primer American progressive rock bands of the last 25 years with classics like Suffocating the Bloom, As the World, and Cowboy Poems Free, Pennsylvanian quintet Echolyn faced an all too familiar question at the turn of the century: “Where do we go from here?” Like several of their genre forefathers and contemporaries, the group decided that the next stop would be to record an album that consists of just one long song. And boy did they outdo themselves. Entitled “Mei”, the piece runs approximately 50 minutes, making it lengthier than most of its similarly structured genre siblings. Bursting with joyous melodies, secular optimism, symphonic majesty, classical vibe, and brilliant refrains, it still stands as Echolyn’s greatest work.
Although not much is known about its concept (if it even has a concrete one), Brett Kull confesses, “It is about love, hope, and redemption.” In addition, Tom Hyatt (who left the band a few years prior) recalls that Mei led to his eventual return to Echolyn, saying, “It reminded of why I joined the band in the first place. I was pretty blown away by how much the band had evolved since As the World. I don’t remember if I was really asked back so much as I just wouldn’t leave after that.” Both men also admit that Mei is still their favorite Echolyn release, and for very good reason. Even with incredible subsequent outings like The End Is Beautiful and last year’s eponymous comeback, there’s just something special about this record.
Flutes and piano introduce one of the song’s main themes as “Mei” begins. Soon vocalist Ray Weston adds an equally naturalistic and inspiring chorus. Eventually Echolyn amps up the technicality as more instrumentation leads to a much heavier movement. Here the keyboards and percussion take center stage before the music dissolves into calmness again with more pastoral passages. Twelve minutes in, Echolyn incorporates their trademark vocal counterpoints, which sound as impressive and intricate as ever. Later on, additional harmonies and tranquil timbres are interspersed amongst moments of hectic yet accessible virtuosity, showcasing Echolyn’s exceptional skill at crafting dynamic arrangements. There’s a wonderful moment about 30 minutes in, in which a motif is played simultaneously on guitar and keyboard, and it’s just one of many fine ways the instruments move around each other throughout “Mei”. As you’d expect, things eventually wind back where they started, as the original section is brought back at the end (albeit in a slightly different way). By the end, one can’t help but be in awe.
“Mei” is undoubtedly Echolyn’s true tour de force, as well as a benchmark of the genre in general. Its distinctiveness derives mostly from its earthly palette, idyllic textures, and inviting melodies, making it sound like wholly original. Of course, it’s quite difficult to discuss a 50-minute song (especially one that’s so complex and multifaceted) in a few paragraphs, but trust me—“Mei” is as fascinating and uplifting as it is catchy and meticulously constructed. Few epic tracks flow as effortlessly yet inventively as this, and Echolyn left an indelible mark on progressive rock with it.
(from Space Revolver, 2000)
Formed by guitarist/vocalist Roine Stolt 20 years ago, symphonic troupe the Flower Kings, along with peers Beardfish, Pain of Salvation, and Opeth, and currently spearheading the Swedish prog movement. Like with Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree, the project came to fruition when Stolt needed a backing band to support his solo record, The Flower King, on the road. Eleven albums later, they’ve become one of the most popular acts in the genus, excelling at crafting quirky, polyrhythmic suites that juxtapose off the wall antics with focused formations. Of all their phenomenal releases, 2000’s Space Revolves is often cited as their pinnacle excursion, and opener “I am the Sun—Part One” is commonly declared their best epic (well, half of an epic, as the album closes with “Part Two”). Infectious, bright, and very captivating, it encompasses everything that makes the Flower Kings so remarkable.
It begins angelically with synths, organ, and delicate percussion before shifting dynamics, allowing heavier guitar and bass lines to dominate. It introduces one of the piece’s main themes with splendor and wonder. Soon Stolt chimes in with his unmistakable cadence and tone, offering one of the most addicting choruses in the band’s catalogue. There’s a great sense of urgency in his delivery, as well as in the colorful frenzy that’s painted over it. Lyrically, the Flower Kings has always been a bit oddball and tongue-in-cheek, but there’s no denying the prophetic boldness of words such as:
Now, I am the sun, I am the first day of summer
Never give in to the dark deep, fast becoming
Now, I am the moon, I am the end of the tunnel
Never believe in the dark ages, let’s move a mountain
Soon Stolt switches to a more philosophical melody that’s accompanied by heavenly music (including bells and chimes). This leads into gorgeous harmonies, followed by some incredible keyboard solos. Afterward, things become a lot weirder (in a good way)—rhythms and timbres clash and tango as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is referenced. It’s silly, complex, energetic, and very eccentric in a way that only the Flower Kings could conjure. The thoughtful reflections that follow provide a great contrast as a result, and the track concludes with rowdy yet magnificent music that symbolizes triumph and closure.
The Flower Kings is revered for its rich, technically difficult yet easily accessible concoctions, and “I am the Sun—Part One” is certainly one of their best. There’s a lot of fun and happiness within it, too, making it inviting and inspiring. Most of all, it’s endlessly invigorating and appealing thanks to Stolt’s catchy melodies and opaque yet intriguing words. Considering that the group is still making music along the same wonderful lines, it’s no wonder that they’re still very popular two decades into their career. As long as they continue to capture the magic, listeners will be there to hear it.