Like Matlock or CBS Sunday Morning, progressive rock is usually the stubborn province of a particular over-50 demographic. The reason? Prog-rock long ago collapsed under its own lugubrious weight, leaving nothing but overwrought neo-metal (looking at you, post-Fish Marillion) and a thousand hacks who heard The Yes Album and said, “I can do that!” (No – you can’t.) There hasn’t been a brilliant prog record since Deadwood Forest’s mellotron-drenched Mellodramatic way back in 1999. Things got so bad in the mid-2000s that your humble reviewer gave up sampling the genre for several years entirely.
So leave it to a husband-and-wife combo with a history of jazzy cover songs to concoct the first sensational progressive album of the 21st century. Layer the sky-high harmonies of ABBA over the polished prog-pop of late 1970s Starcastle, and – rare as Halley’s Comet – out popped the miraculous Cosmologica. It’s hard to believe, but according to their Bandcamp page, this album came about as a “let’s try something new” lark by singer Circe Link and her husband Christian Nesmith. Yet here they are, handily beating out dedicated prog bands who’ve been at it for decades.
Virtuoso Nesmith plays every instrument on this record save one. He’s the son of the Monkees icon Michael Nesmith, so he certainly knows his way around a studio; perhaps the results shouldn’t surprise. But one cannot get over how meticulously constructed this record is. The best progressive rock often combines three or more distinctly complex movements into a single song, which likely encapsulates the endless fascination of the genre – cerebral and intellectual stimulation aplenty, yet still pleasing to the ear. And perhaps that’s the secret underlying classic prog’s grandeur. For all the symphonic indulgences and shifting time signatures of Yes or Crimson or Gabriel-era Genesis, those records also boasted some of the era’s tightest musicianship and production values.
Analogous flashes of brilliance can be found woven throughout Cosmologica’s intricate tracks, half of which clock in at over eight minutes. Intro “SubOrbitalPreFlight” sets the stage with flourishing Emerson, Lake & Palmer keyboards and guitars. For gracious historical homage, look no further than “Assignment in Eternity”, whose winding “Starship Trooper”-style coda pays tribute to the genre’s archetypes in exhilarating fashion. And lest pop or melodic sensibilities be forgotten, “Architecture” features a jaunty acoustic backdrop that might feel at home on a classic Marshall Crenshaw or Allman Brothers record (think “Jessica”).
Then there are Link’s trapeze-style vocals. Granted, on paper, hearing Frida and Faltskog mash “Dancing Queen” with Yes’ “Yours Is No Disgrace” may hold questionable appeal for die-hard prog fans. But Link’s harmonies breathe incredible life into these songs. It’s difficult to choose a single favorite performance, but the title track’s chorus contains the most seductive call-and-response in, well, forever – like a flag rising and falling in heavy wind. The tune then swerves into haunting Genesis “Cinema Show” territory halfway through, leaving the listener stranded in infinity until Link rescues us with those impeccable vocals once more. For overpowering mettle, the final track, “God From the Machine”, nearly matches it. Also worth mentioning is the “Lunaria” movement closing out “Syzygy”, in which Link may as well be singing to the entire universe.
Inspiration is a funny thing. Often a group venture into the studio merely hoping to write a few good songs; conversely, sometimes it’s the songs themselves that demand to be recorded. Cosmologica almost certainly represents the latter. Considering Link and Nesmith’s previous output, one gets the impression these tracks had been percolating for a while, awaiting their turn to shine. The resulting confidence is impossible to miss. This is epic, expansive, room-filling music – get off my lawn alert! – made all the more satisfying compared with the juvenile wasteland of today’s pop.
Is Cosmologica perfect? Of course not. But woe betides a prog record without at least a couple of over-indulgences lurking among the reeds, the lack of which betrays a dearth of ambition. At 11-plus minutes, the intro to “Syzygy” is about two repetitive minutes too long; “Satellite’s” chorus may be the sole place Link overdoes the ABBA harmony routine. Other segments veer into over-syncopated Gentle Giant country, which may be a matter of taste. But hey, this is progressive rock! Wait a few moments, and everything changes.
Cosmologica is like nothing else we heard in 2021, perhaps longer. If post-1978 prog resembles a parched desert, Link and Nesmith represent our binary Moses: desperately awaited and here to lead us out of the wilderness.