It’s been eight long years since England’s Frost* have graced the progressive rock and metal world with their lush, often traditional, yet still boundary breaking brand of neo-prog. And perhaps we are better off for their hiatus, giving us time to crave, strive, and struggle through endless days and nights sifting through subpar music to get to the few gems (Jems? hurr) in the pile until our heroes returned for another trip ‘round the prog-i-sphere, making us appreciate their pending return that much more. Or maybe it was only that dramatic for a few of us.
While the boys have been busy fostering their respective careers with other projects, we’ve seen the uprising of bands like Leprous, Haken, and Ihsahn develop their craft and captivate the minds of nerds the world over. We’ve also seen the proliferation of djent bands continuously getting lumped in with “real” prog as many call it, as well as the instrumental “nu-prog” bands ala Intervals, Polyphia, etc. currently saturating the market, all falling under this convenient label of “progressive”. Whether they know it or not, Frost* helped to redefine prog with their penultimate 2006 debut Milliontown, a tour de force through Dream Theater’s most triumphant early moments with a few classic prog tendencies and some experimental ventures into electronic and pop territory, the latter of which can be traced back to Frost* brainchild Jem Godfrey’s pop producer origins. A mildly successful follow-up arrived two years later in Experiments in Mass Appeal, seeing Jem loosen the reigns in the vocal department, recruiting Declan Burke of Darwin’s Radio to contribute vocals and guitar. The result was a much less traditionally progressive effort, with more focus on simple arrangements and catchy songs rather than self-indulgent and sparkling stream of conscious journeys into the unknown. For those fans longing for the ornate and intricate stylings of Milliontown, never fear, because the band have seriously outdone themselves with Falling Satellites, their first effort in nearly eight years.
The album starts rather unconventionally in the form of “First Day”, with a single electronic bass drum thud matched with a deeply reverbed piano note and Jem saying “home”, descending into intricately layered vocals, rife with backward reverb and swirling effects, all acting as a blanket atop a barrage of gorgeously arranged ambient strings. It’s a dramatic and overwhelming invitation, or rather a gentle caution that this is going to be an emotionally taxing ride. Jem’s vocal prowess is immediately apparent, both in terms of production value and delivery. He’s never been the most skilled singer in terms of operatic ability, but his voice fits the music like a glove, and his creativity with arrangement, melody, and production is unparalleled save for prog stalwarts like Devin Townsend, Daniel Gildenlow, or Steven Wilson. He’s always fallen a bit under the radar which is a shame, but if anything is fair in the world, Falling Satellites will propel him to God status.
First full song and second track “Numbers” is a catchy and driving tune held together by a looping, synthetic plucking guitar melody, perfectly suitable for a drive around the beach on a clear sunny day, an aesthetic Frost* has seemed to master. The catalyst for brilliance here is the vocals, a common occurrence throughout the duration of Falling Satellites. 1:45 boasts some of Jem’s best vocal arrangements to date, showing off his production expertise with a fugue-like puzzle of breathy melodies as part of a chorus variation as he sings “Numbers need numbers feed numbers breed numbers”. Jem has stated that conceptually the album deals with chance and life, and is a celebration of the rare chance that we’re here on this earth, at this period of time, and that we should not take it for granted. This gives the vagueness of phrases like the aforementioned “Numbers” lyrics elasticity to be metaphorical enough to apply to anyone’s life, yet be shaped to fit the album’s general idea, much like Devin Townsend’s lyrical approach. It’s a refreshingly loose angle in the midst of so many heavily intentioned and focused progressive albums that conceptually only exist unto themselves.
“Towerblock” is easily the standout track on the album due to its level of experimentation and complete unconventionality within the scope of the sub-genre. The song contains potentially the first dubstep break in the world of progressive rock, which is so impressively done that it’s a wonder Jem hasn’t broken into the market himself to make a few bucks. In no way does it sound out of place, and only reinforces what may conceptually be symbolic of the demolition of a tower block that was his childhood home, glass shattering and all. The rest of the song is standard Frost* fare, however brilliant, until the end with pops, mutes, and explosions which also suggest direct translation to the subject matter.
Frost* is very much the brainchild of Godfrey, with long time collaboration from John Mitchell (guitar, vocals). The current inception also features Level 42 bassist Nathan King and Steven Wilson’s drummer Craig Blundell, though it’s not explicitly stated that the two contributed to the writing process. Assuming he sings the songs he writes, Mitchell’s main contribution to Falling Satellites is arguably the heaviest track, “Signs”. Though not a bad song by any means (the riff at 3:14 is a bulldozer), it doesn’t stand up quite as tall as the rest of the batch in the scheme of the album, and seems to be a bit of a departure as the filling sandwiched between the dubstep-laden “Towerblock” and the sparkling pop majesty of “Lights Out”, another risky venture for the band. The band recruited a female vocalist for portions of the song, though no information is available as of yet regarding the identity of this mystery woman. Whoever she is, her voice is gorgeous and airy, and perfectly suitable to the electro-pop ambience of ‘Lights Out’. It’s a truly lush affair, coral blue if it had a color, inciting craving for a separate album awash with the same vibe and dynamic between vocalists.
Out of the eleven tracks comprising Falling Satellites, the final six form a thirty-two minute long suite called “Sunlight”, though this is not explicitly stated in the track listing. “Heartstrings” is the first single and also the oldest song on the album, dating back to 2013 with its inclusion on the live DVD The Rockfield Files. The song also marks the first co-write from the ground up between Godfrey and Mitchell, assumed to have only brought whole songs or parts to piece together for previous albums. The two swap lines in the chorus, Mitchell characteristically singing right at the edge of his range break into falsetto, with Jem bringing the deep layers of breathy vocals that seem so effortless for him. The dichotomy is intoxicating, illuminating the harmony of their working relationship since the beginning.
“Closer to the Sun” brings the focus back around to the ambient pop vibes of ‘Lights Out’, so soothing in its aura that time becomes lost, making it difficult to believe the counter when it stops at 7:21. Of course it wouldn’t be a Frost* tune without a departure into prog land mid-way through via a ripping and tasteful synth solo from Jem, but the songwriting is so masterful that it requires close analysis to even process the intent. The end breaks down into what sounds like heavily reverbed and harmonized bells reminiscent of some of the more subtle dynamics of trance music, before crescendoing up to an out-of-nowhere blues riff to kick off “The Raging Against The Dying Of The Light Blues In ⅞”. Part of the Frost* charm is managing to hammer out a full color spectrum of musical emotion in one song without seeming over the top, leaving plenty of breathing room along the way, and “Raging” is a perfect example of this. The harmonized bell theme from ‘Closer to the Sun’ also recurs, giving agency to the idea of “Sunlight” as a suite.
“Nice Day For It…” is easily the most Milliontown-esque song of them all, feeling truly like a stream of conscious musical journey with its many melodic twists and turns, synth leads, and overall inspirational and elevated vibe. There are no verses or choruses, but there are sporadic layers of vocals to carry the music, complete with a refrain from the beginning of the album in the lines of “First Day”. The album could have easily ended here, but like any good show, the encore comes in the form of two tracks: “Hypoventilate” is a searing two minute cosmic voyage drenched in heavily reverbed vocal swells and bombastic synths. The title suggests correlation with Milliontown’s ‘Hyperventilate’, meaning the opposite in its definition of “respiratory depression”. Hopefully the band will shed some light on this matter soon. Another ambient crescendo comes to an abrupt halt, followed by silence, before Jem’s completely dry piano and voice serenade us home in “Last Day”. The contrast in tone and production is almost deafening, leaving the listener with the same desolate feeling after finishing a captivating series on Netflix. Who am I? How did I get here? What do I do now? Best solution: just start the damn thing over.
At some point, a band’s hiatus crosses a threshold where one begs the question if it’s even possible to pick up where they left off, or even deliver an album that’s worth the wait. Certainly Necrophagist and Tool fans are bearing the brunt of whatever circumstances are keeping their heroes at bay. Thankfully Frost* has managed to dodge this perennial bullet in Falling Satellites, redefining the sub-genre once again in the risks they take. The fearless level of experimentation with dubstep and various forms of electronic music and pop manage to edge this album over the potential album of the year mark to instant classic status, and the transitions between genres are so seamless it becomes apparent that Frost* truly is one of a kind despite the more traditional similarities to their contemporaries and predecessors. Progressive pop is theirs, and Falling Satellites is the benchmark.