When in 1981 Soft Cell were doing their new wave thing and Geoff Downes had formed Asia with Yes bandmate Steve Howe, the two seemed musically poles apart. Who would have imagined that, one day, Marc Almond would be the catalyst for this fine prog album, made by Downes with Almond’s collaborator Chris Braide? As Braide – a super-talented musician and writer – was left high and dry by the pandemic, Almond suggested that he hook up with Downes again to make an album together to lift the malaise. And, with its rich evocation of times past, attention to detail and infectious melodies, Halcyon Hymns certainly travels some way to do that.
Another by-product of the extended lockdown, with Downes in Wales and Braide in Los Angeles, Braide began to work on Downes’ previously sketched out ideas. Made throughout summer 2020, Halcyon Hymns demonstrates just how far remote recording has come. Supported by Dave Bainbridge on guitar, Andy Hodge on bass and Ash Soan on drums, it seems impossible to consider that, with such
a unity of thought and feeling, all these parts were recorded separately and at distance.
With its Roger Dean cover, and the plummy-voiced narration of Barney Ashton-Bullock (sample line: ‘Elusive gods and dead heroes jostle in a chirpathon’), Halcyon Hymns feels like a great lost double LP from 1974, in the best way possible. Ashton-Bullock summed up the album as “a fusion of pop, prog and poetry”, and it’s just that. Love Among The Ruins pulls off the feat of feeling simultaneously summery and Christmassy. The breakdown on King Of The Sunset, all mandolins and percussion giving way to power chords, is one of the many delights to be found here, as is the incredible 12-string work on Holding The Heavens, which evokes Genesis at their acoustic best. Braide’s voice is sugar sweet throughout and Downes uses his virtuosity sparingly. When Marc Almond appears on Warm Summer Sun, it’s a bit like bumping into a friend you didn’t expect to see at a party.
With its stately, haunting melodies, and beautiful phrasing, the whole thing is all brought together by the 12-minute Remembrance with Ashton-Bullock going hell for leather with memories of summer’s past: ‘One loved-up summer long ago is the passion of our remembrance.’
For what is fundamentally a side project for two performers with their fingers in so many pies, it’s amazing to realise that Halcyon Hymns is the fourth Downes Braide Association studio release. An early contender for album of the year, it would be fabulous to hear it played live when the time comes.