The first impression that I got when “King of the Mountain” started was “this sounds like a slightly nuttier version of Peter Gabriel”. But that’s an oversimplification. Yes, it has the expected belabored programmed backgrounds and synth sounds, and her vocals still have that edge that sets her apart from your typical female pop-rock singer. It also has several traditional sounds that are very welcome in an album like this. For example, in the opening song, after the first chorus the listener runs into a rhythm guitar that, not only has a decidedly retro sound but is mixed much higher than guitars in contemporary pop usually are; I think that the relative level of the guitar in the mix is as responsible as the tone, if not more, for the “Sixties” vibe I get from it. The contrast between this guitar (mistakenly described as “reggae” throughout the Internet) and the 80s rock drum sound is interesting.
But sonic variety works also in a macro level. For example, “Pi” also has live drums but this time they sound like prog rock drums, which alongside the acoustic guitar, bass synth and pulse-wave shaped keyboards (a la “Won’t get fooled again”) should sound like a Seventies throwback… but it doesn’t. And throughout the album? We get Renaissance flavourings (“Bertie”, which is by the way Kate’s son and the reason why there was a large time gap before this album; the inspiration is worth the wait). We get piano ballads. We get guitar-based, New Wave-ish pop (with bouts of funny noises). We get electronica-influenced backdrops.
However this is not a simple exercise of style. Apart from all the art song trappings the album features genuinely moving melodies, sung expressively, and idiosyncratic but heartfelt lyrics. Who else would write a poignant piano ballad from the point of view of a housewife daydreaming while washing a load of clothes? (“Mrs. Bartolozzi”). Or a song like “Pi”, which seems to be about a mathematician (or maybe an autistic savant?), set to a rhythm that paints a vivid picture of the protagonist dancing, alone, oblivious to everyone, in his room with the decimal figures running through his brain? Or a song like “How to be Invisible” which you probably have to live inside Kate’s head to decode any metaphors and hidden meanings, if there are any, that is?
After the incredible stretch that spans from “Pi” to “How to be invisible”, “Joanni” seems to me a relative letdown, but “A Coral Room” is starkly beautiful, not as instantly memorable as the rest, but a grower and a suitable conclusion to the first CD.
Ah, I didn’t tell you this was a double album?
Well, what would you say if I told you the second CD consists of a single piece?
Actually “A Sky Of Honey” is a kind of a suite comprised of individual linked sections. Shades of “Thick as a brick” or “A Passion Play” here (actually, like the latter, the different sections have their own titles, and the first CD edition had them indexed separately; the reissue just has it as a single 40+ minutes track under the title “An Endless Sky Of Honey”).
From what I’ve read elsewhere, the suite just describes a day of leisure from beginning to end. Hardly the most epic of subjects, but domestic bliss seems to be one of the main themes of the whole album, and Kate tackles the subjects she wants to tackle, and who am I to object.
Sonically, this second CD is less varied than the other. Not only that, while the concept is interesting, the actual execution is, if any, more conservative than in the first CD, with several segments that sound like Eighties flashbacks. “An Architect’s Dream” in particular sounds like a textbook on how to sound like 80s Top 40 pop (you know – the synth pads, the DX7-type metallic lead synth lines, the programmed congas, the fretless bass, the so-low-you-cannot-hear-it acoustic guitar; the works). Most of the music passes by at an easy slow to mid tempo, but it kind of accelerates towards the end; the final sections range from “Somewhere in between” (a moderate pop piece with a very good and agile vocal melody in the chorus) to the lite funk of the (deceptively named) “Nocturn” and the unrelenting four-on-the floor of “Aerial”, complete with a bizarre laughter section and an unexpected epic guitar solo. Both of those are also sections which could have easily come from a 80s record, and in the case of “Nocturn” it might be not even a 80s Kate Bush record, but a 80s Fleetwood Mac record at that. Apart from those, the only section where it picks up the pace is the second half of “Sunset” which is arranged in a rumba flamenca style. Kudos for the effort, although with the preprogrammed handclaps and shouts it sounds more than a little inauthentic. That “Sunset” segment, however, might well be the best part of the entire cycle; at the beginning the backing is an unobtrusive but lilting jazz-lite, the vocal melody is memorable both in the undulating “sea of honey (…) sky of honey” phrase and in the pixie-like end of the verse, and if you’re willing to forget its plastic qualities, the ending rumba is a suitable finale.
To me, maybe the most memorable purely musical hook in the suite is the four-chord piano riff that forms the basis for “Prologue” – which despite the name is a full-length song. Not everything is; apart from the short instrumental “Prelude” there are a couple of short “links”; of those, “The Painter’s Link” is interesting with its guest spot for Rolf Harris’ vocals and the uplifting choir of Kates.
In summary, this is not a groundbreaking Kate Bush album, but it is more or less on the same level as her classic material. Which means it is highly recommended if you like your music non-trivial, artsy but not self-consciously “difficult”. If the middle of the road was as well-crafted as it is here, everybody would want to run through it.
On a personal note I have been haunted for days by the main keyboard riff of “Pi”, which, by virtue of whatever strange neural connections I have in my brain, insists on being merged with the coda of Dire Straits’ “Telegraph Road”. Weird thing, the human mind. Which is fine by me as far as it can produce works as good – and as needed in the comparatively barren landscape of the post-millenial musical world – as Kate Bush’s “Aerial”.