AMN Reviews: Thinking Plague – Hoping Against Hope (2017; Cuneiform Records)

Thinking Plague is the quintessential progressive rock band. This means that they do not sound similar to just about any other outfit that falls under that loose moniker. With each release, they move even further from their initial sound, which had a flavor not unlike that of the Art Bears. Here, on their eighth album in 35 years, group leader and guitarist Mike Johnson is joined by longtime collaborators Mark Harris on sax and clarinets, and Dave Willey on bass and accordion. Rounding out the group on this go-around are vocalist Elaine di Falco, drummer Robin Chestnut, and guitarist Bill Pohl.

Regardless of lineup, what makes Thinking Plague tick is Johnson’s compositions. Writing for the first time for two guitarists, he juxtaposed his own angular style with occasional rock pyrotechnics from Pohl. But overall, the tracks on Hoping Against Hope are dense, knotty, contrapuntal offerings. Not exactly chamber rock, they borrow from jazz but fall outside of that genre. Johnson’s lines are tight and intertwined, as he exhibits control over each member without making their recitations appear rote. They pull apart and come together with ease, and even feature a few fleeting free-form moments.

Notably, the phrasings are so odd as times that the contributions of the individual instruments in isolation can sound outright alien. This is particularly the case with di Falco’s vocals, swooping and diving through registers. Nonetheless, this is not necessarily any different from how Johnson wrote for his other vocalists.

It would be hard to point to any one particular track of the six on this album as necessarily standing out amongst the rest. Compositionally, Hoping Against Hope holds together as a unit. There is so much intellectually-challenging content to unpack, that I could probably come back in a few years and write a totally different review. Not only is this a superb album, it may very well be the best album from a group that has made a number of superb albums. Bravo.

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