One thing you can guarantee with Bainbridge is that the sound will be rich, layered and succulent. He treats ears like Cordon Bleu chefs treat taste buds. Feast on the details.

Label: Open Sky
Time:  13 tracks, 72 minutes

Solo albums are often a reaction to an artist’s normal band fare and Bainbridge has seemed to travel that road.

When he was in Iona, with its vibrant band dynamic, his first solo release Veil of Gossamer in 2004 was a quieter, more esoteric and highly instrumental affair (with some explosive moments, admittedly). Far quieter were From Silence, his more ambient improv release from Lincoln Cathedral with Troy Donockley and particularly his work with Iona co-founder David Fitzgerald, such as Eye of the Eagle. The more recent Celestial Fire sounded like a release of his pent-up heavier prog that wasn’t allowed an outing in Iona. His piano album The Remembering was different to anything else he has done, letting free his jazz training from Leeds College of Music.

And this one? With all of that now behind him, he can be classic Dave Bainbridge, with all the elements that we have come to love blended together in a musically definitive statement.  There’s prog, ballads and acoustic blends of folk and Celtic, the latter being a noticeable feature across the album. So it has a far stronger consistency than any of his previous rock-based works.

Its working title was A Lincolnshire Sky and several track titles reflect that concept, either directly or by implication – not that his mind is ever far from skies, as his Open Sky label and several solo track titles testify. The instrumental “Rain and Sun” feels like a cross between Steve Hackett’s Genesis instrumental “After the Ordeal” and Mark Knopfler’s Celtic-flavoured Local Hero.

But the other theme that entered the project came when Covid affected his wedding plans and he found himself separated from his fiancée for months by the Atlantic. Hence the opening tracks “Girl and the Magical Sky,” and “Sea Gazer,” where he asks, “Is there someone there waiting for me?” More specifically, “To Gain the Ocean” talks about the woman who lies “3,000 miles across the ocean.” For me this track is the only let-down on the album, as the verse melody is disappointingly generic and the words struggle to scan naturally.

The obligatory epic track “Ghost Light” is only fourteen minutes long (irrelevant when you want to play it 4 times in a row!), although it picks up a four-note motif from the earlier “Clear Skies.” In a recent Musicians having Coffee and Talking about Stuff podcast with Neal Morse, he described “Ghost Light” as a theatre term, referring to a light left on between shows on the stage as a sign that they are coming back again. While that is not the original meaning, it has been used across the world that way in lockdown as a sign of hope.

This waiting theme comes out in lyrics that work on several levels. In the context of the album, you might expect it to be waiting for a lover, but the lyrics begin with the role and importance of the artist missed in lockdown, but it builds to be a prayerful and prophetic piece:  
“The Ghost Lights are shining, creation is waiting /all of us yearn the Maker’s return / The One we’re expecting / our lights reflecting with hope yet unseen / we stand in-between heaven and earth awaiting this birth / We cry out in anguish for darkness to vanish the twist in this story / returning in glory / shine through the night, Great Bringer of Light…”

With the lyrics, “All that we have, all that we see, all that we touch, all that we know, and all that we share, all that we own...” thoughts will inevitably turn to Floyd’s “Eclipse”, but the opening section sounds more like an improvisation around Yes’s “Soon” – a track that Bainbridge has played as an encore live.

Some tracks can be slight, but great. At only three minutes long, “Cathedral Thinkers” is almost an unfinished idea that rolls along in a delightfully proggy 7/8, waiting to be resolved, and it ends on a piano section that feels very much a bit like a separate idea stuck on. But the main tune is compelling as it basks in some Genesisy tones. Even shorter, “Night Falls” is another fragment that is worth including for full, warm sustained guitar, reminiscent of recent Steve Hackett when he edges towards Eastern sounds. While Bainbridge has a distinctive sound of his own, I’ve never heard him so Hackett-like as here, even when he plays a short, tinkly acoustic intro to “Something Astonishing,” a fine lead guitar melody that could almost work as a national anthem for someone.

In the Morse podcast mentioned earlier, Bainbridge revealed how influential Clannad were in his musical development. That explains a lot, such as the constant use of female vocals and why he regularly features Celtic sounds and instruments, even when there are no Irish players in his band. Here things change a little. Yes, Celtic moods permeate the album – the title track is a barely disguised reel rocked up, and the opener features similarly layered harmonies – but it’s not all female, with 10cc touring member Iain Hornal’s Nad Sylvan-like voice often harmonising or alternating with Sally Minnear’s pure vocals.

Of course Bainbridge often uses his old Iona bandmates Frank van Essen (drums and various strings, such as the core of “Infinitude”), Troy Donockley and Martin Nolan (both on pipes). Fellow Lifesigns member Jon Poole makes a strong impression here: solid for the basics, but underscoring the inevitable exultant moments.

What strikes me particularly – and it echoes my experience with other albums he has produced, such as Dave Brons’ excellent Not All Who Wander Are Lost – is that he gets an immaculate sound throughout. Just listen to the layers that are behind the main lines (and the layers behind them) to catch the ear he has for how to create the most sumptuous effect on the soul; there are delicate, almost inaudible vocals that build moods, little details inserted between the main lines, an impeccable taste for the right instrument doing the right thing in the right place. “Ghost Light” is a master-class in this.  

So while “Ghost Light” is probably the only track from this set that will stand among the giants in his repertoire, virtually all the rest is so consistently strong that it will be one of the first Bainbridge albums that fans choose to put on.

(There is an hour-long bonus album available. A parallel review on the blog below will cover that in early January.)

Derek Walker