Wow, this is a confusing one. Those of you who’ve been around Sentinel Daily from the very start will know that editor/boss man Scott Adams has been behind UK pomp rockers Cats in Space from the very start of their rise to cottage-industry mega-supremacy. And, truth be told, since I saw the band live in Cardiff supporting Europe and Deep Purple I haven’t been far behind. But now, presented with their third album, the undeniably ambitious Daytrip to Narnia, I’m starting to feel some doubts creep in…
Their first album, Too Many Gods, crept up on everyone, and those of us who feared we’d never hear classic British pomp rock performed by men under the age of seventy (IE the editor/boss man) wept tears of joy at the untrammelled brilliance of tracks like The Greatest Story Never Told. Their second album, Scarecrow, swept up the doubters like your ‘humble’ correspondent with it’s more bombastic, heavier sound – I still break out the album’s standout cut, Broken Wing, on a very regular basis when I need a bit of air guitar-based recreation – but now we come to DTN, and, I guess, the inevitable Concept album. Or at least half of one.
The sound of Daytrip… is broadly similar to Too Many Gods, though the guitars of Dean Howard and Greg Hart are far more polished and polite than they were on Scarecrow. The first half of this new record is full of world-weary, dare I say cynical, prognostications on the music industry, vocalist Paul Manzi relating the slightly depressing subject matter over a mish mash of stylistic mashups. Second track She Talks Too Much mixes UK rockers Queen and The Motors in pretty impressive fashion, whilst Tragic Alter Ego heads back to a staple Cats in Space device – the Beach Boys as played by American grunge popstrels Jellyfish.
Silver and Gold continues the slightly grumpy lyrical content, despite hitching it to a summery pop chassis – equal parts Pilot and Sad Café – but the mood is brought down again somewhat by contemplative ballad Chasing Diamonds. Manzi again gives an assured performance, with the sparse acoustic guitar/keyboard backing giving him full room to prove once again what an impressive vocalist he really is. And the set piece guitar solo, ending of course with a Mayesque run, is a delight. All things considered, this is the Cats at their grandiose, wonderful best.
Side one is rounded out with the cheery Unicorn; Pomptastic keys usher the song in, before a classic stop-start riff that’s sure to get long term Catfans all hot and bothered drives the song on. But, grumpy old bugger that I am, despite the rip-roaring late-seventies feel of the track the ‘ooh-la-la’ / ‘je ne sais quoi’ corus refrain just lets the song down for me. But that’s personal taste rather than a deficiency with the music – sorry!
Side two features seven tracks that make up the story of Johnny Rocket, in a sort of Bowie-meets-ELO-meets-The Who fantasia of seventies space age storytelling. Parts of it are pretty good, with disco-rocker Thunder in the Night standing out despite the criminal lack of Kiss-styled whiplash noises that the song is so clearly crying out for; the eponymous title track of this side of the album features some fine lead work and muscular riffage alongside some Britpoppy backing vocals, and therein lies the problem with such determinedly retroactive projects as Day Trip To Narnia, or at least it’s second half; So much time has elapsed since the period that the band is trying to recreate (if they really were extant in 1978 then this album would in effect be trying to recreate the glory days of British pop music circa 1937!), and so many bands have had a pop at doing the same kind of thing, that it’s very difficult for the band to produce anything truly original or not evocative of other, often far inferior bands. It’s ludicrous, for instance, that Cats in Space should be vying for space in my mind with names like Shed Seven and Cast, whilst listening to this album, but they do. And that’s a shame but unavoidable I guess…
However at the end of the day, it has to be said that I’ve been listening to this album for a couple of weeks only, and I’m hoping that the record will offer it’s mysteries up to me a little more over time; the exigencies of ‘the deadline’ mean you’re getting this review a couple of weeks earlier than I’d like, and as such I can only say that Cat devotees will probably lap it up whatever I say, but, at first contact at least, this might be a little too much for the uninitiated. Let’s hope history proves me wrong! (it will – Ed).
Daytrip To Narnia is released on March 1st.