If ever a band needed to pursue the traditional route to musical inspiration and ‘escape to the country to get their heads together’, they’d be well advised to check out The Mill Recording Studio, a few miles west of Aberdeen.
With no neighbours but cows and sheep to complain about the volume, little noise nearby other than the gentle trickle of a stream, and the snow-capped Cairngorm Mountains on the horizon, it’s quite some bolthole.
It’s owned and run by Pallas guitarist Niall Mathewson, and when it’s not being hired out by local musicians, it serves as the neo‑prog survivors’ unofficial HQ. Better still, when Prog visits, it’s just in time for elevenses, and they’re treating guests to cups of tea and a plate of rowies, an artery-busting Abderdonian delicacy resembling a flattened, deep-fried croissant.
Despite having the lean, elegantly emaciated physique seemingly only ever found in men over 40 when they’re rock frontmen, Paul Mackie tucks in to several of these as he sits down to introduce himself. He is, of course, still the new boy of the band, having joined in 2010 to replace long-time singer Alan Reed in time to finish off the following year’s XXV album. Just don’t call him Iggy Prog, right?
“I know, I know,” he nods wearily when I note his resemblance to the evergreen punk icon. “I’ve had it for years.”
It may be something to do with his weather-beaten features, which reflect his penchant for spending days and nights camping in the mountains, pursuing his love of landscape and wildlife photography.
In contrast, bassist Graeme Murray is every inch the urbane elder statesman of rock, his jet-black hair and aviator shades belying his day job as a court solicitor. Meanwhile, Niall Mathewson’s bearded, avuncular figure and specs on a string can’t help but remind you of Steve Coogan’s fictional music industry veteran Tommy Saxondale.
Absent today are keyboard player Ronnie Brown and drummer Colin Fraser, but you get the impression that the introduction of the new frontman has made Pallas a considerably happier camp, cracking jokes back and forth as they listen back to the mastered recordings of new album Wearewhoweare, a set whose title reflects a defiant refusal to compromise, even if their near 40-year career has sometimes suffered from refusing to be quite what their audience expects.
“We often feel we’re too proggy for rock fans and too rocky for prog fans,” explains Murray. “The last album [XXV] was a concept album because it was following up [1984 album] The Sentinel. This time, stuff we might have vetoed in the past for not being proggy enough or not rocky enough… whatever happens, if we like it, it’s going in. And that’s why we’ve called the album Wearewhoweare.
The new record undoubtedly benefits from that more relaxed approach – on initial listens, it sounds like the most melodically potent and sonically dramatic record they’ve made to date. From the thunderous rhythmic assault underpinning opener Shadow Of The Sun to the despondent melancholia shot through New Life, this is an unapologetically direct record that gets its hooks in you, without standing on ceremony.
“I think we’ve always written material where we can say they’re songs with prog bits in them. There are a lot of prog bands where you listen to one song and you think, ‘That’s absolutely stunning,’ but by the time you get through all of them you’re exhausted, because it’s so up itself. And we tried to strike a balance with that lately. We’ve always had verses and choruses.”
“And melody,” adds Mathewson. “We’ve been criticised for that in the past: ‘That’s a tune! Stop that!’ But you can disappear up your own backside with fancy time signatures – writing simple, effective songs is the hardest thing.”
Although Wearewhoweare may not be driven by any single overarching concept other than the laissez faire philosophy of its title, the lyrical themes that emerge from these songs are powerful ones. One of the more instantly impactful comes on Wake Up Call, in which Mackie asks listeners to ‘Think about the man who wears a sleeping bag tonight.’ ‘We’re all in this together, that’s how their story goes,’ it continues. ‘Now shut your face and crawl back in your hole.’
The lyrics stem from a tough few years that the song’s author Graeme Murray witnessed in his role as a court solicitor, often defending the destitute via the legal aid system. “I was coming from a very bitter and angry place,” he says of those lines. “A lot of those people are just cut loose and it’s quite upsetting.”
Mackie’s lyrical input is sometimes similarly biting, in his case attacking the narrow-mindedness of modern life: “The way we think and the way we talk… self-obsessed. Find your balance and rule your greed.
“A lot of it is me just having a damn good vent,” he explains. “The contrast between what you see on telly and how I see people living – I feel it’s unhealthy, certainly for me. I love to get outdoors, walking with the dog or with friends. I love a community of people, hanging out in the hills, getting a fire going, sitting under the moonlight – it’s the best feeling in the world.”
It’s just as well that Mackie is firmly in love with his environment up here because in 2010, Pallas parted company with a singer due to ‘geographical differences’. Alan Reed’s relocation to London and reluctance to travel to rehearsals was a major factor in the split, so it’s no surprise that despite recently moving to Perth, an hour’s drive away, fellow Aberdonian Mackie seems to have helped the unit feel even more tightly knit.
Of course, when you’ve been through some of the problems this band have had over the past 40 years, it does breed a sense of ‘all for one and one for all’. After having the uphill struggle in their early days of forming just as the punk scene exploded, they then found themselves as leading hopes on the early-80s neo-prog scene. Highly theatrical shows starring their costume-inclined singer Euan Lowson earned them regular supports with the likes of Marillion, while they also cultivated a sizeable following nearer to home.
Their dues-paying eventually led to a deal with EMI, and a spell living in London’s Kensington, before jetting off to Atlanta to record second album The Sentinel with erstwhile Yes and ELP producer Eddy Offord (see boxout). Although they scored a Top 40 hit with the resulting album, neither they nor the record company were completely happy with the results, which went unmixed after Offord left the project to tour with The Police. The band also grew tired of not being regarded as a priority for their label, especially compared to fellow neo-proggers and frequent bill-sharers Marillion.
“I had a meeting with the promotions guy at EMI to ask why Marillion were getting the lion’s share of the press coverage. He said to me: ‘Look, Graeme, you’ve got to understand, Marillion are a pop band. You’re heavy metal.’ And I thought, ‘Oh dear, we’re in trouble.’ And I’m sure Fish and his chums wouldn’t have been particularly happy to hear that either.”
They eventually parted company with EMI on a promise that they’d be picked up by rival major label Polygram. However, their erstwhile A&R manager at EMI, who they’d told to stick his contract, was then hired as MD of Polygram and duly blocked their deal with the label.
They gradually lost heart and spent the best part of a decade and a half on hiatus, until Mathewson’s acquisition of The Mill studio in the mid-90s gave the band a base to rekindle their career with 1999’s Beat The Drum album.
The internet has given them the chance to not only produce their subsequent albums more economically, but also to reconnect with a loyal fanbase – a fanbase perfectly receptive when the band replaced Alan Reed with Paul Mackie on the microphone in early 2010.
“There’s a really supportive community in neo-prog,” says Mackie. “I felt welcomed in. There’s a core bunch of people very active in keeping everyone’s names alive, purely out of love for the music.”
Pallas have never found it hard to come to terms with their difficult past, whether it be by making 2011’s XXV, a conceptual sequel to The Sentinel, or by seeking out original singer Euan Lowson to get up on stage with them occasionally, which led a memorable rendition of a crowd favourite from the 1970s.
“It was a track called The Ripper, which we’d never do without Euan,” Murray recalls. “It was quite funny actually, because by the time EMI forced him out of the band, it was pretty acrimonious. So here we are on stage in Holland and Euan turns up on stage in a white forensics suit, with a huge carving knife, and I looked over at Neil and I was like, ‘Ulp!’
“But it was great – he had a big condom full of stage blood in his pants, and he was pretending to dismember himself on stage. A woman almost fainted at the front!”
That one can be seen in all its grisly glory on YouTube. Meanwhile, with their 40th anniversary approaching in 2016, that long history will surely be further celebrated. But if they’re comfortable doing that, it’s because of a forward-looking outlook to their new material. “We’ve always tried to move with the times,” says Murray. “And we’ve always tried to be progressive in that no two albums are the same.”
And that’s one reason why, after four turbulent decades, Pallas remain, resolutely, unquestionably ‘whoweare’.
Wearewhoweare is out now. For more information, see http://www.pallasofficial.com.