It’s often said that two heads are better than one. In some instances four (or perhaps even five), along with special guests, is a better prospect still. Geoff Downes and Chris Braide formed Downes Braide Association in 2012 with fairly modest ambitions of a studio-only project. However, slowly but surely things became more serious and Celestial Songs, a new, appropriately titled album, is their fifth studio set.
The men have much in common. As sons of Cheshire, they share a fascination with the craft of creating three-minute pop hits, but also an appreciation of the broad church of rock music, resulting in what the pair term as “a delightfully accessible brand of progressive rock.”
No self-respecting reader of this magazine should require an introduction to keyboard wizard Downes, who started out a Buggle, joined Yes, co-founded Asia and is now 12 years into a second stint with Yes. The Ivor Novello award-winner, Grammy-nominated singer and multi-instrumentalist Braide has co-written, produced and collaborated with a wide array of artists that include Hans Zimmer and Thomas Dolby at one end of the spectrum, and Beyonce, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the other.
As the concept behind Downes Braide Organisation (DBA) solidified, the pair introduced extra players, with guitarist Dave Colquhoun, bassist Andy Hodge and drummer Ash Soan fleshing out the sound for their third album, 2017’s Skyscraper Souls. Its lockdown-created successor Halcyon Hymns, which saw former Iona guitarist and keyboardist Dave Bainbridge replace Colquhoun, was described by Prog as a “defining” release. Nearly three years later, Celestial Songs sees DBA take another enchanting leap forward.
“We’re going in the right direction,” says Downes, nodding in agreement as the pair fill the screen for a lively Zoom conversation. “This is probably our best album. We’ve matured as a writing team.”
“There was a lot of support for Halcyon Hymns, which almost made us think: ‘Okay, we’d better take this seriously now,’” Braide agrees, flashing a smile. “For the first time it almost feels like people have been waiting to see what we will do next. In a way that feels really fantastic, although it also brings an element of pressure.”
Since DBA’s last appearance in Prog, Braide has returned to his homeland of the UK from residing in Malibu, citing – among other reasons – the toxic political situation in the US, though he isn’t keen on being asked whether he is ‘settled.’ “That’s not a favourite word of mine but I suppose I’m as settled as I’m going to be,” he replies. “I’m a guy that never seems to stay too long in one place. There’s a song on the album called Keep On Moving. Being somewhere forever – no thanks.”
You might imagine that with both participants now residing in the same country their collaboration should become simpler, but you’d be wrong. “Having no time difference between us helps, but right from the beginning Chris and I worked remotely so even during lockdown it wasn’t really a big shift for us,” says Downes. “The way we do things seems to work well – I send Chris some little ideas, he works around them and that’s how we collaborate.”
In fact, Downes relates, during the making of Celestial Songs the pair rarely breathed the same air. “We were hardly in the same room at all, actually.”
“Like Geoff says, DBA has always been like that,” Braide elaborates. “We’re very connected and we know each other now. How many years is it, Geoff, 13 or 14? So it’s not like I need to stare into his eyes. We both know and like what the other can do, so we just get on with it. Making music together is like a holiday, honestly. There’s no need for explanation or discussion.”
With Bainbridge, Soan and Hodge all returning – Tim Weller played selected drum parts – DBA have evolved into far more than just a duo. “With the first album it’s how things started, based loosely on the way The Buggles did things, I think – just the two of us and a drum machine,” says Downes. “Bringing in real musicians is maybe what took things into more of a progressive direction. We realised the value of that and it’s something that we wanted to keep.”
Braide talks honestly: “I like our first two albums, but you can hear that we were still trying to find a direction. For me, Skyscraper Souls is where DBA really starts, with Roger Dean’s artwork and the real rhythm section.”
Once again, poet Barney Ashton-Bullock contributes narration, his wonderful, plummy delivery adding real character to the record. Braide reveals that he met BAB in random circumstances several years ago while making an album for another artist.
“Barney was working for the label and we got chatting,” he says. “I thought his email exchanges were so fascinating. I love words and grammar and Barney’s use of them was so fantastic I asked whether he was a writer and he replied, ‘Yeah, I’m a playwright.’ When I asked him to write some stuff for DBA it was wonderful. His spoken-word monologue about awakening at the end of the last album [Remembrance from Halcyon Hymns] blew me away.”
Though the words of Ashton-Bullock add an air of continuity, Celestial Songs isn’t a concept album in the truest sense. “There are messages in all of the songs and a chain runs throughout, but having said that, each song is independent,” Downes states. “We’re very conscious of the album’s dynamics, so a heavy guitar part from Dave Bainbridge will be balanced by a very intimate song featuring just piano and voice.”
To that end, considerable thought was invested in the final running order. “It’s really important for us to tell a story,” Braide explains. “We’re aware that especially in this age there’s a tendency for people to cherry-pick tracks or to create their own playlists, and I know it’s asking a lot but we much prefer for DBA’s music to be listened to from the opening track to the final notes.”
“Chris Squire was a huge exponent of that with the Yes albums,” Downes adds. “It related to tempos, keys, moods and every aspect. It’s very, very important that an album has a flow. Just like with classical music, there’s a thought process behind everything.”
Celestial Songs reaches a perfect climax with Beyond The Stars, a crescendo of real drama. “Thank you,” Braide says quietly, when Prog points this out. “It’s good to know that it worked.”
Having added his voice to a duet with Braide called Skin Deep on Skyscraper Souls, Marc Almond of Soft Cell returns on Celestial Songs. The singers met when Braide produced Almond’s 2015 album, The Velvet Trail. “Marc absolutely loves DBA,” says Braide. “He genuinely loves the music. He’s actually a closet rock fan; he’s into bands like Jethro Tull and Uriah Heep that you’d never imagine him being a fan of.”
The song that Almond appears on, Darker Side Of Fame, ruminates upon the fact that Downes and Braide have both met, worked with and in some cases outlived their heroes. “In recent years I lost many great musicians and friends,” Downes says with a sigh. “The collaboration I had with John Wetton was a very, very strong one. And now I’m grateful that Chris has come along because I was so close to John. We wrote hundreds of songs together.
“It’s great to work with Chris. I wouldn’t say he has taken over [from Wetton] but it’s brought me a whole new lease of professional life. But yeah, we’ve lost Greg Lake, Chris Squire and Keith Emerson – too many people that I’ve been involved with. I like to think that I’m carrying on their legacies as well.”
Former It Bites singer and guitarist Francis Dunnery adds a fantastic summery contribution to the album’s second single, Keep On Moving. “I got to know Francis through some mutual friends in LA when I was making a record,” Braide explains. “He played some licks that weren’t right for what we were doing, but I thought they were great. So Geoff and I wrote the song around that lick, and it really makes the song.”
Elsewhere on the album, their old friend Andy Partridge of XTC fame assisted with the lyrics to Goodbye To You (Sister Shame). “I love that connections take us into unexpected areas,” Downes enthuses. “That’s the joy of collaborating with people from all walks of life. It’s something that Chris and I will expand upon in the future. There are no rules, basically.”
DBA’s is an extremely melodic and colourful brand of prog. Some might even claim that despite the Roger Dean artwork and logo, it isn’t even progressive at all. “It’s down to individual taste,” Downes responds impassively. “I don’t believe in pigeonholes, only freedom of movement. Some bands believe that they make progressive music just because they have a great big Mellotron. I love Mellotrons – I was brought up on them, in fact – but that’s not where we’re coming from.
“DBA straddle that fine line between progressive music and a deep melodic content,” he continues. “However, we don’t just want some straight-ahead pop song and there must also be some musicality; we’re somewhere in the middle of progressive music and pop-rock. I’ve spent the last 30 or 40 years working within progressive music, but I’ve still got a mentality that came from Trevor [Horn] and The Buggles, and DBA draws me back towards that.”
“During the punk and new wave period there were hardliners that insisted The Jam, The Clash, Squeeze and XTC weren’t part of it all, but those bands were part of the spirit of punk, they were just slightly more melodic,” Braide says. “To me, DBA – and particularly the last three albums – do embody the spirit of progressive music. The records we make are like movies. They’re an experience.”
“Instrumental hooks can be as important as vocal ones, and in my other band, Yes, melody has always played its part,” Downes points out, citing one example. “The hooks in a song like And You And I are absolutely fantastic. You could sing along to Steve Howe’s guitar lines.”
“Melody is in our DNA,” sums up Braide, before realising that there’s a joke to be had: “Or if you like, in our DBA...”
To date, just three concerts have taken place, all at Trading Boundaries in Sussex in 2018 and 2020, the former captured on the live set Live In England. Downes, however, promises to fit in some new gigs around his commitments to Yes. “Until now we haven’t really had the opportunity, but next year we hope to travel around the country and take our music out there,” he vows. “Five albums in, we can put a really decent set together.”