Far above the clouds: Pure Reason Revolution and Above Cirrus

Pure Reason Revolution
(Image credit: Press)

To borrow from Sly Stone, Pure Reason Revolution’s fifth LP wants to take you higher. Above Cirrus, in fact, cirrus being the kind of cloud that forms at considerable altitude. Made during lockdown after Covid rules nixed the band’s tour for their lauded 2020 comeback Eupnea, the follow-up album hungers for escape. Alive with sinewy riffs, Floydian tics and breathtaking passages of almost choral prog, it’s also a dark meditation on the fear and personal challenges wrought by the pandemic, and other radical changes in our world. 

“Making it was cathartic, certainly,” says singer-guitarist Jon Courtney. “A lot of the writing on Above Cirrus concerns relationships; how we can be loving, then rip into each other moments later. The first song I worked on was New Kind Of Evil, and at that point I really felt the virus was something more than just unfortunate. I had this strange, apocalyptic sense of ‘we’re all going to die’.”

Pure Reason Revolution cover art for Above Cirrus

(Image credit: Press)

This was back in April 2020, while Courtney was in Berlin, his adopted home of recent years. Back in Blighty, meanwhile, PRR singer and bassist Chloë Alper was also feeling antsy.

“The first thing I did was panic and flee,” she says. “I live in an apartment building with communal spaces and I felt claustrophobic.” 

While Alper hightailed it from London to an Airbnb property in rural Sussex, Courtney sought out his own bolthole. His then-infant daughter Jessie had previously been diagnosed with breathing problems (she’s fine now) and Berlin was not ideal for her in the time of Corona. 

“In Germany they have spaces called Schrebergärten, which basically translates
as allotments,” he explains. “During the pandemic they became almost impossible to get, but I managed to find one in Frankfurt an der Oder out near the Polish border.”

Together with his wife and daughter, Courtney rented a secluded cabin hut in the Brandenburg Woods, doing carpentry and growing veg. “Our world became very small,” he says. “There were huge emotional ups and downs and songwriting-wise I had real times of drought. But I didn’t try to force things, and when I got inspired I locked myself away in a studio I found in an old gramophone factory.” 

Further into lockdown, Courtney had been due to fly to Portland, Oregon to record with guitarist and keyboardist Greg Jong. However, his flights kept getting cancelled, so work on Above Cirrus began remotely across continents. Eventually, Courtney, Alper and Jong managed some sessions at Jong’s parents’ place in The New Forest, England.

“We were really pumped to be there together, and we made great headway on Cruel Deliverance and Scream Sideways,” says Courtney. The almost classical approach of the latter track’s intro, he explains, was partly inspired by the Australian composer Rob Dougan’s track Clubbed To Death, as featured in the sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix

“As for what Scream Sideways is about,” Courtney adds, “imagine you’re arguing, but in a controlled manner, and then in a parallel universe your head turns to the side and you scream your head off. It’s a comment on how much our emotions have been suppressed and pulled around these last two years.”  

An original member of PRR prior to the release of their revered 2006 debut album, The Dark Third, Greg Jong had long been absent from the band while writing music for TV and advertising in California. Happily, Above Cirrus finds the US transplant reinstated as an official PPR member for the first time since their 2005 EP, Cautionary Tales For The Brave.

“Greg and I had collaborated on a couple of songs on Eupnea,” says Courtney. “It was like a time machine back to the University Of Westminster, where we’d studied [Commercial Music] together and had these amazing sparks of creativity. Chloë I knew from back in Reading even before uni, and the band we were in there [The Sunset Sound] morphed into Pure Reason. Right from the start, we had
no rules. Our influences were Pink Floyd to Smashing Pumpkins, Yes to Air, Super Furry Animals to King Crimson.” 

Pure Reason Revolution

(Image credit: Press)

Back in East Berlin these days, Courtney is chatting to Prog via Zoom. When Alper checks in from London the following morning she’s apologetic about calling on a Saturday, but then she is “spinning a lot of plates”. As well as promoting Above Cirrus, she’s involved in the writing of the next album by indie band James and has long served as their live bassist. She still has a full-time day job working in tech, too.

Talk with Alper, and her ongoing love for Pure Reason Revolution is palpable. She says that when 2020’s Eupnea reached No.3 in the UK’s Rock & Metal Albums Chart, she shrieked and took a screenshot of the image. 

She’s similarly evangelistic about Above Cirrus. “I feel like, with these last two albums, we’re really excelling as writers,” she says. “When Jon and Greg first played me their demo for Dead Butterfly I couldn’t believe how stunning it was.”

Still, as per Alper’s video message on PRR’s Facebook page, posted the day before Prog’s interview, she is in fact “stepping back from live performance” with PRR for the rest of 2022. This is because the band’s upcoming dates clash with her live engagements with James. Her temporary replacement, headhunted by Jon Courtney and PRR’s management after much deliberation, is the Dutch singer, keyboardist and multimedia artist Annicke Shireen, best known for fronting Shireen and as a touring vocalist for Heilung.

“To be honest I feel dreadful about not doing the Pure Reason shows,” says Alper.
“It’s been quite emotionally challenging and charged. I wasn’t expecting the reaction we got,” she adds alluding to some negative posts from fans. “I thought people would be like, ‘Annicke Shireen! Great! Who is this Chloë person, anyway?’ I actually think people are going to be blown away by Annicke, the show, and the material.”

Alper goes on to explain that, in 2019, when Jon Courtney first mooted reforming PRR after the band’s eight-year hiatus, she hadn’t seen it coming but thought it a brilliant idea. “But I also explained that I was worried about how much time I could commit, and Jon very graciously said, ‘Just do what you can and we’ll make it work.’

“Since then, I’ve become more of an official member of James and that part of my life is evolving,” Alper adds. “But Pure Reason is more ‘my’ band, as it were, and recording-wise I can only see myself being more and more involved. With Above Cirrus we’re really on to something. The last thing I’d want to do is step down now.”

The new album is not a concept LP, but one thread that binds is the mysterious spoken-word segues enunciated by the LP’s session drummer Geoff Dugmore, who brings a Scots lilt to his best thespian act. There’s also some echoing, Dave Gilmour-like guitar on Cruel Deliverance. Prog wonders if Pink Floyd arestill an influence?

“Oh definitely,” says Courtney. “My consumption of music by new bands is really awful, and I’m not actively looking to be honest. New music creeps into my life via
my wife or friends, but I’ll happily go back to my old favourites.”

Warming to the Floydian theme, Prog suggests to Alper that, had a Gilmour-led Floyd made an album with his friend Kate Bush, it might have sounded a little bit like Above Cirrus

“I literally got tingles as you said that,” she says with a smile. “I’m a huge Kate Bush fan and to be honest I have to stop myself going too far because I’m kind of obsessed with her.” 

So Alper could do the full Stars In Their Eyes and announce, “Tonight, I’m going to be Kate”, then?

“Ooh, I don’t know!” she says with a laugh. “But growing up listening to her I learned that you could be creatively ‘out there’. She’s a great example of being your true self artistically. I don’t know that anybody else has come close.”  

Pure Reason Revolution standing on a hill with one of them holding up a stick

(Image credit: Press)

Another who has clearly found her métier is Jill Tegan Doherty, the artist behind the oil-on-canvas paintings I Am Real, I Am Not Real – as seen on the cover of Eupnea – and Deaf Mute, as used on Above Cirrus. Doherty first met Jon Courtney at a German class in Berlin. “As the only two Brits we soon got chatting,” he says. 

Later, after Courtney’s premature born daughter Jessie had undergone a deeply concerning lumber puncture, Courtney saw Doherty’s work online, and I Am Real, I Am Not Real’s depiction of a certain species of big cat immediately struck a cord. “The lovely nurse at the hospital had said, ‘Jessie’s doing great – she’s like a little lion,” he recalls. The polar bear in Deaf Mute, meanwhile, is struggling with environmental change as it swims in melted Arctic waters. “Again, the image really jumped out at me,” Courtney says. “It’s so detailed.” 

Most bands’ careers end up being chequered and complex, and that of Pure Reason Revolution is no exception. Originally signed to Sony in 2005, then unceremoniously dropped, they split in 2011 after the dance/electronic music path of their third album Hammer & Anvil brought swathes of their fanbase out in hives. What have they learned since reforming? 

“So much!” says Alper. “We got lost for a bit. We meandered away from prog and with hindsight I think it was a mistake. Above Cirrus really resonates for us and I think it will resonate with our fans, too. We’re no longer trying to be something that we’re not. 

“We were so young when we got signed to Sony. I remember ditching my anthropology degree and thinking, ‘Sayonara everything else – we’re going to be huge!’ So the subsequent voyage of discovery has been all of my adult life, really.” 

And what of touring without Chloë Alper? How does Jon Courtney see the next chapter of Pure Reason Revolution unfolding? 

“Well, we’ve put a great band together for the upcoming shows and we didn’t want to cancel yet another tour,” he says. “So that means we have to adapt. Annicke’s great and she’ll be singing and playing some bass-synth, and I’ll be playing live with Greg for the first time in 15 years. It’s a whole lot of new for all of us. 

“We’re not replacing Chloë,” he stresses. “That’s not what we’re doing. I think she’ll always want to be involved in our recording sessions, and that’s wonderful. But the live shows are just too much for her right now.”

No concerns about any repercussions, then? 

“You have to remember that bands survive this kind of stuff all the time. Pink Floyd did fine without Roger Waters, and when Brian Wilson stayed in the studio The Beach Boys were still out touring. Not that we’re in the same realm as those bands, but we can dream…” 

This article originally appeared in issue 130 of Prog Magazine.

Johnny Sharp

Johnny is a regular contributor to Prog and Classic Rock magazines, both online and in print. Johnny is a highly experienced and versatile music writer whose tastes range from prog and hard rock to R’n’B, funk, folk and blues. He has written about music professionally for 30 years, surviving the Britpop wars at the NME in the 90s (under the hard-to-shake teenage nickname Johnny Cigarettes) before branching out to newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent and magazines such as Uncut, Record Collector and, of course, Prog and Classic Rock