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It Bites - Map Of The Past and Tall Ships review

It Bites’ triumphant second act finally gets its time in the spotlight with the reissue of two 21st century prog classics

Map of The Past cover (hero image)
(Image: © It Bites)

The return of It Bites in 2006 was greeted with widespread joy and only a tiny bit of affectionate concern. The latter was caused entirely by the absence of original frontman and co-founder Francis Dunnery. The maverick Dunnery had splashed his avowedly singular personality all over the three much-loved albums that the Brits had released during their first hurrah in the 80s. It would be reductive to say that It Bites had ever been a one-man band, and both drummer Bob Dalton and keyboardist John Beck were present and correct in the reborn line-up. But such was Dunnery’s lyrical wit and musical ingenuity that an It Bites without him wasn’t something that anyone had seriously considered.

As it turns out, the recruitment of John Mitchell as their new frontman was Beck
and Dalton’s shrewdest move. Now wholly familiar to readers of this magazine as one of modern prog’s most prolific contributors, not least with his current project Lonely Robot, Mitchell’s work with the likes of Arena, Kino and his own group The Urbane ensured that he had the necessary prog credentials to prevent delicate diehards from completely freaking out.

More importantly, he had been a huge fan of It Bites since adolescence, and was more than happy to cite the band’s original trio of albums as a colossal influence on his own music. Throw in the fact that Mitchell was (and is) a skilled studio engineer and experienced producer in his own right, and It Bites had clearly found the right man for the job.

Fifteen years on, It Bites have never officially split up but seem to be on an indefinite hiatus. As a result, these lavish, remastered reissues of the band’s two 21st century studio albums represent the entirety of the Mitchell era, albeit given the now expected sonic upgrade and, made widely available on vinyl again.

Originally released in the autumn of 2008, The Tall Ships was an It Bites album from tip to toe; from the flurry of harmonised vocals that kicked off opener Oh My God to the adventurous sprawl of centrepiece The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Mitchell’s self-proclaimed adoration of the band he had just joined had simply enabled them to write more of the sparkling and ingenious material that had made the likes of Once Around The World such unassailable touchstones for 80s prog.

It certainly helped that the new frontman’s voice sounded similar enough to his predecessor’s to slot neatly and immediately into It Bites’ unique sound world, but the best of the new songs were plainly the equal of their esteemed forebears. Notably, Mitchell’s melancholy rasp and somewhat gentler lyrical tone brought new warmth to the band’s sound, something he would explore to the fullest on The Tall Ships’ eventual follow-up. With his new bandmates’ immaculate arrangements sparkling around him, he reached a first peak of bruised poetry on closing epic This Is England. Although not quite up there with Once Around The World’s expansive title track, it was a rather audacious statement that yes, It Bites could do the really mad, proggy stuff without Dunnery, too.

Having reassured and delighted the vast majority of It Bites fans old and new with The Tall Ships, It Bites returned in 2012 with a stone-cold masterpiece. Map Of The Past was the moment when John Mitchell’s personality convincingly drowned out the lingering influence of his predecessor. A beautifully poignant exploration of the frontman’s own ancestry, both real and imagined, it featured some of the most absurdly memorable songs the band had ever released. 

Wallflower, Flag and Cartoon Graveyard were high-energy prog anthems, fizzing with the same, bright-eyed brio that had powered Calling All The Heroes three decades earlier; Meadow And The Stream was a joyous eruption of slickness, complexity and melodic cunning; The Big Machine and the title track were soaring, Billy-big-bollocks prog with deliciously crestfallen undercurrents; the quirky Send No Flowers was as gently acerbic and loaded with meaning as a raised eyebrow. It all sounded immaculate, too, with plenty of the high-quality sonic values that typified the band’s 80s output, but with a depth and power that, arguably for the first time, accurately reflected the muscular majesty of an It Bites live show.

Until recently, the prospect of any more It Bites live shows seemed slender at best. In May 2019, Dalton announced on Facebook that the band “won’t be touring or gigging again”; and yet, in late 2020, Mitchell revealed online that the band were “doing an It Bites album (communication permitting). We may be some time.” Let’s hope that they don’t take too long, because the world needs more albums as life-affirming and substantial as these.

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Hammer and Prog for 14 intermittently enjoyable years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He listens to more music than you. And then writes about it.