Many of those disappointed by the demise of Adelaide’s Unitopia in 2014 found fairly speedy consolation when Matt Williams, Tim Irrgang and David Hopgood regrouped as United Progressive Fraternity.
And now Unitopia’s keyboardist/multi-musician and main songwriter Sean Timms makes a return of his own, masterminding a wonderful five-piece line-up with the potential to cross several boundaries.
Southern Empire is a progressive rock act, there’s no doubt about it. But they also display a strong command of melodic songcraft – think Transatlantic wishing they were an AOR band. There’s richness to their sound and the material is imbued with a wonderfully even flow. Unlike so many prog show-offs, guilty of over-playing at every turn, Southern Empire subscribe to the theory of ‘less can also be more’.
The material has a wonderfully even flow.
This self-titled, Timms-produced set is imaginatively conceived from the moment that a needle drops noisily down to a slab of imaginary vinyl to usher in its opening track Show Me The Way, to the final contemplative yet uplifting sparsity of Dreams & Machines, an almost lullaby-flavoured ode that’s despatched with voice, acoustic guitar, gentle bass and keyboards alone. With such an obvious focus placed upon hummability, lead singer Danny Lopresto is the glue that holds everything together. His voice lends itself to covering Led Zeppelin and Queen on Adelaide’s tribute band circuit, and he’s quite a find, blessed with range and emotion to spare.
The prog aspect of Southern Empire comes with the songs built upon Timms’ colourful keys, Cam Blokland – a guitarist who can shift from jazz rock to balls-to-the-wall shredding on a dime – and a rhythm section that can only be described as watertight. Oh, and why not throw in violin, flute, congas and saxophone accompaniment for full effect?
Half of the record’s six songs clock in at more than more than 10 minutes, but its centrepiece is The Bridge That Binds, a nine-suite epic that’s almost half an hour long. Timms dedicates the latter to former Unitopia bandmate Mark Trueack, “the man who set me on the path to epic prog-dom two decades ago”, and with whom he worked upon its concept before that group’s collapse.
Southern Empire hope to be embraced by fans of Dream Theater, Transatlantic, Steven Wilson, Karnivool and IQ (to whose GEP label they are signed), though such comparisons overlook the ghosts of 1980s-era Yes and even ELO.
A companion DVD reveals the band miming along cheerfully in the studio to four of the album’s best tracks, including The Bridge That Binds. This is one Empire that’s surely on the rise.