For those more familiar with the vagaries of a riff and a complex time signature rather than the micro-organisms of marine zoology, a Tardigrade is a tiny water-dwelling creature also known as water bear, notable for being the most resilient animal on earth. A farther-travelled cockroach if you will. Used here as a metaphor of resistance and endurance in the face of Earth’s collapse, not to mention a warning, Nick Beggs’ exploration and examination of end-times provides a timely and oft-avoided call-to-arms. Building on the genre-stretching accomplishments of last year’s debut Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, Tardigrades… casts its musical net wider and knits it all together into a more cohesive proposition. Less a traditional concept album, at least in terms of musical and lyrical narrative, rather, it’s a tight clutch of songs, thematically linked, that fit together jigsaw-like into a somewhat dark and ominous whole.
Opening with the dystopian death march of Saltatio Mortis (trans. Dance Of Death or Danse Macabre), all brooding strings, sweeping minor-key guitar lines – think a downbeat War Of The Worlds – it’s clear we’re being set up for an emotionally rough ride. This however is instantly dismissed with the introduction of Beggs’ light and airy register, leavening the gritty industrial sheen of Animal Army with an almost wistful quality. It’s unsettling at first, the vocals seemingly mis-matched to the subtle heft and riff-informed proceedings occurring underneath, but it soon becomes apparent it’s the band’s secret weapon; an extra instrument, another layer of melody and tone. There’s a wide range of stylings across the record, eminently befitting Beggs’ rich and varied pedigree, and an easy familiarity in the dynamics between fellow compatriots Roger King (keyboards/producer) and guitarist Marco Minnemann. There’s a sprinkling of the restrained bombast of Lazuli on We Can’t Carry On, nods to the industrial pop-sensibilities of early NIN and Gary Numan elsewhere (the title track), all shot through with occasional atonal Vai-esque cascades and stubborn Zappa-isms. A stand-alone instrumental (Lament), marrying Beggs’ Chapman Stick flourishes – channelling the master Tony Levin – to an ethereal orchestra nicely breaks the set, though arguably it’s when the material veers nearer to pop balladry (Early Warning, Stranger Than Fiction) that it’s at its most moving and successful. Sure, there are occasional missteps: a smattering of distorted spoken vocals fall short of the drawer marked gravitas, and there’s possibly one shred too many depending on taste. Viewed as a whole however, taking a few steps back for perspective, this is superior stuff.