Album Title: The Hay-Man Dreams
Label: Cosmograf Music
Date Of Release: 14 July 2017
When I reviewed ‘The Unreasonable Silence’, the fifth album from Robin Armstrong under the Cosmograf moniker, it was my first real exposure of this project. I really enjoyed that record and still listen to it on a relatively regular basis. And so I just had to get involved again when, just a year later, I heard noises from Armstrong on social media regarding a follow-up. And here we are, with my considered thoughts on album number six, entitled ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’.
Ostensibly a one-man project, one of the strengths of Cosmograf is that Robin is always open to allowing others into the fold. Perhaps it has something to do with an acceptance of his limitations where certain instruments are concerned. Or perhaps, just as likely, it is because Robin is an intelligent chap and he understands the fact that his compositions can benefit from the inclusion of others.
This time around, the cast of guest musicians is different but no less mouth-watering, featuring Kyle Fenton on drums, Big Big Train violinist Rachel Hall, former BBC voiceover artist David Allan as the narrator, The Fierce And The Dead guitarist Matt Stevens and the returning vocalist Rachael Hawnt. Robin himself handles all the songwriting and production duties as well as being the primary vocalist, guitarist, keyboardist and bassist.
Thematically, I’d venture to say that ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’ is darker and more poignant, at least on a human level than previous releases, as far as I am concerned at any rate. The concept resonates with me greatly as this record tells the story of the untimely death of a farm labourer and the loving family that is left behind. At the centre of the tale is the scarecrow or ‘hay man’, as depicted on the beautifully moody album cover artwork.
And over time, I have well and truly fallen for the veritable charms of ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’. What I love most about it, is its richness and vibrancy. This is a lush album sonically, with real depth and an atmosphere that envelops the listener from beginning to end. A lot of this has to do with the production of the record but there’s more to it than that I feel.
For one, I like the fact that ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’ is a slightly more guitar-driven record than others in the catalogue. As someone who prefers their music on the heavier end of the spectrum for much of the time, an increase in oomph with the guitars will always be welcome. Importantly though, Robin has not sacrificed the subtlety of his music as a result; indeed, ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’ remains as varied, nuanced and cinematic as you’d hope and expect from a seasoned progressive rock artist.
Take the opening track for instance. ‘Tethered And Bound’ features some gorgeously strong riffs made all the sweeter by the chosen tones, forcing a raising of an eyebrow in appreciation. However, the song offers much more besides, opening up with some theatrical narration from David Allan atop a dark and foreboding synth-led soundscape and later delving into more minimalist territory where we’re treated to some classic prog keyboard effects. Naturally, given the album’s subject matter, the lyrics are not a ray of sunshine and they are delivered very honestly and with passion by Robin himself.
Acoustic guitars feature prominently alongside the piano and synths as well as some hushed vocals to create an intro to ‘Trouble In The Forest’ that is ethereal in tone and bathed in rich atmosphere. Robin’s vocals are really captivating when they eventually arrive at around the three-minute mark, echoing the sense of sadness that the track conveys so well with its evocative melodies. The bass work is prominent and offers a sombre flamboyance, whilst the guitar solo courtesy of the highly talented Matt Stevens in the latter stages is a thing of beauty, like an eruption of raw feeling as if from nowhere.
‘The Motorway’ offers a change of pace somewhat and is welcome because of it. Again it is introduced by acoustic guitars but they are quicker and more urgent in tone, not dissimilar in some ways to the likes of latter-day Anathema. As the intro gives way to the heart of the song, there’s an overt and instantly demonstrable 70s prog rock vibe to what is ultimately a slightly brighter and breezier number. Robin’s voice impressively reaches new heights and there’s a cheekiness to some of the melodies and numerous embellishments. This isn’t to say that there’s not a dark underbelly to the song, because there certainly is, and as the song reaches the half-way mark, I am surprised by the classic rock vibe that is introduced as well. It is unexpected, but it fits the song really well, as does the energetic and expressive extended guitar solo that sees the song to its conclusion.
Without doubt, my favourite track on ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’ has to be ‘Cut The Corn’. If the previous three tracks were dark and sombre, this song takes things to a new level. Slow-paced and led by a simple but effective piano melody, there is a melancholy fragility to the song, enhanced by Robin’s vocals that come across as very heartfelt, vaguely reminiscent of Marillion’s Steve Hogarth at times. The song builds gently in intensity as more layers of synths and a simple beat are introduced. The acoustic guitar solo that then enters the fray is stunning, heartbreaking, poignant and melodious in equal part.
‘Melancholy Death of a Gamekeeper’ does little to lift the mood, but its neo-prog overtones are beautifully lush and inviting, helping to soften the sober edges just a little. Rachael Hawnt then takes centre stage as the six-track album draws to a close via the 12-minute epic title track. It begins quietly with plenty of acoustic guitars and Hawnt’s delicate vocals before taking a pronounced cinematic turn thanks to more narration and atmospheric sound effects that are both sombre and quite thought-provoking in tone. Rachel Hall’s distinctive violin playing lends a folk edge but not before the song has flirted with some of the heaviest material I have heard from Robin. Churning riffs swirl around us as well as some excellent lead guitar shredding and I’m thoroughly engaged and edified by the marked change of pace and intensity. At the flip of a switch though, the folk-esque violin melody acts as a stark juxtaposition and alongside the sounds of nature within the closing pastoral soundscape, it is undeniably reminiscent of Hall’s main employer Big Big Train and the perfect way to end this record.
I truly hope that my preceding waffle has sufficiently captured how much I like this record. If not, I have failed miserably because I have genuinely taken ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’ to my heart. It is, for me, right up there with the very best that the progressive rock world has to offer right now. Confident, assured, intelligent and beautiful; that’s Cosmograf and that’s ‘The Hay-Man Dreams’.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:
Orden Ogan – Gunmen
Iced Earth – Incorruptible
Anathema – The Optimist
Solstafir – Berdreyminn
Dream Evil – Six
Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos
Ayreon – The Source
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day