Failure Epics is the progressive rock debut from Canadian singer-songwriter Jon Epworth. Citing Yes and King Crimson as influences, Epworth creates tunes that are heavy on the de rigueur prog dynamics—plenty of warm guitar flourishes, a nice shiny finish and a few sumptuous, multidimensional jams. Failure Epics is a primarily solo undertaking, which Epworth composed, performed and produced, with some additional help on the horns and backing vocals from Don Murray and Chris Fudge, respectively.
Not only is Failure Epics an ambitious venture in musical terms, Epworth also goes all out on the narrative front; why not, it’s prog after all. The album is built around an overarching and notably grim account of the “maculate conception” of a new species. “sons of asbestos and daughters of pvc/ children of alloy/ the product of disease,“—an allegory that Epworth uses to tackle the plight of animals, the oppression of women and destruction of the environment, three issues he sees as being manifestly interlinked.
There’s an awful lot to try to connect in terms of lyrical and musical vision, and Epworth does a commendable job of matching the sonic attributes to the storyboard. You can’t mistake the influence of Porcupine Tree’s early years in the momentum and structure of many tracks. That same pristine rendering of European-inspired melodic prog runs throughout. With passages that shift from minimal to maximal in a heartbeat, and the layering on of distinctive jazzy touches, the pulse of sophisticated neo-prog also looms large.
Opener “Clear Eyes” tumbles forth on a darkened undercurrent—awash in shimmery guitars, with touches of horns pushing beautifully through the haze. “Soothsayer” brings the Frippian tendencies to the fore, with a set of interweaving riffs that work up to a rolling crescendo flecked with atonality (and damn fine saxophone soloing to boot). The following track, “A Reflection”, is just that: a moody piano threnody that drifts into flourishing classical territories.
Each of those first three tracks approaches progressive rock from a different angle—the pensive, the eccentric, and the minimalist—but they are just a warm-up for the rousing delights of “We Are Men”. An 11-minute epic set around some fantastic interplay between bass, keys, guitar and percussion, this track is the album’s genuine highlight. The line “Bang our heads against the sound of this chaotic disorder” conveys exactly what’s in store. Epworth’s soulful vocals set a melancholic mood. His phrasing perfectly matches the oscillating nature of the tune, and playing around with odd timings he’s not remotely afraid to attack the sweeter harmonies with some splintering dissonance. It’s brilliant—a progged-out romp that illustrates the flawless coalescence of Epworth’s vision and tenor.
“Riverbend pt. 1” and “Riverbend pt. 2” finish things up (at least digitally; there’s an extra track on the vinyl). The former is a folksy strum that seems like an anomaly following on from such a storming track, but it’s poignant and infused with plenty of moody emotionality. “Riverbend pt. 2” terminates proceedings with some cacophonous metal, as flurries of math-rock riffs swarm over Floyd-like and psych-worthy atmospherics. It brings to mind the avant-jazz assault of Norway’s Shining.
There are traces of familiar classic and contemporary prog bands to be found throughout the album, and Epworth’s assertion that he’s a “Yes-obsessed misanthrope” is in no doubt. But that’s not to say his own voice is unoriginal. While Failure Epics is by no means Epworth’s first album, it represents his first foray into the world of prog, and there’s something genuinely admirable about an artist willing to put himself to the test on debut. He’s taken a bold step in tackling a genre so replete with concept suites, but he’s managed to balance his extravagant visualizations and his determination as a multi-instrumentalist with a prudent sense of restraint.
Failure Epics is 36 minutes of astute prog, all wrapped in a glistening chrysalis of intrepid ideas and aspirations. It’s a grower—the more you listen, the more you discover, and that seals its credentials as a grand prog debut.
Failure Epics @ Bandcamp