Scale is a factor in art that is customarily given less credit than it’s due. We can praise music for the flawlessness of its structure and its arrangements, or for the depth of feeling that it evokes, but the magnitude of the undertaking can also play a role in the creation of a memorable experience – I find that, all else being equal, a listener is more wholly consumed by a work that’s huge and all-encompassing than one that’s brief and succinct. Progressive rock has of course embraced “bigger is better” and “less is NOT more” as guiding tenets since its inception, for better and for worse, and they’re tenets that are alive and well in Germany’s Flaming Row, whose “Mirage: A Portrayal of Figures,” an extravagant 80-minute musical excursion through myriad styles of popular music with metal as its anchorage point, is itself only the first part in a planned trilogy of sci-fi concept albums. Whatever other virtues they possess, the first thing that jumps out at the listener is zest of ringleaders Martin Schnella and Kiri Geile for the sheer act of creation on as large a canvas as they can muster. It’s an album one can lose oneself in, mapping its innumerable twists and turns over the course of dozens of listens.
The narrative that serves as the basis for “Mirage,” apparently adapted from a story previously written by Geile, is as grandiose in concept as the music used to give life to it. A dystopian alien invasion story with elements of conspiracy stories and captivity narratives, it seems to draw on various cult TV shows and films – there are hints of “Blake’s 7,” “V” and “Terminator,” combined with elements of the story of a lone good man oppressed on all sides as he journeys through a post-apocalyptic wasteland related in Shadow Gallery’s “Tyranny” and “Room V,” some of Flaming Row’s most obvious musical inspirations. From what I could parse, “Mirage” takes place in the distant future following the near-total extinction of humanity at the hands of aliens known collectively as The Minders, taken as a pre-emptive action in response to the potential threat humanity pose against the rest of the universe. The story follows a soldier named John, part of a ragtag group of human survivors who have sworn to outlast The Minders. Past that point, I confess, I was completely lost – the story is conveyed in the lyrics through the voices of dozens of characters identified only by name, with no means of determining their various interrelationships, a situation not helped by the somewhat garbled English. It’s a shame too, because the snippets that I could make sense of made it seem like a barnburner of pulp genre fiction – it made me want to get my hands on Kiri Geile’s original story if nothing else. As it’s communicated in the lyrics here however, the plot of “Mirage” is indecipherable in anything but the broadest strokes – the sense of a sweeping, twisty adventure story is left wholly up to the music to convey.
To that end, Flaming Row have marshalled a small battalion of guest musicians from the prog rock and metal circuit, a roster too extensive to name here comprehensively, though it includes various current and former members of Shadow Gallery, Pain of Salvation and Neal Morse (as well as Arjen Lucassen, who I can only imagine was grinning at the role reversal). The chameleonic diversity of the result does justice to the contribution of dozens of musicians, the rock opera weaving through a multitude of styles with the flourish and pomp of a Broadway musical.
Bookending the record are its two longest and most adventurous tracks, “Mirage: A Portrayal of Figures Part I” and “In Appearance: A Portrayal of Figures Part II.” The former of these takes a leaf out of Ayreon’s playbook, setting the scene with a melancholic overture of acoustic guitar, piano and Uilleann pipes, before transitioning into prog metal in the mould of Dream Theater, all funny time signatures and extended melodic phrasing. From there it negotiates its way through a section of playful, upbeat saxophone-driven jazz, explosive crescendos of layered vocals, guitar solos and despondent, reflective synth interludes, over the course of its 16 minute running time. “In Appearance,” serving as the album’s finale, is even more extensive at just shy of 19 minutes, reprising many of the earlier track’s stylistic and emotional beats. Making up almost half of the album’s running time together, these two of tracks are an exhibition of prog metal at its most buoyant and invigorating, moving dynamically through a range of emotional registers, expertly conveying the sweep and scope hinted at by the lyrics.
The intervening songs are less expansive, but more focused in their expression of core ideas. “Burning Sky” is centred around a huge, thrilling chorus hook with an oscillating, call-and-response trade-off of vocal lines between Maggy Luyten and Michael Lowin. The monolithic choruses are linked together by driving double kick drums and swooping scale runs – the effect is a song that alternately soars and plunges in intensely dramatic fashion. “Aim L45” begins with bucolic arrangements of acoustic guitar and woodwind instruments, and from there steadily adds layers of instrumentation until it arrives at an exultant climax. The clear highlight, however, is “Pictures,” which functions as a nostalgic love theme for the character of John and his dead wife Esther (this much I was able to deduce from the liner notes). The song peaks midway through with a duet between Martin Schnella and Melanie Mau that successfully conveys the memory of Esther as being a source of strength and resolve for John, being at once heartwarming and heartbreaking.
“Mirage” is one of those albums that validates the ethos of progressive metal, offering up an enormous, variant tapestry of textures, genres and emotions and having it occur as immersive and intriguing rather than self-indulgent. It’s never less than involving, and at its best, it’s even moving – best of all, at the conclusion of its 80 minutes, it feels like a journey has concluded, affording the listener closure and catharsis even as it sets up the second installment in what I presume will be the “Mirage” trilogy. Speaking for myself, I think it can’t come fast enough.
01) Mirage: A Portrayal of Figures Part I
02) Aim L45
03) Burning Sky
04) Journey to the Afterlife
06) Memento Mori
08) In Appearance: A Portrayal of Figures Part II