Having parted ways with vocalist Alan Reed and replaced him with Paul Mackie, Pallas were finally ready to complete the long-awaited sequel to their 1984 opus The Sentinel. Dave Ling dives back down to Atlantis for the full story...
Despite being – along with IQ, Twelfth Night and Marillion – an important part of the early 1980s wave of UK neoprog, for a variety of reasons (not least the fact that the band spent much of the late-80s and 90s laying dormant) Pallas never matched those outfits in terms of profile or sales.
And yet, in addition to being labelmates with Fish and company at EMI Records, Pallas have a good three years of existence on Marillion, having adopted their current name in 1976 when a pair of disgruntled schoolboy musicians – bassist Graeme Murray and drummer Derek Forman – realised that Ritchie Blackmore had just taken Rainbow, the moniker they'd been using, for his own.
Thanks to a surge of media interest generated by 1981’s in-concert five-tracker, Arrive Alive, Pallas signed to EMI offshoot Harvest in August 1983, engaging Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer studio cohort Eddy Offord to oversee their full-length debut The Sentinel at his studio in Atlanta, Georgia. However, right from the off EMI failed to understand what Pallas were about, insisting the record’s concept – ColdWar themes expressed via the metaphor of the myth of Atlantis – be diluted by inclusion of more commercial songs.
Pallas never really recovered from their masterwork’s castration. By the time of their next album, 1986’s The Wedge, Alan Reed had replaced original singer Euan Lowson, and a split with EMI wasn’t far off on the horizon. Still fronted by Reed, Pallas resurfaced on a sporadic basis, releasing Beat The Drum in 1998, The Cross And The Crucible three years later and 2005’s The Dreams Of Men.
Given the group’s us-against-the-world mentality, few foresaw that the band would use issues such as geography and a lack of commitment as reasons to dismiss Alan Reed in January 2010. (Although Reed is a fellow Scot, he lives just outside London, in Surrey. Employed as a news journalist by the BBC, the singer is also involved in various musical interests, including Parzival’s Eye, a solo project from Chris Postl of RPWL, and Arena/Shadowland/Caamora keyboardist Clive Nolan’s spin-off endeavour She).
The split came just after Reed had informed that the band were about to begin a follow-up to The Sentinel. Even a year later, from Reed’s perspective at least, the wound remains painful, though Pallas wasted little time in picking themselves up and installing a replacement.
Like the rest of Pallas – completed by guitarist Niall Mathewson, keyboard player Ronnie Brown and drummer Colin Fraser – newcomer Paul Mackie is an Aberdonian. As it turns out, he had to be. “Working with a singer who lives nearby has made Pallas feel like a complete band again, like we’re all working for the same cause,” Murray enthuses. “Geography had a lot to do with what happened to the relationship between the four of us and Alan.”
Pallas have spent two years working on XXV: 12 months of writing – after which they decided to dispense with Reed’s services – followed by an equal amount of time in laying down its 11 tracks. “There had been a bit of a falling out at a gig at the Peel in Kingston in December [of 2009], but the final straw came when we asked Alan to come up [to Aberdeen] for some pre-production work, and he couldn’t commit,” explains Murray.
“The next thing we knew he was going off to South America with Clive Nolan. The previous time we’d asked him, he was away with Parzival’s Eye. We were fired up to get moving with our own album but Alan seemed too busy with other people’s projects. Nobody had a problem with Alan doing other things, but we all felt that Pallas should come first.”
Still extremely unhappy at the manner of his dismissal, Reed claims not to have seen the axe about to fall. Is he fooling himself? After a brief, uncomfortable silence, Murray responds: “Yes. Even before [the problems with his unavailability] there were major issues that I’m not going to go into here. But not being around to start work on the album was what forced our hand.”
Luckily, Pallas already knew of Paul Mackie, who had been fronting their drummer Colin Fraser’s side-project Blues Deluxe. Before the position was advertised, Mackie – who worked on the Grand Theft Auto video games, writing and performing the songs of the fictional heavy rock group Love Fist – was invited to audition, passing with flying colours.
“Paul has an incredibly versatile voice and after hearing what he could do to Pallas songs old and new, asking him to join was a complete no-brainer,” Murray smiles.
Mackie was certainly no stranger to Pallas’ music, having previously been rendered “speechless” by a performance the Reed fronted band gave whilst opening for UFO at the Capitol in Aberdeen in November 1985.
“That was a ‘Eureka’ moment for me,” nods Paul, remembering the introduction to his future bandmates’ work.
“And for us, too, getting to see how much alcohol human beings could consume without dying was also pretty mind blowing,” interjects a laughing Murray, referring to the show’s headline act.
In more ways than one Mackie was thrown in at the deep end, firstly by being asked to play live dates so soon after his appointment, but more crucially in attempting to fill two large pairs of shoes: those of Reed, and also his predecessor Lowson.
“The songs are so challenging I thought, ‘Hang on, is this gonna work?’” admits Paul. “At the first couple of gigs I almost found myself trying to impersonate Alan, which isn’t right because he has such a unique style. My voice is more compatible with the songs sung by Euan [Lowson], but as my confidence has built I’ve learned how to become me.”
Indeed, the only major setback so far came when he was criticised by Prog for removing his shirt during a gig at the Peel, an ostentatious act that saw Mackie dubbed “Iggy Prog” by his band-mates. “Paul also sells good insurance,” winks Graeme.
The new Pallas album was created for a tiny fraction of the cost of The Sentinel, although, as our review on page 100 points out, it’s already a frontrunner in the ‘Best of 2011’ stakes.
“Thank God we didn’t see the bill for The Sentinel,” exclaims Murray with an audible wince. “Technology has now moved on so far that you can make an album of the same quality in your bedroom, and we’re lucky enough to have access to first class facilities at our fingertips.”
Although perhaps slightly darker and undoubtedly heavier than its 27 year old forebear, the disc recaptures the original album’s brooding, epic sense of foreboding.
“We wanted to strip things down, with as few overdubs as possible, and try to recapture the energy of that first album,” states Murray. “Having played some of the songs from the new one onstage with Paul, that led to XXV being a lot heavier than the last few albums.”
Not being a straightforward follow-up, Pallas wisely resisted the temptation to use the title of The Sentinel II, opting instead for the Roman numerals XXV, due to the number's significance throughout the album’s labrynthine take.
Back in Prog issue two, while still a member of Pallas, Alan Reed had told Prog: “We’re looking at the world the way the Sentinel would see it”. Murray now happily adds meat to the bone.
“It isn’t set 25 years into the future but 25,000 years – and all the same problems exist,” the bassist clarifies. “According to the legend of Atlantis, the earth was seeded by the Atlanteans. The Sentinel has come back to the planet and he doesn’t like what he sees. The whole thing has been a social experiment. He knows he should have come back before, so he decides to shut it down.”
As an exercise in storytelling, XXV is a Herculean effort. Introduced by a spoken word intro from Prog editor Jerry Ewing in the role of a deejay, its opening song Falling Down (The Fall and Rise Of The Dim Dictators) introduces the record’s underlying theme of a civilisation that prioritizes technology and “domes of crystal spires” above basic human decency.
“That’s it in a nutshell,” agrees Murray. “We’re being given a chance to put it right. Will we or won’t we?” The number 25 is significant to the tale. The Atlantean planet is run by a council of 25 wise men who want to do the same thing here, though as Murray points out: “As usual, we can’t agree on the colour of shite.”
The subject of injustice is never too far away, Crash And Burn lambasting politicians who look down on us with smug distain from Airforce 1 (“Five miles high in a sanctuary sky / The shakers and movers conduct their manoeuvres”), while the line “Smack a child and hope that it will learn” dares to propose that a reluctance to discipline our kids is perhaps why they’re becoming such spoiled little shits.
“Political correctness is taking over the world,” agrees Murray. “Animals hit their offspring; because attempting to reason with them doesn’t work. When I was a lad, if you deserved a smack, that’s exactly what you got. It’s a provocative statement but I genuinely believe that’s right.”
The album’s most immediate track, Monster, is a bit of a rock beast. Indeed, acknowledging the album's overall heaviness, a press release pays lip service to Rush and Dream Theater, though it’s a fact that Pallas actually pre-date the latter by some margin. A case of the wheel turning full circle, maybe? You decide. “We definitely hope the album will appeal to rock fans, not just proggers,” says Graeme.
As the album nears its end, humanity prepares to make final stand in Sacrifice, though the planet’s fate still seems undecided in the brooding Violet Sky and The Unmakers Awake. Commendably, Pallas allow the listeners’ imaginations to decide the story’s ulitmate outcome – possibly even leaving the door ajar for a third volume of The Sentinel’s story, perhaps?
“In another 25 years, maybe,” responds Murray wearily, all too aware of the work that went into the second one. As a court solicitor by day, the bassist has more than a passing interest in both truth and justice. Did his chosen profession perhaps rub off on some of the questions posed by the record?
“Maybe it did,” he considers. “I get to see a lot of corruption. There are some people who are pure evil, but the system definitely fails quite a few others.”
Pallas were unable to persuade Patrick Woodroffe, the designer responsible for The Sentinel’s iconic artwork, back on board for the sequel. In his place, Adam ‘Soulty’ Sacco delivered an eyecatching digital 3D artwork of the Sentinel flying over a world in mid-destruction.
“There was a vague discussion with Patrick, but it didn’t work out,” confides Graeme. “However, what we came up with instead looks absolutely unreal.” The sleeve deserves a double-gatefold vinyl edition to gawp at. The band would have to receive clearance from their new record company for such an undertaking, says Murray, but don’t rule it out.
With The Cross And The Crucible having been released though InsideOut, Pallas are still getting to know Music Theories Recordings, a relatively new prog subsidiary of Dutch company Mascot Records that they share with Spock’s Beard and Enochian Theory. Indeed, when Reed granted the aforementioned news interview to Prog, Inside Out was still Pallas’ home.
“What happened was that Inside Out got sold to SPV Records, who then went down the tubes,” says Murray. “Thomas [Waber, Inside Out executive] rescued the label’s existing catalogue, but we got a really good offer from our friend Michael Schmitz, who had been a partner at Inside Out.”
The band have already performed The Sentinel and XXV albums back-toback onstage, at The Night Of The Prog festival in Loreley, Germany. Their game-plan, with the backing of the new record label, is to continue doing so throughout 2011, the group’s 35th anniversary year.
“The two albums blend together extremely well,” reveals Paul Mackie. “We haven’t quite worked out how the shows will be structured, but the combination creates quite a buzz from the fans – the real Pallas fans; the ones that sleep with the album sleeves under their pillows.”
“After all this time, it would be nice for a bit of success to come our way,” concludes Murray, of Pallas’ role of perennial prog bridesmaids. “As a band we’ve never felt more energised. I don’t mean this is as a slight [against Reed], but since Paul has been in the band, we’ve already spent more time in his company than we ever did with Alan in 26 years. He would parachute in, do some singing, and fly out again. Paul is locked right in with us, and it makes such a difference.”
XXV is available now via Music Theories.