As much as I adore progressive rock, I have to admit that too many modern incarnations emulate a specific period—the first half of the 70s—a bit too closely. Sure, their work is always intricate, appealing, and colorful, but they usually rely too heavily on tricks made famous by heavyweights like Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson. Few acts in the genre take notable pages from other eras and styles, and even fewer do it as well as Perfect Beings. Its eponymous debut is a wonderfully diverse, joyous, and complex journey that managers to meld vintage traits with contemporary vibrancy and superb, unique songwriting. It’s a really great album.
Formed less than two years ago by guitarist Johannes Luley and vocalist/pianist Ryan Hurtgen, Perfect Beings set out to “create an album that honored the style and live musicality in traditional prog rock mediums” with this initial collection. In addition, the album is based on the novel TJ & Tosc by Suhail Rafidi, as its “themes of transformation, self-identity, technology, and love in a post-apocalyptic world” seemed an ideal match for their musical vision. Even without knowing how it was made or what it’s about, Perfect Beings satisfies immensely as a work of significant variety, innovation, humility, passion, and density.
“The Canyon Hill” is a wonderfully fanciful, inspiring, and original way to start. Hurtgen sings with the quirky cadences of Ray Davies, and the instrumentation is a hypnotic and robust journey from a subtle, carnival-esque arrangement to an enticing buildup that carries the same blithe spirit and dazzling timbres as the music of Syd Arthur. Fortunately, “Helicopter” launches that sequence into a proper rocker with lovely transitions and catchy, heartfelt melodies. There’s an essential British essence about the combination that makes it quite endearing too.
Trickier rhythms and an emphasis on structural changes make “Bees and Wasps” stand out like the sublime offspring of Super Furry Animals and The Great Depression, while “Walkabout” ventures into a surprisingly different direction, with psychedelic tones and a pensive, spacey atmosphere offering a philosophical vibe. Hurtgen layers his vocals exquisitely, adding a bit more emotion to the playing field. “Program Kid” begins on a similarly quiet and reflective note but soon piles on the prog rock virtuosity and madness, with horns, frantic percussion, and equally spastic guitar work showcasing just how eccentric and ambitious they can be.
The disc ends with arguably its most daring piece, “One of Your Kind.” A mournful yet smooth and classy introduction eventually dissolves into an acoustic guitar sculpture akin to something Steve Howe, Steve Hackett, or Alan and Neal Morse would craft. From there, the psychedelic vibe comes back with a faint ominous vengeance, as well as slight touches of Canterbury greats like Caravan and Camel. Naturally, they echo the opening of the album for a bit near the end, which, while obviously a trademark of the genre, is still very cool. All in all, it’s probably the most multifaceted track here, revealing every side of Perfect Beings in one magnificent package.
Honestly, I could go on and on about Perfect Beings, praising every moment of every song for being so damn confident, enticing, adventurous, and hearty. It really is a record that exposes more and more brilliant nuances with each listen, and although the music has clear hints of past inspirations, Perfect Beings, unlike so many of their contemporaries, manage to avoid blatant emulation by decorating, rather than suffocating, their formula with them. It’s a wise and tricky balance that allows the LP to feel charmingly familiar yet also extremely valuable and original. Perfect Beings is easily one of the most impressive debuts I’ve ever heard, and it’s guaranteed to appear on many ‘Best of 2014’ lists later this year. I can’t wait to hear what the band does next.