I like a good album cover. It catches the eye and sparks the interest. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, many an album was purchased because of what I saw rather than what I heard. Time moves on, and in the digital age, the album cover doesn’t always get the viewing that maybe they deserve. I ramble on here because the cover of Upstairs To Optimism, the fifth album from UK progressive rockers Twisted Illusion, leapt out at me when this package arrived for review. Interest piqued? Then check it out.
Twisted Illusion – Upstairs To Optimism
Release Date: 28 April 2023
Words: Paul Hutchings
I had heard Twisted Illusion’s name several times since their formation in 2013, but I’ll freely admit that their music was limited to the odd track that popped up in a prog rock playlist. So, ignorant of their previous critically acclaimed body of work, I dived into a band that has won Track of the Week with Classic Rock and who has amassed a large fanbase across the globe. The current line-up features Matt Jones – Guitars/Vocals; Saxon Davids – Guitars/Vocals; Chris Jones – Bass/Vocals; Andy Gotteri – Keys, and Alex Lacey – Drums.
Giving his view on Upstairs to Optimism, founder member Matt Jones says, “Upstairs is essentially Twisted Illusion’s lockdown album. The songs were born out of a need to reach out and address the subjects affecting us all at a time of global isolation. The songs are as bold as they are intimate and reflect a real collaborative atmosphere musically between me and Saxon.”
Ah, another lockdown album, I hear you sigh. Well, I suspect we aren’t over that bridge yet, but don’t let that put you off, for Upstairs To Optimism is full of quality musicianship. The first shock might be the heady vocals of Jones and Davids, for they are high, albeit Jon Anderson rather than Geddy Lee, and the comparison is impossible to ignore.
Opening track Analyse And Incentivise lets those vocals hit you quickly whilst the song builds rapidly, the gentle start with delicate guitar movements and laid-back rhythm easing into some luscious Rush riffs circa 1982 playing underneath. Tell me you don’t hear parts of Moving Pictures and Signals in this song. And that, my friends, is always a good thing. It’s a brave move, opening with a nine-minute plus song, but Twisted Illusion don’t care, their blend of melodies combined with a hard rock edge working in harmony. The result is spectacular.
Things get a bit weird next with the up-tempo Gone Tomorrow (Crash Bandicoot’s Lament). Now I’m old enough to know the name, but the PlayStation character isn’t one that I’d expected to see on this album. The song is full of references to the Crash, and although it’ll mean a lot to some gamers, I’m focused on the rousing anthemic nature, the soaring guitars, and the tight interplay of the band. It all adds up to another song that sits nicely here.
I’m not overly keen on the more saccharine-coated We Tried To Make It, swerving closer to the Yes edge (sorry!) than perhaps is comfortable, with the high-pitched harmonies a little grating. It’s saved by some beautiful guitar work. More uplifting light is cast on Identity, which once more showcases the tightness of this band and sees them gelling big time.
We move onto the second half of this intriguing album with Spotlight (Not Limelight), which features a great chugging riff that cements the entire song. It’s one of the pacier numbers, and you can’t help but nod along. Another Rush flavour seeps through, and I’d have been happy with the Canadian legends having this in their catalogue. The intricate, technical quality is fabulous, with each musician committing to their part, enhanced by a spotless production which makes it a stellar listen. Energetic, integrally structured, Twisted Illusion bring everything to this song. It’s a shining example on an album full of quality, replicated on the next song, Stay Your Course.
Penultimate track Tired sees the band in Crosby, Stills and Nash territory. A folk-fused number, once more, the harmonies aren’t really my thing, but the composition is cleverly woven to provide a gentle, delicate track. That leads to Totality, the concluding track, which opens with a ripping guitar solo that segues into a pulsing groove which soars before dropping into a comfortable beat. The vocals are slightly jarring at points, but overall, it’s another song that fits into the collection.
As I said, Twisted Illusion wasn’t a band I had experienced in any great depth before. They are certainly on my radar now, and Upstairs To Optimism is certainly that. Encouraging, shining with light, it’s an album to lighten the darkest day.