At the end of 2012, UK melodic prog rockers The Room released their debut album ‘Open Fire’. Its mix of pompy melodic rock with proggy flourishes really struck a chord with some listeners and in the live setting, the band really excelled. Their level of professionalism was hardly surprising given the seasoned musicians involved (vocalist Martin Wilson and guitarist Steve Anderson had previous links with Grey Lady Down), but it was also good to hear a bigger focus on chorus based material, even if the band sometimes insisted on keeping a strong hold onto epic track lengths.
Three years in the making and with many gigs under their collective belt, The Room returned with their second studio album, ‘Beyond The Gates of Bedlam’ in the twilight of 2015. Extant fans of the band’s prior works seemed pleased that, on the surface, the album appeared to be a logical extension of ‘Open Fire‘, essentially offering listeners more of the same. Scratching below the surface, however, it isn’t always as consistent an album as that debut. There are some superb tracks here, of course, but there are a couple of relative missteps too – whether these represent left over material polished up for inclusion or merely just not as well thought through remains to be seen.
Things begin excellently, though, with ‘Carrie’. Released as a standalone track some months previously, this solid rocker really captures the more AOR/melodic side of The Room – a side they often seem keen to promote over any prog tendencies – with Anderson’s ringing guitar and Andy Rowe’s pumping bass dominating throughout. Given the musicians’ pasts, it always carries a bigger love of pomp than purest (or even purist) AOR – more John Wetton/UK than Journey – but in terms of what it does, it’s bordering on faultless. Granted, Wilson still has that love it/hate it vocal style, but his performance is strong; the key change between verse and chorus is made of fist-pumping goodness and the band are clearly confident they can pull off the four minute chorus song. Confident enough to shoehorn in a widdly keyboard solo where a more melodic guitar break would have been the far safer choice, but in all, this is a great track.
With a keyboard drone, ‘Full Circle’ opens ominously with dark sounds and Wilson’s voice left to stand almost alone. A sweeping key change brings in a slow beat, never losing sight of the theatrical mood, and by the second verse, the mean and moody style really grabs the listener. Anderson boosts everything with a muted riff and the chorus allows Wilson to tap into a truly emotive performance. Interspersing the melodic with the bombastic, an instrumental interlude makes a bigger feature of some omnipresent chugging guitar chords alongside angrily stabbed keys, while Anderson fills a couple of minutes with a huge and soaring solo. A great tune; just as ‘Carrie’ showcased The Room’s songwriting chops, ‘Full Circle’ shows off their more adventurous side, with only Wilson’s voice remaining the common link between the two numbers. After such a strong opening couplet, expectations are very much raised for the rest of ‘Beyond The Gates of Bedlam’, but sadly, ‘Jack’ – an angry tune about a mentally ill person – is best destined for the skip button. Musically, it has enough charm: the keyboards are occasionally menacing, Anderson indulges in plenty of chugging downstrokes – in fact, the way the whole piece centres around a rhythmic backdrop that resembles a pulsing sound works excellently. The bugbear with this number is the lyrical content… It seems needlessly repetitive with almost every line beginning with the refrain “My friend Jack” and by the time we hear for the umpteenth time that he’s either a “psycho”, “schizo” or “hypo”, it just becomes patience testing. What happened here? The Room’s lyrics aren’t usually quite so…basic; did they ask Pendragon’s Nick Barrett for inspiration?! The least said about this, the better.
Luckily, this musical mistake is more than made up for with the arrival of the album’s first ballad, ‘As Crazy As It Seems’, for it is here The Room’s true melodic stance really gets to take hold once again. What’s evident right from the off is that The Room recognise a strong melody and can sometimes leave that to stand without too much fuss. The sounds of soft piano, deep bass and Wilson’s most heartfelt performance to date each add up to something rather charming. A tune that’s best heard first hand, there are influences from seventies rock, eighties AOR and a smidgeon of Grey Lady Down’s softer side coming together almost perfectly. With a strong melody and simple hook, it reels in the listener without too much effort and, upon reaching the instrumental break, also provides a pleasing showcase for Anderson and keysman Steve Checkley as the two instrumentalists play in a restrained manner that always allows melody to take centre stage. Changing the mood yet again, ‘She Smiles’ first hints at proggier aspects, with a keyboard that nods towards medieval musical motifs at the outset. The prog never quite asserts itself, however, since the main thrust of the number is more akin to meaty seventies rock. Taking a solid beat and some stabbing keys a la 10cc, The Room go for retro of another kind here and play it very well indeed. It’s mid pace might occasionally come across as safe, but it’s the best musical scenario for Wilson’s warbly voice, while Anderson eventually steps up the heaviness in his riffing to great effect. Much like ‘Carrie’, it’s more chorus driven than some of the other material, though takes a little longer to make an impression – and for the dyed in the wool proggers, there’s another widdly keyboard solo en route. In terms of The Room’s talents, this is a number that attempts to show their whole range in one go…and pretty much succeeds.
Bringing something a little more unexpected to The Room’s repertoire, ‘The Book’ opens with excellently played acoustic guitar twiddles that flourish into a simple riff. The combination of crisp acoustic chords and choral keyboard patches highlights the band’s love of pomp wonderfully and with the introduction of the rest of the band, what initially suggested prog-folk, in actuality, becomes more of a seventies rock piece. The rhythm is jaunty – very mid-70s pop/rock – and despite its simplicity, the band give it their all; the bass has a solid tone, and an upbeat vocal really lifts the spirits. In the tradition of the first Room LP, at the point this reaches a natural end, the musicians steadfastly refuse to let go; so it then moves into a completely different tune, slow and proggy, with Wilson’s voice raising into a crying tone, while the keyboard patches in the intro finally take hold with a mellotron like drone and Anderson really excels in the guitar department. Firmly taking the reins for this bombastic workout, his lead guitar work champions some great multi-tracked sounds, always with his ear for melody taking precedence over any kind of flashiness. It may be the product of two very distinctly different musical ideas glued together, but ‘The Book’ is unquestionably this album’s masterpiece.
For the album’s second half, things show no signs of being padded out, with ‘Masquerade’ showcasing a great vocal against some rather measured music. Aiming for the same heartstrings as ‘As Crazy As It Seems’, this is a terrific number that allows Wilson ample room (no pun intended) to stretch his vocal. With one of the album’s best hooks and a suitably emotive guitar line creeping through and an almost Mike Oldfield-esque tinkling instrumental break, it ranks among the band’s best numbers. If it doesn’t grab instantly, give it time – you won’t be sorry. Potentially a track from ‘Bedlam’s second tier, following a pompy intro, most of ‘Spliter’ turns out rather too ordinary all round, lacking in the flourish that lifts so much of the other material. Even Checkley’s featured keyboard solo never really gets off the ground, but thankfully there are a few twin guitar sounds along the way to pep things up. There’s nothing wrong with this track, it’s just that those familiar with the debut will have heard similar material served up with a bit more gusto; that said, a few spins shows the main hook to be one that creeps up on the listener… ‘The Hunter’, meanwhile, pushes the rhythm section to the fore, as a beefy backdrop allows for some great ringing guitar. As the track progresses, it blooms into a great prog/AOR hybrid, with a groove tipping the hat to the mighty Rush. A great example of a tune with shifting tempos, this is superb from end to end – there’s a rare glimpse of old school organ and some busy bass noodles, while the choice of slightly discordant guitar solo suggests The Room don’t always do things as by-numbers as perhaps first appears. Like ‘The Book’, this should give first time listeners a great insight into the band’s range.
Closing the album, the title track is surprisingly concise and also surprisingly rocky, its use of police sirens and overdriven riffing showing a hint of Marillion‘s 1991 recording ‘This Town’. As the track progresses and the riff really takes hold, this has all the makings of a live belter, with great interaction between guitar and keyboards and with Wilson cutting loose with a rock voice. For the proggers, a quirky mid section with a surprising spoken word performance (almost depicting a Verhoven inspired salesman) recalls the more flippant side of the late Geoff Mann, while the characters within the song – Carrie and Jack – suggest we’ve been experiencing a concept album, perhaps unknowingly all along. Along with ‘As Crazy As It Seems’ and ‘The Book’, this is the album’s other instant standout and definitely finishes the album in an upbeat fashion that’s most welcome.
For those who loved ‘Open Fire’, ‘Beyond The Gates of Bedlam’ provides more great listening. While, on the whole, the highs aren’t always quite as high – there’s nothing here that’s as instantly striking as ‘Casual Believer’ or ‘Flesh & Bone’ – tracks like ‘Carrie’, ‘The Hunter’ and ‘The Book’ prove The Room have more than enough chops to ensure their second album has a potential that often shines through, even if it takes a little more time before the material really takes a hold.