Alex Lifeson is a legend. More importantly, he’s a legend that’s never been afraid of musical change. The early Rush albums introduced fans to a hard edged and very distinctive guitar sound; the classic era of Rush from 1980-91 found him exploring various cleaner sonic textures that were distinctive in a very different way, but equally as cool. His Victor project from 1996 showed how his complex approach could be applied to a whole range of rock moods, and while some of that album’s heavier moments didn’t sit well with everyone, it was a very interesting release.
Envy of None, a slow burning project that began to take shape in 2018, is chiefly considered to be a musical vehicle for Lifeson, but he’s only one part of a brilliant musical jigsaw. Envy of None are a true band in their own right, and their core sound – often driven by the vocals and song writing of Maiah Wynne – owes far more to synth-poppers Metric than anything from the Rush back catalogue. Between some hazy textures and moody hooks contrasted with some dreamy, electronic atmospheres, it presents forty minutes worth of very smart pop and rock.
The band’s poppier intents shine very brightly indeed during the opening track ‘Never Said I Love You’ where a pulsing keyboard bass groove underscores a mellow vocal, quickly bringing to mind the best material from the Metric album ‘Fantasies’. Singer Maiah Wynne’s quiet and natural tones are a fantastic fit for the synth pop backdrop, and it really doesn’t take long before the appeal in EON’s pop sounds feel like something you’ve known forever. With a massive, radio friendly chorus thrown into the bargain, this would be an instant winner already, but a brief instrumental break towards the tracks end hints at broader influences when Lifeson drops in a clean guitar against a funky bass (courtesy of ex-Coney Hatch man Andy Curran) and things almost seem to call back to ‘Power Windows’ era Rush very briefly, but through a more modern filter. This brief interlude is far more about nodding to the past with an affectionate smile than any desire to revisit it, though. As the rest of the album demonstrates, Lifeson is more than keen to keep breaking new musical ground.
‘Shadow’ works a very mechanical melodic base inspired by the synth pop pioneers of the early 80s, but dresses that with a grand, sweeping melody that allows Wynne’s hushed tones plenty of room to impress. She moves effortlessly between a dream pop mumble to a full pop cry, really selling the number’s understated melodic hooks throughout. The arrangement’s softer elements pull the listener further into EON’s landscape of electropop, occasionally giving a jolt via a deeper bass note or two. Venturing further towards a Metric/Garbage oriented sound, there’s far more of a collective approach here than it being just another Lifeson project, but it’s all the better for it. An important change of mood brings a huge fuzzy bass to the fore throughout ‘Look Inside’ with Curran bending a brilliant sweeping melody beneath a light, dreamy vocal. Adding a rocky edge to some great dream pop, the drums punctuate everything with a waltzing rhythm, and eventually, Lifeson rises with a shimmering guitar. The mood rarely changes throughout, but the slightly flat, otherworldly feel is very deliberate as it allows Wynne to hypnotise with a slightly detached cry that really pulls in the listener. A final twist is added via various guitar effects that deliver an easy, jazz based melody, almost sounding like a muted trumpet. In a previous musical lifetime, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine something like this coming from Cocteau Twins.
Taking on something a little noisier, ‘Liar’ stokes up the mechanical beats and guitars, pushing Lifeson somewhat grudgingly into the spotlight. The synth loops and beats immediately become reminiscent of early Nine Inch Nails (when they were good, circa ‘Pretty Hate Machine’), whilst – naturally – Wynne’s soft vocals continue within a dream pop sphere. The collision between light industrial sounds, alternative pop and occasional rock guitar is so natural you’d believe these musicians actually pioneered this sound rather than appropriated it and added their own twist. A bigger chorus would have sent it into the stratosphere, but as it stands, a superb guitar solo makes this a definite highlight, and the unfussy arrangement and moody vocal further suggests that Envy of None’s landscape of alternative synth-pop/electro rock has a huge amount of potential. Lovers of the Lifeson guitar sound get a further treat during ‘Spy House’ when he throws out honking, heavily reverbed notes beneath a heavy reggae groove. There are moments here, due to a really punchy drum sound, that almost feel as if things could slide into ‘Thirteenth Step’ era Perfect Circle, but as with the best EON recordings, any influence is offset by something a little different. In this instance, a heavy, bluesy lead guitar contrasts the twenty first century sound with something very retro. It shouldn’t work, but its to the band’s credit – and obvious confidence – that it does. What’s more, it works brilliantly, giving Lifeson a solid platform once again, and – much like his Victor project from the 90s – it suggests there isn’t anything he can’t play effectively.
Elsewhere, ‘Old Strings’ ventures into a world of dark, detached beats and Wynne makes everything sound like Lorde colliding with ‘Vienna’ by Ultravox at first – again, something few would have expected from this band, if coming from the Rush fanbase. And yet, it plays as if it were the most natural thing in the world with a gradual unravelling of a hugely soulful vocal performance. The tougher ‘Dog’s Life’ starts out as if aiming to be an excellent Garbage homage. The rhythms are busier, the vocals fuller, but there’s plenty that could be spotted as Envy of None almost from the off. The more predictable pop features get beefed up with a wall of sound on the chorus when the band indulges in the kind of crunchiness that would make Gary Numan proud, instantly giving the album yet more variety, whilst ‘Kabul Blues’ takes a drastic left turn into a minimalist landscape where mechanical rhythms underscore a haunting, yet huge vocal. The spaciousness of the arrangement allows Wynne to reach deep within, absolutely dominating everything in a truly impressive way. These are all tracks which will grab the listener at a later stage – they don’t necessarily have the pop hooks of ‘Never Said I Love You’ or quite the full band charm of ‘Spy House’, but there’s plenty within their sharp and succinct framework that advertises a great band, trying out new styles. When played in succession, they definitely suggest a band that will not easily be pigeonholed. ‘Dumb’, meanwhile, settles into some solid, pulsing pop that – again – could be easily likened to Metric. It’s never ground breaking – you’ll have already heard similar pop from EON during the earlier part of the album – but there’s a strong appeal in the synth pop arrangement and how effortless this band actually makes everything seem.
After some already great material, there are further musical twists at the end of the album. ‘Enemy’ delivers another massive drone and ominous beat, whilst Wynne serves up a suitably moody vocal. Again, some listeners might hear traces of A Perfect Circle here, especially in the way the rhythm section seem to hit hard yet simultaneously hang back. Somewhere within the dense sound, Alex drops in notes that ring through the neo-gothic wall of sound, eventually latching onto a set of chords that sound as seem as dark as some of his ‘Counterparts’ work, but as with the slight Rush-isms that crept into the opener, listeners should certainly approach this as something new. Finally, a short instrumental, ‘Western Sunset’ finds Alex pulling out the acoustic guitar. His chosen melody is incredibly wistful and almost folky. The tune that slowly unfolds has the air of a soundtrack piece; reflective, beautiful, simple. With cleanly plucked notes, it’s never concerned with making a show of the guitarist’s undeniable talent, merely just taking a moment to reflect. He knows the keen listener will be with him, and with the melody written as a tribute to the departed Neil Peart, it takes on a whole new poignancy.
Apparently, despite Lifeson’s ability to change and adapt, to play in a multitude of styles and always seem relevant, the pop/rock elements of Envy of None had some prog fans throwing their toys out of their pram in record time. Good. The prog fans who’ve never understood genuine progression or artistic adventure can stick with ‘By-Tor & The Snowdog’ and ‘2112’on repeat. They’re the ones missing out here. This is a great album. It takes a few plays to really appreciate, but there’s plenty within its layered and sometimes dreamy sound that’s hugely appealing. It’s a recording to lose yourself in, with hazy vocal layers that transport you to another place but briefly, and a timely reminder that actual songs should always take precedence over musical indulgence. Regardless of what the raging fanatics might think, this is both an introduction to some fine musicians and a superb return from a genuine musical hero looking to do more than recycle bits of his past. Bravo.
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