LALU – The Fish Who Wanted To Be King

Previously the keyboard player with Shadrane and Hubi Maisel, Vivien Lalu formed his eponymously named band in 2004. The idea was that the band would approach prog in a very unrestrained way, and also add contemporary elements to keep things interesting. Considering a lot of prog metal in the mid noughties seemed to consist of stuck-in-a-rut Dream Theater-isms – especially from DT themselves – and so much prog relied upon obvious influences, Lalu’s desire for a bigger and more interesting musical canvas wasn’t unwarranted. Of course, there were a few freewheeling, pioneering spirits then – not least of all Devin Townsend, always marching to his own drum – but prog metal definitely needed new blood at that time.

Lalu always felt like an underground band. For a lot of rock fans, it wasn’t actually until the release of 2022’s ‘Paint The Sky’ – Lalu’s first release for Frontiers Records – that this on/off project with its revolving cast of musicians actually started to be noticed in a much wider way. The arrival of sometime Threshold member Damian Wilson was certainly a huge factors in any increased attention, and as expected, Wilson’s hugely expressive vocal range was a great fit for many of Lalu’s adventurous sound. Overall, ‘Paint The Sky’ managed to blend proggy excess, a little heaviness and actual tunes in an appealing way, showing that prog and prog metal could be melodic, and melody and complexity need not be exclusive to each other.

2023’s ‘The Fish Who Wanted To Be King’ isn’t always as chunky, but feels like the natural successor to ‘Paint The Sky’ since it’s got the same contrast of heaviness and melody. It also takes a few welcome excursions into other styles. The often restless Damian Wilson returns as vocalist, and Lalu seems very inspired in the compositional department but, perhaps most importantly of all, there are a few musical twists that’ll keep fans more than interested.

‘Forever Digital’ opens the record in a particularly bombastic way. A solid guitar riff underscores Wilson as he throws out a vocal refrain that sounds like a fanfare from a rock musical, always making the best of his huge voice. Having established this, the tune scales back to reveal stabbed piano and hard drums, lending a contrasting AOR sound. This is equally cool, but in a very different way. By the second verse, the AOR elements have a little more of a proggy flair, when chugging guitars augment the main riff, whilst Vivien fills some of the musical space with keyboard flourishes that feel a little Yes-like in their playfulness. Around the three minute mark, things get even more interesting for an expressive instrumental break. First, an even more metallic guitar takes centre stage, giving the feeling that everything will go full on prog metal, but it’s just a ruse. The groove that arises from that is just as heavy, but almost feels funky in its own way, and that’s certainly helped by Lalu’s choice of lead keyboard sounds. He chooses a semi-squelchy noise that’s unashamedly 70s and adds a counter melody that seems to draw from soul and funk rock. The effect is like playing back tiny fragments of a mid-70s Stevie Wonder album cut over a hard rock groove, and it’s fascinating. If there were any proof needed that Lalu – the man and the band – were on a quest to expand the horizons of progressive rock, this is a great example of his playful and inventive approach. Another twist into a massive Spanish guitar solo – Steve Howe style – should give older prog fans more of a familiar foothold, before another very 70s passage revisits Genesis circa 1978, before switching again to reveal harmonic guitars laid over a heavy drum. By the time Wilson returns with the earlier vocal refrain, you might feel as if Lalu has blind sided you with at least five musical ideas within as many minutes, but he’s certainly got your attention.

More melodic, the less than catchily titled ‘Deoxyribonucleic Acid’ hits the listener with a huge vocal at the outset, when Wilson’s distinctive style and a chugging guitar latch upon a strong AOR tinged melody. After delivering something that sounds like a chorus hook – but isn’t – a more fluid bassline introduces a few proggy flourishes, and the number veers off into a place where a melodic prog approach brings out the best in the musicians. Lalu takes a back seat until the midpoint, but makes up for the relative quiet by dropping in a really busy keyboard solo, before everything changes yet again for a brief interlude that sounds like something on loan from early 90s Yes. The mix of melodic rock and prog works quite well, but there are a couple of moments during the number’s first half where the feeling of a band trying to be a little too clever actually masks what could’ve been a relatively straight forward melodic rock banger. Nevertheless, those who love stronger melodies eventually get their wish during the number’s climax when Joop Wolters (handling both guitar and bass duties) delivers a lead guitar part that could be likened to peak Jadis with its use of longer, flowing notes, before a semi-funky rhythm underscores a strong art-pop flourish and a great vocal from Wilson. In time, this musical menagerie sounds better than on first listen, and shows off a great musical unit.

In terms of instant hooks, Wilson singing “Ring, ring” throughout ‘Is That A London Number?’ is rather silly, but if nothing else, it proves that not all prog need to be self-indulgent or po-faced. Beyond that unexpected silliness, though, this track shares some of the album’s best music. The keyboards and bass borrow especially heavily from the tech-AOR/prog sounds of the late 80s, often sounding like a Billy Sherwood/World Trade number, but the best melodies come via a guitar riff that appears to be lifted straight from the vocal melody from Toto’s ‘Till The End’. If this seems like a coincidence, then a heavier guitar part that sounds a little like one of Lukather’s best efforts circa ‘Tambu’ just might make you think otherwise. Whatever, every musical element here is superb, and after shifting into something smoother to allow for a few fat bass notes driving an almost bluesy rhythm, things stay just as strong, musically. Since there’s also some really great guitar melodies cutting through, it’s a pity Wilson insists on wailing at full pelt throughout, but it’s a minor point. By comparison, ‘The Wondering Kind’ is less interesting – by focusing a little too much on the 90s era Yes-isms, it’s the closest the album comes to a filler track – but that’s not to say it’s well played. The rhythm section is particularly tight and Joop’s bass sound conveys a very pleasing weight, but it’s one of those times where it seems that Lalu (the band) use their talents a little too much, and the actual song takes a back seat. Nevertheless, prog fans should glean a fair amount of enjoyment from the end result, especially from the slower moments where floaty melodies are used to underscore some very Chris Squire infused bass playing. In terms of encapsulating a lot of what Lalu are about, this does a reasonable job in a little over six minutes, but ‘…Fish’ definitely has a few much stronger tracks.

Most of this album has merit, but in terms of playing, ‘A Reversal of Fortune’ is a definite standout. The intro mixes a circular keyboard loop with a heavy Squire worthy bass sound. Then, exploring a huge expanse of jazz rock injected with funk, the band indulge in one of the most 70s sounding instrumentals of 2023. Wolters is the real star here due to some impeccable bass work, but his lead guitar work – occasionally sharing a tone not too dissimilar to Michael Landau – is also terrific. With his vibrato fuelled notes perfect for the jazz fusion sound that’s quickly been set in place and an occasional metallic tinge, he’s got a huge presence throughout. Matt Daniel, meanwhile, adds electric piano work that’s is worthy of an on form Jan Hammer, and drummer Jelly Carderelli appears capable of handling anything that comes their way, with an ability to change the mood in a heartbeat. In jazz fusion terms, this is seriously impressive.

On top of all of that, ‘The Fish…’ is home to two epic tracks which further explore this band’s musical skills, often without thought for musical boundaries. ‘Amnesia 1916’ opens with various ambient drones, moves into some frighteningly busy prog rhythms, tips the hat to ELP via some very ugly keys, and eventually falls into an airy prog tune where light keys and high tenor vocals pave the way for a spoken word interlude underscored by Floydian guitar work. A job only half done, there’s time enough for funk laden prog grooves, where bits of old Spock’s Beard retroness collide with Threshold at their most melodic and a choppy lead guitar break hinting at more jazz fusion love. Wilson is given the unenviable task of holding the musical fort, and by employing the quieter end of his huge range, he adds a world of flowing melodies that are perfect for the job in hand. For those not worn down by the constant switching between moods, the title cut rounds out this disc with a sprawling number that shares more spoken word elements, more ambient drones, some angry prog metal bass work, and bits of melodic rock melodies that occasionally sound like a speed infused It Bites. In terms of guitar work, there are some lovely moments. Even though this is more a melting pot of ideas than a song, Wolters plays up a storm throughout, and sounds especially good when given enough space to drop in a few longer, vibratoed notes. For the more casual listener, this certainly won’t be as appealing as the likes of ‘Forever Digital’ or ‘…Acid’, but for the hardened prog nut, it’ll provide plenty of entertainment, and an opportunity to pick apart its many layers.

Fusing melodic progressive metal with huge passages of grand but accessible rock and an obvious love of jazz fusion, ‘The Fish Who Wanted To Be King’ never thinks small, musically speaking. At the same time, these seven tracks never seem to flaunt their bombastic wares for the sake of bombast. Overall, it’s a great record that knows how important decent musical hooks can be (even if it doesn’t always share them immediately), whilst not skimping on those extra proggy textures. It might well have Viv Lalu’s name on the box, but a lot of times, it feels just as much like Wilson’s record, and Damian is in absolutely terrific voice. It’s easy to imagine that a lot of people will pick up this release purely based on his input – and they certainly won’t be disappointed. This album feels rather grand, but at the same time, everything flows brilliantly with very few weak links. In terms of prog – if we were to pigeonhole this purely for ease – it is very rich listen indeed, and has all the makings of a cult classic. Recommended.

October 2023