I first came across the band 4th Labyrinth at the Wildfire festival in Scotland late June this year. They utterly impressed me. I was drawn in by their music along with their stage craft, presence and attitude. They stood out from everybody else, not only at the festival but stuff I have heard recently in general. My first thoughts musically were a mix of Big Elf and Supertramp. The band come from Cambridge and are headed by keyboardist, vocalist and producer Marcel Kunkel and they released one album back in 2015 called Quattro Stagioni (four seasons if Google Translate is correct) and now it is time for the second (Better) to be released on 4th October!
On first listen it seems light and airy, with great choruses along with excellent musicianship. But, once I started listening more intently, I felt that the lyrics were actually quite dark or disturbing compared to the music itself. There does seem to be tracks dealing with mental health, for instance, revealing a depth to what the band create. There are nine tracks on the album with most coming in around the 3 and 4 minute mark and one that bit longer at 7. There is plenty of variety in the songs, elements of rock, prog, pop and even in one a slightly punky vibe!
They open with a short musical piece called “Intro” which is keyboards based and slightly church sounding with what sounds like a choir at one point. This leads into the first track to have been released from the album (video at bottom of review) “This Is Rock ‘N’ Roll” which is exactly that! With the organ bringing both Deep Purple and Uriah Heep to mind. It is a load of fun to listen to, a lively rocker with a strong chorus telling folks that this “is not a game… it is heart and soul”, yes this is serious business, they are not exactly in it for the money (what bands are these days?). However even amongst the joy of the track there is a slightly darker edge lyrically at points, possibly about losing yourself too much in it when he sings about now being “your god” having originally been seen as a “loser”. It is a mixture of determination and cynicism!
Next up is the title track “Better” which had me bouncing around the flat dancing (if it can be called that). At just under 3 minutes it packs a punch. From the incessant guitar riff at the start to the highly infectious chorus this is a belter of a track. The groove between the verses is terrific and caught my attention. I have listened into the lyrics quite a few times and I am not sure they are as happy as they sound. There is a slight edge to a couple of lines and some little voiceovers that sound sarcastic. But that could be me reading too much into it.
At this point the album brings in more darker sounds and lyrics which seem to be about facing inner demons. Even in the darker sections, we are never too far away from an upbeat melody to lift our spirits. “Darkness Calling” sounds more intense, with a slight Pink Floyd sound before it drops to keys and vocals with a touch of percussion. In this Marcel shows the versatility of his voice hitting some higher notes when appropriate. Lyrically he sings about how there “must be more to this world, than this devil’s curse”. The chorus is heavier but the last line each time says “I set it free” and the very last words seem to say that you can win every storm that rises in you as a person. It is possible. Staying on a similar theme, on the next song “Keep Me From Falling”, he then goes onto ask that someone “leave a little light behind”. This is the song that has a punky vibe, quite bouncy but at the same time dark and distressing being from what I get out of it a plea for help and assistance.
“Your Symphony” is quite melancholic, at the start just piano and vocal with some acoustic guitar before drums and bass come in. It is quite a haunting piece for the most part. Lyrically it asks some questions, such as “how can you believe in god when people are dying” and asking if “heaven can save me?” The guitar solo is particularly good. The whole track is spot on, mood pacing and melody.
It picks up again on “I’m A Hunter” which has quite a funky groove. Like a lot of their music it has a 1970s classic rock/pop feel and sound. It is a rock number but it makes you groove. It does ask the question “is rock ,n, roll a game?” whilst also questioning the reality of a musical career. The line “I’ve got to move on” suggests that it is indeed a lifestyle, a drug, an itch, something that needs to be done no matter how silly it seems.
“This Feeling” has a quick keyboard riff running through it. It seems he wants to go back to something or someone, to where he “started”. It has a “wo-ohs” section which should be a crowd pleaser. There is a very sweet little guitar solo in this as well.
The album finishes with “Make It Mine” which reminded me a little of Alice In Chains at the start if they were mixed with Riverside from Poland! It is quite a progressive piece with hints of Steven Wilson in construction. It builds into the guitar solo, which is at the start is frantic and harsh before going into a more traditional soaring piece which takes you on a journey. There are whispered words, sudden quick notes and then a keyboard solo before the vocals come back in. It ends with the title being sung repeated over the music featuring another frantic guitar piece. It is beautifully put together and is very atmospheric, bringing the album to a powerful conclusion.
There is much to enjoy on Better. The musicianship is top notch throughout. The rhythm section of Tom Winch on drums and Claudia McKenzie on bass are not only tight but give such a firm basis to the rest of the music. They also can groove, getting feet tapping and head nodding. The guitar work of Andrew Cross is varied as in accordance to the piece (or song) and his solos are effective, not flashy, always capturing the mood and spirit of the song. Vocalist and keyboardist Marcel leads the band and allows them all to contribute to this wonderful 70s inspired classic rock that might have it’s roots there but is still fresh and new sounding. Anyone who loves bands like The Beatles, Queen as well as the previously mentioned bands in the review will get a lot of enjoyment from it. Whether you prefer to sit and listen to songs or dance around the house like a loon, this album works. From a far too short 30 minute experience in June I can also testify that they are even “Better” live! They are doing a release show in their home town Friday at Storey’s Field Centre. If you are in the area get down and catch them. They will also happily sign your album afterwards, I am sure.