Review: The Utopia Strong ‘International Treasure’

I want to take you back, back to a time that many of you may not have lived through. A time of political turmoil, the normalisation of greed, riots in UK cities, and dodgy fashion sense…  The ‘80s!

As a young teenager who didn’t know any better and was finding his way through the fecund music scene of the time, I mistook Q for an arbiter of good musical taste, a Pole Star to guide me to the land of The Good Stuff. Alas, other than an outlier article on the burgeoning UK Hardcore scene – Napalm Death, Deviated Instinct, Heresy, et al – and an unusual obsession with The Bevis Frond, it proved to mostly be articles about Ry Cooder and Van Morrison. But wait!  What’s this right at the back?  A photo of Steve ‘The Most Boring Man in Sport’ Davis wearing an Afghan coat and standing in front of a shedload of vinyl? A man more renowned for being the dullest player of a soporific sport in a music magazine? It required further reading.

The Utopia Strong 'International Treasure'

Turns out that the six-time snooker World Champion was also MASSIVELY into prog, like a very, very serious fan and collector (he once brought Magma over to the UK, promoting the gig himself as it was the only way to see them at the time). Like many nuggets of useless information, this article stayed with me for decades – I can still see the picture in my mind’s eye now – intriguing me to the point that when I came across the book Medical Grade Music by Davis and long-time collaborator Kavus Torabi (Cardiacs, Gong) I bought and ingested it greedily.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Days after finishing Medical Grade Music the Shamanic missive that is the list of promos for review came through. Imagine my delight, nay, jubilation to find that Torabi, Davis, and Michael York’s newest release was available for perusal and opiniated declamation.

One long health related (mine) delay later and here are my thoughts on modular synth driven wonder.

I’m a guitar man. Generally, something’s got to be guitar-centric for me to fall in love. It can be heavy, ambient, experimental, or straightforward, but I do like a guitar. International Treasure may feature a guitar in there somewhere, but the modular synth is king, attended to by more esoteric instruments like the Chinese guzheng played by Torabi, or York’s array of wind instruments.

Each individual piece flows into the next, linking with perfect sense and conjuring a celestial journey…

With an album like International Treasure there’s no point in a track-by-track description or analysis, it’s much bigger than that. It would be like looking at a Caravaggio (hyperbole, moi?) and pointing out how brilliantly each toenail had been rendered. No, take in the whole piece as one. Stand back and experience it as was meant by the artist. Climb into it and allow it to climb into your head. And I’d go further. The album must be listened to as a whole. Each individual piece flows into the next, linking with perfect sense and conjuring a celestial journey within which, the listener becomes traveller. Where we’re going, we don’t need traditional structures, melodies, or rhythm. We need texture, ideas, beautiful sounds which International Treasure has in spades.

The pace of the album, with the exception of the trancey, beat driven Castalia, is gentle, pastoral even, and, although I hate it as a definition or descriptor, ambient. Don’t think, though, that this music wanders without aim or direction. This listener gets the sense that, even if they weren’t sure when they set out, The Utopia Strong honed this creation to the point that each piece works on its own and as part of a much bigger whole, never outstaying its welcome, shining like a cosmic pinpoint in a sonic Milky Way.

Were I to choose a favourite track it may very well be Shepherdess with its insistent cymbal propelled rhythm interlaced with the mournful lowing of an unidentified wind instrument and a singular clanking of goat bells.

Perhaps the greatest accolade that a listener can bestow upon an album is that it makes them want to investigate the rest of the band’s back catalogue. International Treasure is that touchstone for me, I’m going back – though not to the 80s.

Label: Rocket Recordings
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Twitter | Instagram

Scribed by: George Green