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Sean Timms Reaches Critical Prog Rock Velocity
New albums by Aussie prog rocker's bands Southern Empire and Unitopia are among the best in the genre this year.
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. I’d also like to thank you for your patience during this recent period of inconsistent content. This is generally my busiest time of the year, and at times there just haven’t been enough free hours to put something together, but fret not, there is a light at the end of this busy tunnel.
It’s not unusual for an artist these days to be members of multiple bands. The economic model for a professional musician almost demands it in today’s world. However, it is somewhat uncommon for a musician to drop two releases close together, and it’s rare indeed when those two releases represent two albums in close proximity that are sure to make a lot Top 10 lists in their musical genre.
That last item is the case for Australian songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sean Timms. He has a total of four new releases out this year, although I’ve not yet had time to dive into two of them. Timms has recently celebrated the release of Another World with his band Southern Empire, and Seven Chambers with another of his projects, Unitopia. I caught up with Sean recently to discuss these albums. My reviews are as follows, with the entire interview available in the video at the bottom of this newsletter or in the MRC podcast.
Let’s get to that story.
Usually when a musician is part of multiple high-quality progressive rock releases in the same calendar year, it’s Neal Morse or Mike Portnoy. However, 2023 has been a banner year for Australian artist Sean Timms, who is a standout songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with a large number of irons in the fire.
There are a few months left in 2023, but it’s safe to say that Timms will be well represented on several year-end “best of” lists in the prog rock community. He’s put out multiple top-notch albums this year and there’s already been quite a bit of buzz among prog fans about Southern Empire’s Another World and Unitopia’s Seven Chambers.
“I guess it’s because I kind of finished them fairly close together,” Timms said of the close proximity of the two album releases. “Damanek, who I’m also involved with, came out earlier this year, and then John Greenwood’s Dark Blue album also came out about the same time as Southern Empire and Unitopia, because again, I finished that at the same time. And so, you know, four prog albums out in a year...yeah, I’m a bit tired.”
Both albums feature Timms’ playing and songwriting, and both are a nice mix of shorter songs and epic showpieces. Southern Empire’s new album came out on Sept. 4 on Giant Electric Pea Records, while Unitopia dropped its new release on Aug. 25 on Progrock.com’s Essentials label.
Timms performs keyboards, programming, lap steel guitar, and backing vocals on Another World, which is a strong contender for my choice as best progressive rock album of 2023. He’s joined by new vocalist Shaun Holton, guitarist Cam Blokland, bassist Jez Martin, and drummer Brody Green.
“I just explored my slightly heavier side,” Timms said of forming Southern Empire at a time when he and fellow Unitopia principle Mark Trueack had a bit of a falling out and he felt the other band had run its course. “It’s got that kind of rock edge to it that I think we all really liked. I definitely wanted to make sure that Unitopia and Southern Empire were really quite a different beast.”
Another World is an enjoyable listen with its twists and turns, excellent musicianship, and well-written compositions.
Album opener “Reaching Out” has wonderful soaring harmonies and enough crunchy musical bits and interesting instrumental parts to satisfy even the most discerning progressive rock aficionado.
“Face the Dawn” is the first of three epics of at least 10 minutes in length, and it starts out quite poppy, yet interesting. The song winds through different tempos and moods through its nearly 13 minutes. There are slower, dramatic sections and a jazzy middle part, and the entire piece holds together nicely and reveals more of itself upon repeat listens. I particularly enjoy the strings as the song nears its instrumental crescendo.
The album’s big single is “Hold On To Me,” which is — no hyperbole intended — my favorite track by anyone so far this year. It’s an incredible, emotional, six-and-a-half-minute slice of standout songwriting and performance. Written by Blokland, the guitarist takes a turn at lead vocals to great effect on this track. It begins as a sublime ballad and the chorus has a bit of a country-tinged Americana vibe. Just shy of three minutes in, the song kicks into another gear with amazing drumming from Green and standout vocal harmonies. I can’t say enough good things about this song. It’ll be getting a whole lot of plays for quite some time.
“When You Return” showcases how good Holton’s vocals are and Martin’s bass work also stands out on this one. It also features a special guest. Lisa Wetton, the widow of legendary King Crimson and Asia bassist/vocalist John Wetton, lent her voice to the track as she narrates some passages about the universe. This upbeat track was inspired by a video on YouTube that Timms saw and he paraphrased some of the video’s narration. He asked Lisa to do the voice-over for the track and she agreed.
“I just needed someone with an American accent to do this, and she played some percussion on it as well,” Timms said. “I’d originally got these samples from a clip off of YouTube. It seemed like it was in public domain but I didn’t want to lift it just in case. So what I did was I changed the wording and kind of paraphrased what this lady said. I don’t even remember who it was. It’s basically about the Fermi paradox and how if there are aliens out there, why haven’t we heard from them?
“I asked Lisa if she’d be interested, and she was, and she did it.”
The second epic on the album is “Moving Through Tomorrow,” which is one of the album’s heavier songs and clocks in at just shy of 10 and a half minutes. I love the crunchier passages from Southern Empire, and it’s a delightful shift when things take a softer and vaguely Ambrosia-esque turn midway through. This song also features my favorite Timms keyboard solo on the entire album around the seven-minute mark. Then again, I’ve always been a sucker for the “widdly bits” of progressive rock songs. That’s followed by a Blokland solo over a thunderous drum and bass rhythm before giving way to an ethereal section with flute and various electronic effects. The heavy, rocky opening motif returns to take the song to its climax.
The album’s sprawling epic centerpiece follows. “White Shadows” stretches out for more than 19 minutes, becoming a mini symphony. It starts with a beautiful atmospheric intro of strings, flute, and piano. It’s got an exquisitely cinematic musical opening section that lasts just over a minute and a half before Timms and Martin take over for a bit on piano and bass, respectively. The more organic-sounding instrumentation takes a backseat to electronic and heavier sounds around three and a half minutes, just prior to Holton’s vocals kick in. It’s got a memorably melodic chorus. About seven minutes in, the band rocks out heavily, achieving metal status but that quickly drops out and is replaced unexpectedly by a clarinet solo in a delightful twist. Blokland returns to some lead vocals in the track.
Listeners should allow several listens to get to know “White Shadows,” which reveals more of its treasures over repetition and familiarity. It could well be the epic of the year, even if it has some competition from at least one of the songs on the Unitopia album discussed below.
“For ‘White Shadows’ it was a slightly different one because (former Southern Empire vocalist) Danny (Lopresto) had this dream, and he basically wrote down some lyrics and that's what got me started on it,” Timms said. “I could show you the original lyrics and they probably bear a mild resemblance to what we ended up with. But what that does is then that gets my creative juices going. I find I’m better at taking the germ of an idea and then making it better and making it work than coming up with necessarily an idea from scratch.”
“Butterfly” ends the album on a shorter, more straight ahead, and decidedly acoustic note. Timms’ keyboards again shine brightly over Blokland’s acoustic guitar playing. That isn’t to suggest this isn’t a song of many textures/layers. There’s some fantastic subtle bass from Martin, some fluttering flute, and a nice electric solo from Blokland as well. It’s simply a more digestible package than the more grandiose songs on the album. It ends with more of the band’s lovely harmony vocals.
Those who haven’t been aware of Southern Empire will be rewarded by listening to Another World. It’s a sublime album that should stand among not only the best progressive rock releases of 2023, but also has a place beside the best records of the year in any genre. Not to diminish previous Southern Empire releases, but with Holton on board as the vocalist, this band should have a bright future and is deserving of a wider audience. It is cost prohibitive for Southern Empire to tour their home country or the United States, so if you get the chance to see them perform in Europe or at a one-off festival, do yourself a favor and go.
Southern Empire — Another World
Reaching Out (4:18)
Face the Dawn (12:44)
Hold On to Me (6:30)
When You Return (6:13)
Moving Through Tomorrow (10:24)
White Shadows (19:25)
Unitopia’s new release is its fifth full length album. Timms described it as one long piece in seven movements and there is a strong cohesion despite the music drawing influences from all over the musical map. The group compiled about 80 minutes of eclectic progressive rock that pulls from a variety of styles.
In addition to songwriting, Timms contributed keyboards, backing vocals, and “various stringed instruments.” He is joined on the album by Unitopia’s driving force, Mark Trueack, the lead vocalist and a primary songwriter. The lineup for this album includes former Genesis, Phil Collins, Weather Report, Santana, and Frank Zappa drummer Chester Thompson, bassist Alphonso Johnson, guitarist John Greenwood, and multi-instrumentalist Steve Unruh. Thompson played on three tracks on the album and the rest of the drumming was done by Timms’ Southern Empire band mate Green.
Thompson’s presence was a pleasant surprise to see in the liner notes and then became a bit more apparent once I heard the tracks, although it’s produced in a way that the drumming on Thompson’s three songs doesn’t sound wildly different than on the other four.
“John and I and Mark were talking and we said, ‘Well, who do we want to play drums?’ And John just kind of threw out there, ‘How about Chester Thompson?’ Because John has always been a huge, huge, huge Genesis fan,” Timms said. “I laughed. He said, ‘No, I’m serious. I reckon Steve Hackett would have his details.”
Greenwood reached out to Hackett, got a contact with Thompson’s management company, and they came to an arrangement for Chester to play on the album. Unfortunately, the legendary drummer couldn’t do the entire record with Unitopia.
“Due to some tendinitis issues, he wasn't able to play on on all seven tracks,” Timms said. “So, he played on three — the two epics and “Mania,” and then the other four tracks Brody, our drummer from Southern Empire, played on them.”
“Broken Heart” kicks the album off with eight and a half minutes of tone-setting music and establishes some of the health-related lyrical themes that permeate the record. The lyrics are a bit dark, dealing with various health topics in the post-pandemic era, particularly those that crop up as we age, and some (“The Uncertain”) are deeply personal. However, throughout the album there are uplifting musical passages and bits of humor that sand away the sharper edges of the topic’s seriousness.
Trueack delivers his earnest vocals superbly and with tremendous clarity on “Broken Heart” over a backdrop that sometimes rocks but also offers other flavors, like funky fusion, pop, and prog. For me, the opener is the correct track to kick off the album and is one of the better songs on the record.
“Something Invisible” is the short track on the album at just over six and a half minutes. Everything else is over seven minutes, and three songs extend beyond 12 minutes. There’s a standout symphonic progressive section anchored by Timms’ piano work, but it also includes fantastic violin playing from Unruh and a killer guitar solo from Greenwood. The rhythm section of Johnson and Green drives the song forward.
“Bittersweet” starts beautifully and melodically with some flute and some nice acoustic fretwork from Greenwood, along with some piano and angelic choral vocals. I will say that I don’t particularly love the back half of the song, which consists of a lyrical list of things people eat — but shouldn’t — and then follows with a list of healthier options. It sounds kind of like a Flower Kings-meets-Zappa section musically, while borrowing stylistically from Godley & Creme, but to me it sounds a bit like someone singing their grocery list. I’d have loved the song to have stopped prior to the list of foods, although the final musical crescendo at the end is breathtakingly gorgeous.
“It’s a list of all the things that you shouldn’t eat, followed by a list of all the things that you should,” Timms said. “The things you shouldn’t eat, not only can it give you diabetes, but it can kill you. I think the whole album, the basis is the fact that as we get older, we get these infirmities and these diseases and these conditions that will slow us down. I had a heart attack about five years ago, and Mark had health problems. As has Steve, John, Chester, and Don (Schiff, who recently played bass during Unitopia’s European tour). So, we’ve all had these obstacles to overcome and it’s the human condition, and I think anyone over 50 can can relate to that.
“But Mark had this idea and presented it to Steve about having this Godley & Creme-esque kind of second half to the song. And then I just kind of took that and went zany bizarre with it. It’s just a bit of fun, really.”
“Mania” is the first proper epic on the album, at about 12 and a half minutes. Unitopia is never shy about merging styles in their music and that’s the case in this melodic longer track. There are moments of progressive metal, fusion, world music, electronica, symphonic prog, King Crimson-y dissonance, and more.
The band perfectly placed “The Stroke of Midnight” on the album, slotting it between the aptly titled “Mania” and the record’s longest track, “Helen.” “The Stroke of Midnight” is a beautiful palate cleanser but also a dark pun. This mini-epic is a symphonic prog masterpiece and it’s heartbreakingly beautiful. Timms’ piano playing again shines brightly and Unruh’s mournful violin adds tons of emotional weight.
“Helen” is over 19 minutes and bests the album’s closing number by merely 41 seconds to take the title as longest track. “Helen” features standout moments by all of the musicians in the band and feels like multiple parts of a suite more than one long piece, which makes it go by quickly and not feel like a monster epic.
The Unruh-penned “The Uncertain” is, for me, the album’s absolute masterpiece. It has quickly become my favorite track in the Unitopia catalog. The song tells the personal story of Unruh’s battle with cancer and although there are certainly uplifting and positive moments in the song, it absolutely shatters me every time I hear it, particularly the soft extended part in the middle, which features perhaps the best lyrics on the album and it’s sung with great depth of emotion by Trueack.
“It’s all about (Unruh’s) journey with cancer a while ago, and so he basically presented us with a fait accompli as far as the composition,” Timms said. “All the lyrics and melody, the arrangement. If you listened to Steve’s original demo, it’s not a million miles away from what we ended up with. It’s a brilliant song. It works really well live. We did that a few times over in Europe and it was definitely one of the crowd faves.”
Seven Chambers is my favorite Unitopia release since The Garden was released in 2008. The Aussie band’s approach to prog-fusion with strong, melodic vocal lines gives Unitopia a unique sound that stands out among their contemporaries. This new album’s strength is its consistency from track to track in terms of the quality of both the songwriting and musicianship.
Unitopia — Seven Chambers
Broken Heart (8:30)
Something Invisible (6:39)
The Stroke of Midnight (9:38)
The Uncertain (18:33)
Both albums are well worth picking up for anyone who enjoys symphonic progressive rock. They’re stylistically very different, with Southern Empire having a heavier approach and Unitopia embracing more fusion and incorporating more disparate styles. What they have in common is Timms, his ability to always play just the right part on just the right instrument, and his craftsmanship to find a way to polish a musical idea until it shines.
For more information on both bands, check out their Facebook pages.
For my entire interview with Sean Timms, please watch the embedded video below or download/stream Episode 120 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast. In addition to discussing the new albums from Southern Empire and Unitopia, Sean talked a lot about his musical beginnings and influences, meeting Steve Hackett, and even a brief-but-detailed overview of the wine country near his home in Adelaide, Australia.
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