Twisted Illusion: ‘Upstairs To Optimism’

April Album of the Month


If success in rock music was all about musical merit, technical ability and good arrangement then this band would already be huge. The most prolific recording band in UK rock music today, Twisted Illusion follow their acclaimed ‘Excite The Light’ Trilogy this April with another new album. And it’s not more of the same – it’s a change of direction, a change of mood and, quite possibly, their best album do date.

Confident and positive are words I’d use to describe this fine album, and it lives a progressive ethos too – not in the pixies and wizards conceptual way, but in the true musical sense of the word. The experimentation, the changes of key, the interesting segues make this a veritable rock n rock magical mystery tour, as you’re taken on a journey which is both immersive and exciting.

If this music had an aura around it, this album would be brimming with bright colours. Having listened to many albums in the last month, a great many had strong musical merit but few surprised me. Twisted Illusion’s new release did – it was the jack-in-a-box surprise package lurking in the big pile of review albums. Whatever you’ve just listened to previously, this album will jump out and grab you with a sonic assault on the senses that will inspire you, challenge you and force a reaction. An explosion of musical colour – ‘Upstairs To Optimism’ is apalette ofbright loud primary colours that make statements, blend together and, together create a big picture.

And a word on the artwork. The marriage of music and album artwork is bordering on being a lost art today – but with this album they work together perfectly. The striking cover is a calling card on the experience that awaits your ears when you drop the needle on the vinyl or put the CD into the disc drawer. And yes, this is an album to be heard as a physical product on a good system and through good speakers. The way music is intended to be enjoyed.

After the intensity and possibly the darkness of the ‘Excite The Light’ Trilogy, it’s nice to see this new album confidently go somewhere else, the band coming back with something different rather than the album you might expect.  In contrast to the trilogy, which referenced mental health struggles, the new album is hopeful – it presents a new doorway and the opportunity for optimism. The staircase on the album cover depicts the journey that is possible, but the music on the album reminds us that it is a possibility – you have to travel towards it, you have to work for it.

Standing proud at 9 mins 36, the opening track ‘Analyse and Incentivise’ builds in almost symphonic fashion, the guitar solo at the start is like the kind of overture you might experience at the start of an opera or ballet. The early chords of the song also convey a sense of hope, of what’s possible – setting out the subtext for the new collection of songs. As the full band comes in, the song builds layer by layer, but it never feels opulent or too long. Every segment has a purpose for a song that takes you through many doorways, the song being a book with many chapters.

After an epic opener, one of the exciting moments on the album is the immediate transition straight into ‘Gone Tomorrow;’ there’s no climb-down after the huge opener ends, instead everything immediately goes up a gear in dramatic fashion. This transition underlines the importance of sequencing in the way an album is presented. Anyone can put 10 tracks onto a slab of vinyl, but the art is in knowing how to curate a collection of songs into a meaningful journey – and Twisted Illusion do it with classy aplomb as this new album opens up.

‘Gone Tomorrow’ is Matt’s nostalgic dedication to Crash Bandicoot. There’s lyrical value in the storytelling, but with this song it’s the contagious pace and melodic richness of the music that delivers a wonderfully upbeat and empowering song. It’s right up there with ‘Introvert’ and ‘Apathy’ as music that makes a big statement.

‘We Tried To Make It’ offers a complete change of pace, openinga door into a different room. You can feel the sunshine with this one – the layered harmonies making this a song that wouldn’t be out of place on the Yes ‘Union’ album – ‘Miracle of Life’ or ‘Lift Me Up’ being songs that spring to mind. After 15 minutes of unrelenting intensity and discovery, this nice stripped-back song gives the album a new dimension. The refreshing thing about this album is by track three you just don’t know what’s coming next…

What does come next is my pick of the album – ‘Identity.’ A sense of Steve Lukather inspiration in the opening guitar phasing, a song that’s all about good arrangement and the telling of a story. Lyrically, Matt presents the stage as the home of an artist – not just the platform for a gig, but the universe the defines a creative existence. The line “do I exist beyond the stage” references whether artists have a life beyond their art and the tug of war between two possible existences. I took this song as almost a diary entry on what creatives go through to craft the finished product and the inner-conflict between the hope and doubt.

Beyond the narrative, ‘Identity’ is a really good piece of music, with some sumptuous key changes and transitions – almost a mini opera opus from the world of Steinman and Meat Loaf.

Spotlight’ follows, a muscular power-rocker, once again with great melodies. ‘Stay Your Course’ we premiered for our recent Twisted Illusion hour special: An inventive song that would not have been out of place on Toto’s ‘Hydra’ or ‘Turn Back’ – two massively under-rated Toto albums in my book. I thought of Toto here because the verse-line vocals reminded me of Bobby Kimball. And, beyond the vocals, there’s a great guitar solo on this one too.

‘Tired’ is the quietest song on album, the band experimenting with layered vocals, but don’t be fooled by Twisted Illusion doing stripped-backed songs. A song that is open in its vulnerability – “I’ve come to terms with it all / accepted how I feel” – the song has a power in its simplicity. Sometimes quiet songs can roar like a lion. Sometimes less is more.

The album closes with ‘Totality’– first single from the album – and the song underlines the power of bookends – ‘Upstairs To Optimism’has the best opening track and the best closing track of any TI album. ‘Totality’ represents Matt’s interpretation of lockdown – the repetitive nature of life, a state of internal chaos where you always knew another curved ball was about to come in.

In this review, I’ve mentioned that I sense a nod to influences such us Yes, Toto, Rush and the world of Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf – but nothing on this album is a pastiche. The band’s song writing, their sense of arrangement and desire for adventure is all very much their own. Throughout the album, there is great virtuoso playing, clever arrangement, good sequencing and inventiveness with big walls of harmonies.

Matt from Twisted Illusion sometimes gets criticised from corners of the new music scene for speaking his mind, for being outspoken. His real persona – his identity – conveys the truth of being a creative: The great creatives through history were never people that found life easy, that casually wondered around in beige chinos finding conformity to be thoroughly pleasing or artistically satisfying. And the creatives with legacy in today’s rock scene won’t be the people churning out songs to safe formulas, chasing the digital numbers or aiming to please the tribes. The tensions, the anxieties and inequalities in the world that Matt’s band see, they channel through the music they make – and this is why, for April, this was the album that shone the brightest. An album of contrasts and complexities, an album of pushing boundaries, experimenting – and, sometimes, breaking the rules. But ‘Upstairs To Optimism’ is an album that offers the possibility of hope to a troubled world – and a body of music you won’t be able to listen to and sit still. The music is fully alive, it will both challenge and surprise you – and in that lies the art of a great album.

‘Upstairs To Optimism’ is released on 28 April 2023

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