Mantra Vega is a collaboration between former Mostly Autumn vocalist Heather Findlay and Sound of Contract keys man Dave Kerzner.
A supporting cast is made up largely by members of Heather’s own band, including Roger Waters’ guitarist Dave Kilminster, one-time Seahorse Stuart Fletcher and two members shared with the current incarnation of Mostly Autumn: drummer Alex Cromarty and guitarist Chris Johnson.
Although Heather Findlay has guested on a number of projects over the last few years, most notably Rob Cottingham’s Captain Blue, this is the first record promoted as one of her own projects since 2012’s acoustic Songs from the Old Kitchen, and her first new material since The Phoenix Suite a year before that. A single, “Island”, taken from the new album, The Illusion’s Reckoning appeared in the middle of last year and did a lot to whet the appetite for the eagerly-awaited album, two years in the making.
As that earlier single had suggested, The Illusion’s Reckoning is a record with a strong 70s vibe. There are nods to Stevie Nicks era Fleetwood Mac and the rootsier side of Led Zeppelin, as well as the folky feel of Heather Findlay’s work with Odin Dragonfly and early Mostly Autumn.
At times it evokes a similar mood to Songs from the Old Kitchen, but the album as a whole is more of a logical progression from her work back in Mostly Autumn days than the more experimental direction of The Phoenix Suite. With the possible exception of the keyboard-led spoken word opener “Every Corner” and the epic title track, it’s perhaps more classic rock than progressive, but it’s an extremely varied record with feet in a lot of camps.
Heather herself is on superb form, and this record might just contain some of her best vocal performances to date, displaying all the warmth and emotional depth on which her reputation rests. Her lyrics are steeped in Eastern spirituality, referencing Indian Yogiraj Gurunath Siddhanath, with the songs portraying a spiritual journey from darkness into light.
Songs such as “Islands”, the ballad “Lake Sunday”, and the title track all feature gorgeous soaring melodies. The Zeppelinesque “Mountain Spring” is intense and passionate, while the dreamy acoustic “I’ve Seen Your Star” recalls the delicate beauty of Odin Dragonfly. “Veil of Ghosts” also features guest lead vocals from Angela Gordon, Nightwish’s Troy Donockley and Irene Jansen (younger sister of Floor).
Arrangements alternative between rich and layered, and pared-back simplicity. There’s more emphasis on guitars than on keys, and it’s only right at the very end that Dave Kerzner cuts loose with a spiralling synth wig-out; instrumental breaks more often take the form of swirling atmospherics than solos. Guitar virtuoso Dave Kilminster only actually appears on a few songs, though he makes his mark when he does (most notably his fluid melodic break on “Island”). Chris Johnson, though better known as a rhythm guitarist, ends up playing a fair bit of lead, with an understated but effective style, his lead flourishes on “Learning to be Light” are particularly impressive. Ayreon’s Arjen Lucassen also makes an appearance with some shredding guitar work on the title track.
The capable rhythm section shouldn’t forgotten. Notable moments are Stu Fletcher’s hypnotic circular bass riff that forms the foundation of “Mountain Spring”, and Alex Cromarty going full John Bonham at the end of “Veil of Ghosts”. Last but definitely not least, a couple the acoustic numbers feature the evocative bansuri: the Indian bamboo flute played by Remko de Landmeter.
It’s been a long wait, but this album proves worth it. Dave Kerzner proves as excellent a co-writer and creative foil to Heather Findlay as she is at giving voice to his compositions. The result is a record that’s as good as anything either of them have done. For Heather in particular it embraces her musical legacy without being constrained by it.