Over the past fifteen years, Swedish quartet Beardfish has reigned as one of today’s most remarkable progressive rock bands. With its retro yet refreshing blend of colorful timbres, intricate yet engrossing arrangements, and immeasurably infectious melodies, the quartet never fails to deliver something special. Of course, these achievements are due in large part to the talents of singer/keyboardist/co-guitarist Rikard Sjöblom, who is surely among the strongest, quirkiest, and most distinctive songwriters and vocalists of his era. Just about everything he touches becomes melodic/textural gold, so it comes as no surprise that his second official solo record, The Unbendable Sleep, more or less maintains such magnificent mixtures. While it’s not quite as multilayered and virtuosic as the work of his main outlet (which I mention only as a distinction, not a detriment), the collection nonetheless explodes with inventive vibrancy and catchy poignancy. It’s really an astounding effort.
Naturally, Sjöblom has done plenty outside of Beardfish already, including stints with The Tangent and Big Big Train, as well as producing two albums under the moniker Gungfly. However, Sjöblom admits that Gungfly eventually felt like more of a band than a solo effort, adding, “I guess to really be solo you almost have to use your birth name?” In addition, he describes his debut solo work, Cyklonmannen (2006), as “an instrumental, musical interpretation of a novel with the same name written by Sweden’s only beatnik writer, Sture Dahlström. It’s pretty obscure stuff!” (Interestingly, the artist who designed book covers for Dahlström, Bernt Daniels, also did the cover for this record.)
Of course, another reason to venture in this direction is so that Sjöblom could “make something that is completely [him],” as he’s been a cog in so many other projects for so long now. Thematically, The Unbendable Sleep deals with some familiar territory, such as “love, life, death, and . . . self-esteem and believing in yourself.” He adds, “I found myself singing about mirrors quite a lot and that’s also referring to just that, looking into a mirror and not recognizing the person staring back at you.” As usual, he fills the full-length with jovial embellishments, bittersweet reflections, and glorious creativity.
Sjöblom is no stranger to releasing multi-chapter pieces (see Sleeping in Traffic, “The One Inside,” and “A Love Story,” for instance), so it makes sense that the LP begins with “Love and War Part One: I Am Who You Are.” Led by a quick, upbeat tempo, warm acoustic guitar strums, and various subtle effects, it’s a bit folksy, to be honest, and as expected, very catchy. Really, it’s among the most accessible and uplifting tracks he’s ever composed (although there are still flourishes of prog rock complexity throughout). It would do well as a radio single.
It segues into the more forlorn and beautiful “Realm of You and Me” via a lone keyboard note, and from there the mixture of sorrowful guitar arpeggios, regretful singing, slow strings, thunderous percussion, and miscellaneous other effects is beautiful and powerful, with strong dynamic shifts throughout. It’s earnest and confident tracks like this that demonstrate how impeccable a songwriting and singer Sjöblom is, as he captures delicate sentiments perfectly within bombastic compositions. Of course, it’s also hypnotic as hell, so you’ll be singing along as you consider its poetic depths.
“Rhyme and Reason” is certainly heavier and more multifaceted at times, like a lively and inviting voyage into hell. It’s brimming with instrumental spotlights that reveal incredible musicianship and adventurousness, so hearing it multiple times is a must in order to fully grasp how ambitious and elaborate it is. In contrast, “Will We Cry?” is somber and straightforward, with a central marching beat that keeps the momentum going as mournful timbres and harmonies meld into gorgeous sorrow. Afterward, “Under Northern Skies (Villemo’s Song)” recalls mid-period Beardfish in its formula and path (so it’s filled with seamless transitions, appealing melodies, and temperamental changes). It’s among the lengthiest and most sophisticated moments on The Unbendable Sleep.
Along the same lines, the European flair of “Building a Tent for Astor” makes it feel like a lost interlude from Destined Solitaire, while “Anna-Lee” is a killer showcase for Sjöblom’s vocal range, as he stretches his voice very far over a slightly Americana foundation. Of course, it’s also filled with compelling layers and deviations, so it’s simultaneously direct and dense. There’s an especially nice guitar solo here, too, that evokes ‘70s pioneers like The Allman Brothers Band.
Finally, The Unbendable Sleep wraps up by allowing “Love and War Part Two: Lucky Star” to complete the conceptual continuity. In a way, it’s also the album’s epic track (although it’s only eleven minutes in duration), as it features a grand sense of closure and drive. At first, it’s more mellow and jazzy than its counterpart, but ultimately it evolves into a prog rock odyssey, with frantic keyboard work battling against aggressive guitar and percussion. As for the final section, it’s downtrodden and philosophical, utilizing an array of instruments and techniques to build pathos and intensity. Lyrically, it connects to its other half with subtlety, as its final line–“I am you / I am who you are”—brings The Unbendable Sleep full circle.
As with the past few Beardfish albums, one could go on indefinitely praising how wonderful The Undeniable Sleep is. Sjöblom has once again created an astonishing and highly characteristic sequence of songs that fuse top-notch songwriting and exciting instrumentation, so fans of his previous work will undoubtedly adore this one too (although they’ll also know what to expect, in a way). Sjöblom has always had one of the most unique visions and methods of execution of any of his peers, making him one of modern progressive rocks most important players. Without a doubt, this record maintains that excellence.
Note: The review was originally published by Rebel Noise