Band: Different Light | Album: Binary Suns (Part 1 – Operant Condition) | Genre: Progressive rock | Year: 2020
From: Prague, Czechia | Label: Progressive Gears
For fans of: The Flower Kings, Neal Morse, Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Glass Hammer
For as much as I disparage the 1990s as progressive rock’s dark ages, there were some genuinely excellent albums from that decade. The few bands that did put out good music in that era—acts like Spock’s Beard and The Flower Kings—had a distinct sound that, when put to strong compositions, could stand alongside the prog giants of yore. With the rise in popularity of heavier prog acts in the early 2000s (think Porcupine Tree and The Mars Volta), the relatively lush sounds of the ‘90s became much rarer. That’s why I was surprised to find such a ‘90s-sounding album being released in 2020.
Different Light aren’t just aping that old sound; they were formed in 1994, but they disbanded after just one album. They re-formed in 2008, and Binary Suns is their third album since that reunion. The overall sound on Binary Suns is lighter and lusher than most acts in the contemporary scene. Piano is the dominant instrument, and synth pads tie everything together.
The album opens on a bombastic note, with the bright piano chords and dramatic guitar lines of “Amphibians”. The melodies are strong overall, though there are moments where I’m not wild about some of the sonic choices. This song (and most of the album at large) is more major-key than what I usually listen to, but I acclimated to that environment eventually.
In an unusual sequencing decision, a 21-minute suite is the third song on this album. “Spectres and Permanent Apparitions” is the strongest song on the album. It opens with an energetic passage underpinned by some crunchy rhythm guitar that reminds me of a non-metallic Dream Theater. The suite’s slower moments give flashes of Marillion, and the more somber tone suits the band very well.
Next is “The Answer”, the shortest track on the album, and also one of the most enjoyable. There’s a surprising amount of structural and sonic diversity for a song that doesn’t even crack four minutes. “On the Borderline” closes the album on a fairly strong note. It could have been tightened up a bit, but the meandering doesn’t detract too much.
There are some glaring weaknesses here, though. “Faith” is a straightforward song with some good ideas. However, some of the vocal lines are a bit too sunny and light for my taste. And the ballad “Two Faces”, Binary Suns’ penultimate track, is an eight-minute slog. It reminds me of Styx. And not fun, goofy Styx, like “Mr. Roboto” or “Fooling Yourself”, but schmaltzy, soft rock Styx, like “Babe”.
On a broader level, the album is also hampered by a limited sound palette. Piano, nondescript synth pads, and one distorted guitar tone can only get you so far, especially when stretched out across the span of an hour. I may also just be too much of a Debbie Downer to enjoy those gentle, uplifting choruses, but they had a same-y-ness that did get old by the album’s end.
Binary Suns feels like an artifact of the mid-1990s progressive rock world. It demonstrates many of the ways that era framed the genre. Different Light mostly succeeded at bringing those sounds together to make something enjoyable. If you like the gentler side of rock music, this would probably be right up your alley, but many moments felt toothless to me.