When It Bites reformed in 2008 they had their work cut out for them. How to carve a niche in a progressive rock scene which had flourished during their hiatus, while carrying die-hards along from their chart-busting days in the late 80s? How also to do this while replacing their charismatic frontman Francis Dunnery, the public face of It Bites in the age of MTV?
2005 saw the release of “Picture” by Kino, a prog rock collaboration between John Mitchell (Arena/Frost*), John Beck (It Bites), Pete Trewavas (Marillion/Transatlantic) and Chris Maitland (Porcupine Tree). A Kino tour saw It Bites drummer Bob Dalton replacing Maitland and the seeds for a new It Bites were sown. In vocalist/guitarist/producer/songwriter/kitchen-sink-purveyor John Mitchell, they found a charismatic and multi-talented frontman who could fill Dunnery’s formidable shoes, who could play those daunting guitar parts, whose vocals could do justice to the back catalogue and, most importantly could stamp his own personality on the It Bites brand to bring it into the 21st century.
The comeback album, “The Tall Ships”, was met with near-universal acclaim by hardcore and new fans alike, a remarkable achievement given the 19 year gap since the previous studio album, “Eat Me In St. Louis”. “The Tall Ships” succeeded by being faithful to the band’s style while sounding utterly contemporary. 4 years on, the band are set to release “Map of the Past”, their first concept album and their most ambitious outing to date.
To clarify, “Map of the Past” is an album based around a concept rather than being a concept album in the vein of “Thick As A Brick” or “The Wall”. In a recent interview with Classic Rock Presents Prog, Mitchell describes it as a themed album, the theme being the window into the past which is opened by looking at old photographs. The album begins in Floydian style with a radio dial tuning into various wartime British broadcasts. An organ enters, complete with phonograph crackling, providing a backdrop to Mitchell’s lyrical depiction of the soldier on the album cover. An orchestra begins to swell and martial drumming enters, building in intensity. The discovery of a “sepia-framed” photograph and the military references in the instrumentation and lyrics bring to mind the “When the Tigers Broke Free” section from the movie of The Wall when Pink finds his father’s photograph in his mother’s bottom drawer. As the orchestra reaches its climax “Wallflower” bursts into life with a driving prog guitar riff and Hammond organ with synth brass stabs and a propulsive rhythm section. It Bites are back. From here on in it’s track after track of hook-laden pop-prog. The songwriting is superb throughout – anthemic singalongs are made the more rewarding by the jaw-dropping dexterity of the arrangements; there is a complexity to this writing that is camouflaged by the immediacy of the songs.
The title track harks back again to “The Wall” with its opening line “I’ve got wild eyes” recalling Waters’ “I’ve got wild staring eyes” and another verse beginning “I’ve got pinhole burns”. John Mitchell must have been mainlining Floyd’s album during the lyric-writing sessions. If this is conscious homage then the overall tone of the album couldn’t be farther from that weighty and dour (yet brilliant) rock opera. This is joyous, jubilant, life-affirming music. I defy anyone to have a frown on their face listening to “Flag” or the superb “Meadow and the Stream”. When this material goes on tour in a few months I will be struggling to stop spilling beer all down the front of my favourite (non-satin) shirt air-drumming Dalton’s fills in “The Big Machine”. “Cartoon Graveyard” has all the grandiosity and bombast of classic Queen (complete with over-the-top multi-part vocal harmonies) and an instrumental bridge that condenses Genesis’s “Apocalypse” in 9/8 into 30 seconds of prog bliss. The outro features a guitar solo that takes “A Night at the Opera”-era Brian May and gives it the Mitchell shred-magic. If that wasn’t prog enough the orchestra return to fanfare a seamless segue into the Gabriel-esque “Send No Flowers” and the massed Queen choir return from the wings.
For all the bombast and bluster there are moments of genuine touching beauty. Penultimate track “The Last Escape” is possibly the most tear-inducing song you will hear this year thanks in part to a stunning vocal performance. The album is rounded off with an equally beautiful acoustic song accompanied by a further bookending radio news broadcast, this time about a Titanic survivor.
For a band to lose its frontman and main songwriter is unfortunate. To come back as strongly as they have done is quite remarkable and yet the glory can’t all be laid at the feet of the new boy. The playing on this album is as tight as anything I have heard in recent years. Despite the complexity of the arrangements and the excellent individual musicianship, this is ensemble playing of the highest order. Come December, “Map of the Past” will feature heavily in end-of-year lists and will top many, and deservedly so; it is the most ambitious, yet quite simply the best, album of It Bites’ career to date.