“Ours is not the sort of music to have on while you are cooking or having a conversation,” muses Ally Carter, summing up The Emerald Dawn’s all-enveloping, otherworldly style of prog. That’s certainly true of the band’s fifth studio album, In Time, which takes a metaphysical, mythological look at the concept of time via three tracks of differing length and sensibility.
They’re an eclectic quartet, as well. Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Tree Stewart is also a professional circus performer; while guitarist, keyboard player and saxophonist Carter was a Professor of Philosophy. Bassist David Greenaway’s extensive career has included playing in a comedy musical duo and he’s now with a Blondie tribute band; while drummer Tom Jackson, who teaches drums, graduated from the University of Plymouth with a degree in Contemporary World Jazz.
Prog catches up via Zoom with Carter and Stewart in their Cornwall kitchen to talk about their creative process, which involves all four band members. “Tree and I are obsessed with the narrative; Tom and David are obsessed with the music, so we all meet at some point,” says Carter with a laugh.
United in their belief and vision, they use their collective musical experiences and philosophical influences to expand the band’s elaborate, ethereal sound. There are many spine-tingling moments throughout In Time, which, unlike previous albums, starts with the longest, most complex track: Out Of Time unfolds across five suites.
“The previous two albums ended with a very long track,” says Carter. “So we thought it was a good idea not to mirror that again and reversed the order. In terms of the story, it makes more sense for it to come first. It starts with the idea of taking a moment in time and making it last forever.
“Then we say it’s all in the head anyway, as sometimes it drags, sometimes it’s fleeting – and finally, the last track says, ‘No, we’re all getting older, so time is trundling along as we all approach death.’”
But there’s much more to it than that. “The album explores how we experience time,” says Stewart. “Out Of Time is about a moment that’s so beautiful you want it to last forever, and then we develop the concept that if it does last forever, maybe it’s not as good as you’d like it to be.”
“It also looks at how disruptive it can be if you try to hang on it longer than it should,” continues Carter. “We started running with the idea, imagining what time would think if you stole moments from it. After the song’s opening, a sequence is repeated several times and it rapidly changes time signatures – 7/8, 6/8, 5/8, 4/8. That’s removing a beat from each bar, so it’s stealing moments in time.
“Then we mythologised by adding the ouroboros: a big snake, which is a symbol of time that devours its own tail, in a Middle Eastern-sounding section. He’s not happy that you’ve been stealing his moments, so gives you a good telling off!”
Second track Timeless, Stewart says, uses another complex technical musical process. “That one is more about the elasticity of time and how people experience it. It can be a moment that lasts forever, but usually horrible moments seem to last longer and beautiful moments are fleeting. This is a mirror composition that comes in and goes out the way it came in.”
Cue another mythological reference as Timeless features Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and duality, who looks forwards and backwards at the same time. “Hence the mirror structure from the middle, which you can see forward or in reverse, depending which way you look,” says Carter.
Closer The March Of Time has a completely different vibe. “Tom put a lot of work into writing a basic progression, getting a marching feel to it at the beginning with a pattern building up and running through it,” says Carter. “We keep that militaristic feel until we break into something completely different.”
The band are conscious their labyrinthine compositions take listeners on varied sonic journeys. Says Carter: “There’s a funny story about when our first fan listened to our first album, and we asked him what he thought of it. He said, ‘I see spaceships.’
“Well, half of it is about a forest; and as environmentalists, spaceships are not the number-one thing on our agenda. We asked him what he thought of the second album and he said, ‘More spaceships – just darker!’”
There are no spaceships on the stunning album cover artwork, either. Instead, it shows an extinguished candle, its wisps of smoke framing a medieval door within a castle setting. “I always do the painting during the recording process,” Stewart explains. “When I’m not with these guys in the studio, I’m in the art studio or in the recording studio painting, so it’s quite a full-on experience.
“My mum died in January, so the process of painting and doing an album about time was pretty epic and a mad journey for me. Whatever happens in my life seems to coincide with the album.
“I tried not to be too obvious in what I painted as whenever people create artwork about time, you’re going to get a clock or an hourglass or a sundial. I didn’t want the front cover to be so obviously a clock.”
Since the release of previous album To Touch The Sky in 2021, The Emerald Dawn’s reach has grown and their live schedule has become busier. They recently took the opportunity to preview material from In Time at events including Fusion, Prog For Peart and Sunday In September, which allowed them to reach an even bigger crowd. “The festivals are really great because it’s a prog audience and they want to see prog,” says Stewart.
Whatever happens in my life seems to coincide with the album
They’ve played shows with Prog Limelight band EBB in Southampton and Exeter, too. “They are incredibly professional, such a wonderful team and an absolute delight to share a stage with,” says Carter.
One of the features of their live shows is Stewart’s dazzling display of contact juggling, something she’s been practising for 22 years. “I learned it when I was doing performing arts stuff. It’s not always appropriate for every gig, but people say it really goes with our music and the journeys we take people on.
“They like it, so we include it when we can. It is amazing to do it with the band, as we work so well together. I can do flourishes, which Tom picks up on the cymbals. It’s really special.”
The year ahead sees them resume their busy live programme through a rescheduled northern tour with EBB, Ghost Of The Machine and Long Earth. They’re also the Saturday night headliners at the Soundle Festival in Peterborough in June.
The overriding takeaway from speaking to the band is the great mutual respect between them. “When we began, it was Tree, me and a drum machine,” Carter enthuses. “When Tom joined, he added a load of stuff you could never programme a drum machine to do.
“When David joined the band, it was never on our radar that you could add those elements to our music – there’s so much variety and skill to his playing, which takes it to a completely different place. I never imagined we would sound as good as we do now.”