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Hope Is 'The Thing With Feathers': Introducing The Revitalising Prog-Pop of Exploring Birdsong

Wednesday, 04 December 2019 Written by Matt Mills

Prog rock is not a cool genre. It hasn’t been for a very, very long time. Ask the Average Joe on the street what they think of when they think ‘prog rock’, and they’ll almost certainly bring up something silly from the 1970s: Geddy Lee dancing while wearing a cape, a 20-minute Rick Wakeman keyboard solo, or Peter Gabriel singing in his most fabulous fluorescent makeup.

These are all preconceptions that Exploring Birdsong are striving to shatter. “There are stereotypes associated with prog,” the trio’s drummer, Matt Harrison, concedes. “But the actual, literal meaning of the term ‘progressive’ is forward motion and evolution. The way we see it is, if we’re progressive, we have the freedom to pretty much do whatever we want.”

Exploring Birdsong are a prog band—in fact, it’s a label they wear proudly—but they couldn’t be further from the ridiculous extravagance of their forebears. In lieu of half-hour instrumental movements or stretched-out solos, the youngsters specialise in taking the world of melodic pop and imbuing it with talent and intelligence.

On Exploring Birdsong’s debut EP, ‘The Thing With Feathers’, frontwoman Lynsey Ward’s sombre piano enchants while she sings with the gospel-tinged grace of Kate Bush or even Lana Del Rey. Choruses on such songs as The River have the gigantic scope and hooks of radio’s darlings, while The Downpour is a softer number destined to woo fans of Adele.

It’s in these mainstream-friendly snapshots that Exploring Birdsong subtly smuggle their prog rock inclinations. While The Sinking Question is a concise, drumbeat-driven number with a plethora of crescendos, beneath that, it’s built on a foundation of unusual time signatures. Furthermore, combine this song with the others on ‘The Thing With Feathers’ and you get a concept release (another prog rock mainstay), centred around the Seamus Heaney poem Bye-Child.

“We’re all big fans of pop music,” Matt explains. “So that ends up being a big influence on the way that we write. A lot of the time, we’ll write a song and it’ll end up fitting the form of a pop song. Then we’ll go, ‘Oh, it’d be good to add this here,’ and flesh it out with new ideas. We love prog bands from old to new and we do weird time signatures, but we could also come out with a song that sounds like the 1975.”

Exploring Birdsong are a young band but, despite that, their fusion of melody and technicality comes from years of studying to master music theory. They first came together while pursuing music at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts.

Matt remembers: “Lynsey and I were both so close to backing out of uni after the first week. We hadn’t met each at this point and we both thought, ‘No one’s on the same page as us, no one likes the same music.’ That was until I was waiting outside a songwriting seminar and I spotted her in a Genesis t-shirt.”

Matt and Lynsey quickly bonded over a mutual love of bands like Karnivool and Porcupine Tree. Soon after, they started a group of their own, with fellow student Jonny Knight joining on bass to fill out Exploring Birdsong’s rhythm section. 

Their first single and music video, The Baptism, dropped in October 2017, with The Downpour arriving shortly after. It has taken almost two years for ‘The Thing With Feathers’ to follow, but that’s not due to a lack of material; it was because Exploring Birdsong, in Matt’s words, “didn’t want to put things online for no reason.”

“We’d all done bands before and had that strategy not really work,” he explains. “So we were quite calculating with how we wanted this band to launch. That’s why we’ve waited so long to eventually put out this EP. The River, The Downpour, The Sinking Question and The Baptism, we’ve had all those songs since the end of 2016. Now we have the right backing, we are so ready to put them out.”

Exploring Birdsong have proven themselves experts in drip-feeding an increasingly curious audience. In the years leading up to ‘The Thing With Feathers’, the singles The Baptism, The Downpour and, eventually, The River served as tiny appetisers; this was all while the group worked behind the scenes to cultivate the industry support they desperately needed. 

They earned their way onto the pages of national magazines like Prog and Classic Rock before, most recently, signing to Long Branch Records—the home of fellow experimental favourites Agent Fresco and The Hirsch Effekt. Such a lengthy buildup has made ‘The Thing With Feathers' one of the most anticipated EPs of 2019 in certain circles, with a more complete vision of what these Northerners are capable of coming into focus.

“It’s been nice knowing we can appeal to a few different crowds,” Matt says. “I feel like the position we’re at now, everything has helped get us here. When we released The Baptism, it didn’t explode or blow us up, but it was a good tool to go, ‘This is who we are. Help us!’ Then The Downpour was big for us. It gave us exposure to not just the prog fans, who like the twiddly instrumentals and stuff, but also fans of a more mainstream ear. It was a song that bridged that gap.”

‘The Thing With Feathers’ serves as both a culmination of the first chapter of Exploring Birdsong and a promising springboard for their future. For these three, 2020 will revolve around one-upping the music they released in 2019, capitalising on their momentum to continue to redefine what it means to be ‘progressive’. Maybe, just maybe, in their hands, prog can become cool again.

‘The Thing With Feathers’ is out now via Long Branch.





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