The Cats In Space story is one of perseverance, refusing to give up in the face of adversity and sticking with what you know. The members of Cats In Space have been around, they’ve done the hard yards, put in the miles and it’s refreshing to see the acclaim that has been heaped on the band since they released their debut album ‘Too Many Gods’ in 2015. For their third studio album, the guys are refusing to rest on their laurels and seem intent on pushing the envelope. The result is ‘Daytrip To Narnia’ a record that should please longstanding Cats fans but might also leave a few scratching their heads.
To fully understand Cats In Space it’s worth taking a look at their history. The Cats, as I referenced in my intro, are journeyman rock musicians who’ve been around (and I mean this in the nicest way). Guitarist Greg Hart has a long list of credits including stints in Moritz, If Only and GTS and he founded the Cats with drummer Steevi Bacon (Robin Trower) and Hart’s songwriting partner/co-producer Mick Wilson (10cc). To complete the band they enlisted Dean Howard the ex T’Pau, Airrace, Ian Gillan and The Herbs guitarist; bassist Jeff Brown (Wildfire, Statetrooper, Sweet); Keys wiz Andy Stewart (Moritz/multiple stage musicals) and vocalist Paul Manzi (Oliver Wakeman/Gordon Giltrap, Arena). The Cats sound is steeped in the influences and musical history of its members with an emphasis on the classic rock/power pop greats of the 70s such as 10cc, Queen, ELO, Supertramp and Sweet or if you’re a little younger Jellyfish, a classic 90s band with similar influences.
Side one of ‘Daytrip To Narnia’ deals almost exclusively with a sense of disillusionment with the music business as our rock star protagonist wishes for a comfy chair by the fire during opener ‘Narnia’, a bleakness that isn’t hidden by the bouncy pompous musicality, harmony guitars and typically stunning backing vocals. The (hopefully) tongue in cheek ‘She Talks Too Much’ absolutely flies by, all staccato vocal lines, driving guitars and piercing synths. Built on an opening riff that Alex Lifeson might like back one of these days; ‘Hologram Man’ benefits from a super catchy chorus that deals with the recent – rather creepy if you ask me – arrival of concert hologram images. “We keep the mega-dollar making machine in a flight case in the van” might just be the lyric of the year.
Stewart’s gentle piano eases the listener into ‘Tragic Alter Ego’ before he switches things up alongside Brown’s prominent bass guitar work. ‘Tragic’ finds a fan learning that being in your favourite band might not be all it’s cracked up to be. While 'Tragic' also raises the oft-debated issue of keeping casual and hard-core fans happy that plagues the likes of Def Leppard, Journey and KISS. The vocals here are really exceptional with a nice little nod to Queen. “Play the game” indeed. ‘Silver and Gold’ is subtitled a tribute to the golden age of Glam which sums things up very nicely. It’s bright, breezy but in keeping with the tone of the majority of ‘Narnia’, there’s a dark side to the lyrics. It’s also great to see Andy Scott of Sweet fame helping out on the vocal front.
‘Chasing Diamonds’ finds the band in full on lighters-in-the-air power ballad territory as Manzi delivers another in a string of killer vocals while Howard contributes a lovely escalating guitar solo over Stewart’s orchestrations. Pulsing synth lines and chunky guitars usher in ‘Unicorn’ which has a quite glorious pre-chorus and a clever little key change during the actual chorus. Add in a typically Cat-tastic wall of vocals, pounding drums and a perfectly placed guitar solo from Hart and you’ve got the Cats firing on all cylinders.
Flip the record over and it's time for the Cats to present 'The Story of Johnny Rocket' a conceptual piece that forms side two of ‘Daytrip To Narnia’. When I said earlier that there might be elements of ‘Narnia’ that’ll have fans a little confused then this might well be it; even if Greg Hart has stressed in interviews that each of the seven tracks can stand alone. Is the world ready for a concept piece about a boy who dreams of being a spaceman in 2019? Let’s find out.
Opening with a typically overblown ‘Space Overture’ from Andy Stewart before we know it the driving ‘Johnny Rocket’ is upon us. Catchier than any song has a right to be thanks to the massed vocal harmonies (Hart, Wilson and Brown all take lead vocals during ‘Rocket’) and a keys line that owes a huge debt to Supertramp. ‘Rocket’ also features another killer line “I wanna hang out with the Soup Dragon”, which might only be noticed by those of us of a certain age but a Clangers reference is guaranteed to make you feel very old indeed. ‘Thunder In The Night’ is up next and the story has Johnny meeting his future bride Twilight at the disco, so the Cats go all disco; In a KISS ‘I Was Made For Loving You’ kinda way and it works really well. This was put out recently to promote the album but seems to work so much better in context here. The almost acapella intro to ‘One Small Step’ is genius and probably the best pop tune you’ll hear this year, while the addition of Mick Wilson's ukulele is a masterstroke. The epic ‘Twilight’ finds Stewart bringing his expertise gained working in musical theatre to bear with a lovely orchestration as the tale takes a turn guaranteed to please conspiracy theorists the world over. The melancholy ‘Yesterday’s News’ is superb with another terrific lead vocal and those trademark harmonies (which are always so good I’m starting to take them for granted) while Wilson’s ukulele again creeps in to add colour, with a dash of mandolin for good measure. ‘Destination Unknown’ concludes the saga with another uplifting and optimistic piece of classic pop writing.
With ‘Daytrip To Narnia’ Cats In Space have delivered an album that I honestly thought couldn’t be made in 2019. The guys have embraced their influences and present them for a new generation and a few of us old folks to enjoy. This wouldn’t work if the guys didn’t have the songs or the ability to perform the music to a very high standard aided by a stellar production job that ups the ante from their ‘Scarecrow’ record, a record that already sounded pretty great. ‘Daytrip To Narnia’ really is fantastic and you owe it to yourself to check it out ASAP.