Swedish musician Rikard Sjöblom has always been in a class all his own. With a voice as characteristically superb as his songwriting and playing are dynamically enthralling—ranging from discerningly earnest to explosively playful and vibrant—he helped make his former outfit, Beardfish, one of the greatest progressive rock bands of all time. (His current role in the equally laudable Big Big Train is clearly subtler.) Naturally, that same magnetism soars in his solo work, and his latest LP, Friendship, is no exception. Once again channeling the colorful instrumental intricacies and subtler, more heartfelt sophistications he’s known for, it fits right into his idiosyncratic wheelhouse as another beloved release under the Gungfly moniker.
Sjöblom never shies away from writing about his personal life, so it’s no shock that Friendship is inspired by “this old photo at [his] parents’ house, depicting [him] standing on top of this really tall treehouse in a glade near [their] house.” He adds (in the official press release):
As I reminisced about the treehouse I started thinking about my childhood friends with whom I built it. We were the best of friends and we spent so much time together in this little village where I used to live. This, of course, made me think about all the friends I used to have, these relationships where you hung out all the time, went through childhood together, grew up and knew everything about each other and then all of a sudden, for some reason, disappeared from each other’s lives. This phenomenon of falling out with someone is still a mystery to me, but I’ve learned to accept it, much like the separation of death it’s just a part of life and the nature of our course of life, I guess. So, this is a collection of songs about and for all of my friends, dead or alive, past and present.
Helping him—as the main vocalist, guitarist, keyboardist, and bassist—bring those sentiments to life are frequent collaborators Petter Diamant (drums throughout), Rasmus Diamant (bass on tracks 1,5,7, and 9), and David Zackrisson (guitars on tracks 6 and 7). Musically, it feels very much aligned with his usual penchant for progressive rock with hard rock, singer/songwriter, and jazz elements (which isn’t to say that he’s repeating himself; rather, he’s just very consistent and reliable at providing a very particular musical personality). It’s a very satisfying record for fans and newcomers alike.
“Ghost of Vanity” kicks things off in proper fashion with a whirlwind of fetching hooks and flamboyantly virtuosic musicianship (all of which are bathed in a consistently amicable atmosphere). While certainly tied to Sjöblom’s original style—few contemporaries or influences ever struck such a remarkable blend between those qualities—it also evokes Kavus Torabi’s marginally more psychedelic expeditions with Gong and Knifeworld. Suffice to say that Sjöblom’s in top form here, and later tracks like the wordless “A Treehouse in a Glade” (in which he tries to “tell the story of how [he and his friends] . . . defended it like a fort against some older kids”) and “Stone Cold” really pack a punch in terms of building upon central themes with mesmerizing adventurousness and adaptability.
Elsewhere, his knack for prioritizing poignant melodies and lyrics shine most. For example, the title track is, underneath all of its zig-zag frills and gorgeous embellishments, a piano ballad that finds Sjöblom tenderly and matter-of-factly recalling those connections with poeticisms like “There is the comfort of grieving / As there is relief in leaving / There is pain in knowing that once upon a time / We were the best of friends.” Likewise, the more radio-friendly chronicle “They Fade” is filled with sublime harmonies and textures as it recalls past songwriting triumphs like “Ludvig & Sverker” and “Realm of You and Me.” Expectedly, “If You Fall, Pt. 2” does a stellar job of picking up where its predecessor left off with a towering mixture of new ideas and refrains from On Her Journey to the Sun.
Unsurprisingly, Friendship is another towering achievement for Sjöblom. All of the aforementioned treasurable traits are here in full force, allowing it to further cement his place as one of the superlative songwriters and composers in progressive rock (or modern music as a whole, for that matter). It’s truly astounding how much he continues to equal, if not outdo, himself this far into his career, and if you’ve never heard what makes his work so special, Friendship is an excellent place to start.