In his personal lexicon, pop chameleon Marc Almond seems to place special meaning on the word "star." Chaos and a Dancing Star marks the fourth time in his career that he's employed it in an album title (alongside 1988's The Stars We Are, 1996's Fantastic Star, and 2007's Stardom Road). The thread that binds these earlier outings to one another and to Chaos and a Dancing Star is that all offer illumination to Almond's ever-evolving, expansive view of pop and all were deliberately aimed at the charts.
Almond resumes his partnership with producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Chris Braide (Sia, Lana Del Ray, Halsey). They worked together on 2015's commercially and critically successful The Velvet Trail. The pair began writing songs for this record in 2017 in Los Angeles with a view toward delivering a prog album. What emerged is different, though one can easily hear the prog influence in the tragically decadent opener "Black Sunrise," with majestic synths, processional drums, and Neal X's (nee Whitmore, ex-Sigue Sigue Sputnik) screaming guitar solo. It's also there in the shattered love story unwinding in "The Stars Are Gone" (there's that word again) and the single "Lord of Misrule," driven by Ian Anderson's flute. (He's returning the favor: Almond appeared with him at Royal Albert Hall when Anderson performed Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick in 2013.) But the singer's take on prog is just one of several styles here. "Hollywood Forever" is an aching paean to the bright lights, twisted ambitions, and ruined lives of Tinseltown, with a hooky rock outro carried by Neal X's guitar. "Chevrolet Corvette Stingray," another L.A.-penned number, is lyrically perverse yet melodically elegant, juxtaposing early-'60s radio pop with nightmarish modern cabaret. "Slow Burn Love" is anything but; its "whoa-oh-oh-oh" intro backing chorus, phase-shifted electric guitar, and pulsing drumkit all frame Almond's croon, which is both passionate and committed. The weight of his lyrics pairs seamlessly with his forceful delivery. "Fighting a War" juxtaposes Marc Bolan-esque glam with Soft Cell's swinging, big-beat dance grooves. "Chaos," with tick-ticking hi-hat and cascading piano, weds Brill Building-styled pop, early-'80s new wave, and Saravah soul. The glorious narrative poetry in "Cherry Tree" is Bowie-esque with its sweeping melody, rolling drums, layered backing vocals, dynamic strings, and synths. While "Dreaming of the Sea" is a 21st century cabaret pop anthem, the closer "The Crow's Eyes Have Turned Blue" is quintessential dark Marc. Accompanied only by a gently reverbed acoustic piano for half the tune, Almond's protagonist is open, vulnerable, and alone. He sings as if resigned to the notion that love can only turn to ashes in this chaotic, polluted, merciless world. Strings enter and buoy him as he reveals the song to be a suicide note. But before it concludes, a pulsing synth, hypnotic drumkit, and electric guitar cut through the arrangement; the song's protagonist describes his absent beloved from memory as if he's singing from the other side of eternity. The production, sequencing, and performances on Chaos and a Dancing Star reveal Almond at his most sophisticated and ambitious, at the very top of his game; these songs are beautifully written and arranged, and they arrive as deep emanations from the singer's personal well of passion, pleasure, heartbreak, sin, and loss.