Wisconsin-based songwriter Nolen Chew Jr. dreams big. He has the  gifts to back it up. The Star Prairie Project’s new album release, The Shining Ones, challenges listeners in ways few modern songwriters dare. It’s a conceptually driven work, but linear storytelling doesn’t propel the collection. Chew, instead, constructs the thirteen-track work around imaginative and historical themes derived from the flooding and sinking of the mythical(?) Atlantis and the shaman priests (The Shining Ones) walking among us following that disaster.

It sounds like it is fodder for a sci-fi/fantasy film or novel. Endeavoring to connect esoteric material such as this with modern audiences sounds like a heavy lift. However, Nolen Chew and his Star Prairie Project bandmates triumph with a mix of ambitious arrangements, startlingly direct lyrics, and physical music that cuts through any potential obscurities. “Oh Ye Shining Ones” sets an early template for everything that follows.

Chew’s musical design for the album is three-pronged. “Oh Ye Shining Ones” flies high thanks to a mix of first-class vocals, blazing guitar, and synthesizer/keyboards buttressing the arrangement. The songs favor upbeat arrangements, but progressive influences are stamped on “Oh Ye Shining Ones” and its successors. “My Kundalini”, the album’s first single, has a near-operatic range. Singer Sandrine Orsini is one of the crucial ingredients driving the success of this collection, and she sings with such fiery velocity during the performance it sounds as if her life depended on it.

It is one of several breathtaking moments scattered across the album’s running order. The arcane musical touches sprinkled across the opening for “And He Was Not” soon transform into a sterling progressive hard rock arrangement aglow with stirring vocal harmonies. The slightly ominous tilt of “I’ll Fly Away” doesn’t break radically with its predecessors but nonetheless provides a distinct tone thus far missing from the release. It features one of the album’s best vocals, and the integration of electronic instrumentation, piano, and guitar achieves a satisfying variation of the album’s epic musical character.

“Trying to Climb the Tower” is another of the album’s pinnacles. Excellent piano playing enhances the song’s stately gait, and the superb rhythm section interplay gives the track a memorable foundation. The Star Prairie Project positions this as one of the album’s key moments, without question, but it never sounds forced. The crashing and dramatic texture of “Annunaki Mind Games” is a thrilling late addition to the album’s track listing. Successful dynamic contrasts are abundant throughout the cut, and it’s another notable example of how Chew’s songwriting ambition never falls prey to pretentiousness.

This is no small feat given the songwriting’s thematic sources. Instead of letting the songs spiral into ten minutes plus epics, The Star Prairie Project scales impressive heights within manageable durations. These are focused songs that resist self-indulgence. You can’t accuse Nolen Chew of unnecessary bloat – there is nothing ornamental dragging these performances down. The Star Prairie Project’s The Shining Ones is like nothing else you’ll hear in 2024 and deserves multiple plays to appreciate in full.

Garth Thomas