Reviews in this issue:
- Echolyn - The End Is Beautiful
- Carptree - Man Made Machine
- Kvazar – A Giant’s Lullaby
- Gong Matrices– Parade
- Odyssey - Setting Forth
- Borealis - Sons Of The Sea /
Professor Fuddle's Fantastic Fairy Tale Machine
Echolyn - The End Is Beautiful
Tracklist: Georgia Pine (5:49), Heavy Blue Miles (6:48), Lovesick Morning (10:12), Make Me Sway (5:22), The End Is Beautiful (7:45), So Ready (5:01), Arc Of Descent [Dancing in A Motel Just West Of Lincoln] (5:46), Misery, Not Memory (9:03)
Pennsylvanian prog stalwarts Echolyn follow-up their 50-minute, single-track release Mei with a collection of eight new songs that display the finest qualities of one of the most celebrated American progressive bands in recent years. With bassist Tom Hyatt having recently permanently rejoined the band, the five piece line-up, completed by keyboard player Chris Buzby, guitarist and vocalist Brett Kull, drummer Paul Ramsey and lead vocalist Ray Weston, are back to the configuration that recorded some of their most defining material. They are also back to writing and recording definitive Echolyn songs. Yes Mei was a great piece of work and previous album Cowboy Poems Free was a welcome return for a group effectively forced to call it quits by the actions (or inactions) of the mainstream music industry. However, although both albums deservedly received a recommended rating by DPRP reviewers, both seemed to be lacking a little bit of the Echolyn magic of the past. Fear not dear reader, The End Is Beautiful is perhaps the strongest album the group have released so far.
Three years have passed since Mei, not really an excessive time period these days for bands that have to earn a living outside of music. Not that the group members have been totally absent from the studio and live arena. Kull and Ramsey have continued their association with Grey Eye Glances (who admittedly haven't been that active in recent times) while the guitarist has also worked as a producer and session musician for several new American acts. There have even been a couple of solo albums. Brett Kull's Orange-ish Blue displayed the guitarist's acoustic skills and knack for a fine melody, drawing favourable comparisons with a certain four-piece from Liverpool, while Ray Weston's This Is My Halo remains one of the most criminally ignored CDs to be released in recent years (both are well worth buying!) And it is Weston who stamps his mark all over The End Is Beautiful. Ostensibly the lead vocalist (a task he shares with Kull on six of the tracks), he also contributes lo-fi piano, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric piano, electric and acoustic guitar, bass, percussion, theramin and even various samples and noises. Not that the other members are slouches, each having an input greater than their nominally assigned instrument.
Album opener Georgia Pine is an energetic rocker that gets the pulses racing. Kull and Ramsey's vocals blend perfectly on the verses and take on an harmony roles in the I'm gonna get high as a Georgia Pine chorus. Buzby adds a dash of Hammond B3 organ to the proceedings the overall effect being rather like Deep Purple with harmonies and without the screaming! Heavy Blue Miles maintains the tempo in the introduction before Buzby's piano takes things down and Kull sings the first verse. Again the harmonies (by Weston and Hyatt) are of the highest order and the closing section displays some characteristic Echolyn vocal interplays. It is rare to find bands with one exceptional lead vocalist, Echolyn have two and three very proficient backing vocalists to boot. What is more they know how to use their voices to best effect. Ballad Lovesick Morning infiltrates the brain and refuses to let go, a horn section of baritone sax, muted trumpet and trombone (played by Mark Gallagher, Eric Apelt and Phil Kaufman, respectively) adding a slightly exotic feel which, along with the added samples and theramin, provide the listener with a kaleidoscope of sounds to decipher.
Make Me Sway is an angry song about the words spun by liars that have the ability to almost make them believable. Although there is nothing specific in the lyric, I get the impression that it relates to recent and ongoing events in the Middle East and the justifications peddled by politicians for armed conflict. Of course it could just be aimed at a cheating partner! Weston handles the vocals, his voice possessing an angrier edge than the rather smoother tonsils of the guitarist. Title track, The End Is Beautiful is based on some solid driving rhythms by drummer Ramsey whose kit is never far from the front of the mix. Even when the other instruments are soloing the beat still comes through strong and true. A classical Echolyn song that plays to the strengths of the individuals but also shows off the group dynamic. So Ready is quite a funky track, Buzby's keyboards, including clavinet, electric piano and Nord synth are prominent at the start providing all sorts of extraneous noises as well as the main melody. The horn section adds texture and the band really sync in an extended groove. Arc Of Descent is classic Echolyn, in music and arrangement, even if the subject matter (last thoughts of a suicidal man) are none too optimistic. The mixture of acoustic and electric instruments is refreshing with Kull taking the plaudits for his contributions throughout the song, in particular his concise electric solo at the end. Final track Misery, Not Memory gives Buzby and his Hammond another chance to shine while Hyatt provides a melodic bass line that fans of Chris Squire will appreciate. Admittedly the quiet section approximately three quarters of the way through perhaps doesn't work so well and could possibly have been shortened, but it is only a minor blip on an otherwise strong end to a strong album.
With The End Is Beautiful Echolyn have upped the ante and set standards for 21st century American progressive music. With their collective musicianship, expert vocal and instrumentation arrangements and superlative songwriting skills, they are more than worthy being considered as the equals, or betters, of higher profile contemporaries like Spock's Beard, Neal Morse or any other US prog act you care to mention. An excellent album indeed and one that comes very highly recommended.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Carptree - Man Made Machine
Formed in 1997, Carptree released their first, eponymous, album in 2001 following it up two years later with the sonically expanded Superhero. The Swedish band is based around the core duo of Carl Westholm (keyboards) and Niclas Flinck (vocals) with a virtual ensemble of seven other musicians dubbed The No Future Orchestra who made their debut on the sophomore release and feature prominently on Man Made Machine, the bands latest, and strongest, release.
Taken as a whole, Man Made Machine is an enticing set of songs that mesh together forming a mysterious and diverse whole. Although not a concept album, the ten individual compositions do, in combination, create something greater than its parts. For example, The Man You Just Became takes on a different atmosphere when interwoven with the rest of the album than when played as an individual track. Westholm's formal musical education is evident in the arrangements which display classical influences throughout. This is not just on the obvious tracks like The Weakening Sound where Westholm himself conducts the Trollhättaner Chamber Choir whose haunting vocalisations blend perfectly with the strings and piano based musical accompaniment, but also on the more rockier tracks like the superb opening number Titans Clash Aggressively To Keep An Even Score which sets the mood for the whole album.
And mood is what the album definitely portrays. Westholm's piano work is perfectly judged to create the exact atmosphere needed in each piece - he plays for effect and not for egotistical displays of technical brilliance (which I'm sure he possesses in abundance). Flinck's vocals are also apt for the music, ranging from almost inaudible whispers to more forceful remonstrations. Backing vocals, contributed by members of the No Future Orchestra, are well thought out, Tilting The Scales being a prime example of how to blend lead and backing vocals to best effect. Apart from the classical overtones, the music draws from a variety of sources, title track Man Made Machine mixes industrial elements with Pink Floyd while In The Centre Of An Empty Space is a quirky blend, elements of which remind me of Gentle Giant, Supertramp, ELP with a couple of heavy rock guitarists thrown in for good measure.
The oddity of the set is The Recipe with its simple keyboard backing having almost fairground qualities. Fortunately the track only lasts 2½ minutes! Closing track This Is Home starts with what sounds like the breathing of a monster from a film like Aliens but don't let that put you off! A great song, Carptree definitely believe in saving the best for last! It is one of those songs that as soon as it is finished you immediately want to hear it again so you can grasp all the nuances contained in the piece. Flinck comes to the fore with the rousing chorus at the beginning of the song and the gradual build of the vocals in the last part that serve to build up the tension. Could have done with ending with a bang rather than a fade out but that is a minor criticism when all is said and done.
Man Made Machine offers the discerning prog listener that increasingly rare delight of something a bit different, something hard to compare with other bands as they do their own rather unique thing. Easily stands out from other new releases I've listened to recently and for that reason alone is worthy of recommendation.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Kvazar – A Giant’s Lullaby
Tracklist: Flight Of Shamash (9:13), Choir of Life (5:36), 3 (1:30), Dreams Of Butterflies (8:30), 5 (1:49), Spirit Of Time (8:42), Desert Blues (6:13), Sometimes (5:09), A Giant’s Lullaby (9:42), Dark Horizons (8:03)
‘Never judge a book by its cover’ is certainly an epithet that applies to many albums in the progressive rock scene, including this one. With a rather amateurish cover design and uninspiring, rather garish inlay, coupled with an unwieldy band name, I must admit that I wasn’t necessarily expecting great things from this, the second release from Norwegians Kvazar. However, once over the initially rather busy production, I have found this to be one of the more pleasant surprises that have come my way whilst reviewing CD’s this year.
A Giant’s Lullaby is a relatively mellow, yet at times quite dynamic, progressive rock album, with all songs enhanced by a very warm sound, helped by the type of instrumentation used (lots of Mellotron, Rhodes, flute and saxophone). The opening track Flight Of Shamash gives a good indication of what to expect – a melding of Gregorian chants to a Camel-esque instrumental backing, with lots of nice lead guitar in the Andy Latimer mould. Drummer Kim Lieberknecht has a busy, bustling style which takes a bit of getting used to, but ultimately works well in the context of the band’s music. Pace and tone changes are well placed and executed, and I like the way there seems plenty of room within the relatively tight structures for some seemingly improvised jamming; the last minute or so could almost have been tagged on to Pink Floyd’s Any Colour You Like.
Choir Of Life sees the introduction of ‘proper’ vocals – joining lead singer Andre Jenson Deaya on this track is guest Trude Bergli, whose soaring operatic tones are well utilised on the chorus. Deaya’s own rather delicate vocals are well back in the mix, but this seems to suit the songs. The track features plenty of Jethro Tull-esque flute, and a mandolin is well utilised to add an extra dimension to the music; the combination of the two instruments certainly gives a slightly folky feel to proceedings. Following a short instrumental played out on a classical guitar, Dreams Of Butterflies sees the band establishing a slow, choppy, hypnotising groove, overlaying an atmospheric Mellotron wash, before the song switches to something akin to lounge jazz, complete with some ‘late night’ saxophone playing from guest Odd Andre, who appears on a number of tracks. The song switches back and forth between these sections, and also incorporates some samba style grooves, before moving towards a more bombastic finale – an excellent track, with the individual styles knitting together well.
Following a short fusion-esque instrumental, Spirit Of Time is a mellow, slightly blues-tinged song somewhat in the vein of Barclay James Harvest, with Deaya’s vocals quite dramatic and expressive on this one. Desert Blues features some ethnic chanting and Eastern-tinged melodies, and is held together with a funky bass line. Sometimes sees a return to a semi-jazz style, with some guitar licks in the Pat Metheny vein and a rather psychedelic chorus. The song ends with a saxophone playing out a melody similar to that of the old standard Summertime. The jazzy feel is retained for the title track, but this time Kvazar adopt a darker, more portentous tone. Some of the instrumentation again leads to comparisons with Camel, particularly the early 80’s Nude era. There’s some good dynamics in this track with slower atmospheric sections which gradually build into grandiose symphonic crescendos. The final track Dark Horizons has a signature melody which is strangely reminiscent of that found on Don Henley’s eighties hit The Boys Of Summer. Much of the track has a very laid back Floyd-y feel, but it again retains a slightly darker edge.
Musea release a plethora of new albums every month, and it seems likely that The Giant’s Lullaby will probably be swept along in the undertow, but that would be a pity as this is a very strong album. For all those into melodic, mellow prog with some darker overtones, and can handle the introduction of elements from jazz, folk, blues and world music, this is well worth checking out.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Gong Matrices– Parade
Tracklist: Welcome To The Parade (4:27), Annunaki (4:37), Demon Barbie And The Super Computer Matrix (8:38), Seas (6:20), Battlefield / That’s All Right George (4:20), Email From The Most High (2:06), The Driver’s Seat (5:20), Virtual Lover (4:57), Mystery (7:25)
With a lifetime spent honing her craft as a Poetess/Performer – in and out of Gong and its various offshoots - it is unlikely Gilli Smyth will ever radically depart from the course her career has so far pursued. This new venture, Gong Matrices, finds her travelling the same Hippy Highway as her previous group Mother Gong, but in a newer, sleeker vehicle. This vehicle is a collaboration with the American prog group Azigza (which has, itself, so far released two CD’s of Middle-Eastern / Celtic folk influenced trippy prog), and which grew out of a Jam Session at The Progressive Music Festival 1999 in San Francisco.
The pairing is a good one, with Azigza’s floaty, spacey meanderings- spiced with a side order of Dub and a garnish of Funk- making an ideal backdrop for Ms Smyth’s inimitable spoken poetry and sexy, shiver-inducing space whispering (at around the age of sixty, she can still deliver that authentic Frisson). Pierce McDowell is the principle architect of the music, contributing keyboards, bass, loops and programming, as well as some ethnic instruments, including Tanboura. James Rotondi and Stephen Junca take care of guitar and percussion respectively, but what gives the music its main focus is the sweeping, gliding violin of Aryeh Frankfurter. The music never upstages the lyrics, which are, of course, the centre of the action, but there are several instrumental interludes, where one piece effortlessly segues into the next.
With lyrical subjects ranging from political satire (That’s All Right George), to humorous feminist harangues (Demon Barbie and The Super Computer Matrix), to metaphysical, mystical musings (The Driver’s Seat, Mystery), Gilli is on good form and is sure to delight her fans with this latest offering.
My favourite tracks are the surreal and scathing Demon Barbie, the nonchalant dub of Virtual Lover and the slow to start, but ultimately powerful Battlefield / That’s All Right George.
By substituting violin for the saxophones of Mother Gong, Gilli Smyth has created a slightly more accessible musical conveyance for her incisive poetry, and this may make a good place to start exploring her strange, spacey universe.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Odyssey - Setting Forth
Tracklist: Angel Dust (5:43), Sally (4:34), Church Yard (3:00), You're Not There (3:44), Got To Feel It (3:17), Tied By A Rope (4:24), Society's Child (5:02), Denky's Boogie (4:43), St. Elmo's Fire (3:04), Come Back (3:29)
Lion Records have unearthed a forgotten classic in Setting Forth, the only album released by New York's Odyssey. Well released is hardly the word, less than 100 copies were originally pressed and even if one wanted to buy a copy at the time it was nearly impossible to find as it came in a plain white sleeve - no one could decide on the graphics! Consequently, the original 1969 album is one of the ten rarest US psychedelic albums. The five piece band comprised founders Louis Yovino on lead vocals and Vincent Kusy on keyboards with Dennis Pennaga (guitar), Ray Lesch (bass) and John Willems (drums) completing the line-up. Signed to Organic Productions, part of the Richmond Organization, the label were completely at a loss as how to produce and market a rock band. As a result they provided a minimal budget (the reason why so few copies were pressed as most of the available money had been spent on the recording) and allocated a senior producer to the project whose main claim to fame was that he had produced How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?! Having supported many major headlining acts in their time (at one memorable gig they supported Procol Harum and totally confused the audience by playing their own tripped out version of A Whiter Shade Of Pale which the headline act didn't include in their set!) the band called it a day in late 1974 with several members reuniting in the more classically progressive band Cathedral.
The sound is typical sixties, rightly described in the album's sleeve notes (written by keyboardist Vinny Kusy) as "the quintessential dictionary definition of the New York brand of sixties psychedelia - strong harmonic vocals, heavy swirling organ and infused with inspired fuzz guitar". Angel Dust gives Iron Butterfly's In A Gadda Da Vida a run for its money in the heavy riff stakes while elsewhere tracks like Church Yard and the excellent cover of Janis Ian's Society's Child are the equal of anything on the first Vanilla Fudge album. The dominant keyboards on You're Not There give the track a feel akin to early Deep Purple while Denky's Boogie, an unrehearsed and largely improvised number recorded in one-take, embellishes a standard 12-bar blues riff with the psychedelic trappings of the time.
For fans of the late sixties psychedelic scene or those interested in delving into the roots of classic progressive rock, Setting Forth is as good as a place to start as any. A welcome addition to my collection, certainly as good as most, and better than several, of the more lauded 'influential' bands of the era.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Borealis - Sons Of The Sea /
Professor Fuddle's Fantastic Fairy Tale Machine
Tracklist: In The End (2:32), Broke (3:16), Sons Of The Sea (3:51), Higher (3:25), Another Boy (5:08), Business (4:44), The Politician (3:30), Old Age (3:02), Tomorrow Morning (5:19), Lucky Day (3:08), Professor Fuddle's Fantastic Fairy Tale Machine (3:02), Rain's My Name (2:07), Witch's Chant (2:10), Philomel (2:42), Dancing Master's Jig (1:44), Indigo Evening (2:45), Counting Comparison (2:39), Sonnet Song (2:47), The Opera Cracks The Bell (1:53)
Borealis were a Canadian quartet (Paul Bradbury, Wayne Sturge, Mark Bradbury and David Hillier) who had the dubious honour of recording the first rock album in the Atlantic province of their home country. The year was 1972 and at that time the region was somewhat uninterested in anything other than the standard fair of country or folk music. Nevertheless, the group did score a hit of sorts, the single, and first cut on the album, In The End made it into the top ten in St Johns, Newfoundland for two months, possibly because, as the liner notes state "it was the least jarring to the region's many country fans". The song is fairly untypical of the rest of the ten-track album being a mid-tempo number with upfront vocals, gentle guitar and a wash of keyboards in the background. Rather lovely by all accounts.
Unfortunately the parent album, Sons Of The Sea, failed to take off, mainly because of lack of promotion by both band and record company confining the LP to the bargain bins and subsequently onto the shelves of collectors of obscure 70s bands. The majority of the remainder of the original album tracks are dominated by keyboards with some nice flourishes of guitar interceding every now and then. There is a tendency for things to start sounding rather similar, mainly because the keyboard sounds don't vary very much, although that is not to say the tracks are not without individual merit. When there is a greater degree of variety, as in Higher for example, things start to get more interesting, with the guitarist putting his stamp nicely on proceedings. Old Age dispenses with the keyboards entirely which makes it stand out somewhat, although this track suffers from rather twee lyrics. Another Boy features a more warmer vocal sound and employs a greater use of harmonies contributing to a very late sixties sound, a prevailing influence throughout the LP. In many ways the album is a missing link between psychedelia and progressive rock, not falling neatly into either category. The languid Tomorrow Morning is the highlight: structurally simple the guitar motif is delightful and sets things up for the most energetic track on the album, Lucky Day, which rounds the album off nicely. The album is extremely well mixed and balanced with each instrument clearly differentiated.
As a bonus, the CD contains the complete soundtrack to a fairly tale written in 1973 that teaches children how computers work, long before computers were an everyday item and Children starting teaching adults how to use the ubiquitous machines! The information provided with this release doesn't specify if the performers on Professor Fuddle's Fantastic Fairy Tale Machine are the same as on Sons Of The Sea or if the album should actually be credited as a second Borealis album, I have the feeling that it is not and that the group split sometime after the failure of their debut album. Even if Professor Fuddle is by the band it would be wrong to consider it as a follow-up to Sons Of The Sea as it was written, by Paul Bradbury, specifically for the fairy tale. Musically it is quite a hotchpotch. The title track makes better use of synthesisers although does have a generally similar sound to the material on the Borealis album. With the exception of a wayward middle eight, the title track itself is quite exceptional. The appearance of a female vocalist (singing the part of Snow White in the fairy tale) on the jolly Rain's My Name is an interesting contrast to the other material, although next track, Witch's Chant, is basically narrative, probably important to the tale but really rather a musical void. Elsewhere we get doses of Shakespeare (Philomel), a folkish jig (Dancing Master's Jig), a lesson in arithmetic (Counting Comparison) and a pretty decent mood piece (Indigo Evening).
Overall, Sons Of The Sea is a pleasant enough album, although not one that set the world alight when it was first released, nor likely to do so now. Professor Fuddle's Fantastic Fairy Tale Machine is, with the exception of a couple of tracks, largely forgettable but good value for completists. The packaging of the CD is exceptional: hard card cover with inner sleeve, separate four page booklet of album notes and a Professor Fuddle poster! Would have been nice to have a bit more information about the band though.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10