Reviews in this issue:
- Soft Machine – Floating World Live
- Chambers, Berlin, Fiuczynski & Lavitz - Boston T Party
- Aziola Cry - Ellipsis
- Mask – Heavy Petal
- Marvin Ayers - Scape
Soft Machine – Floating World Live
Tracklist: The Floating World (4:52), Bundles (4:53), Land Of The Bag Snake (5:07), Ealing Comedy (6:08), The Man Who Waved At Trains (4:56), Peff (6:29), North Point (4:05), Hazard Profile Part One (4:49), J.S.M. (10:13), Riff III (8:42), Song Of Aeolus (4:16), Endgame(6:39), Penny Hitch [Coda] (2:40)
Last year I reviewed The Soft Machine Legacy’s Live In Zaandam, but I held back from rating it. No such qualms here, as this very welcome live CD is likely to be much more appealing to proggers. It is the first to capture a live performance from the Bundles line-up, featuring Allan Holdsworth. Known to many prog fans for his work with UK, and also Jon Hiseman’s Tempest, Holdsworth spearheaded a revitalised Soft Machine, virtually abandoning the entire back catalogue (a brief Penny Hitch from Seven being the only survivor) and purveying a flaming hot fusion style typified by Jenkins’ repetitive, minimalistic compositions, backing killer riffs and dazzling solos from Holdsworth.
Bundles is one of my favourite S M releases, and I’m sure I won’t be alone in eagerly welcoming this archive release.
Recorded for German Radio in 1975, some months after Bundles was recorded, but before its release, this CD heavily features material from the album, but is played as a long fusion suite, segueing familiar tunes with solo features and group improvs to form a highly entertaining concert programme.
The highlight is Hazard Profile, featuring one of the best riffs in their (or anyone’s) repertoire, but the disc’s biggest flaw is that only Part One features as the Radio Station apparently broke for adverts! Oh, for what might have been! The other drawback for me is the standard jazz practice of each band member taking lengthy solos – I could listen to Holdsworth all day, and Ratledge’s North Point is interesting, but Babbington’s bass feature – Ealing Comedy- impressive as it is, is a touch too long, and Marshall’s J.S.M. at 10 minutes is far longer than I would personally like. Your mileage may vary. The group stuff is excellent, proving what a dynamic unit they were. Holdsworth even switches to violin for The Man Who Waved At Trains, yet another innovation for this line-up. Bundles and Endgame are also great Holdsworth guitar outings.
This great concert underlines what a pity it is that they did not record any more albums together. Holdsworth left to play with Tony Williams, and recommended John Etheridge to replace him for the Softs album, my 2nd favourite S M album.
Being a Radio broadcast, the sound quality is very good as you might expect. All late-period Softs fans and Holdsworth nuts should go for this disc. Prospective Soft Machine converts should try Bundles and Softs first.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Chambers, Berlin, Fiuczynski & Lavitz - Boston T Party
Tracklist: D'funk'd (6:26), [Great] Ball Of Issues (5:39), Around About Way (6:41), I Hate The Blues... [But Here's One Anyway] (5:56), All Thought Out (6:47), Emotional Squalor (8:27), Deff 184 (1:46), Last Trane (3:11), Constant Comment (7:46), Foxy Morons (6:39)
There was a time during the 70s and 80s when I couldn’t get my hands on enough of this “type” of material. In those pre internet days it would purely be a matter of chance to stumble across such releases in my local music stores. Discovering an album such as this would have made my week, and even now I'll admit that I was pretty keen to pop this disc into my CD player.
DPRP readers familiar with the output from the excellent Mascot Records will presumably be aware of this latest offering. Mascot (and associated labels) specialise in albums that bring together top flight musicians, either to undertake albums such as this one, or as a series of tribute albums. Recently we have covered "tribute" releases to Steely Dan (The Royal Dan), Mahavishnu Orchestra (Visions Of An Inner Mounting Apocalypse) and Miles Davis (Fusion For Miles).
So for those readers who may have missed these releases or to whom the above list of musicians are unfamiliar...
Dennis Chambers is universally recognised for his drumming abilities and is in great demand across many genres – his credits include Santana, John McLaughlin, Steely Dan, Stanley Clarke, to mention just four. Bassist extraordinaire Jeff Berlin - Al Di Meola, Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin. Guitarist Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski (who I have to admit to little knowledge of prior to this release) – Screaming Headless Torsos. And lastly T Lavitz, keyboard wizard behind the legendary Dixie Dregs. An impressive cast.
Little information is available regarding the coming together of these musicians for the recording of the Boston T Party, but my gut feeling on the music encompassed is that this is the result of four guys at the top of their game coming together for a jam session. The writing of the material is attributed mainly to Lavitz, with Berlin chipping in two tracks and Fiuczynski one. But again, and sticking my neck out once again, I see that these “written parts” were sketched charts, rather than the finished article.
Well so far I’ve said little about the music. A veritable smorgasbord of jazz fusion, funk, blues (with a capital B) and rock comes to mind. Knitting it all together is some great drumming - busy, tasteful but never getting in the way of the music from Chambers. Wonderful percolating bass lines from Jeff. D'funk'd sees these two in action immediately and with Lavitz adding his B-3, electric piano and distinctive Moog synth lines. A simple but infectious melody line is played by the keys and harmonised by Fiuczynski (& vice versa). We really are back in the 70s and 80s. As the track evolves each of the musicians take on small solo sections, with the music returning to main the theme throughout.
A track by track analysis I feel would be rather futile, as would be picking highlights or in fact the pitfalls from this album. There are passages of true inspiration - Deff 184 brought a huge smile to my face for the entirety of its brief length. Whereas Constant Comment just did nothing for its entire duration. First of the really bluesy tracks is, not surprisingly, I Hate The Blues... [But Here's One Anyway] opening with Jeff Berlin supplying the main melody... wonderful. Actually the more I listened to the album the more evident the blues element of the music became apparent. In fact it would be safe to say the music owes as much to the blues as it does to the jazz/fusion field.
I suppose if I had to pick a track that really did it for me it would have to be All Thought Out. Slow burning intro - picked up by a characteristic Berlin bass line - and a great little theme. Although the track does contain one of the drawbacks of the album. Dave Fiuczynski may be a gifted and initiative guitarist and certainly his melodic playing and those passages with Lavitz are great. However I found some of his solos difficult to attune to - some bordering on just irritating. And one of them is here. But this should be seen as minor criticism and I certainly don't want to single him out. In fact his playing often reminded of Jeff Beck (as in the intro/outro of this piece and Last Trane), and that surely has to be a good thing.
I could so easily go on delving into the album, but as the expression goes "enough said". To conclude, and some twenty plus years on (for me) this album didn't quite infuse the same sparkle that it might once have done. Still enjoyable, but a shift in my own musical tastes is probably more to the point here. There is no doubting the musicianship, and although I could sit and listen in admiration, the album as a whole just didn't click home for me. This should not however put you off checking out this album especially if you want to hear some great funky, bluesy, jazz/fusion. Fans of Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck and Brand X might well find something new on the horizon.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Aziola Cry - Ellipsis
Tracklist: Ellipsis I (3:36), The Trembling Edge (6:13), In Your Dissolving Arms (6:49), Ellipsis II (3:26), Shadow Lies (2:10), When Soft Voices Die (8:35), Then Wake To Weep (2:27), Ellipsis III (9:55)
Aziola Cry are an instrumental trio from the US, very much centred around the talents of main songwriter Jason Blake. Given that Blake’s principle instrument is the Chapman Stick, it’s perhaps unsurprising that King Crimson and Gordian Knot are two of the three principle influences mentioned in the promotional literature for Ellipsis (the band’s debut album); the third is Tool, and its fair to see that the influence of each on Aziola Cry’s music is pretty clear.
The band produce a sound which is dark, dense and tightly knit, driven by some pulsating, shifting rhythms. Whilst at times the music is somewhat discordant, and on occasions teeters on the edge of chaos, it never goes all the way there, and its’ to the bands credit that the album remains listenable throughout. It should also be said that whilst we’re left in no doubt that these are three technically gifted musicians, things never descend into a display of ‘look how clever we are’. For an illustration, check out The Trembling Edge, where each of the three instruments – stick, guitar and drums – are playing in a different time signature, yet rather than create something that is completely abstract and un-listenable, this instead helps to further establish the uneasy atmosphere Aziola Cry are clearly aiming to create.
In terms of the bands mentioned earlier, its probably Robert Fripp and co who exert the major influence – think of the title track to Red, updated and modernised for a higher tech, heavier era and you’ll have an idea as to how Aziola Cry sound. Elsewhere, the gentle, brooding Then Wake To Weep has echoes of The Sheltering Sky (from 1981’s Discipline album) whilst the angular guitar sound favoured by Mike Milaniak is similar to that of Adrian Belew on more recent KC fare. The Tool influence is most apparent in the tight coiled riffs that drive pieces such as Ellipsis II , and in the pulsating undercurrent of electronica that features on many tracks. Other notable comparisons could be made to Guapo (the tightly locked grooves of In Your Dissolving Arms could have easily sat on Guapo’s latest CD Black Oni) and post-metal titans Isis.
Some criticisms I would have of the album are that, on several occasions, the passages seem to meander a little, and the emotional resonance you would expect from this style of music isn’t quite there. Also, as indicated above, at present the band do seem very much a product of their influences and haven’t yet fully developed their own unique style.
Overall, however, this is an intriguing and encouraging debut, which Crimson fans in particular would be advised to check out, and I’d certainly look forward to hearing Blake and Co’s next musical endeavour.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Mask – Heavy Petal
Side One: Dark Murmur (2:15), Global Incantation (4:22), Paean (2:51), Fall So Hard (5:10), Healing Senses (4:18), Blue Words (5:04), Shelter Skelter (3:28), Free (5:44), Sliding Universe (1:52), Lambent Spire (6:42), Beloved (4:06), Living Inside My Head (3:25), Waking The Dream (4:56), Sound Of Tears Forming (1:56), Those Ghosts (3:29)
Side Two: Free (5:47), Lambent Spire (6:42), Healing Senses (10:36)
Even when prog was arguably at its most popular back in the 70’s the genre was virtually ignored by mainstream TV. To secure an appearance usually required a hit single, which did not fit comfortably with prog ideology. Several bands made the transition however, if only briefly. The list included Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Focus, The Strawbs, Yes, ELP, Genesis, and a band hailing from London by the name of Curved Air. Their single Back Street Luv reached number 5 in the UK and I can still recall the bands 1971 appearance on BBC TV’s “Top Of The Pops”. The success of the record was due in no small part to the visually flamboyant performance of lead singer Sonja Kristina. Although there have been reunions since, the band broke up in 1976. 30 years on finds Sonja in a very different mood setting, working in collaboration with musician and producer Marvin Ayres. A graduate of Trinity College of Music, Ayres has worked alongside members of Culture Club, Simply Red, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Prefab Sprout. They all of course had their own chart success during the 80’s and 90’s. In 1999 he turned his attention to composing and recording ambient music released under his own name.
The pair first worked together on Sonja’s jazz inspired Cri De Coeur album released in 2003. The style suited her deep and mature vocal tones perfectly, sounding like a latter day Cleo Lane. It was certainly a departure from her work with Acid Folk, her touring and recording band in the early 90’s. Whilst that same relaxed mood is present on Heavy Petal, the style here is different again. Side one of this dual layer disc is taken up by fifteen audio only tracks. Side two presents three of those songs in DVD format with the option of 5.1 Surround Sound. An interesting and original concept stylishly packaged in a colourful digipack. Utilising his undeniable talents as a musician, arranger and producer, Ayres combines electronic sound washes with the natural timbre of cello, violin, piano and wordless vocals. The end result is an ambient soundscape that verges on the classically symphonic at times. The chanting, provided mostly by Kristina aided by Ayres, is pretentiously credited as “overtoning” a reference to the healing powers of the voice. Several of the tracks benefit from lyrics providing a more familiar song style, albeit in a new age setting. They in my opinion prove to be the most accessible.
The responsibility for the song writing is very much a collaborative effort, although Ayres does take five individual credits to Kristina’s one. Indian and Middle Eastern influences can be detected in several of the tracks, including the opening Dark Murmur, Shelter Skelter and Living Inside My Head. Of the better tracks, Paean really stands out thanks to a hauntingly beautiful melody conveyed by ethereal voices and Sonja’s acoustic guitar. Fall So Hard and Blue Words are both memorable songs, with the latter being possibly my favourite on the album. The oriental style percussive piano and string backdrop to Kristina’s warm vocal fair better than the obtrusive sampled drums. The repetitive Free seems to be going nowhere until it reaches the coda with tumbling vocals and cello providing an infectious finale. The uneventful Healing Senses feels overlong, and is twice as long again on the DVD. Lambent Spire suffers in the same way, despite the chamber orchestra effect created by Ayres. In contrast, the restless Beloved has a bright Spanish flavour courtesy of lilting violin, acoustic guitar and a yearning vocal. With Those Ghosts the CD ends on a high note with a sweet and stately vocal from Sonja supported by Ayres’ layered orchestral framework.
Flipping the disc over to the DVD, which is titled Healing Senses, came as something of a disappointment. Expecting to see Kristina and Ayres in performance, they appear in silhouette only during the first track Free. Otherwise all three videos are an arty kaleidoscope of light, colour and abstract images. I’m sure they would be very effective as a backdrop to a stage performance, but on a TV screen they do not stand up to repeated viewing.
In truth there are moments of sheer beauty on this album, but equally there are moments of pure tedium. If spacey ambient music is your thing then you may well find this string driven excursion well worth your time. If however you are yet to be convinced by the genre, then this is unlikely to convert you. For those who recall Curved Air with affection, I can happily report that Sonja’s performance has not lost its enduring charm. Whilst the sound of the violin has always been an integral part of her music, this is a million miles from the commercialised prog sound of Back Street Luv.
Conclusion: 6 + out of 10
Marvin Ayres - Scape
Tracklist: Scape - Voco Pluck (4:00), Scape - Rainy Jazz (2:44), Scape - Pitch Bit (4:03), Scape - Cant Dance (2:53), Scape - Ambient Drum (4:44), Scape - Rule Change No.17 (3:27), Scape - Bit Hop (5:26), Scape - R.M (4:03), Scape - first e (1:58), Clusters - 11 (1:39), Clusters - 10 (2:41), Clusters - 09 (2:42), Clusters - 08 (2:37), Clusters - 07 (2:33), Clusters - 06 (2:02), Clusters - 05 (2:42), Clusters - 04 (2:35), Clusters - 03 (3:29), Clusters - 02 (2:36), Clusters - 01 (2:39)
As this disc arrived with the Mask's Heavy Petal (review above) and includes one half of that particular duo, I decided that this was as good a place as any to offer a review of Scape. Now I will keep this review brief as I see this release as having a very limited appeal to our readers. Not a criticism, merely an observation.
The album is split into two sections Scape and Clusters - and the main difference between the two suites as far as I can detect is that the former has sampled drums - presumably looped, although the loose rhythmic patterns themselves "drift" and do not necessarily act as a pulse to the music.
Here on Scape, Ayres utilizes and experiments with his cello, violin and piano skills forming ever drifting, arrhythmic and ambient soundscapes. Often cacophonous, but not irritatingly so, and these sonic textures apparently act as some musical background to Peter Gomes' film entitled "Scape", of which I am unable to offer any further light on. The tracks from the album, and certainly those from Clusters would suggest a visual element would be an enhancement.
I can't say that this album will ever grow on me as it offers nothing to latch on to - no discernable rhythm, melody or structure, however unlike other such releases I have reviewed in recent years, I found this release from Marvin Ayers palatable. Taking the time to listen to the second movement of the album, Clusters, late one evening, with the lights off and headphones on, I was pleasantly transported by the amorphous soundscapes, allowing me briefly to drift into some desolate but peaceful world.