Reviews in this issue:
- Colossus Project (VA) - Dante’s Purgatorio ~ The Divine Comedy - Part II
- Factory Of Dreams – A Strange Utopia
- Allister Thompson – Shadowlands
- Morgan - Nova Solis
- Steve Swindells - Messages
- Mandalaband III – BC Ancestors
- Vespero – Surpassing All Kings
- Baliset - A Time For Rust
Colossus Project (VA) -
Dante’s Purgatorio ~ The Divine Comedy - Part II
CD 1: Simon Says Intro - Dreamscapes (2:17), Nemo Canto I - Entre Deux Rives (7:05), KBridge Canto II – A New Journey, The Helmsman Angel, Penitent Souls, Casella’s Song, Catone’s Fury, In Exitu Israel De Aegypto (15:33), Ozone Player Canto III (5:26), Raimundo Rodulfo Canto IV - Acenso Tortuoso (5:36), Ten Midnight Canto V - X for V (6:27), Soulengine Canto VI - Polheim (7:03), Willowglass Canto VII - The Valley Of Kings (5:58), Atlantis 1001 Canto VIII – Maelstrom (6:42)
CD2: Contrappunto Project Canto IX - ...e Dopo Nulla fu Piu lo Stesso (5:30), Sophya Baccini Canto X - Oh Silly Pride (4:59), Nexus Canto XI- The Scheme Goes On (8:19), Nuova Era Canto XII (6:36), Survival Canto XIII - Impressions (9:50), Little Tragedies Canto XIV - Onde Vi Batte Chi Tutto Discerne (5:48), Armalite Canto XV - Muove il Vento i Miei Capelli (7:59), Phideaux Canto XVI - Strange Cloud (7:30), Tommy Eriksson Canto XVII - The Stream Of Hope (5:07)
CD3: Entrance Canto XVIII – Luna (7:55), Maxwell’s Demon Canto XIX - Avarice Atoned (7:01), RAK Canto XX - The Verse Continues (5:44), Colossus Project Canto XXI (8:30), Matthis Herder Canto XXII - Honey & Locusts (7:12), Mad Crayon Canto XXIII - Is it This The Price For The Redemption? (6:11), Tabula Smaragdina Canto XXIV - A Varasz fa Alatt (5:52), Blank Manuscript Canto XXV - Purgatorio (9:01), Lady Lake Canto XXVI - Som de la Scalina (7:02)
CD4: Groovector Canto XXVII - Tie Autuuteen (7:33), Mist Season Canto XXVIII - Matelda’s Song (5:20), Flamborough Head Canto XXIX - By The Bank Of The River (5:37), Yesterdays Canto XXX - Feluton (6:00), B612 Canto XXXI (6:44), Equilibrio Vital Canto XXXII - Juicio Final (8:27), Jinetes Negros Canto XXXIII - Purgatorio XXXIII (7:00), Simon Says Outro - Elohé Sebaot (2:21), Pasini & Ragozza Purgatorio [Bonus track] (3:26)
Coming reasonably fresh on the heals of Dante’s Inferno ~ The Divine Comedy Part I this follow up from Colossus (aka The Finnish Progressive Music Association) is another magnum opus on a grand scale. 35 prog acts participate (several of whom contributed to the previous release) with over 4 hours of music spread across 4 discs. Like its predecessor it’s based on Dante Alighieri’s epic early 14th century poem and likewise part 2 ‘Purgatory’ is divided into 33 cantos, each represented here by a different song. As the poem is divided into three parts then expect part 3 ‘Paradiso’ to make an appearance possibly sometime later this year.
With a collection like this you’re never quite sure what to expect even with the presence of so many familiar names. I’m pleased to report however that disc one in particular features probably the strongest collection of music I’ve heard throughout 2009. The introduction Dreamscapes is unassuming enough, being a surprisingly mellow offering from Simon Says with piano, (Mellotron) flute and duduk, a Middle Eastern wind instrument with a sad, resonant timbre not unlike a solo viola. Nemo raise the stakes with Entre Deux Rives, an atmospheric song that tempers its abrasive guitar tone and fat Hammond chords with rich vocals. This is a band that clearly delights in its harmonies with an a cappella section no doubt indebted to Gentle Giant and Yes although personally I was more reminded of the long gone 70’s vocal band Capability Brown.
With the six part mini-epic Canto II, KBridge have the distinction of the albums longest contribution and they don’t waste a minute of it. It’s centred around two main themes, a yearning vocal melody and a sparkling synth and guitar led hook. Neal Morse and Transatlantic would be proud of the superb soling (particularly Hammond organ) although overall the elaborate arrangement is closer to Selling England era Genesis with a lead vocal not unlike a young Peter Gabriel (before he developed the distinctive rasp). This is my first encounter with Nemo and I was left feeling suitably impressed.
Canto III from Finland’s Ozone Player is the kind of keyboard driven instrumental with a rich Moog sound and Elizabethan flavour that you wish Rick Wakeman was still making. Spanish guitar maestro Raimundo Rodulfo’s offering Ascenso Tortuoso is also instrumental but this time it’s a busy but melodic jazz-fusion exercise with intricate guitar noodling and classy but spacious drumming in the Bill Bruford mould. X for V by Ten Midnight features a dark and eerie intro which unexpectedly segues into a bittersweet vocal melody before building into a stunning coda with a compelling and epic keyboard theme overlaid by sensuous Moog textures. A standout track. Also from Italy, Soulengine’s Polheim is a fast, tricky and impressive instrumental with an aggressive guitar tone that put me in mind of PFM, King Crimson, Yes (at their most edgy) and in a more contemporary vein, The Tangent.
Raising the British flag is Willowglass (aka the multi-talented Andrew Marshall) whose instrumental The Valley Of Kings delights in much the same way as his contribution to the previous album did. Delicate acoustic guitar and Mellotron blossom into a soaring guitar and synths sequence that would sit comfortably on a Steve Hackett solo album although the splendidly exotic synth hook is pure Tony Banks. The suitably titled Maelstrom from the Italian Rush-tribute band Atlantis 1001 is a heavy outing with gothic piano and guitar and shades of Porcupine Tree. It delivers a suitably bombastic finale to end an impressive first disc which would deserve a DPRP rating in its own right, but there’s more to come.
For me Disc 2 doesn’t quite live up to the promise of Disc 1 but it certainly has its moments. Under the guise of the Contrappunto Project, piano virtuoso Andrea Cavollo’s solo piece Canto IX is edgy and bleak with an almost total absence of melody. It’s extremely well played but the sometimes dissonant classical style is not really my cup of tea although it no doubt reflects the mood of Dante’s vision. With Oh Silly Pride the talented Sophya Baccini is responsible for all instruments and voices herself providing a surprising, quirky but impressive addition to this collection. The doomy, ambient synths sound like a John Carpenter theme to one of his own horror movies whilst the counterpart female harmonies veer from the eccentric (ala Bjork) to the lush. The Scheme Goes On from Argentina’s Nexus is strident Hammond led prog that thanks to the bombastic organ timbre would have been very much at home on ELP’s vintage Tarkus album.
Piano leads Nuova Era’s keyboard fest Canto XII which includes the usual suspects of Hammond, Moog and Mellotron. It’s certainly a gutsy instrumental with muscular guitar and upfront Rickenbacker support. Impressions from Survival is another one man affair (Dutch keyboardist Jack Langevelt) and it’s another moody Hammond dominated instrumental with shades of Keith Emerson and Vangelis. Unfortunately it lacks sufficient ideas, melodies or hooks to justify its near 10 minute length with the sensitive electric piano and ARP coda being easily the best part. Russia’s Little Tragedies were one of my favourite prog acts of 2009 and with Canto XIV they continue to deliver with this urgent and vibrant piano and synth led instrumental featuring impossibly fast playing throughout, especially the drumming.
Armalite’s Canto XV punctuates memorable song sections with melodious instrumental flights that prove to be the songs real hook. That’s especially true of the synth solo which like their contribution to the last album evokes Tony Banks but again it’s the deadpan vocals that let the side down. A histrionic solo towards the end gives the impression that the guitarist has been listening to Nick Barrett. American outfit Phideaux make a rare appearance in a project of this kind with Strange Cloud, a mid-tempo song with a staccato melody which frankly did nothing for me. Their brand of contemporary prog sounds a little out of place here with Xavier’s vocals being a main hurdle for me sounding a little too close to the grating tones of Liam Gallagher for comfort. Finnish guitar impresario Tommy Eriksson concludes Disc 2 with the aptly titled The Stream Of Hope, for me the highlight of the disc. It’s a superbly upbeat, infectious and melodic guitar instrumental that takes in a trio of Steve’s (Howe, Vai and Morse) rounded off with a touch of flute and synth.
Disc 3 opens with the appropriately named Entrance from Chile with their interpretation of Luna, a driving, rhythmic but tuneful song with a commanding lead vocal and clever counterpoint harmonies. The expressive Moog playing tips its hat to Mr Wakeman although the metallic guitar work is from a different place altogether. It also benefits from strong production values. Another US band (this time new to me) Maxwell's Demon deliver the avant-garde instrumental Avarice Atoned. It’s discordant and jarring in places with aggressive guitar, organ and shrill synth, and tranquil in others with acoustic guitar, flute and Mellotron. Ultimately it feels like a random collection of disconnected pieces. A massed choir introduces RAK’s contribution The Verse Continues, with its fast guitar rhythm and slightly manic vocals for a slightly unsettling but some how compelling piano driven song. The choir return for the dramatic coda. File under eccentric prog (if there is such a category).
Canto XXI from Colossus Project begins deceivingly with lazy and unhurried instrumental work before developing into a catchy vocal section with strong vocals very reminiscent of Damian Wilson. Partly due to the vocals and the bombastic tone I was reminded of Ayreon with a fast instrumental section being particularly excellent. The prominent bass work contrasts nicely with the romantic song part that follows. Mellotron choirs set the scene for Matthijs Herder’s Honey & Locusts a memorable, sometimes bittersweet instrumental from the Dutch man. Mellotron continues to dominate (this time in string and flute format) along with guitar which reminded me of Ennio Morricone as much as it did Genesis and Camel (Herder’s usual influences). Mad Crayon’s Is This the Price For Redemption includes sumptuous violin playing offset by edgy guitar work that put me in mind of Kansas at their most reflective. It’s a classy and thoughtful instrumental that benefits from a memorable bass pattern and lyrical classical guitar.
During A Varasz Fa Alatt by Tabula Smaragdina Hammond and Mellotron is once more to the fore (to begin with) with a prominent and heavy guitar motif offset by heavenly female vocals. The accomplished guitar playing takes in a weeping part that’s very Steve Howe circa Topographic Oceans. Blank Manuskript’s Purgatorio Canto is built around a repetitive, drawn-out guitar riff with piano punctuations followed incongruously by a lazy jam although the laidback vocals have an engaging quality. At the halfway mark a statacco riff appears that sounds like its going to break into the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme but instead it’s a drawn out, semi improvised sax jam that left me cold. It does at least finish with a memorable instrumental coda. Disc 3 concludes disappointingly with Lady Lake’s tuneless instrumental Som De La Scalina which frankly is a bit of a mess. It has a demo feel that sounds like it was hastily put together in an afternoon and the twangy guitar is reminiscent of the theme tune to the children’s TV programme ‘Roobarb and Custard’.
If Disc 3 proved to be the most disappointing of this collection, then encouragingly Disc 4 is a major step back in the right direction as demonstrated by Groovector and their excellent opener Tie Autuuteen. It’s a relaxed and understated song from the Finns which despite the electric instrumentation has a jazzy acoustic feel with free flowing drum work throughout. A mellow and classically phrased piano interlude with electronic wind noises is a little too close to Yes’ South Side Of The Sky in my opinion but a buoyant song part with excellent vocal harmonies puts it back on the right track. Also from Finland is Mist Season with Matelda's Song, an hypnotic instrumental beautifully conveyed by combined guitar, keys and wordless female backing voice. A sheer and unexpected delight. Flamborough Head is one of my favourite Dutch bands and By The Bank Of The River is a typically lush instrumental led by delicate flute backed by piano and acoustic guitar. This to my knowledge is the debut of the bands new guitarist and his superbly melodic electric solo is completely in tune with the bands style. Another highlight although it fades rather abruptly.
Yet another favourite prog discovery and this time it’s the Hungarian Yesterdays. You never no quite what to expect from this band, sometimes all acoustic and sometimes electric, sometimes male lead vocals and sometimes female. On this occasion it’s the electric/female combination and although Feluton is not the bands strongest offering to date it has its moments especially the gloriously inventive guitar soloing that mirrors Steve Howe and Robert Fripp in equal measures. Next stop Venezuela for a beautifully crafted Canto XXXI from B612 who combine female and male lead vocals for a haunting melody that brought to mind Sweetness from Yes’ debut album although I suspect this is mere coincidence. A fast and tricky instrumental section is somewhat incongruously inserted in my opinion, but overall a valuable inclusion from a band hitherto unknown to me. From the same country comes Equilibrio Vital with Juicio Finel, a strong offering with excellent keyboards and drums. Gothic Mellotron and synths set the tone joined by brass. A theatrical section is inserted at the midway point with spoken dialogue which like the singing doesn’t really work for me. Better is the massed Mellotron voices and superb semi-orchestrated sound which reaches a dramatic conclusion in the style of The Enid.
A journey to the other end of South America and Argentina’s Jinetes Negros continue in a similar overblown mood with their heavily orchestrated Purgatorio XXXIII. Weighty string and brass effects embellish the albums only excursion into metal territory. It’s carried off with a great deal of style and conviction with muscular guitar work and massed choir voices before reaching a suitably dramatic climax. Sweden’s Simon Says return for the final track proper the serene Elohé Sebaot with lyrical flute and female voices courtesy of Mellotron. Orchestral percussion and Moog are skilfully added to play out with a grandiose flourish. It’s not quite over however because there is a ‘bonus track’ in the form of Pasini & Ragozza’s Purgatorio. This is a bizarre (and unnecessary) note on which to conclude the album in my opinion with wailing voices and tinny keys to begin with before moving into a more traditional (and forgettable) song part.
One of the criticisms levelled at The Divine Comedy Part I is that it seemed more like I random collection of songs rather than a cohesive concept. To some extent that was true but as in the case of this release, with so many bands involved each with their own individual style, it flows remarkably well. Whether the music and lyrics capture the spirit of Dante Alighieri’s original poem is difficult to say, particularly as in many cases each band sings in their native language. Personally that’s not an issue as I’m inclined to enjoy music for music sake and rarely have concerns over the subject matter or accurate lyrical content. It’s certainly an ambitious undertaking with some bands clearly rising to the occasion more than others but with so much excellent music on offer my final rating is fully deserved. Special mention should also go the lavish accompanying booklet which provides a synopsis of the story, full details of each band involved and lyrics including an English translation. In terms of scale it must come close to rivalling the original work itself.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Factory Of Dreams – A Strange Utopia
Tracklist: Voyage To Utopia (4:36), Weight Of The World (5:54), Inner Station (6:18), Sonic Sensations (4:18), The Road Around Saturn (4:21), Garden Of All Seasons (4:20), Dark Utopia (4:48), Vacation In Venus (4:26), Chaotic Order (4:08), Slow Motion World (5:08), Destructible Destruction (5:57), E-Motions (9:32) Bonus Tracks Broken (2:22), The Weight Of The World [Radio Edit] (3:26)
With A Strange Utopia Hugo Flores brings to fruition the sum of his musical labours to date: succeeding in uniting the worlds of progressive rock, progressive metal, gothic rock, space rock, with infusions of ideas from both the romantic and modern classical music worlds. A Strange Utopia, Flores’s latest creation and the second album released under his Factory Of Dreams collaboration with the Swedish soprano Jessica Lehto, is a rich work that deserves to be heard and absorbed!
By now Hugo Flores is an established and admired multi-instrumentalist. Starting off in the late 1990s working under his own name, he then formed the Sonic Pulsar and Project Creation projects before teaming up with Jessica Lehto for Factory Of Dreams. (Both Project Creation albums have been reviewed and received recommendation-level scores by DPRP). Lehto herself is a keen vocalist and musician collaborating in a number of projects since 2003: most prominent are her own work under the Once There Was banner, and a more recent collaboration with Argentinian-led band Betto Vasquez Infinity. I think that it’s safe to say that all of these projects from both musicians take a more conventional approach – a more “classical” compositional approach – to their music than Factory Of Dreams.
Factory Of Dreams’s first album, 2008’s Poles was interesting, but perhaps more so for the fact that its promise of multiple genre-fusions really failed to ignite. Jim Corcoran’s review of Poles presents an underwhelmed view that wasn’t dissimilar to my own, and I did find it odd that I didn’t like that album more, because I do tend to enjoy most music in the individual genres that the band is fusing.
The question arises then, why does A Strange Utopia succeed, where Poles did not? This suggested improvement is one that will apply to most “general progressive” listeners – if you are a goth-metal head and you loved Poles, then there are sufficient elements in A Strange Utopia that will make you love that too.
In attempting to answer this intriguing question it might be as well to identify some of the elements that didn’t work so well on Poles and see how A Strange Utopia deals with them. First, there was an identifiable “sameness” about the album, which dragged as a result; secondly, the melodic moments were not sufficiently pretty to offset the “classical modernism” of much of the material, third, Jessica’s voice tended to get lost in the heavier sections. These “niggles” were sufficient to dent enjoyment of the album: when that happens there’s a temptation not to return to it and so give it the number of listens necessary to obtain the familiarity that brings the most enjoyment.
”Sameness” is a difficult concept: certainly, it can often be a positive, particularly if the listener is enchanted by it. For most listeners, however, it can be off-putting over the duration of a modern album. A Strange Utopia avoids it by altering pace, heaviness, melodicism, rhythm, vocal style etc, and by the quality of the music, arrangements and production when those changes are made, so that interest is maintained through to the end.
The album is a concept – loosely, what a mess we have made of this world, a false utopia – and “utopia” is a theme that not only recurs but is one of Hugo’s “recurring themes” (you are only about one minute into his first album Atlantis from 2000 before you hear him utter the word). The concept, in addition to the variety of elements I’ve indicated above, helps to keep the listener on a journey through the album. Even the two “bonus” tracks – it always amazes me how many “standard” albums come with “bonus” tracks these days – help in this regard: Broken is a beautiful composition by Jessica that offsets Flores’s compositional style nicely just before the radio edit of the catchy The Weight Of The World rounds the album off with a good sense of “circularity” – acting almost as an encore in a live show.
Elsewhere, what I’ve called the “classical modernism” – sections where the instrumental score doesn’t follow classical melodic development and where it sounds almost (as in much of modern opera) in direct opposition to the vocal score – is balanced by some beautiful melodic passages, often, but not always, in Jessica’s vocal line. The sonic onslaught of the guitar and some occasionally very physical keyboards and machine-gun metal drumming are neatly juxtaposed by wonderful sections of organic sounds: the violin (special mention to guest musician David Ragsdale for these sections on Slow Motion World and Inner Station), piano and acoustic guitars (for instance, the glorious break on Destructible Destruction).
Finally, unlike on Poles, Jessica’s voice is always given enough room to shine by Hugo, even in the heaviest passages, and she puts in an excellent performance, with some well recorded harmonies. Guest vocalists appear on some compositions, but the highlight of Jessica’s assistants is Hugo himself on an effective duet during Dark Utopia.
The overall result of this fusion of goth, progressive metal and symphonic classical (romantic and modern periods) music, with intelligent lyrics in an allegorical science-fiction concept, is a complex assault on the senses that occasionally does not make for easy listening, is often demanding of attention and needs patient familiarisation, whereas at other times one can lose oneself in its melodic beauty or catchy rhythm and refrains. For instance, contrast the whacky cut-up, but effective, loops of Chaotic Order with the glorious melodic, symphonic start to Slow Motion World, before that composition then develops into its own chaotic bridge. It’s glorious, but can easily be missed on a background listen.
Luckily, Flores has worked the balance to perfection, resulting in an album that has enough hooks and interest to make you come back for those crucial extra listens.
In conclusion, A Strange Utopia is a worthy and very progressive fusion that deserves to be heard – recommended!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Allister Thompson – Shadowlands
Tracklist: It Goes On (4:04), A Northern Song (5:18), Shadowland (6:27), Soldier (5:54), The War is Over (5:29), The Drowned Girl (6:04), The Demon Wife (4:31), Where Will You Go? (6:03), Altai (9:05)
So there’s this folk-based musician out of Canada named, er, Jim Corcoran. When I was a child I would receive news clippings in the mail from my grandmother highlighting the endeavors of my namesake to the north - Jim Corcoran’s latest album, Jim Corcoran’s latest video, etc. I don’t know if Toronto-based musician Alister Thompson (Sleepwalker’s Union, Crash Kelly) considers his compatriot to be an influence, but with that aside Thompson exhibits a formidable flair on his debut solo release Shadowlands.
It is a many-degreed departure from the seventies-style glam Thompson dabbles in as a member of Crash Kelly. Shadowlands, rather, is a venture through the realms of progressive and folk with a few shades of psychedelica.
On the CD, Thompson handles vocals and guitar, and is joined by Michael Dilauro on bass guitar, double bass, keyboards, accordion, and vocals; Eric Herrmann on drums, percussion, and vocals; and Teri-Lynn Janveau on keyboards and vocals. Additional guest musicians include Heather Arnold playing violin on two tracks, Deborah Brown playing ukulele on one track, Shawn Delnick providing space cymbal, rain stick, lap steel and good spirits; Janine Susan Hogg on flute on one track, Laurie Januska and Kerry Kelly on vocals, Sean Kelly playing guitar on one track, Gene Scarpelli playing guitar on two tracks, and Danny Stapleford handling percussion on two tracks.
On the track Shadowland, psychedelic guitar descends and gives way to a slow tempo and a force field of sound evoking Pink Floyd and Mostly Autumn.
Thompson takes us to the world of blues on The Demon Wife, on which Scarpelli and Sean Kelly contribute their guitar skills. Kraut-rock is visible on brooding instrumental epic Altai, which features minimal guitar from Thompson and some analog style keyboards.
Deborah Brown busts out her ukulele on A Northern Song, a mid-tempo number which also teases with the beckoning violin of Heather Arnold. Miss Arnold’s violin also makes an appearance on the drumless The Drowned Girl.
Thompson’s solo debut effort is cozy, peaceful music perfect for relaxing with a cup of coffee on a weekend afternoon. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it in the CD section at my local Starbuck’s. And to you naysayers, no, Thompson wouldn’t be “selling out” by distributing his CDs to Starbuck’s, as an artist has an inherent right if not a responsibility to distribute his or her wares any way possible or way they like.
The very pretty cover design comes courtesy of Samantha Thompson, featuring shadowy silhouettes against a blazing red sun.
If you are into folk-based music you might want to check this CD out. If you’re seeking thrash metal, you won’t find it here.
I can think of no room for improvement for Thompson’s next solo release.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Morgan - Nova Solis
Tracklist: Samarkhand The Golden (8:04), Alone (5:17), War Games (7:03), Nova Solis - A Suite: a) Theme b) Floating c) Take-Off d) Asteroids e) Earth f) Hyperspace: The Return Home g) Nova h) May I Remember i) Theme (20:17)
Although some readers may be aware of Morgan Fisher through his involvement with Mott The Hoople, it is doubtful if many are aware of the band named after him that he was involved with prior to teaming up with Ian Hunter and his merry men. Fisher, along with drummer Maurice Bacon, had been members of The Love Affair, best remembered for their Everlasting Love single, and following the demise of the group in 1971 began writing more idiosyncratic progressive numbers. Along with singer and acoustic guitarist Tim Staffell (who was replaced in his previous band Smile by a certain Freddie Mercury) and bassist Bob Sapsed, the group secured a residency at the famous Marquee Club where they frequently went down a storm. By a rather convoluted route explained in great detail in the comprehensive sleeve notes, the band ended up signing to RCA Italy and recording their debut album in Rome in June and July of 1972.
With no guitarist the musical focus is predominantly on Fisher's keyboards, although Sapsed (sadly now deceased) was a wonderfully melodic bass player whose presence is clearly heard throughout the songs. Obviously similarities will be drawn with ELP and they would be quite accurate, particularly on opener Samarkhand The Golden which would, vocalist apart, have easily have slotted in on any ELP album of the time. Alone is a more mellow number bearing slight resemblance to early Queen material, not beyond the realms of possibility as Staffell is credited as the sole writer on this number. The album, a concept, is, unsurprisingly given the cover and title, based around space voyages. However, the lyrics are a cut above the often more ridiculous efforts of many prog bands of the era (stand up Peter Sinfield!) and are frequently wrapped in catchy melodies as exemplified by War Games. No doubt it will be the side long title track that will gain the most attention given the propensity for prog fans to dote over extended pieces. The Theme employed in the piece is a rendition of Gustav Holst's Jupiter from The Planet Suite which, due to the synth sound employed, sounds frightfully dated. But the rest of the piece is rather cleverly pieced together with Fisher displaying some fine piano playing and utilising the synth sounds at his disposal to generate suitably cosmic effects. Asteroids is rather avant garde but adds a certain gravitas to the overall piece while Earth is a quaint, if subdued, song with pop overtones giving space for more acoustic guitar. Hyperspace: The Return Home ups the tempo with more fine playing by Fisher, Bacon and Sapsed and again echoes of ELP being most predominant. The penultimate part, May I Remember, wraps the story up nicely with Staffell once again taking the lead.
Unfortunately, the album was not released outside of Italy as the Italian division of RCA were worried about investigations into financial concerns and other goings on within the company and so priced the album out of the market by asking for too much in royalty payments from the UK and US divisions of the company. As a result only 500 copies were exported out of Europe and a further 500 copies into the UK. A second album, also recorded in 1972, languished in the vaults and only received a limited release in 1978. As for Nova Solis, well the term 'lost classic' is one that is bandied about somewhat too frequently these days but for those that are fans of keyboard dominated music or ELP fans that are interested in music of a similar style to their heroes, then you'll not go too far wrong with this album.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Steve Swindells - Messages
Tracklist: Messages: Miles Away Again (3:59), Energy Crisis (4:02), The Earl's Court Case (4:40), Living In Sin (2:32), I Don't Like Eating Meat (4:40), Shake Up Your Soul (4:27), Surrender (4:02), I Can't See Where The Light Switch Is (3:22), Messages From Heaven (10:25)
Swindells' Swallow: Flash In The Pan (3:22), The Walking Song (4:19), When The Clapperboard Has Clapped (9:24), Easy On The Night (2:26), Dealing With The Feeling (3:58), Better Times Are Here (3:16), Doodiboogie (4:59), The Last One To Know (4:58)
Prior to his involvement with the Hawklords on the 1978 25 Years On album and Live 78 tour and the Fresh Blood solo album, Steve Swindells had a deal with RCA records that resulted in the Messages album. The sleeve notes to this reissue, penned by Swindells himself, tells the tale of the ins and outs of how the deal came about and the early involvement of Manticore records, Pete Sinfield and a nefarious manager (whose actions ultimately scuppered the deal with RCA and prevented the follow-up album, Swindells' Swallow, from being released) in an amusing and non bitter way that reflects better on the artist whose career was scuppered than most of the other participants. But the tale is secondary to the music.
Messages features a quality cast of backing musicians, some of the best that were available at the time. Many people will be familiar with the names John Gustafson (bass), Barry De Souza (drums), Caleb Quaye (guitar), Mike Giles (drums), Morris Pert (percussion), Danny Thompson (acoustic bass), Doris Troy and Barry St John (backing vocals), well all appear to various extent on the album, along with string, brass and orchestral arrangements by Martyn Ford played by the Mountain Fjord Orchestra. The results are exceptionally good in a superior singer-songwriter way that exemplifies the style of the era. Opening with the lament-like Miles Away Again, which is of the same quality of Elton John material of the time, things progress with Energy Crisis with a marvellously sleazy brass accompaniment and The Earl's Court Case with a lovely string backing and even a tuba thrown in for good measure! The brief Living In Sin is a bit more funky with some excellent piano playing and Gustafson and De Souza providing a tour de force rhythm section. I Don't Like Eating Meat, a jolly progressive-pop song, really gets going towards the end when the piano, electric piano, organ and string section merge triumphantly in an arrangement that many progressive bands who toyed with using orchestral backing would have been jealous of.
The second side of the original album starts with Shake Your Soul and is the first to feature the glorious backing vocal talents of Troy, St John and the rather less well known (to me at least) Rosetta Hightower. An uplifting number with some nice sax parts by Chris Mercer. Surrender is more laid back and once more features the trio of lady backing vocalists and a lush string arrangement (by Nick Harrison). Continuing the mellow vibe we come to I Can't See Where The Light Switch Is which only features two musicians, Swindells on piano, synth, vibes and vocals and Danny Thompson on acoustic bass. Despite that, it is a remarkably full track with the layered keyboards (no polyphonic synths in those days!) underpinned by the characteristically superb playing of Thompson. An excellent song indeed. The album is rounded off with the epic Messages From Heaven, a ten-minute opus with complete orchestral backing that begins, somewhat ironically, like something from Hawkwind with a spacey synth and various voices. However, the sound of a closing door shuts that off before we start on the song proper. Beginning like a lush ballad the song expands out to include a rather angular piano section with the orchestra intersecting at various intervals. A very interesting number that takes several listens to fully appreciate the depths of the arrangement.
RCA were obviously backing Swindells with some financial clout given the money they had poured into Messages for both the session musicians and the quality recording studios they had hired. Also, given that the album was not a monster seller, they also continued with their investment by funding a second album. As alluded to above, the album was never released due to the reprehensible behaviour of Swindells' manager and erstwhile producer Mark Edwards, although it is believed that test pressing were made, although no cover art seems to have been produced. In addition, details of the players, the studios and so on seem to have been lost forever, not even Swindells himself can remember much about the album (and given the experiences he went through during the production of these two albums it is not surprising that he would want to erase the period from his memory!). Swindells' Swallow is a good follow-up to Messages and worthy of release, even if some 35 years late. The style is pretty much the same as on Messages, although the string and brass arrangements have been omitted, presumably as a cost saving measure. Openers Flash In The Pan and The Walking Song are decent enough, with the former being better than the rather more idiosyncratic second number. However, When The Clapperboard Has Clapped is a genuine lost classic. I know it is easy to bandy around such epithets, but this song is really a bit special. A shade under nine and a half minutes long, it is really rather a simple song, with voice, assorted keyboards and a neat rhythm section. With added percussion and guitar flourishes the song gradually builds with some great vibes playing and synth patches.
After Clapperboard, Easy On The Night is a slow ballad that rounds off the first side of the album. Dealing With The Feeling is more up-tempo and again has female backing vocalists to enhance the sound and although containing a decent enough melody, the over-enthusiastic whoops of 'Yeah' are a bit annoying. Better Times Are Here is a somewhat ironic title given that there is an air of melancholy perfusing the song! The addition of a didgeridoo works better than it might suggest with a rolling bass line that may possibly have been slightly influenced by a chance meeting with Bob Marley (whom it transpires was beaten at table football by Swindells and his 'team mate' Eric Clapton, ah the 70s!). Doodiboogie is, as the name would suggest, a boogie number that is somewhat typical of the mid-1970s anything goes approach to music, although is better than that rather off-hand dismissal may suggest! The play-out with a horn section and sterling guitar solo is of particular merit. Final track, The Last One To Know is a piano-led lament that is more in keeping with the material from Messages. Indeed, it is a rather lovely song that would have easily suited a flowing string arrangement that were added to the songs from the first album and alongside Clapperboard is a highlight of Swallows.
This reissue rescues two somewhat obscure albums from being hidden away in the vaults until the end of time. That Messages is worthy of reissue and that Swallows should be released after being hidden for over a third of a century there is no doubt. The writing and performances are top quality and of an equal to a lot of the material that was given glowing reviews and achieved almost legendary status at the time. However, if you only know Swindells from his period with The Hawklords and Hawkwind then this release is probably not something that would sit comfortably alongside those albums. But for fans of good song writing, with progressive undertones then these two CDs in one handy package have a lot to offer.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Mandalaband III – BC Ancestors
Tracklist: Ancestors (3:58), Eden (4:39), Nimrod (4:52), Shemsu-Har (3:04), Karum Kanesh (5:11), Beautiful Babylon (3:20), The Sons Of Anak (4:50), Aten (4:59), Ozymandias (4:50), Solomon The Wise (5:35), Akhiyawa (5:44), The Wine-Dark Sea (4:24), Elissa (5:32), Roots (6:58)
You could say that composer and keyboardist David Rohl has something of a fixation with ancient Egypt with two albums in the 1970’s (under the name Mandalaband), three bestselling books and several TV documentaries all devoted to the subject. Nearly four decades on from the Mandalaband II album Rohl has turned his attention once again to the combination of two subjects close to his heart, music and ancient Mediterranean history. A concept of sorts, the narrative vocal style often feels like a potted history lesson with pointed references to the Pharaohs, King Solomon, Babylon, the Tower of Babel, the Trojan War etc. Unsurprisingly the lyrics are penned mostly by Rohl himself.
Musically, the melodic semi-orchestrated approach often reminded me of The Moody Blues and Barclay James Harvest, not surprising given that Rohl has previously worked with both bands. In fact the stately Beautiful Babylon sounds very similar to the Moodies tune Melancholy Man from 1970’s Question Of Balance album for which Rohl had a hand the artwork. BJH keyboardist Woolly Wolstenholme is one of the numerous collaborators here and is credited with two compositions, Nimrod and the elegiac closer Roots. Although both are characteristic of his symphonic and occasionally bombastic style, the stirring Mellotron sounds for which he is best known are a little more subdued this time round. Also contributing compositionally and instrumentally is ex. Iona multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley who adds the lyrical tones of the Uilleann pipes and whistles to Karum Kanesh and The Wine-Dark Sea in particular.
The instrumental overture Ancestors is suitably effective with soaring guitar work underpinned by string and brass effects courtesy of synths and Mellotron. The only short comings, which is true of much of the album in general, is the absence of a really strong melody on which to hang its hat. The orchestrations throughout courtesy of Rohl, Wolstenholme and Jose Manuel Medina are superb as exemplified during Eden and the aforementioned Beautiful Babylon. Also noteworthy is the core band of Ashley Mulford (electric guitars), Craig Fletcher (bass guitars) and Kim Turner (drums, percussion) who do a sterling job. I’ve always been a sucker for fretless bass and Craig’s moody playing in Karum Kanesh and the Celtic flavoured Elissa work a treat. For his part, in addition to his excellent work elsewhere, Troy provides all the instrumentation for the hypnotic The Wine-Dark Sea which recalls his most recent solo album The Madness Of Crowds.
Rohl certainly knows his subject although just occasionally the lyrics are a tad misjudged as in Ozymandias, one of the heavier songs blessed with lines like “Pharaoh Ozymandias is the mighty-one who kicks the ass of all his foreign foes”. When he’s not adopting a deep theatrical tone (as in Shemsu-Har where he sounds like a cross between the bad guy in ‘The Mummy’ movies and Jabba the Hutt) Rohl’s singing is acceptable in a mannered kind of way. Elsewhere vocalist Marc Atkinson’s confident delivery benefits Beautiful Babylon and the spiritually uplifting Solomon The Wise, two of the more successful tracks. Massed choirs and female voices also play their part in Karum Kanesh and the romanticised Aten. Opening with Vangelis style ambient textures, the latter song effectively paints a musical evocation of the rising sun. During Elissa, Rohl duets with Barbara Macanas, whose own lead vocals result in an engaging counterpoint.
This is obviously an album that’s been put together with a great deal of loving care and attention by and impressive line-up under the direction of David Rohl. A little surprisingly (and disappointingly) given the number of composers credited the end result for me is mostly pomp without the substance. Whilst musicianship and arrangements are skilfully handled, strong hooks and tuneful melodies are in relatively short supply and for the most part each song maintains the same relaxed tempo. A follow up album AD Sangreal is expected later in 2010 so it will be interesting to see how the ambitious and expansive subject matter is handled fourth time around.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Vespero – Surpassing All Kings
Tracklist: Glass Rainbow [A Sign] (10:00), Salma Simiere [Cross And Crown] (6:51), The Tower [XVI] (8:05), Lino [Similar They Spake] (6:07), Serata [i.n.s.i.e.m.e.] (10:26), Glide [Like A Swan] (6:35), Sever [Surpassing All Kings] (6:54)
I have a boyish complexion and in order to remain clean shaven, I usually have to shave every day and a half or so. The studio quality of Rito, released in 2007 by Russian outfit Vespero, was as smooth as a baby’s talcum powdered-skin. Their sophomore release applied the Foam so as to speak. Now with their third studio label release Surpassing All Kings, we see a five o’clock shadow of razor stubble roughly cast over the studio sonics.
The band has been around since 2003 and prior to Rito had put out a string of self-released studio and live recordings on CD-R. Vespero is made up of Ivan Fedotov on drums and percussion, Arkady Fedotov on voice (two tracks), bass and synthesizer; Alexei Klabukov on accordion (one track) and keyboards, Alexander Kuzovlev on guitar and electronic manipulations, and Natalya Tujrina on voice.
They play elongated Kraut style drone rock and neo-psychedelica, with ventures into jazz and a little bit of lounge along the way.
On Serata (i.n.s.i.e.m.e.), a tricky jazz styling harkens back fifty years to Dave Brubeck as an influence. Arkady Fedotov and Tujrina provide some harmony vocals (using the term loosely). Some funky perkiness takes us through time once again, this time briefly to Devo in the eighties. This is one of my favourite tracks on the CD as it possesses a unique stand alone quality, whereas and like on Rito many of the other tracks tend to sound a bit generic and are perhaps best suitable as relaxing background music. Glass Rainbow [A Sign] is an example of one of these tracks, which features the band’s signature musical shifts and some crazy soloing from Kuzovlev (prominent on much of the CD). His electronic manipulations are present as well, sounding at places slightly more analog than they did on Rito.
Lino [Similar They Spake] has a macabre Kraut opening with some early Floyd pointers in Kuzovlev’s guitar, and showcases a compelling wordless then abstract vocal from Arkady Fedotov, along with his prominent driving bass.
This music will most likely appeal to fans of Kraut rock or psychedelica. Seekers of more conventional fare may find Vespero to be an acquired taste.
The professionally designed CD booklet and tray inlay come courtesy of Zonder Zond.
I prefer the more glossy sheen of Rito to the roughly-hewn edges of Surpassing All Kings. With that minor quibble aside, I feel that the latest release from Vespero could grow on me with a few more listens.
As far as an area of opportunity for the band, it might be interesting to see them add English lyrics to some of their future material.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Baliset - A Time For Rust
Tracklist: These Moments Are... (3:35), A Time For Rust (5:11), Machinery Listens To Love (1:18), Black Light Moon (6:29), The Art Of Contrition (2:31), Dreamflesh (6:55), Winterlude (1:48), The Echo Box (15:20)
Baliset is a project brought together by Greg Massi and Adam Letourneau, A Time Of Rust is their debut album. The music has a powerful and atmospheric sound with influences from heavy and prog rock bands like Anathema, Iron Maiden and Chroma Key, even the name Paul Simon is mentioned as influence, by the band.
These Moments Are... is an instrumental song with passages of speeches from Winston Churchill, the beginning of which is mellow but also very heavy parts with much content filled in little time. Sounds like Iron Maiden, the music and maybe my thoughts were also lead by the voice of Churchill which brings back memories of Live After Death. In A Time For Rust all instruments are fighting for attention, the song is filled with melodic playing although often sounds competitive and with a uncomfortable rhtythm to guide the listener. Not a bad song but I get overwhelmed and cannot distinguish heads or tails. Halfway it becomes better and the structures are more clearer but towards the end everything seems to be played at once.
Machinery Listens To Love is just strange ambient keyboard noises, whilst Black Light Moon is very soulful song, reminding me of Anathema and Sieges Even. Beautiful vocals but the song strolls on a bit too long, which should not be a problem but the vocals are not steady enough to be handled for the playing time of this song. The Art Of Contrition is a instrumental ditty that reminds me of Primus. Baliset use these short strange sounding ditties to glue the songs together, however two and a half minutes is too long for a transition but too short for a song. A sudden heavy transition to Dreamflesh. A heavier song than Black Light Moon, at times this song really takes off in heavy rock style. Winterlude is a heavier instrumental dittie. And now I am really looking forward to the epic song on this album. The first part of The Echo Box is not that convincing, the vocals are again not clear enough. Suddenly the music stops after a very long fade with strange noises. Never noticed the fifteen minutes were done but that was because they were not done. After a long silence some static noise and a song starts playing that sounds like a country song. Not really my kind of epic prog song.
Baliset at times has a nice sound but it appears to be hard for them to keep that level throughout the whole album. A Time For Rust at times delivers good stuff but the balance is way off on this album. The first two songs are filled with sounds and melodies in a way that I lost track of it. A song like Black Light Moon is a bit too long and the vocals do not sound convincing, the quality of singing varies on this album. The total amount of quality playtime is also very limited because of the choice/construction of the songs. This album counts three small instrumental pieces and an epic song which is not an epic song, the minutes of silence and the country song can be subtracted from the overall playing time which leaves not a lot.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10