Reviews in this issue:
- P.F.M. – River Of Life ~ The Manticore Years Anthology • 1973 -1977
- Steve Unruh - Challenging Gravity
- Frequency Drift – Personal Effects (Part Two)
- Musicos Indendentientes Asociados - Archivos Mia (1974-1985)
- Eric Minen - ElectroMoods
- Thembi - Morning Melody
P.F.M. – River Of Life ~ The Manticore Years Anthology • 1973 -1977
Disc 1: River Of Life (6:59), Photos Of Ghosts (5:21), Il Banchetto (8:35), Promenade The Puzzle (7:28), La Carroza Di Hans [Previously Unreleased On CD] (6:02), The Mountain (10:46), The World Became The World (4:50), Just Look Away (4:03), Four Holes In The Ground [Live] (7:02), Alta Loma Nine Till Five [Live] (15:43)
Disc 2: Is My Face On Straight [Live, Previously Unreleased] (16:22), Harlequin (7:50), From Under (7:31), Chocolate Kings (4:41), Dove Quando [Live, Previously Unreleased] (5:16), Out Of The Roundabout [Live, Previously Unreleased] (7:42), Celebration [Live, Previously Unreleased] (6:06), Storia In L.A. (6:26), Jet Lag (9:11), Traveller (5:43)
During the 1970’s three Italian bands in particular made a considerable contribution to the progressive rock scene, Banco, Le Orme and Premiata Forneria Marconi (or PFM as they are better known). Boasting skilled musicians and beautifully melodic music, these bands were the equal of most every UK act at the time earning each the respect they deserved. PFM’s popularity in particular stretched far beyond the Italian borders making them one of the most internationally successful prog acts of the decade. A significant contributor to their success was the reissue of their albums with English lyrics which shrewdly circumnavigated the xenophobia that dictated the US and UK record markets.
Following their formation in 1970 and two hugely successful albums in their home country, the quintet of Flavio Premoli, Franco Mussida, Franz Di Cioccio, Giorgio Piazza and Mauro Pagani came to the attention of one Greg Lake and swiftly signed in 1973 to ELP’s fledging Manticore label. Taking material from those first two albums Storia Di Un Minuto and Per Un Amico (both originally released in 1972), ex. King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield was assigned the task of providing new words and remixing the music. The result was the stunning Photos Of Ghosts which appeared in 1973 and provides the first four songs here. Benefitting from a beautifully clean and lush sound it remains for me one of the best albums of the 70’s with the likes of King Crimson, ELP, Yes, Jethro Tull and Genesis all being conspicuous role models.
The majestic opening track River Of Life in particular stands out with its orchestral grandeur of swirling Mellotron and Moog bringing Yes’ And You And I to mind. Unfortunately Sinfield’s lyrics have not dated as well as the music with lines like “River of life, rain was your berth” sounding a tad uninspired now. Also despite the rich harmonies, the heavily accented vocals particularly during the title song Photos Of Ghosts reveal just how alien English was to the band. Sung in their native tongue, Il Banchetto sounds far more natural and in addition to some lengthy synth excursions it features a glorious Keith Emerson style piano solo from Premoli. Only previously available as the B side to a 1974 single, La Carroza Di Hans is a bit of a rarity and a live workout of an instrumental that appeared on their debut album.
PFM’s next album L'isola Di Niente appeared in 1974 followed several months later by Manticore’s English language version The World Became The World. By this juncture they had replaced Piazza with new bassist Patrick Djivas but otherwise the line-up remained intact. Rather than supplying completely new words as he had done with Photos Of Ghosts this time Sinfield adapted the bands original and often political lyrics with little satisfaction to either party. As a result it would be the last time that they would work together. Following the epic The Mountain with its operatic choir, the title song is a symphonic throwback to the River Of Life whilst the lyrical Just Look Away harks back to an earlier acoustic Genesis with beautiful violin and flute from the multi talented Pagani. Disappointingly album closer and possibly my favourite PFM tune Have Your Cake And Beat It failed to make it onto this collection.
Disc one concludes with two tracks from 1974’s excellent Cook, still one of the best live albums ever and recorded in New York’s Central Park during the bands tour of the US that same year. In contrast to their meticulously structured studio albums, live PFM were a different beast altogether with a freeform approach that indulged plenty of soloing. Four Holes In The Ground is a hyperactive workout of the song that featured on their last album with bass and guitar interplay delivered with lightning dexterity. Similarly the semi improvised Alta Loma Nine Till Five is a tour de force of showy musicianship where I’m sure Mussida’s guitar and Pagani’s violin will have put the American audience in mind of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It concludes with a dazzling interpretation of Rossini’s William Tell Overture which proves to be a real crowd pleaser.
Disc two opens with a true rarity, a previously unreleased live version of Is My Face On Straight recorded at the Central Park gig but excluded from the Cook album due to space constraints. The studio version appeared on The World Became The World and here it gets the extended treatment where Premoli swops his keyboards for an unlikely accordion solo.
Musicians first and singers second, when they came to record 1976’s Chocolate Kings (represented here by a trio of songs that made up side one of the original album) they decided to employ the services of full time vocalist Bernardo Lanzetti. Although he had a strong command of the English language it has to be said I was never a fan of his voice with a grating style not too dissimilar to Roger Chapman particularly during the title song. The music was also less elaborate and more spontaneous this time around with the lyrical Harlequin and the stately From Under being the best of the bunch for me. In addition to Pagani’s haunting violin theme, Di Cioccio provides some impressively explosive drumming during the latter whilst the organ and violin exchanges in both songs bring Kansas readily to mind.
Next up is yet more previously unreleased live rarities this time recorded at Nottingham University during their 1976 UK tour. Dove Quando, which was also a highlight of Cook, is a delicate affair with dreamy electric piano and flute whilst Out Of The Roundabout (from Chocolate Kings) also features electric piano this time sparring with acoustic guitar. No PFM collection would be complete without the playful Celebration and although the live performance here is a tad rough around the edges it compensates with its sheer drive and energy.
By the time 1977 and PFM’s fifth studio release Jet Lag had come around, violin and woodwinds virtuoso Pagani had departed to pursue a solo career. Recording in Los Angeles, they employed the services of local violinist Gregory Bloch in what was effectively a departure for the band being an exercise in American style fusion and mellow jazz funk. During the instrumental Storia In L.A. they create a cool vibe whilst the lengthy title song is best remembered for Djivas’ sublime fretless bass playing. The concluding Traveller on the other hand is a fitting reminder of the bands melodic-prog past.
This was effectively the end of an era for PFM. Not only was Jet Lag their last release for Manticore (the label would fold that same year) it was also their last with English lyrics and their final truly progressive rock album before adopting a simpler mainstream style. In their wake they left three exceptional albums (two studio and one live) for Manticore although for many the Italian originals of Photos Of Ghosts and The World Became The World remain the preferred versions. Although I’m normally unaccustomed to sitting on the fence in this case I can happily live with either version. One thing’s for sure, without the English adaptations PFM would have never gained the same international success.
These days there isn’t an awful lot of 70’s prog that excites me in the same way as it did back then and generally speaking I prefer to listen to more recent stuff. PFM however are an exception and for me this remarkable collection from Esoteric provides the perfect opportunity for a nostalgic and joyful trip down memory lane. I also admire the way in which compiler Mark Powell has manipulated this anthology so that each disc has 10 tracks and an identical playing time of 76 minutes and 51 seconds, or is it pure coincidence? Now if only he’d managed to unearth a live version of Have Your Cake And Beat It, then for me the trip would have been truly complete.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Steve Unruh - Challenging Gravity
Tracklist: Twilight In India (7:00), Challenging (11:02), The Ocean (5:31), Bluebird (3:35), Fighting Gravity (3:22), Path To Alhambra (7:26), Dissolve (6:37), Reflecting Pond (6:07)
After a relatively quiet, musically speaking, 2009, Steve Unruh returns with his first solo album since The Great Divide back in 2007. Once again, the album is largely focused around acoustic instrumentation, with guitar and violin getting plenty of exposure throughout the fifty minutes of the CD. What is instantly noticeable is just what a wonderful sound Unruh has captured on the CD. With the wide dynamic range covered across the songs, even highly paid producers in top studios would struggle to improve on the clarity and balance throughout Challenging Gravity. That Unruh has managed it himself in a home-built 'studio' is remarkable. I'm surprised that local bands in the Boston music scene are not hammering at his door vying to secure his services as producer.
As per usual, Unruh sings and plays all the instruments on the album and this time round they include steel and nylon string guitars, drums, violin, flute 4, 5 and 6 string fretless and fretted electric basses and the odd dash of tambourine! His aptitude on all of these instruments is way above average, matched only by his compositional and lyrical skills. Opener Twilight In India is a lovely start to proceedings and characteristic Unruh, who has a clearly identifiable sound of his own, even though the song is initially just acoustic guitar and vocals. The percussive elements are finely tuned blending in perfectly with the guitar and as the piece ramps up with addition of bass and a second guitar the aforementioned clarity of the recording comes to the fore. A return to the solo acoustic guitar and introduction of some brief violin flourishes gives the song great balance. Track two is the longest number, Challenging, with a somewhat staccato introduction that displays the composer's skill around the drum kit. The relatively simple melody defies the complex structures underpinning the musical backing which is genuinely exciting. Gloriously flowing musical lines sweep hither and thither with a melancholy violin echoing the reflective nature of the lyrics: "As I hear my heartbeat counting my diminishing of days, I can feel more questions mounting, the passing years only thicken the haze". The piece concludes in fine style with a more aggressive attitude whilst maintaining the melodic integrity. For me, Challenging is simply one of the best pieces Unruh has written and, considering his impressive musical resume, that says a lot.
The Ocean is slightly more straightforward in overall structure and contains a lovely flute interlude. The dynamics of the song are impressive extending from full on bass and drums to the final voice and sole guitar which fades out to a whisper. Bluebird is a delightful instrumental that has guitar and violin echoing each other, while Fighting Gravity is, ostensibly, an up-beat little ditty but with some rather biting lyrics. A more classical approach is adopted on the opening to The Path To Alhambra where Unruh's nylon string guitar playing is put through its paces. On the second half of the song there is a switch to steel stringed guitar and a more Arabic feel to the music. Throughout the main accompaniment is violin whose presence is an important addition to the song but doesn't distract from the superb guitar work. Dissolve is the piece that I found hardest to get into, which is not to say the quality of the song is any lower than the rest of the album, it just takes a slightly different approach. In many ways it is the most progressive number, although I thought it was a degree more 'looser' than the other songs. Despite that, it does feature some of the best singing and bass playing on the album. Final song, Reflecting Pond, features more classically inspired guitar playing and emotionally charged lyrics. Nevertheless once other instruments are introduced into the mix the result is, perhaps paradoxically, a rather up-lifting end to the album.
Challenging Gravity is an excellent solo album from Unruh and easily challenges (excuse the pun) the best of his previous solo work. If you don't think that acoustic based music is really for you, think again as this is nothing like any other acoustic album I can think of. However, don't just take my word for it, you need to hear this album for yourself. With the eagerly awaited second Resistor album imminent, 2010 could be a very big year for Unruh. I just hope this album is not overlooked as it has already gained a place in my albums of the year; I'm that confident that there will not be 10 other albums released before December that will surpass it.
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10
Frequency Drift – Personal Effects (Part Two)
Tracklist: Message (2:30), Deceit (11:51), Conflict (7:00), Inside (8:53), Awakening (8:01), Flight (5:43), Put It Down (5:27), Essence (6:35), Lasting Effect (8:44)
German band Frequency Drift have made a sequel to their previous album Personal Effects (Part One) appropiately entitled Personal Effects (Part Two). The concept story of "River" continues with this sequel, although the accompanying promotional information with CD states that no prior knowledge of part one is needed to listen to the sequel, the stories are told as separate entities.
The personnel involved in the making of this sequel are extensive. We have three vocalists, Nicole Scharnagel, Christine Mettner and Kerstin Leidner. Equaly so the number of guitar players in the band, Steve Hohenberger, Christian Hack and Sebastian Koch. Bass and Stick are handled by Jurgen Rennecke, keyboards by Andreas Hack and the drums beaten by Wolfgang Osterman. Also we have violin – Barbara Joris, Woodwinds – Christian Hack, Electroharp - Nerissa Schwarz. To complete everything they have a guest guitar player - Jacob Holm-Lupo.
So I started listening to the nine track album, whose songs are all above the the five minute mark barring only the starter Message, but then again this is not really a song. It’s what the title says, soundscapes simulating an incoming message from outer space, with the disrupted message itself. Further to the concept, all titles are explanatory to the music and lyrics, there is not much to add to this except maybe that the vocals, although very beautifully sung, are not very comprehensible. This is probably due to the operatic style of singing.
The style of vocals however suits the music very well, all of this because of the beautifully crafted melody lines. I will not go too far into detail on every song as to me it could have well been one long song. The band have truly created an atmospheric, emotional album with a good story line and returning melody lines throughout the album, making it a concept in the truest sense of the word. The complete length of the album is no problem, it is easy to sit through it and at the end I honestly had the feeling that not much time had elapsed. Still I had listened to over an hours worth of music.
I like to add to the music, that the CD package comes with beautiful artwork and booklet made up of very beautiful drawings depicting the story of the concept. Absolutely marvellous drawings.
Concluding, if you like music by bands such as The Pineapple Thief or Pendragon, Magenta and maybe or Mostly Autumn, you might, and I specifically say might, like Frequency Drift. At times it gives me a David Gilmour like feel, but I'm not sure, however you need to find out yourself any way. Personally I enjoyed Personal Effects (Part Two) very much and so far I would say that it will most definitely end up in the higher ranks of my favourite albums of 2010.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Musicos Independientes Asociados - Archivos MIA (1974-1985)
CD1: El Sexteto (10:35), Coral Rock (4:57), Clima De Febrero (2:53), Estadia En La Casa De Las Aranas (4:17), El Ultimo Dia De Los Alisios (4:43), Las Invasiones Inglesas (5:54), Teclados Improvisacion (15:15), Reposo Diafano (5:35), Arde En El Aire 1 (1:55), Arde En El Aire 2 (2:23), Baile Ritual De La Sombra (2:53), De Como Los Hombres Se Quedan Tristes (2:40), Cuarta Inspiracion (11:29)
CD2: Suite Moderna ~ [a] Tormanta (4:26), [b] La Puerta Del Sol (4:22), [c] Nacimiento (9:37), Angel De Los Cerezos (4:03), Nacimiento (5:50), La Ciudad Amailla (6:19), Semblanza (2:15), Hombre Eleva Tu Existencia (3:24), Lo Que Hay De Humano En Mi (4:56), La Epoca Quebrada (2:54), Copla De Aldea (4:17), Experiencia Documental No 4 – MIA En Santa Fe (21:00)
Those little beauties from Viajero Inmovil Records have done it again with this compilation Musicos Independientes Asociados – Archivos MIA (1974 – 1985). This package has been lavishly and lovingly put together. This is a two CD set and has a well documented booklet included, containing information about each track and the different line ups, (albeit in Spanish).
Anyway swiftly moving on to who or what is MIA. They were formed in the mid 70s, MIA - Musicos Independientes Asociados were a group of musicians, technicians and artists gathered together by Lito and Liliana Vitale's parents. They produced their own records and concerts independently, releasing three studio albums and one live album.
From the outset of disk one there are some absolutely beautiful pieces of music that have been created featuring some exceptional instrumentation and vocalisation giving it all a sense of pomp and circumstance. El Sexteto has some fantastic keyboard work and excellent drumming including a very impressive drum solo. Coral Rock sounds almost hymnal with the sound of the organ playing in the background and features a nine piece choir. Estadia En La Casa De Las Aranas offers a very powerful and emotional poem supported by some organ playing, switching between male and female spoken passages which climaxes in an emotional excitement sounding very profound. Las Invasiones Inglesas moves in the same sort of circles offering another poem before dropping into an acoustic guitar and vocal piece which would appear to be about, “the English invasions”, which is the literal translation of the song title. One of the outstanding tracks on disk one is a Teclados Improvisacion, (piano improvisation), by Lito Vitale recorded in ’79 coming in at just over fifteen minutes which is just a blinding piece, just sit back and be amazed. It doesn’t have the wizardry of Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman but it has soul and body. Reposo Diafano has a jazz feel to it with plenty of intricate musical passages from both piano and wind section. Disc one closes with a bonus track Cuarta Inspiracion another Lito Vitale laid-back piano piece which again is beautiful in tone and approach.
The second disc opens with a three part movement, (well it’s better than saying a three piece suite), which comes in at just over eighteen minutes and is recorded live by Lito and Liliana Vitale and Juan Del Barrio featuring keyboards, drums and piano. The suite translates to "Thunderstorm", "The Door of the Sun" and "Birth" and is both fascinating in style and approach and a real crowd pleaser. Del Barrio provides some stunning piano work throughout and Liliana proves herself to be competent drummer also. I just love the sound of these tracks which have a quicker paced metre and a harder sound. Angel de los Cerezos slows things down as does the next few tracks which all have a folk feel to them allowing Liliana to display her vocal talent. Hombre Eleva Tu Existencia drops down to a two piece one guitar and two vocalists. Liliana displays her vocal skills harmonising with the guitar and singing with Alberto Munoz, complementing each other perfectly. This vocal harmonisation is a theme that runs throughout the whole of this album, not only being used as a method of vocalising words but also as an instrument in its own right. La Epoca Quebrada has a Baroque approach with Liliana tonally working with the piano and double bass. The second disc closes with Copla De Aldea another beautiful piece that these guys seem to be able to pull out of nowhere. There are some fantastic wind passages that interact very well with both the acoustic guitar and piano. The whole feel of the second disc is one of a more basic approach. There is a twenty one minute video piece at the end of disk two but unfortunately I was unable to get to work, which was most disappointing.
As a package MIA have delivered a unique opportunity to delve into their history, both studio and live. MIA had a symphonic prog approach having been heavily influenced by ELP, Gentle Giant and Focus which can be heard in many of the passages on offer here. Throughout both disc we have a revolving door of musicians with the two main stays being Lito and Liliana Vitale. The music on disc one in general has a pastoral sound running through it and for me is the better of the two, due to there being more diversity of music on offer. Disc two which has a more folk orientated approach to it, allows the Vitale’s an opportunity to showcase their talent more intimately in a smaller environment which works very well. Although the album stands up musically it does sound very dated at times and is very much of its time.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Eric Minen - ElectroMoods
Tracklist: Mood Opening (2:30), New Electronica (5:25), New Horizon (6:05), It's Time To Change (7:48), Purple (4:53), In Memory (6:32), The Sun Is Going Down (7:26), Infinity (5:30), The Final Trip (7:22), Mood Closing (2:24)
The French autodidact guitar player Eric Minen got interested in composing when he joined a band, many years ago. He was a member of a Zappa tribute band and released his first solo effort in 2007 (Mélodies Urbaines). On this second solo album Eric plays guitars, bass, keyboards and does the programming. He is also responsible for the compositions, the recordings, producing and mastering. This album offers a variety of accessible melodies with influences from New Age, jazz and world music.
The first track features a keyboard drone and Eric's subtle and echoing guitar, whilst in the second part we only have effects and spacey sounds.
In New Electronica a muffled bass, then some percussion and in the distance we hear some keyboards providing a New Age soundscape and background with Eric's clean guitar playing the solo's. In the last part of the track more keys are added and a second lead guitar, the atmosphere could be described as "New Age meets soft jazz".
Again a very gentle, slightly jazzy song is New Horizons with guitars and electric piano sounds sharing the leads but sometimes they play the melodies together and for a few minutes it's the guitar as predominant instrument. Eric plays a rhythm guitar and a bass as well and some soft drum sounds have been added.
In It's Time To Change we have an Alan Parsons like orchestral keyboard drone while guitar and bass play the melodies. Music to let your thoughts go wherever they want to go. The keyboard drone can be heard almost constantly and to my taste a bit of variation would have been a good option.
Purple is a very pleasant tune with nicely changing chords by the keyboards, while Eric plays his guitars, both plucking and soloing. A gentle rhythm pattern and an awesome relaxing atmosphere. Unfortunately this daydreaming atmosphere is disrupted by the introduction of more keyboards: somewhat harsh whistling sounds, the guitar is rather monotone and the barely detectable and the percussion doesn't seem to match the newly created atmosphere.
In Memory is a slightly jazzy pop tune with a nice change in tempo halfway through the track.
More shuffling percussion sounds can be heard in The Sun Is Going Down, music for a late night in the Caribbean, but in the middle a section there's hardly percussion...
A computer voice and spacey keyboards at the beginning of Infinity, (but also popping up a few times throughout this track), seem to take the music in a whole new direction, however the guitar takes over in the jazzy style we have heard before throughout the album. These parts remind me of some of Lee Ritenour's slower and dreamy songs.
The most symphonic/progressive song would be The Final Trip in which Eric plays the organ and several other keyboards as well, next to his lead guitars. The theme however is rather simple (3 chords), which can be heard throughout the whole song. Next to his clean lead guitar there are also a few passages with distorted guitars.
The album's final track is Mood Closing is predominantly keyboard sounds from outer space and effects. No melodies and the keyboard drone from the first track is there once again and with some guitars played backwards (so it seems).
A nice offering by Eric, especially recommended to fans of smooth, soft jazz and a preference for New Age/World music.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Thembi - Morning Melody
Tracklist: Morning Melody (1:44), Casted Memories (5:53), Sad Time (4:32), Glamorous (4:41), Lipstick (4:09), An Afternoon On The Moon (3:48), Lovely People (3:32), Travelling Astral (4:44), Save Our Souls (4:02), Paradise (3:51), Softly (5:22), My Lady X (4:41)
Thembi are a virtual band project that consists of Christophe Andres (bass & lobbying), Cedric Beaude (production, keys, drum machine & vocals), Jean-Marc Mota (guitar) and Rogier Van Der Wal (saxophone & flute) that has created by exchanging files over the internet.
Morning Melody is a lovingly crafted album that is full of beautiful enchanting melodies, which to be honest doesn’t fall into the prog genre. The recordings on offer here fall into the jazz domain and will appeal to those of you that like the modern moody jazz with a 70’s retro feel. The promotion literature described Thembi as, “Let’s think Curtis Mayfield, Serge Gainsbourg, Marvin Gaye or Herbie Hancock, with sophisticated atmospheres. It is cool, relaxed, sensual but dynamic at the same time”. I would probably add a bit of Pat Metheny and maybe Candy Dulfer in there too.
Although there are twelve tracks on the album, these tracks are broken down into four chapters,  The Morning After,  Back On The Job,  The Date and  And Then which gives the whole piece a concept which musically works really well.
The album kicks off with Morning Melody floating through the air with relaxing echoing keyboards with some jazz bass and beautiful saxophone work accompanying the piece. There is some really exquisite guitar work throughout from Mota, having a Dave Gilmour feel to it in places, which can be heard on Casted Memories which is intertwined with a rhythmic keyboard passage that really builds an atmosphere. Sad Times moves in a similar vein having the saxophone as the lead, floating all the notes out with passion and style. Lipstick gets all funky and rocks along with some great wah wah peddle work, giving a 70’s feel. It had me rocking and moving in the chair, which I can tell you was not a pretty site. Anyway swiftly moving on, An Afternoon On The Moon is a piece having a radio broadcast approach to it, based around the space race, having an airy spacey vibe to it. Lovely Beautiful is a layered piece with the use of vocals as an instrument and a great acoustic guitar approach, really nice melodies and some fantastic keyboard work from Beaude. The title of the track is very apt. Paradise has Andres playing some really good slap bass giving it all a disco feel supported by handclaps jangly rhythm guitar and a jazz lead, (it reminded me of being in a disco in the late 70’s). My Lady X closes the album with some sombre sounding instrumentation lead by Wal’s saxophone playing, which is really intriguing stuff.
The whole album has an ambient feel to it and is passive in places.
Although it’s a modern jazz album, (touching other genres ever so slightly in places), it has a very retro 70’s feel and sound to it in places and would certainly slot into that era of recording no problem. The only thing that would make it stand out would be the precise sound quality of the production. The comparisons that are stated are right on the mark for me and give the whole album a sound and feel of familiarity. This is certainly an album to kick back with late at night with a nice glass of wine and chill out. All four musicians are well versed in their trade and have spent time recording the album. Morning Melody is not going to redefine the genre in any way shape or form, but it is a nice album. Prog it’s not, although it does have a concept about a day in the life of an individual.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10