REVIEWS IN THIS ISSUE:
Premiata Forneria Marconi - A.D. 2010 - La Buona Novella
|Country of Origin:||Italy|
|Catalogue #:||0204902 AER|
|Year of Release:||2010|
Tracklist: Universo E Terra [Preludio] (2:26), L'Infanzia Di Maria/La Tentazione (7:38), Il Ritorno Di Giuseppe/Il Respiro Del Deserto (9:12), Il Sogno Di Maria (5:55), Ave Maria/Aria Per Maria (3:49), Maria Nella Bottega Di Un Falegname/Rumori Di Bottega (4:48), Via Della Croce/Scintille Di Pena (7:08), Tre Madri/Canto Delle Madri (5:24), Il Testamento Di Tito (7:01), Laudate Hominem/Ode All'Uomo (6:37)
For us who spend a lot of our free time writing reviews for various magazines or websites, it is sometimes easy to forget that music should first and foremost be something that appeals to our feelings and emotions. Far too often our activity turns into a chore, until we come into the habit of separating business from pleasure - as in never listening to anything we have reviewed after our piece has been written and published. Furthermore, we tend to approach every album with a very clinical attitude, focusing on aspects such as technical skill, running time, influences and such, so that we forget about the message and the emotional content, in the attempt to keep as detached as possible in order not to come across as blinkered fanboys. Though my "career" as a reviewer started by writing about albums I already had in my collection, nowadays most of my efforts go towards new releases, whose quality may even be very high, but which do not necessarily meet my personal tastes. On the other hand, A.D. 2010 - La Buona Novella, the latest album by Italian prog legends Premiata Forneria Marconi, is one of those rare cases in which business and pleasure converge.
Though it may not be a known quantity to most international listeners (particularly in the United States), the original La Buona Novella enjoys almost legendary status among Italian music lovers. Released in 1970, at the dawn of the golden age of prog, by a young Genoese singer-songwriter named Fabrizio De André, who had already attracted a lot of attention with his previous three albums, and would in later years become one of the most renowned authors in Italy and Europe, the album told the story of Jesus Christ from the unconventional point of view of the apocryphal Gospels. De André's stunningly beautiful lyrics have often elicited comparisons with the likes of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen (both artists whose work he covered during his long career, cut short in 1999 by cancer), while his musical vein in the early years of his activity owed a lot to the French chansonniers, as well as medieval and folk music. His often controversial, yet never gratuitous approach to lyrics writing earned him a loyal following in the years of turmoil that followed the student riots of 1968 - as well as the hostility of part of the Catholic Church. Unlike its contemporary (and much higher-profile) rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, in La Buona Novella Jesus is seen through the eyes of other people - first and foremost his mother, Mary (who is the true protagonist of the story, an amazing occurrence in the not particularly woman-friendly climate of early Seventies Italy). While the emphasis is definitely placed on Christ's human nature, his revolutionary message that "taught people to desert wars", the deep-seated yearning for spirituality in the otherwise secular-minded De André is hard to miss.
While most prog fans are familiar with PFM's involvement in the double live album recorded by De André in 1979, which featured a lot of his early classics (including two songs from La Buona Novella) with new arrangements that many of his more conservative followers saw as a sell-out, few are aware that PFM's earliest incarnation, called I Quelli, had provided most of the musical accompaniment to the original version of La Buona Novella. In spite of some rather disparaging comments seen on Italian sites (something to be taken into account whenever "sacred cows" are in question), that simple fact should grant legitimacy to their reinterpretation of De André's material. Some of the criticism levelled at the album also touches on the addition of about half an hour of new, mainly instrumental music composed by the three core members of the band, Franz Di Cioccio, Franco Mussida and Patrick Djivas. Even if, with admirable honesty, PFM have tagged the album as an "apocryphal work" (almost a pun on the nature of the lyrical inspiration): some will never view the band's undertaking as anything more than an attempt to cash in on De André's enduring popularity, 11 years after his passing.
For me, who am a non-purist almost by definition, and enjoy homages, tributes and cover versions as long as they are good - no matter how faithful to the original (Joe Cocker's With A Little Help From My Friends, anyone?) - PFM's adaptation of De André's masterpiece has a meaning that goes way beyond a simple musical experience, no matter how enjoyable. Every listen is emotionally charged to the point of bringing tears to my eyes and a catch to my throat, and takes me back to my teenage years, when, like so many Italian youngsters, I was involved in my local church group. One of the many memories I have of those times is related to a homespun performance of La Buona Novella put up by our choir, and the impact that the powerful imagery conjured by those lyrics had on my adolescent self. Though, in the following years, I turned my back on that scene, and have not claimed any religious allegiance for almost three decades, that positive message as applied to human relationships still resonates with me quite deeply. It is not surprising that, when PFM's album was released last year, the first listen felt like being punched in the gut. This is the kind of experience that goes way beyond just "liking" or even "loving" a piece of music = something that can only occur when life and art become inextricably linked.
Not surprisingly, A.D. 2010 - La Buona Novella has been criticized for a supposed lack of the coveted "prog credentials", and assessed as a pop-rock album with sprinklings of prog (mainly concentrated in the instrumental sections), rather than a full-fledged progressive rock effort. In fact, anyone looking for the elaborate yet effortlessly flowing compositions that have made PFM a firm favourite of many prog fans will be disappointed, since the majority of the original De André songs will come across as too simple and "poppy" to the more traditional-minded listeners. However, the new additions pursue the path laid out by the band's stunning 2006 comeback, the completely instrumental Stati Di Immaginazione. Opener Universo E Terra acts as a link with the band's previous release (one of the milestones of the first decade of the 21st century), replacing the original opener Laudate Dominum with a gorgeously atmospheric piece built on steadily surging keyboards, echoing guitar and stately Hammond organ, at times reminiscent of Pink Floyd in their Seventies heyday. While De André's original compositions show the typical features of singer-songwriter music - with the linear structure of medieval ballads, the musical accompaniment meant to complement the words rather than overwhelm them - PFM's more dramatic arrangements and higher degree of variety point to the band's progressive roots.
Unlike Banco or Le Orme, PFM have never had a "real" lead singer (except for the short time when Bernardo Lanzetti was part of the band), which was obviously going to pose a problem when revisiting a strongly vocal-based album such as La Buona Novella. Even if De André's trademark husky, smoky troubadour's voice and subtle delivery will inevitably be missed by those familiar with the original work, Franz Di Cioccio does an impressive job, injecting the right amount of warmth and intensity into the peerlessly beautiful lines. His impassioned performance in closing track Laudate Hominem enhances the sense of dramatic tension created by the instruments, beefed up by organ and guitar and tempered by an almost jazzy bridge. As a whole, the music - definitely more streamlined than the lush, multilayered confections privileged by fans of symphonic prog - projects strength rather than grandeur. Lucio Fabbri's violin emphasizes the autumnal sadness in Il Ritorno Di Giuseppe/Il Respiro Del Deserto (which also features a splendid guitar solo by Franco Mussida), and increases the emotional impact of Mary's heartbreaking lament in Tre Madri/Canto Delle Madri; while the sprightly folk influences that had characterized some of the arrangements of the 1979 live album surface in the slightly disturbing "temptation" section of L'Infanzia Di Maria/La Tentazione - in sharp contrast with the haunting loveliness of the first half of the song. The terrifying images of violence and hatred in the first verse of Via Della Croce/Scintille Di Pena are spoken by a sombre Di Cioccio, the intensity gradually increasing until it reaches a climax in the last verse, driven by piano and drums. On the other hand, Ave Maria - the only weak link on an otherwise nearly perfect album - is a bit too close for comfort to the stereotype of the Italian melodic pop song, in spite of the beauty and depth of the lyrics' reflection on women and motherhood.
As the previous paragraphs imply, the lyrics are the key element on A.D. 2010 - La Buona Novella, so that those who are unfamiliar with the Italian language may find their enjoyment of the album somewhat impaired. This is probably the main reason for the very limited coverage received by the album on international sites, as well as for the not always enthusiastic comments by those who have managed to get hold of it. With such a heavy emphasis on the lyrical content, the album was clearly not conceived with the international market in mind, and those who object to vocals in languages other than English are quite unlikely to find it appealing. However, the music - even if not the second coming of Storia Di Un Minuto or Per Un Amico - complements the words beautifully, and shows a band at the top of their game in every sense. I do not hesitate to recommend A.D. 2010 - La Buona Novella to anyone who can look past the language hurdle, and appreciate the obvious labour of love that went into this painstaking reinterpretation of one of the masterpieces of Italian music. Moreover, in difficult times like these, when everything is cloaked in negativity, and we often turn against each other in anger and frustration, the album's message of faith and hope in mankind (regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof) seems to be sorely needed.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Emerson Lake & Palmer - 40th Anniversary Reunion Concert [DVD]
|Country of Origin:||UK|
|Record Label:||Concert One|
|Year of Release:||2011|
|Encoding & Sound||HD|
Tracklist: Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression – Part 2, The Barbarian, Bitches Crystal, Knife Edge, From The Beginning, Touch And Go, Take A Pebble segue Tarkus: (Eruption | Stones Of Years | Mass | Battlefield | Aquatarkus), Farewell To Arms, Lucky Man, Pictures At An Exhibition: (Promenade | Gnome | The Sage | The Hut Of Baba Yaga | The Great Gates Of Kiev), Fanfare For The Common Man | Drum Solo | Rondo Bonus Material: Nicky Horne’s interviews with Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer, interviews with various managers, archivist Tony Ortiz and music journalist Chris Welch
The temptation to open this review with the now immortal Sinfield/Lake lyrics that open Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression – Part 2 was tempting, however Ladies and Gentlemen... this may well be our last chance to witness these three pioneers of the progressive rock movement in action. A band that have sold almost 40-50 million albums, written hit songs as well as composing epic tracks. Icons of the progressive rock movement who have influenced generations of musicians and I'm sure will live long in the annals of music, whatever genre. The fact that they reformed to play at High Voltage surprised and delighted many and for those, like myself, who were unable to be at the concert then this DVD is an absolute must. A chance to see Keith, Greg and Carl celebrate a forty years of ELP.
And that is what this concert is/was about - a celebration. A band paying one final tribute to their fans...
On a personal note this is also a chance for me to share in this celebration. As a young teenager I was dabbling with Purple, Heep, Sabbath, Zeppelin and so on, each week travelling into town to buy a new album. On one such weekend I bought an album with a flighted dove on the cover. Once at home and shortly after placing the album in the gramophone ;0) - those distorted bass notes resonated well in these ears. However it was in fact 4th March 1971 where my love of progressive rock really began. A close friend and myself had bought tickets for a concert at Stockton on Tees' Globe Theatre to see one Emerson Lake & Palmer in concert...
Bring on the celebrations!
So what is great for me to see on this DVD, amongst all the pyrotechnics, the stage sets and projections is those human moments - and those moments that remind me of what live music is about. This is not a flawless performance (I doubt the concert in March 71 was either). Greg is obviously not happy with the stage monitoring, Carl has issues with his drum kit after the drum stage revolves, Keith's keyboards do not always cut through the mix, but through all these minor mishaps is a wonderful show, performed by three truly professional musicians.
As for the music - well much as you might expect really - extracts from Pictures and Tarkus - From The Beginning and Lucky Man are there of course. Fanfare For The Common Man which of course features Carl's drum solo and concludes with Rondo. The rousing Touch & Go is a big crowd pleaser - the footage of which reveals an emotionally charged audience, revelling in the concert. There are even some young people in there ;0). Bitches Crystal
is a nice inclusion as is Farewell To Arms.
Highlights: Well there are many, but to pick just a few. Great to hear so much from the first album with only The Three Fates and Tank being AWOL. The already mentioned Bitches Crystal. Keith's piano solo leading into Tarkus (on piano).
Tarkus itself. And then there's Pictures At An Exhibition loved by many, reviled by others. I fall into the former category... as hot on the heels of my first ever concert I travelled to Newcastle City Hall on 26th March 1971 and, well, the rest is history. The more concise version here is splendid and the reworked The Sage delightful.
Disappointments: Well the band were delayed getting on stage - so it would be interesting to know what the "missing twenty minutes or so" of their set might have been? Or maybe not... no don't tell me! Not really a disappointment but something a little more from the oft overlooked Trilogy album. Or sacrificing Fanfare, (sorry folks but I could live without another version of this), for a version of Pirates which was such a highlight from their 25th Anniversary celebrations.
The concert footage seems to be a fairly true representation of the gig and there seems to be little in the way of editing, although Fanfare seems to be chopped rather clumsily. Keith's keyboards suffer soundwise here and there, and there are few minor glitches (Pictures...). But hey I'm just nit picking here. As our trio emerged on stage at dusk the stage lighting is less effective at the beginning, but in true ELP style captures the show to a tee.
As for the bonus material. The interviews with Keith, Greg and Carl are interesting, thoughtful if not too searching. I was a little disappointed, in light of the nature of the concert, that the band didn't do a joint interview. Now this may not have been possible, but certainly would have been the icing on the cake. Interesting to hear Greg say that the band still have unfinished potential?
Before I conclude this review. I've read criticisms about Emerson Lake & Palmer's performance at High Voltage and those who say the band are not the band they were. Well this may well be true - however they set such high standards. So here I would say - go look in the mirror and ask the aging, likely balding and somewhat larger framed figure in front of you and ask - what am I able to do as well or better now, than I could forty years ago?
So folks - a thoroughly entertaining and highly recommended concert captured on DVD.
Conclusion: Impossible for me to rate...
Leprous – Bilateral
Tracklist: Bilateral (4:00), Forced Entry (10:20), Restless (3:30), Thorn (5:47), Mb. Indifferentia (6:33), Waste Of Air (5:32), Mediocrity Wins (6:07), Cryptogenic Desires (2:45), Acquired Taste (5:13), Painful Detour (8:18)
“The term progressive music has been gradually diluted through the years. Now it seems like the only requirement for being labeled as a ‘prog band’ is that your song includes one or two odd time signatures plus a virtuous guitar solo. The bands which truly deserve to be titled as ‘progressive’, are the bands which dare break with the conventions.” Such is the view of Einar Solberg, the vocalist and synth player who leads Leprous.
The cover for the third album by this five-part musical conglomeration from Norway may leave you wondering how hard they are actually trying to break with convention. Created by Jeff Jordan, of The Mars Volta fame, it features mushrooms, a big breasted devil, a jug of lemonade, some bondage and an ant-eater. It conventionally yells Prog from every brush of the artist’s pen.
Thankfully the 10 tracks to be found within, show Leprous to be a band, not merely willing to break with convention but to throw convention out of the window, stamp on it, set fire to it and then eat it for breakfast! Bilateral is an album of epic ambition and majestic musical prowess that has all the hallmarks of a bona fide classic.
Despite their youthful demeanor – all aged between 20 and 26 years - the band has had a decade to hone its art and to make it all sound so effortless. Leprous released a demo CD, Aeolia, in 2006. However it was the ambitious Tall Poppy Syndrome that caught the attention of lovers of avant garde progressive metal in 2009. Despite its many plaudits (including Tom's DPRP review here), I found Tall Poppy Syndrome rather inaccessible. Firstly the growly vocals were too abundant for my tastes. The constant twists and turns of the music was a little too random for easy digestion. Bilateral takes largely the same template but is simply a more mature album. It is equally as diverse and complex, yet more sophisticated and coherent.
The growls are much less noticeable. If you really can not stand any barking vocals then this may not be for you. But the music here is so sublimely progressive that it’d be a shame to miss out. In several songs Solberg only employs his ‘clean’ voice. In most songs the growls are just an added detail. On only one song do the barks dominate. For me Waste Of Air is repetitive, shouty, dull and thus totally out of place.
For me it’s a flaw, an annoyance but I’m not going to mark the album down for it. This album is so diverse and varied that I’d be amazed if any listener will come away saying “I wish they hadn’t done that in that song.” I dislike the song but I like that fact that it is there. It shows a band not happy to stay within safe or consistent boxes.
The other nine tracks are simply stunning. Forced Entry and Painful Detour in particular provide some of the most inventively sweet progressive music I have heard this year. There are shorter pieces like the title track, Restless and the insanely catchy Cryptogenic Desires which twists heavy rock and progrock into one. Mb. Indifferentia is just one place where melancholy shifts seamlessly to powerful.
In the past two years the band has built a solid live reputation supporting heavy hitters like Opeth, Pagan’s Mind and Therion. Leprous is also the backing band for former Emperor frontman and fellow countryman Ihsahn, who provides guest vocals on one track here. Thorn also features a trumpet!
Bilateral is an album where each song stands on its on feet but it best appreciated as a whole. Most songs never stay in one place for long, with a surprise around every corner. An intense listening experience for sure. Yet the band has managed to include a deluge of memorable riffs and melodies which ensure that intrigue doesn’t come at the price of accessibility.
Comparisons are rather pointless, such is the ground covered here. The one concession I’ll make is that I find myself constantly reminded of early-period Pain of Salvation. It's largely that the mood created on at least half of the tracks convey to me a mood and tone very similar to the one I get from Remedy Lane. On tracks such as Acquired Taste, Thorn and Mb. Indifferentia, Solberg’s vocal styling and patterning is also very similar in places to that of Daniel Gildenlow.
The vocals of Solberg are world class. He has an amazing range and depth of detail to his voice. His upper range can be silky sweet and unsettlingly raw. But this is very much a band album with the guitar, bass and drum work being quite exceptional too.
In short, with their third album Leprous have created an album that has got me excited with its freshness, inventiveness, its ability to challenge yet entertain, it’s blend of power and melancholy, technicality and accessibility. More than that, Bilateral is a strikingly original collection of songs that have brought something new and exciting to the progressive genre. It is an album that could help redefine ProgMetal for the coming decade.
My gut reaction is the same as when I heard Pain of Salvation’s Remedy Lane or Queensrÿche’s Operation Mindrime. A breakthrough disc that should catapult Leprous to the upper levels of the progressive rock/metal genre. An album that within a few years will be widely regarded as a classic.
It’ll take something equally extraordinary to knock this off the top of my best of 2011 albums list. Thus the only mark I can award is…
Conclusion: 10 out of 10
Redemption - This Mortal Coil
Tracklist: Path Of The Whirlwind (5:26), Blink Of An Eye (5:57), No Tickets To The Funeral (6:26), Dreams From The Pit (9:11), Noonday Devil (5:03), Let It Rain (7:21), Focus (5:43), Perfect (4:48), Begin Again (6:11), Stronger Than Death (5:29), Departure Of The Pale Horse (10:15)
How does he do it? Redemption is the creation of US guitarist and songwriter Nick van Dyk. In reviewing the past three albums from his band, I’ve enthused about Redemption being one of, if not the most exciting and consistent Prog Metal bands of the past decade.
Nick has kept the bar at unbelievably high levels throughout The Fullness Of Time (2005 – 9 out of 10); The Origins Of Ruin (2007 – 10 out of 10) and Snowfall On Judgment Day (2009 – 9 out of 10). However almost every songwriter will eventually run out of inspiration and the quality of their output will eventually decline. Thus, when I first listened to This Mortal Coil I had almost pre-determined the music would show at least some signs of tiring on me. Wrong!
Often artists pull their best inspiration from dark times. The album’s title may give a clue as to why Nick has pulled it off again.
“I was diagnosed with blood cancer three years ago and told that I had three to five years to live,” he explained. “It’s not that I wanted to write songs or an album about having cancer, but there’s a thought process that one goes through when you’re confronted by your own mortality.”
This Mortal Coil is Redemption’s heaviest album by some distance. The sound is dense. The guitar tone is deeper. The dark lyrics manifest anger and hope. It is the soundtrack of a life that looked in the mirror - and saw a death sentence smiling back. The song titles alone (Tickets To The Funeral, Departure Of The Pale Horse and Dreams From The Pit) say everything.
The promo I have been sent, sadly doesn’t contain a lyric sheet. That is a shame, as this aspect has always been one the strengths of van Dyk’s song writing. However, from what I can gather, This Mortal Coil manages to avoid being a concept album about Nick. The experiences are personal but the themes are applied universally. Many listeners will be able to find common ground here.
Musically this album is far removed from the Dream Theater format of ProgMetal as a show case for the musician’s technical wizardry. Redemption’s sound is based around heavy, nay intense riffing and strong melodies. More so than before, the opening half of the album bears a heavy resemblance to bands from the NWOBHM and the Bay Area Thrash scene. There is plenty of high-speed guitar shredding and a smattering of keyboard dexterity but more so than on previous album it is the big riffs that stand out here. The band’s label has hit the nail on the head when they call this ‘Shred with Substance’.
The band sets off at a furious pace. It's not until halfway through the fourth track (a third of the way through the album) that the guitars take a pause in their onslaught. All four of these songs must rank among the best the band has produced.
The fifth track opens with a riff adapted from the Testament/Metallica back catalogue but the effective use of some electronica gives the first hint that the band is exploring some new sounds.
Let It Rain is an excellent ballad whilst both Focus and Begin Again introduce more of a melodic metal vibe. The former utilising a lovely Journey-esque guitar line with some Evergrey-esque riffage. The latter opens with an unusual guitar groove and a hard rock vocalisation which reminds me of John Payne's side project GPS. Vocal harmonies are also used on Stronger Than Death and Perfect which may indicate where the band's sound may be heading in the future.
The album should have closed here as Departure Of The Pale Horse is probably the worst song I've heard from the band. It seeks to bring more dynamics to the song writing which is good, but after what has gone before I find it rather bland. The bizzare combination of vocalisations at the end is just horrible. Hopefully it's a song that won't feature in the set when the band undertakes its debut European Tour at the end of this month, with Italian band Kingcrow in support and including a headline appearance at the ProgPower Europe festival on October 2nd.
This Mortal Coil works to the template of Redemption’s last three albums but the heavier sound, darker mood and the handful of tracks that bring something new to the table, avoids any thoughts of repetition. The fact that the lyrics, the melodies, the song writing and especially the vocal performance of Ray Alder is again world class makes The Mortal Coil another absolute winner.
Footnote: A very special limited edition Digipak version of This Mortal Coil will be released with a bonus disc including six cover songs of Elton John, Starship, Toto, Journey, UFO and Tori Amos.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Solstice - Kindred Spirits
DVD Tracklist: Morning Light, Solomon’s Bridge, Sky Path West, Freedom, Cheyenne, Ducks, 5456, Here And Now, Oberon’s Folly, Flight, Sacred Run DVD Extras: New Life (5:06), Brave New World (10:13)
CD Tracklist: New Life (5:10), Peace (6:56), Earthsong (7:49), Thank You (5:36), Medicine (6:13), Brave New World (9:59), Don’t Tell Me (8:42)
John O'Boyle's Review
Oh I do love a live album, a product that does divide its community, love or loath them, there is no denying that they have made peoples careers, giving them almost legendary status. If I was to set you a challange to name your favourite live album, you will probably start reeling off titles which in all honesty will probably for the most part, come from the late 60’s to the early 80’s. For me the defining era of the live album was the 70’s. It always seemed a much more mature and relevant method of promoting an artists talents than using the mundane compilation to fulfil contractual obligation, not that this is what this release is, far from it. For me it really does test an artist’s mettle, displaying an inherent quality of character laying bare their musical souls. The live album offers mystique allowing the listener an opportunity to build their own visuals, creating mythical pictures of grandeur.
Then along came video, DVD and Blu Ray, a medium that changed everything but that’s a whole other story.
31 years in existence and this is only their sixth release. Solstice is not the most prolific band in the world, but then Andy Glass has always worked with the ethos of quality over quantity which is Festival Music’s ethos also, something that has served both well. Festival Music has performed a sterling job in making sure that their back catalogue was remastered to the highest order and that they provided a continuation of that work ethic for both 2010’s Spirit and 2011’s Kindred Spirits, which has to be a dream come true for any band.
It is also worth noting that all their releases have been DPRP recommended, not an accolade too many bands can boast and in my eyes Kindred Spirits is another release that will be added to that list.
This new release incorporates both audio and visual elements within its packaging making it the perfect companion for Spirit, being a good entry level for the uninitiated and a fantastic release for fans of old. For me it is the DVD that is the real winner here, but don’t write the cd off as that is a stunner too.
The DVD historically documents the Spirit launch show recorded at the now defunct Pitz Club in Milton Keynes which would appear to have been a bit of a spiritual Mecca for the band. The bonus extra’s New Life and Brave New World on the DVD is from their 2010 Loreley show.
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty. As ever, Solstice offer their majestic artistry to who ever wants to participate, a band that has a somewhat unique sound which incorporates prog passages that are embellished with folk, a sound that feels both tribal and spiritual. The beauty of their creations is that you can actually feel the love, energy and emotion they have invested throughout. Andy’s guitar work is just an extension of his personality; the fret work is metered precisely, as if the guitar is part of his being, switching between lead and rhythm with the flick of a switch. Jenny Newman sonically compliments their interactions and vice versa, the duelling between them at times is really exciting, perfectly complimenting each other. Emma Brown builds the storylines with conviction, whilst the listener hangs in the balance intently caressing every word offered.
The older songs still sound fresh and relevant Cheyenne being a very good example of this. Even when you listen to the cd you can feel the band engaging with the audience with their warmth and passion. Ducks sees the band getting the audience to dance allowing Jenny to breathe and display her virtuosity, a mixture of Celtic Ska and Country rhythms. Ska is the order of the day with the band working their way through 5456 and Brave New World. The track that always intrigues me though is Don’t Tell Me, a brave and intrepid musical journey, which can feel out of place at times, but does confirm that the band have a fun loving side too. It’s also nice to see Robin Phillips, (bass), Pete Hemsley (drums) and Steve McDaniel (keyboards) having fun engaging in some musical malarkey working their way through Tubular Bells (theme for The Exorcist segment), Star Trek and The Simpsons, something that breaks down the dark intensity of Here And Now.
The whole package in general manages to perfectly capture the band live since 2007 albeit in the same location, but no matter. This is a release worth buying, that does work on several levels and is highly entertaining. The audio and video quality is impeccable throughout, with the usual multi angle shots, only the two Loreley tracks being slightly ropey on sound.
The live arena is definitely the place to see this band, a place that they are very comfortable in. Having seen Solstice live several times I can categorically confirm that this really is a true representation of what the band are about.
What you waiting for?
Geoff Feakes' Review
Many bands I’m sure could give lessons in the art of survival and none more so than Solstice. Formed in 1980 and with three studio albums under their belt their career looked to be on hold following the belated release of the 1998
The Cropredy Set live recording. However F2’s excellent 2007 ‘Definitive Edition’ repackaging of the band’s back catalogue marked a resurgence of interest leading to a new studio release Spirit in 2010. This displayed a harder, more contemporary edge to the band’s sound but still compares favourably with the likes of Yes and Mostly Autumn. The albums launch included a performance at the Pitz Club, Milton Keynes, England on 6th March 2010 which was captured on camera providing the bulk of this DVD. Coincidently this is the same venue where the bonus DVD included with the Spirit album was filmed the previous year.
Confidence in the new material ensures that the Spirit album is performed almost in its entirety with the title track being the only conspicuous omission. The line-up from the album is all present and correct, namely Andy Glass (guitar), Jenny Newman (fiddle), Robin Phillips (bass), Steve McDaniel (keyboards), Emma Brown (vocals) and Pete Hemsley (drums). Morning Light (taken from the 1993 New Life album) is perhaps a tad too ponderous to make a really effective set opener and is swiftly followed by the three opening tracks from Spirit. They are all skilfully performed although for my money Andy’s guitar histrionics occasionally get the better of him (and the melody) as in Solomon’s Bridge whilst Sky Path West takes Solstice into previously unchartered prog-fusion territory. Best of the trio for me however is the world music flavoured Freedom where Jenny’s fiddle playing really soars.
A stately Cheyenne is beautifully sung by Emma and in complete contrast is the tongue in cheek Ducks which fuses Jenny’s fiddle driven reel with a reggae beat. The ska theme continues with an unexpected cover of Toots and the Maytals 5456 with enthusiastic participation from the surprisingly youthful looking audience (this is a prog gig after all!). Having lightened the mood, they return to the Spirit album beginning with the rolling and Middle-Eastern flavoured Here & Now which allows both bassist Phillips and drummer Hemsley to indulge in lengthy solos. The latter has samples from Tubular Bells, Star Trek and The Simpsons thrown in for good measure. With the band’s performance noticeably improving as the show progresses they are really on fire by this point.
The haunting Celtic ballad that opens Oberon’s Folly provides another welcome change of mood whilst the aptly titled Flight really soars with superb guitar and violin interplay between Andy and Jenny. The Yes like a cappella section is superbly performed by Emma and Jenny leaving Andy to deliver his most strident guitar solo of the evening. Fittingly they close with and electrifying rendition of Sacred Run, one of the band’s strongest tunes taken from the 1997
Visually and sonically Kindred Spirits is a major improvement on Solstice’s two previous DVD’s. Whilst the stage lighting is not always sympathetic to the cameras where band members are occasionally shrouded in darkness its well shot with strong colours, sharp images and first rate sound production.
DVD extras include two songs recorded at the ‘Night of the Prog’ Festival in Loreley, Germany on 4th September 2010. The expansive Loreley stage in broad daylight is in stark contrast to the Pitz Club show but the band look very much at home performing within the festival environment. This is especially true of Glass whose guitar workout during Brave New World could give both Steve Hackett and Nick Barrett a run for their money aided by a showy synth break from McDaniel. It’s pity that given the space available more footage from Loreley didn’t make it onto the DVD.
The accompanying CD was again recorded at the Pitz Club but this time in 2007 and 2008 and includes a selection of older tunes absent from the ‘Spirit’ shows. Of these Peace and Medicine standout, the former thanks to a stirring guitar workout from Glass and the latter thanks to a haunting melody where again Glass shines (if you pardon the pun). Brave New World (one of three songs here from the debut Silent Dance album) is undoubtedly the highlight however sounding suitably triumphant and proggy. The concluding Don’t Tell Me on the other hand is pure nonsense sandwiching the stoner standard Don't Bogart That Joint and Ian Dury’s Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll in between a fiddle led reel.
A final word for the Kindred Spirits artwork which is something of a departure for Solstice. Gone is the usual mystic symbolism replaced with a comic book style design by veteran Marvel artist Barry Kitson depicting the band members as super heroes. The liner notes are by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson who is a self confessed Solstice fan. If this collection is given sufficient exposure then many more I’m sure will be joining him.
JOHN O'BOYLE : 8 out of 10
GEOFF FEAKES : 7 out of 10
Cavalli Cocchi Lanzetti Roversi – Cavalli Cocchi Lanzetti Roversi
Tracklist: New Life On Mars (4:36), JPG Card (4:50), Morning Comes (6:37), Words Got The Power (5:06), Why Should I? (5:14), By This River (4:20), Great Love Does Burn Fast (5:42), The Late Hour (4:48), Blue Boy Under An Ethnic Sky (4:31)
When Esoteric Recordings signed Van Der Graaf Generator for their release of A Grounding in Numbers, it became a first for Esoteric. They had previously only been a reissue and compilation label, eschewing new studio releases from bands. Esoteric has continued the new release philosophy they ventured into with the VDGG release, taking it a step further with the eponymous debut of brand new Italian prog outfit Cavalli Cocchi Lanzetti Roversi. For short, you can call them CCLR, as that rolls off the tongue a little more smoothly.
CCLR is made up of Gigi Cavalli Cocchi (Ligabue, Clan Destiny, CSI, Mangala Vallis, Moongarden, Lassociazione) on drums and percussions, Bernardo Lanzetti (Acqua Fragile, PFM) on vocals, and Cristiano Roversi (Moongarden, John Wetton Band, Mangala Vallis, Massimo Zamboni) on acoustic grand piano, mellotron, and Chapman grand stick. CCLR has no fulltime guitarist, so guitar duties on their debut offering are executed by a capable cast of axesmiths including, on one track each, Paolo Schianchi on guitars arranging and performing (31 string harp-guitar, classical guitar, ebow quartet), Lucio Lazzaruolo and Raffaele Villanova on nylon string guitars, Max Cottafavi on acoustic guitar, Anthony Sidney on acoustic guitar, Massimo Menotti on nylon string guitar, Erik Montanari on acoustic guitar, Steve Hackett on nylon string guitar, Flaco Biondini on nylon string guitar, and Aldo Tagliapietra on 12 string and 6 string acoustic. Schianchi on his track also throws down some backing vocals.
For many, the main drawing point of CCLR is the inclusion of vocalist Lanzetti, whose lineage with PFM saw him as the singer on three of their albums in the mid to late seventies. PFM’s material at this time, in particular with the album Chocolate Kings, often had tempo and groove taking a back seat to a stark sense of melody. With CCLR, melodic sensibilities and rhythm are given more of an allocation of, as it were, equal time.
And modern time. The past is behind us, and CCLR is a new band for a new era, though not taking on loan too much of the post-prog that is an element of Moongarden. What we get on the CCLR debut is seven original melodic tracks, a cover of a Brian Eno tune, and a reworked version of an Acqua Fragile track.
There are no Italian language vocals on Cavalli Cocchi Lanzetti Roversi, with Lanzetti instead opting for English as his delivered tongue of choice.
The power of his vocals are evident on opening track New Life On Mars, and no, there is not a little amplifier surgically implanted in Lanzetti’s voice box and his vocal cords aren’t plugged in anywhere. His voice is the real deal and tends to fall somewhere in the comparative territory of Peter Hammill and Peter Gabriel. The opening tune casts an emotive feel recalling Mostly Autumn, and is flavoured by flirtatious guitar from Schianchi, plaintive piano and unwavering Chapman grand stick from Roversi, and a bass drum element from Cavalli Cocchi evoking heartbeats of cardiac Detroit house.
Cavalli Cocchi’s often midtempo drumming gives a particular strength to certain songs, like on Words Got The Power, which also showcases some meticulously deployed acoustic guitar from Sidney.
The talented Roversi brings the groove as well, joining with Cavalli Cocchi to form a rhythm section regiment on The Late Hour, which owes much of its tempo to some of the improvs King Crimson ventured into during their The ConstrucKtion Of Light tour. The Late Hour also features Biondini igniting jittery nerve endings of nylon string guitar.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Hackett, a man of a thousand styles, ventures, as it were, into a bit of surf territory with the nylon string guitar on Great Love Does Burn Fast, which also offers up some distinctive mellotron from Roversi.
The mellotron on this album is maybe a tad overused, whereas Roversi’s acoustic grand piano seems to have more staying power. The stimulated ivories are bouncy on Why Should I? and commanding on Blue Boy Under An Ethnic Sky.
The Eno tune, By This River, is read by CCLR seamlessly, if not fittingly. However, introduction of the mellotron notwithstanding, the revisiting of the Acqua Fragile song Morning Comes to me, despite its over six and a half minute length, does not add anything of substance to CCLR’s debut as a whole.
Morning Comes is the longest track on the album, and indeed, there are no epics on Cavalli Cocchi Lanzetti Roversi, with the tracks clocking in at an average of just a little over five minutes each. The music on this album is of a strong enough quality that no epics are needed. “Fun size” isn’t just for Halloween candy anymore.
Roversi is a skilled multi-instrumentalist, but his work here does not eclipse the CD as a whole, with the other musicians given plenty of spotlight in the sonic sun.
Fans of melodic, song-based music should check CCLR out. If you are seeking metal or punk, you must bang your head or mosh somewhere else.
The CD booklet is well designed with photos of the three band members, along with lyrics and credits. The relationship between the band proper and the guest guitarists to me is a relationship that works well, and should continue if we are fortunate enough to have future releases from CCLR.
One area of opportunity I see for CCLR with future recorded work is for Roversi to add a Hammond organ and perhaps a Moog synthesizer to his instrument stockpile to spice up the keyboards a bit.
With this awesome debut, CCLR is a band with a significant destiny ahead of them. Bravo!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Earthling Society – Stations Of The Ghost
Tracklist: Stations Of The Ghost (2:22), Dark Horizons (7:32), The Last Hurrah (9:20), Child Of The Harvest (14:26), The Halloween Tree (3:38), Night Of The Scarecrow (13:30), Lola Daydream (6:45)
Earthling Society, English purveyors of what their record company calls "lo-fi kraut-angst acid rock", return with their sixth album, Stations Of The Ghost. I find the record company's description particularly unhelpful: better is their description of the album itself, which they say "mixes a potent brew of progressive folk, heavy psychedelic blues, 70s British fusion jazz and Kraut drone". To me, it sounds like retro space-rock, a mix of the early days of bands like Pink Floyd and Hawkwind. The band themselves quote Amon Düül as a big influence on Stations Of The Ghost.
This is the third Earthling Society album that I've owned, the previous two being their most recent, released since they joined up with 4 Zero Records. I've found that both 2008's
Beauty And The Beast and 2009's Sci-Fi Hi-Fi have grown with me since I first heard them, and I am now fonder of them than on first hearing. This is a common experience with many albums, but not one that I'd been expecting with Earthling Society's, as I had enjoyed them enough initially. Stations Of The Ghost is, in many respects, similar sonically to these other two, so I am expecting the same response after again enjoying it very much from the start. Established fans of the band should enjoy this latest release.
One of the aspects that is particularly enjoyable about this music is how the band vary the instrumentation through the album's compositions; this helps to maintain interest and focus in the listener. The keyboard sound selection is good, the band use acoustic and electric guitar to good effect and a guest, Ian Wright, is brought in to add a saxophone part – a very good one at that - on Child Of The Harvest.
The band have designed the album as a concept based around the witch folklore of their local area in Lancashire, England. This aspect didn't hold my attention at all: I found the music no spookier or essentially different to before, and the sparse lyrics weren't enough to bring the concept to fruition.
The title track kicks off the album in wistful mood with some gentle electric piano music before we're taken into the driving space-rock of Dark Horizons: this features some vocalisations towards the end, though no discernible lyrics. The Last Hurrah melds in some folk and psychedelic rock influences and has vocal passages: the band are particularly fine on this sort of music. The album continues in this vein, altering mood and tempo. Night Of The Scarecrow confuses me slightly, in terms of the concept: it is very good – don't get me wrong, there's no weak tracks on the album – but its beginning sounds slightly Eastern/Arabian in flavour. My advice would be to not dwell on the concept and just enjoy the music. The jam on Lola Daydream, ending the album, is at a slower tempo and is vaguely reminiscent of something that The Gathering played, a bit faster, on The West Pole. Arguably, the album might have fared better if its ending had been one of the higher tempo tracks, but I am probably being a bit over-critical on this point.
Stations Of The Ghost is another very good psychedelic space-rock album from Earthling Society, one that I can recommend without hesitation to fans of the genre. However, I think that it still lacks that extra "something" that would make me recommend it to a wider progressive rock audience.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Gingerpig - The Ways Of The Gingerpig
Tracklist: Indefinite Muddle Of Conspiracies (5:46), Pipedream (3:52), March Of The Gingerpig (3:01), Dimlighted Heart (9:44), Digging With Bare Hands (6:54), Undefined Call (4:28), Joe Cool [The Fool] (5:20), Blind To Reason (5:34)
Jarno van Es (keyboards), Sytse Roelevink (bass), Maarten Poiters (drums) and Boudwijn Bonebakker (guitar and vocals) are Gingerpig, a band of musicians that were hand picked by Bonebakker who had a vision of what he wanted to achieve and wasn’t going to settle for anything less. Bonebakker allegedly pieced the band after his purchase of a Hammond organ. Based on that fact alone I’m in, the Hammond is one of the few instruments that does stop me dead in my tracks, with its warm and emotive tones, indulgent I know, but it is not something that I’m not going to deny.
With The Ways Of The Gingerpig the band chose to take the analogue route which has allowed the album to have an organic feel; on top of that the band chose to record the music live and then lay the vocals down which again has added to the whole effect. Pieter Kloos along side the band has caught the essence and feel of this approach perfectly, no clinically clean recordings, just the pure and raw soul of the music.
There are plenty of influences that can be heard throughout the whole album including the likes of Deep Purple especially the Jon Lord phrasings, The Allman Brothers, The Stones, Gov’t Mule, The Who and during Dimlighted Heart to some degree Hawkwind. Let it be said though the band has kept originality in their compositional work, but the references are there for all to hear and can be picked out readily. Be under no illusions the Hammond sound is the Alpha male, the lynchpin to the music construct that is accompanied by some sublime musicianship from the rest of band. To some degree this approach at times seems simplistic, but on further listening this definitely is not the case, the approach of complexity is very subtle.
So down to the nitty gritty, Indefinite Muddle Of Conspiracies opens up the album with its salvo of urgency featuring that talked about Jon Lord phrasing, that creates an urgency that is both pleasurable and rewarding, setting the standard for the rest of the album. Pipedream takes a more relaxed approach that displays another side to the band which features that retro 70’s feel, something that is very noticeable throughout. Its rhythmic and percussive sequence is reinforced by the much vaunted keyboard soundstage confirming Boudwijn Bonebakker song writing abilities.
March Of The Gingerpig is the only instrumental here, what is does do is allow the band to focus and breathe, displaying that they are more than adept at playing with differing time signatures and conjuring up musical magic. When I hear Dimlighted Heart it confirms why I like this bands sound and approach and to be honest I have sat on this album a while before reviewing it, which I am not too sure as to why? Here is where those Hawkwind passages can be heard with its spacey and intense approach, the band isn’t afraid to experiment sonically, which makes it the standout song along side album closer Blind To Reason. The middle section of the song does offer respite calmly meandering with Bonebakker’s eloquent guitar tones. It isn’t long though before the band picks up the mantle again bringing the whole piece to a fitting conclusion repeating the opening musical theme, making it a rather stunning song. Roelevink steps to the front opening up Digging With Bare Hands, his pertinent bass groove is aligned as the rest of the band involve theirselves in this blues meandering as Bonebakker’s vocals really compliment the song adding that final depth.
Undefined Call again mixes things up taking a more basic rock orientated approach that does at times lack direction, something that is addressed with the closing elements of the song as the band ups the ante and offers completion in a archaic fashion. Joe Cool [The Fool] rectifies the situation with its jazz and funky inflected tones that builds their story creating another refreshing song. Blind To Reason the album closer is another fitting example of the band playing with approaches that offer eloquence and power confirming that songs don’t need to be complex to be great, proving that all good song writing is about passion and belief.
The Ways Of The Gingerpig isn’t a perfect album, but it is very good and highly enjoyable one. The band has envisioned what they wanted to achieve and have met that goal. They way they have approached it for me can’t have been easy but the results are very effective and definitely add to the experience. Hammond lovers will revel in this album.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Herd Of Instinct - Herd Of Instinct
Tracklist: Transformation (2:03), Room Without Shadows (4:48), Road To Asheville (5:40), Hex (4:35), Blood Sky (5:04), Anamnesis (5:49), Vibrissa (4:47), Possession (4:22), S. Karma (4:42), The Face Of Another (4:19)
First release on the new Firepool label, overseen by those masters of instrumental prog Djam Karet, is the eponymous debut album by Herd Of Instinct a trio of musicians comprising Mark Cook (guitars and keyboards), Mike Davison (guitars and guitar synth) and Jason Spradlin (drums, percussion and synths). Also appearing are a whole host of guests, far too numerable to individually list but all providing expert support when necessary. Anyone familiar with the work of Djam Karet will ease into the grooves of this CD as we are in similar (mostly) instrumental territory, although that is not to imply that the two groups are not without differences, Herd Of Instinct have their own distinct style. Take, for instance, Road To Asheville with its opening Eastern music derived raga with some of the best sounding tablas I've ever heard recorded on a CD (probably because of the simple reason that that particular instrument seems to have been generated electronically, no one is credited with playing them!). The music drifts off to a lone acoustic guitar towards the end and the contrast is startling, particularly when the next number, Hex, opens with a very abstract piece of almost musque concrete before being smashed decisively by twin guitars.
Blood Sky is the one track with lyrics, written and sung by Kris Swenson. With added marimba (played by Spradlin who for this piece has relinquished the drum stool for Jerry Marotta) and mellotron (played by DK mainman Gayle Ellett) the track has a distinct air of mid period King Crimson with the guitarists taking the thoughtful approach to their performance, encouraging atmosphere over aggression. Speaking of the Crimsos, none other than Pat Mastelotto adds drums and electronic effects to Anamnesis which also features no less than four guitarists, all playing different roles: Cook on Warr and fretless guitars, Markus Reuter on Touch guitar with Davison providing a spastic guitar solo and Ellett adding harmony to the solo. The layered effect is again arranged for the feel of the song, which fits comfortably alongside some of Mike Oldfield's work, Amarok in particular springs to mind.
Another 'star' guest drummer, Gavin Harrison, sits in for the next two tracks and does a sterling job, particularly on Possession were his precise and authoriative drum patterns form the basis of the track around which everyone else lays down their parts. In contrast, Vibrissa is more of a structured song with distinct guitar solos, first by Ellett and then by Davison, and a more traditional keyboard contribution by Mike McGary. S. Karma is back to the core three-piece with only one additional musician, Bob Fisher, adding a flute solo. Listening to this piece it make me question why they used so many guests throughout the album as they are more than capable of kicking up a storm by themselves with this track having one of the most distinct melodies on the album. Fisher is a delight, as he is on Road To Asheville, and the lively ending is perfect not only as a close to this track but as an introduction to The Face Of Another. Again it is a trio, this time Cook, Spradlin and bassist Dave Strett, who provide one of the more energetic numbers, the characteristic Warr guitar blending with the other six string instruments effortlessly.
Although perhaps not an album to rave over and insist that everyone should hear it, the music on this first Herd Of Instinct album is replete with intelligent, considered and enjoyable music. It is an album I have returned to numerable times without it becoming the slightest bit familiar. I was certainly impressed and look forward to hearing more of what this trio (or more correctly, collective, as the guests frequently contributed to the writing) have to offer next time round.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
17 Pygmies – CII: Second Son
|Country of Origin:||USA|
|Catalogue #:||TW 1020|
|Year of Release:||2011|
Tracklist: Celestina XII (3:33), Celestina XIII (3:59), Celestina XIV (2:27), Celestina XV (3:37), Celestina XVI (6:50), Celestina XVII (4:14), Celestina XVIII (3:31), Celestina XIX (5:54), Celestina XX (5:31), Celestina XXI (3:04), Celestina XXII (1:56)
17 Pygmies hails from the US and whose main composer and instrumentalist is Jackson Del Rey (guitar, synths, bass). With his partner Meg Maryatt (vocals, piano & synth), Jeff Brenneman (guitar, synth & vocals) and Dirk Doucette (drums, guitar, synth, bass & vocals) he created Second Son as the successor to Celestina (2009). The musicians are highly experienced because they have been active in the music business since 1982. Del Rey takes an exceptional interest in the Twilight Zone, soundtracks and psychedelic music from the sixties. All these influences can be distinguished quite clearly in the music of this album. It takes a certain state of mind to really appreciate this album but once you get into the music, you're 'lost' and you're well away to a voyage, a trip to cosmic psychedelica....
Haunting sounds set the tone of the music as soaring winds are followed by the gentle sound of a 'musical box' and some string arrangements. Celestina XIII is an awesome ballad carried by the sweet & soothing voice of Meg Maryatt, with its slow rhythm, subtle drumming, keyboards and violins. Celestina XIV is a melodic interlude, beginning like a soundtrack but turning into a nice psychedelic atmosphere and a melody played by flutes and accompanied by keyboards. In the same key as in Celestina XIII it's rather dark music but still melodic and the musical box is in contrast with the more orchestral passages in both Celestina XV and XVI. The low 'drone' can be heard throughout this track and several others too by the way.
Celestina XVII is partly a reprise from Celestina XIII, also nicely sung by Meg Maryatt. The first part of Celestina XVIII is dark, ambient, like a soundtrack for a somewhat scary movie. In the second part also a piece which is full of strings and far more melodic. The drone-like E bass sound, as heard before, is the basis for some whining violins and a more melodic part with Maryatt's vocals in Celestina XIX. What a lovely voice she has! Celestina XX is a subtle chill out tune with slow drums, keyboards and some violins and guitar. Very accessible melodies and some classical influences because of the piano in Celestina XXI; the music is fading away nicely and this would have been a fine end of the album in my opinion. Instead we have this somewhat strange alternative ending with organ, synths and unexpectedly raw guitars and hammering synth sounds, to fade away smoothly fortunately.
The album comes in a lush, highly original package, nice booklet, delicately wrapped (with seal!), a feast for the eye and nothing like I'd ever seen before. Maybe a bit strange, but still a very enjoyable album combining ambient, chill out, soundtrack and symphonic music in a very original mixture with a touch of psychedelic influences from the Sixties.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
MENNO VON BRUCKEN FOCK
Gudars Skymning - Mörka Vatten
Tracklist: Jag Är En Trollkarl (3:31), Södersläntsblues (4:50), I Muränans Käflar (4:27), Källar-Tony (4:31), Pengar (4:35), Aldrig Har Jag Vetat (6:01), Hyfs Och Fason (4:21), I Älvens Svarta Djup (6:28), Fri (2:31), Never In My Life (3:21)
With a name meaning "Twilight of the Gods" in Swedish, and a cover graced by one of William Blake's visionary, Bible-inspired paintings, first-timers will be forgiven for mistaking Gudars Skymning for one of the seemingly countless power/epic metal bands hailing from the northern reaches of Europe. However, right from the first notes of the album, it becomes evident that this Swedish quartet belongs to a rather different category. In place of Wagnerian choruses and grandiosely orchestrated pieces, here we have a no-frills, stripped-down format, drenched in fuzzed-out, grungy twin-guitar chords fuelled by streamlined but powerful bass and drums, and complemented by a gruff, soulful voice.
Hailing from the northern Swedish region of Lapland, Gudars Skymning released their debut album, Dansa Tillbaks Till Din Grav, in 2008, and were then signed by Italian label Black Widow/Bloodrock Records (which, incidentally, is home to quite a few acts inspired by the doom/Gothic sound of the Seventies) for their second album, titled Mörka Vatten (Dark Water). A compact effort clocking in at under 45 minutes, featuring 10 songs between 2 and 6 minutes, the album is an unabashed tribute to vintage hard rock - a big-sounding, gritty and intense slice of solid, bluesy heaviness, deeply and firmly rooted in the great tradition of the late Sixties and Seventies, on both sides of the pond.
Though Gudars Skymning are not a progressive rock band, their music is quite likely to appeal to the numerous prog fans who, like myself, are not averse to a varied musical diet that includes something less involved than the usual prog fare. While the song structures are quite conventional, even predictable, and the overall musical offer is definitely not a sophisticated one, there are hints of something more complex, especially in the longer numbers - bringing to mind guitar-driven, borderline progressive bands like Captain Beyond or even early Rush rather than keyboard-driven ones such as Uriah Heep or Atomic Rooster. Even a cursory listen will reveal some unmistakable influences - namely the "holy trinity" of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, alongside seminal hard rock/blues acts such as Free, Mountain, Humble Pie and Nazareth, with a splash of Southern rock thrown in for good measure. However, unlike other modern bands inspired by the heavy sound of the Seventies (especially those tagged as "stoner rock"), Gudars Skymning keep the sludgy, doomy nuances a minimum, recreating the raw, aggressive feel of those bygone years without sounding overly muddy or distorted.
The Swedish-language vocals are probably the most surprising feature of Mörka Vatten, though a rather odd choice for a band whose music is strongly rooted in such a distinctively Anglo-American genre. However, though some reviewers have been critical of this particular aspect, it does not really impair the effectiveness of the music. The vocals, on the other hand, are a different matter - especially as we are dealing with a genre famed for extraordinary vocalists such as Robert Plant, Paul Rodgers or Steve Marriott. Guitarist/lead singer Kerry-Oswald Sjödin's voice, while at times quite moving and passionate, is somewhat one-dimensional, sounding occasionally strained when it would need more power and depth . His limits are rather evident on tracks like the Purple/Sabbath-influenced Källar-Tony or the riff-laden, Zeppelinesque I Muränans Käflar. His remarkable skills as a guitarist, though, blend well with his partner Knut Hassel's in a gritty, yet melodic combination - particularly noteworthy when the two are playing parallel but different solo lines, as in the exhilarating coda to I Älvens Svarta Djup, or the epic-sounding homage to Yes' iconic Starship Trooper in the second half of Aldrig Har Jag Vetat. The latter song combines a Swedish-language cover of Mountain's Never In My Life (whose original version closes the album) with the Yes classic, in a rather unexpected but oddly successful combination that clearly points at Gudars Skymning's love for progressive rock. The blues matrix of the band comes across most clearly in the riff-driven, soulful Södersläntsblues and the slow, measured Fri, enhanced by intense slide guitar; while Pengar, with its laid-back opening that gradually heats up, reminded me of early Whitesnake.
As the previous paragraphs imply, Gudars Skymning make no bones about being a full-blown retro act, a fine addition to the roster of bands treading a similar path (such as Spiritual Beggars, Abramis Brama and Siena Root) for which Sweden is renowned. As proved by the worldwide success of the magnificent Black Country Communion (though Glenn Hughes' crew have a more modern, streamlined approach), there is still a market for music that pays homage to the classic, hard-edged rock tradition of the Seventies. Regressive? Maybe. However, I believe there is quite a big difference between those bands that are irremediably stuck in the past while bearing the "progressive" tag (a true contradiction in terms), and those that choose instead to pursue the route of timeless rock and roll. In any case, Mörka Vatten is an enjoyable album, appealingly rough around the edges, in true vintage, blues-tinged hard rock fashion - though the impact of Gudars Skymning's music would be vastly improved by a singer with a more versatile, full-bodied voice.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Unified Past – Observations
Tracklist: I’m Not Answering (5.46), Mr Extravagant (3.48), Insulated (4.42), Crushed (5:17), Exploratory Observations (4:00), Painful Observations (5:34), The Move (4:00), Mesmerized (6:01), Faithless (8:30), Remember When (7:47), Here They Come (6:39)
Unified Past is a New York progressive rock act which specialises in exploring new sounds within the genre. This is the band’s sixth official release and the first on indie progressive rock label, Melodic Revolution Records.
The band is the brainchild of guitarist, vocalist and composer, Stephen Speelman who reformed the band in 2007 when he moved to Syracuse in the central New York region. He enlisted his lifelong friend and drummer Victor Tassone for this studio based project along with keyboards player Vinny Krivacsy both of whom also appeared on their last album, Tense issued in 2009.
As with Tense, Observations raises more questions than it answers. Its intention is to present songs from the perspective of the singer-songwriter and draws its influences from Peter Gabriel, Adrian Belew, Todd Rundgren and David Gilmour.
Indeed, overall, it is a tapestry of contrasting songs, full of punchy guitar riffing, flowing keyboards and a range of interesting sound effects from birdsong, to a church bell and sirens.
It gets off to a cracking start with the telephone ringing at the start of I’m Not Answering which builds swiftly and effectively to a really flowing guitar extravaganza from Mr Speelman. However, this track also exposes the one major weakness which running throughout the album and that is the vocals but more about that later.
Mr Extravagant, the second track, again has plenty of interesting musical twists including some trumpet effects while some deft keyboard noodling begins Insulated which again pans out into some tasty guitar licks and ending with those church bells, sirens and gurgling sounds.
Crushed has an altogether different vibe with a great melody hook through it which reminded me of Scritti Politti with the voice slightly reminiscent of the band’s iconic singer Green Gartside. But again, Mr Speelman throws in one or two vocal phrases which just sound forced and unnecessary within the context of the song.
Jungle sounds start Exploratory Observations which is an interesting rhythmically-based workout marred again by shrieky vocals. Coming right after this is Painful Observations with a jangling acoustic guitar base and some vocal harmonising which sound a little like Crowded House. More jungle noises start The Move which again goes into acoustic guitar mood with some nice slide guitar touches over the top but no sooner has that mood been realised than the sledgehammer voices come in and demolish the effect being created before the guitars return.
Mesmerized is one of the more proggier tracks with interesting keyboard sounds and some good fluid guitar lines.
Stand-out track Faithless is also the longest but has a really strong melancholy melody hook which again ventures into Scritti Politti territory with a good understated keyboard and percussion backing leading into some shimmering guitar-work. This is the one track where the vocals actually work as they are neither shrill nor forced.
Remember When again majors on strong guitar and keyboard melodies with the vocals coming in later but the track overstays its welcome.
Here They Come a very listenable proggy guitar-based instrumental containing several shifting musical patterns also sketched out on keyboards and verging on the jazzy at times brings proceedings to an end.
There are some sublime moments throughout this albun and Stephen Speelman is indeed a very slick guitarist. However, the vocals remain the significant stumbling block because such those good inventive instrumental arrangements included here deserve something less shrill and intrusive.
But having heard this album time and time again, I am still left scratching my head and reaching the same conclusion, what exactly does it want to be?
Conclusion: 6 out of 10