Reviews in this issue:
- Saga - 20/20
- Riversea - Out Of An Ancient World
- Silhouette - Across The Rubicon
- Subtilior – Absence Upon A Ground
- Human Groove Hormone - Self [En]titled
- Rob Gould - The Broken Road
- Gunnelpumpers - Tritonium
- Alkozaur – Serum Of Life
Saga - 20/20
Tracklist: Six Feet Under (4:56) Anywhere You Wanna Go (5:30) Ellery (4:09) Spin It again (4:41) Another Day Out Of Sight (4:19) One Of These Days (4:46) Ball And Chain (4:18) Lost For Words (4:34) Show And Tell (4:42) Till The Well Runs Dry (6:20)
For this reviewer, 20/20 has been one of the most eagerly anticipated albums for a number of reasons. Primarily, it is because I have been a long-time admirer of their work – at one time planning to launch their UK fan club, since hearing Images At Twilight 33 years ago and nearly causing collateral damage to a sink full of crockery at the time. It was one of those “Drop everything” moments which so infrequently come along in music.
Coupled with that, their 35 year history has been beset with numerous challenges which threatened their existence at several junctures. However, despite several personnel changes, they have carried on regardless. What is so exciting about 20/20 is the return, after four and a half years, of their iconic singer and front man Michael Sadler, always the focal point of the band with his distinctive rich masculine voice and brooding stage presence.
In the interregnum, they carried on with his replacement, Rob Moratti and made The Human Condition, but it was never quite the same without him.
It has already been remarked upon that the cover artwork bears an uncanny likeness to that on Paul Cusick’s debut album Focal Point. But those familiar with Saga’s work over the years will be aware of the “Chapters” storyline woven into each of their albums which is wide open to individual interpretation but does involve Albert Einstein and in particular, his eyes. While the album title refers to this being their 20th studio album, any resemblance is co-incidental while at the same time, being integral to the plot.
Their appeal to my prog sensibilities has always been their innate ability to create the cleverest and complex compositions, full of melody, musical twists and turns, with dazzling levels of instrumental artistry. They always operated in prog’s pomp zone though midway through their career, their musical course was steered more towards AOR to appease certain contractual obligations. However, 20/20 is back precisely to what they do best.
- From the opening staccato keyboard chords of Six Feet Under, this is a wonderful return to form with so many of their familiar touches such as the “question and answer” exchanges between Sadler and multi-instrumentalist, Jim Gilmour and a huge chorus hook “Help me, help you”. Ian Crichton’s guitar shimmers and fragments of melody spring out from all over the mix while the whole song keeps its shape and structure beautifully.
- Anywhere You Wanna Go is the stand-out track with a driving beat from Brian Doerner (since replaced by Mike Thorne) and the hugest multi-voiced hookline underpinned by Ian Crichton’s meaty riffs and enhanced majestic keyboards from Gilmour and Jim Crichton. Sadler has not sounded this good for many an album, his voice still a finely tuned instrument in its own right and possessed of a slight edge of menace.
- Ellery, for those who have followed Saga over the years, doffs its hat at the band’s past. Is Ellery in fact Ellery Sneed, the Perfectionist from their debut eponymous album? The song rolls along effortlessly and some of the lyrics “listen with your heart” and “although we’re worlds apart” are direct references to their previous output.
- Lush keyboards make way for crashing guitars in Spin It Again before Sadler comes in with a melody line which showcases his distinct voice channelling both sensitivity and a sense of urgency. Ian Crichton comes in with a note bending guitar solo which seems to sound off key at one stage but of course it isn’t.
- Another Day Out of Sight starts with Gilmour singing. His is a much lighter touch vocally but it suits the lilting melody and yes, there are references to the past again with the line “You know I’m always late”. The song builds beautifully with superb harmonies and Ian Crichton producing another spellbinding moment of guitar brilliance.
- One Of These Days gets straight into a keyboard driven groove with Sadler hitting the ground running with another huge hook which will run rings around your head for hours afterwards. This is probably the song which links their past, present and future with so many of their familiar turns of music phrasing tumbling out of the speakers. And it is all delivered with such an all-pervading air of elegance and self-belief.
- Into Ball And Chain, another great song which packs a punch but which does not quite light the blue touch paper in the way that the others previously do though it does contain a beautifully fluent piano solo from Gilmour.
- Swelling keyboards and gentle acoustic guitar begin Lost For Words, a much slower, more emotionally charged song which remind me of other great Saga songs such as “I Walk With You” and “You And The Night”. This is Sadler using his vocal prowess to convey such a sense of longing interspersed with Ian Crichton’s yearning guitar.
- Show And Tell again shows their ability to find a killer melody and meld so many different elements to it – smooth harmonies, a raging guitar and slick keyboards then allow the song to gather its own pace and find a direction through bringing each musical part in turn to the fore. It all seems to glide along effortlessly as a result.
- Rounding off is Till The Well Runs Dry, which has a totally different vibe about it as it seems to be a statement of intent from Sadler that he is well and truly back in business ending with the line “So here I go again.” It has a coursing keyboard running right through it with flowing, sometimes echoey guitars and a huge back beat. The song also seems to open a door to the exciting prospect of a possible follow-up.
Like their Canadian compatriots Rush, Saga have produced something very special in crafting an album which plays to all their musical strengths gathered from their long and illustrious past while making it all sound contemporary, fresh and invigorating.
Having the inimitable Mr Sadler back at the helm is the best thing which could have happened to this wonderful band as his voice is such an integral part of their wonderfully cultured style. They know how much I want them back here playing live in the UK where they never seemed to have taken off the way they have in the rest of Europe. So I hope this joyous album will convince many others over here that they are a band of great quality and substance who continue to bring their own particular brand of magic to the prog arena.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Riversea - Out Of An Ancient World
Tracklist: In The Beginning (4:28), The Song (7:31), Is That What God Wants? (6:13), Halo (5:40), The Fallen (3:40), Eden (5:54), Still Home (5:42), Falling Stars (5:39), Wiser (5:20), Freeze The Frame (6:33), Still Home [Reprise] (1:19)
Riversea were formed primarily as a song writing project between Marc Atkinson (vocals/acoustic guitar) and Brendan Eyre (piano/synths) in 2006, however due to various complications and issues it has taken them well over 5 years to get this album out. But before you begin to think “Studio Geeks” who have been endlessly discussing snare drum fill sounds and the like, there are reasons for this delay, not least of which being - at no time have all the musicians ever been in the same room together! No rather this is an album that has been compiled via the internet and then crafted together; Marc Atkinson’s Blog on the Riversea website gives the full lowdown on this. Joining Marc and Brendan on the album are: Alex Cromarty (drums), Bryan Josh, Liam Davison, Paul Cusick, Adrian Jones, Mark Rowen, Adam Dawson and Ashley Mulford (guitars), Dave Clements (bass), Olivia Sparnenn, Janine Atkinson Benn and Louise Dawson (backing vocals), Tony Patterson (flute).
Now we’ve all heard albums that take ages to record, but let me just tell you about this one. I’ve lived with this for about a month now as I wanted to allow the music to percolate through to me properly. This is not you see a run of the mill album, rather this is a cut above a lot of current progressive rock and that’s a pretty high bar to leap over, but Riversea have pulled off an absolute blinder with this release and the wait is well worth it.
This is an album that any self-respecting prog lover must hear this year, it is quite simply stunning both in its concept and in its execution. This is definitely in my top 3 releases this year – no actually it’s the top one as it is that good. Yes I’m impressed very, very impressed with this album indeed. What makes this album so very special is both the majestic nature and sheer emotion that is portrayed throughout, added to some amazing songs and stunning performances there is not a bad track on here at all from start to finish, it is all killer and no filler whatsoever.
Expansive, sweeping, majestic, bleak, powerful, stirring, challenging, spiritual and emotional are just some of the feelings this album generates in its broad musical palette, it has an overall cohesiveness that shines through especially when heard straight through from the first song to the last.
Highlights for me are the outstanding ad lib vocal by Janine Atkinson Benn on The Song it’s a Great Gig In The Sky moment; awesome and inspiring and takes the song to another level - they could use this vocal part in the Olympics it’s that stirring. Then there is the sheer beauty and majesty of Eden and the challenging yet uncomfortable lyrical theme of Is That What God Wants?.
Marc Atkinson has one of the most expressive voices I’ve heard in a long time and you can feel his passion and emotion on these songs, Brendan Eyes keyboards are expansive and symphonic throughout, never overplayed but always filling the soundscapes with depth and colour. Truly they have created some magical and beautiful music here together along with a host of great supporting musicians each of who add something extra to make this very special indeed.
Fantastic thought-provoking and intelligent lyrics weave their way through these songs and add to this musical tapestry and when you couple all these elements with Ed Unitsky’s complementary and sympathetic artwork then you have a truly wonderful and special meeting of music works and art.
I can sense a very large Hogarth era Marillion influence here, at time Marc Atkinson sounds like Mr Hogarth yet still retains his own unique identity...
This is progressive music of the highest order and I would unreservedly recommend this to all as an absolute must hear/have/buy/own. This will surely must become a classic album along with the very best of them let’s just hope it’s not another 5 years though for their next release...
No doubt about this one... truly, truly fantastic:
Conclusion: 10 out of 10
Silhouette - Across The Rubicon
Tracklist: Across The Rubicon (2:18), Breathe (11:31), Empty Places (4:05), When Snow's Falling Down (7:09), Anybody (11:21), Grendel Memories (5:41), Nothing (4:22), Don't Stop This Movie (11:55)
It’s always a pleasure to witness a band mature and develop and that’s certainly the case with Silhouette. Whilst their 2009 album Moods was a leg-up from their promising debut A-maze from 3 years earlier, Across The Rubicon is something else again. A unit since 2005, the band remains Brian de Graeve (guitars, vocals), Erik Laan (keyboards, vocals), Jos Uffing (drums, vocals) and Gerrit-Jan Bloemink (bass guitar). The music is still very much in the melodic neo-prog vein but somehow the songs are stronger, the sound richer, the performances (both vocally and instrumentally) more confident and overall this is a significant leap forward for Silhouette.
The title song Across The Rubicon may be a short one but it’s a promising indicator of the band’s new found awareness with chugging acoustic guitar, symphonic keys and fine harmonies sounding very reminiscent of vintage Barclay James Harvest. Breathe is an altogether weightier affair with solid guitar, organ and synth interplay and a central piano/vocal melody to die for. Empty Places takes the band into power ballad territory and although the lyrics don’t bear too much analysis (e.g. I left you and you left me and that is the truth) it still works thanks to the heartfelt vocal and soaring instrumental section.
Given the time of year When Snow's Falling Down may be out of step title wise but on every other level it hits the mark. A commanding synth line opens in Glass Hammer fashion heralding an infectious instrumental mid-section that brought memories of Pendragon’s Not Of This World album flooding back. This is prog at its best with Steve Howe like guitar setting the scene for the spine tingling coda complete with a children’s choral backing.
Rippling guitar and mellotron provide a wistful Genesis style intro to Anybody before it hits its bombastic stride with an exhilarating Tony Banks tinged synth solo standing out. In fact the song proves to be a real keyboard tour de force with alternating piano, synth, organ and electric piano punctuating the strident choral sections.
The title says it all, Grendel Memories is a thinly veiled nod to Marillion with shades of Twelfth Night thrown in for good measure. A powerful, barn-storming song that would work well as a single. The yearning Nothing is another ballad of sorts, given a substantial lift by the strong guitar and organ exchange. At nearly 12 minutes the concluding Don't Stop This Movie is the albums main contender for the epic stakes and it knows it. Acoustic vocal interludes give way to stirring instrumental flights with every word and note designed to elicit an emotional response and on that level it certainly succeeds.
Across The Rubicon may not be the most original album you’ll hear this year but I’m pretty certain that it will be one of the more memorable. The various influences which include Trick Of The Tail/Wind And Wuthering era Genesis, The Masquerade Overture/Not Of This World era Pendragon and most any period of IQ’s career will give a fair indication of what to expect. As albums go it has class and style written all over it helped by superb production and a fine artwork from the ubiquitous Ed Unitsky.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Subtilior – Absence Upon A Ground
Tracklist: absence (29:38): overt (2:25), primo frammento (2:24), epicicli I (2:24), secondo frammento (2:09), arioso (2:01), terzo frammento (2:12), un coeur mécanique (2:14), resti (quarto frammento) (1:58), epicicli II (2:22), toccata (2:29), hélas avril (2:15), danzante (quinto frammento (2:05), clos (2:41) – upon a ground (15:29): part I (5:22), part II (6:01), part III (4:00)
Absence Upon A Ground is essentially a solo album by Michele Epifani of eclectic Italian band Areknamés. He is ably assisted by many of his countrymen, including most of the line up and guests of the aforementioned band that appeared on 2010’s rather fine In Case Of Loss. Also appearing are Maurizo Fasoli (grand piano) and Valerio Cipollone (clarinets) who guested on Yugen’s equally good Iridule last year. Such is the web of Italian avant-prog where you will often find completely different styles and sounds made by numerous musicians who by virtue of economic necessity appear on each other’s albums.
Michele has given the ensemble on this album the name Subtilior and if I may quote that source of sometimes apocryphal tales, good old Wikipaedia:
“Ars subtilior (more subtle art) is a musical style characterised by rhythmic and notational complexity, centred around Paris, Avignon in southern France, also in northern Spain at the end of the fourteenth century.”
Certainly Subtilior are nothing if not rhythmically and notationally complex, and absence highlights the subtle and intricate instrumentation of a prog-classical chamber orchestra, featuring violin, clarinets, vibraphone, marimba and grand piano in addition to the rock elements of guitar, bass, and drums.
The album is split into two parts, the chamber rock-classical construct of Absence followed by the dissonant avant-prog of Upon A Ground.
Although split into thirteen parts, Absence plays as one piece. It attempts to, and largely succeeds in describing absence through the obvious presence of the music, if that makes any kind of sense, and the suite is a highly intellectual but nonetheless satisfying musical journey where the theme of absence is by turns obvious, fleeting, and sometimes imaginary. Popping its playful head above the parapet on Primo Frammento (first fragment) only to almost vanish on Epicicli I, the theme is woven into and pulled out of the fabric of sometimes melodic and sometimes fractured but always subtle musical passages.
The delicate beauty of the vibraphone trading slow musical passages with lightly plucked reverbed guitar on Arioso sounds like Gentle Giant at their most beguiling, but making a comparison to another band is rather lame, as this is a thoroughly professional alt-classical suite that could be scored and played by any suitably competent ensemble for years to come, for it rises above any associations with any particular band.
Resti [Quarto Frammento] exudes a dissonant funk and begins the ending climax through to the conclusion of Clos. Part of the end sequence and fitting in just fine is Hélas Avril, which apparently is the re-writing of the opening part of a medieval song.
All in all Absence is as fine a piece of chamber-prog as you’re likely to hear, at least until the next slice of dance music for the head is handed down from the wonderful Italian label that is AltrOck.
To quote the liner notes, upon a ground “evolves from an attempt to provide the soundtrack of a silent surrealistic short of the Twenties”, and it is certainly very filmic, the instrumentation this time including saxophones, cello and synths on top of the “rock” basics. The “ground” of the title is the recurrent theme that also serves as a base camp for improvisation. Seemingly more chaotic and definitely heavier in atmosphere, the piece would make Fritz Laing smile as atonal sax blasts and illogical and in places almost Frippian guitar figures collide and separate. All the while the piece remains centred and returns to a starting point. Of the two pieces of music this is the harder to get into but repeated listens reveal new twists that may well have been overlooked first or second time around. Once the musical nettle has been grasped the rewards to the listener are manifold. It is as if the aesthetic heart of the piece is hidden in plain sight.
This album is a must for anyone into the more esoteric and demanding end of progressive music, and the imagination and compositional flair shown on absence upon a ground puts many far more visible and successful prog acts to shame. Highly recommended!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Human Groove Hormone - Self [En]titled
Tracklist: Icarus' Wacky Landscape (6:48), Ayn Rant (3:64), The Yeoman (6:38), Smoker's Corner (7:18), Groove Of Love (4:09), The Jam (6:32), Everything Has Style (3:49), Festa Do Sexo (6:04)
Human Groove Hormone hail from the city of Denton (Texas), where they first got together in 2009. The five band members - Aaron Schumacher (lead vocals, trumpet, trombone, flute), Jake Haygood (keyboards, vocals), Matt Brooks (guitar), Charlie Lotspeich (bass, vocals) and Zack Haygood (drums) - in spite of their young age, are all accomplished musicians with eclectic backgrounds and interests, and have already accumulated quite a lot of experience on the stages of their home state. Self-[En]titled, their debut album, was released in September 2011.
While Human Groove Hormone label themselves as funk-rock, there is more to this exciting young band's sound than just irresistibly groovy rhythms spiked with the heady bite of the electric guitar. In fact, similarly to the many modern bands that I often call the "new frontier" of the genre, they have embraced the progressive rock ethos - holding on the eclectic, omnivorous approach of vintage prog, though drawing on somewhat different sources of inspiration. The cover artwork might suggest an Eastern-inspired, hippyish psychedelic/space rock outfit, but this is just one of the many components of the Human Groove Hormone's music. With an unmistakably rock foundation spiced up by liberal helpings of funk, jazz, Latin rhythms and even reggae and rap, Human Groove Hormone's music is chock-full of all the hallmarks of progressive rock - even if, to paraphrase a popular slogan of the advertising industry, not necessarily your parents' prog.
The band's sheer enjoyment of their craft jumps out right from the explosion of upbeat horns and soaring, blues-tinged vocals of opener Icarus' Wacky Landscape, a funky, jazzy number punctuated by dynamic electric piano. The closest comparison that I could find in the modern progressive rock field was New York/New Orleans-based outfit Afroskull and their barnstorming 2009 album To Obscurity And Beyond. While the two bands do not sound exactly the same (Afroskull being distinctly heavier), they share a similarly genre-bending attitude, with the prominent role given to horns alongside a traditional rock instrumentation. Aaron Schumacher's high tenor at first may sound almost feminine, but immediately shows his confidence as a trained jazz singer, and complements the tight, rich instrumental fabric of the music, adding to its genuinely joyful tone. Latin rhythms emerge in the breezy vocals and percussion pattern of the funnily-titled Ayn Rant, juxtaposed with the dramatic interplay of organ, trumpet and guitar; while The Yeoman introduces atmospheric electronic effects and a guitar solo in true Pink Floyd style alongside the funky ebullience of the band's trademark style.
With Smoker's Corner, HGH pull another rabbit out of their collective hats, in the shape of rap vocals accompanied by a steady piano line, which eventually turn into a soothing, almost pastoral guitar-flute section; while Groove Of Love alternates laid-back and uptempo moments, led by guitar and trumpet. The album's sole instrumental, aptly titled The Jam, saunters at a relaxed, Latin-tinged pace, occasionally disrupted by bursts of energy coming from horns and guitar. More Latin overtones, imbued with a funky swagger and powerful organ runs, surface in the buoyant Everything Has Style; then, Festa Do Sexo wraps the album in grand style, throwing everything but the proverbial kitchen sink into an exhilarating mix of reggae, rap, funk, jazz and even hard rock influences, with growling organ and guitar riffs that bring to mind Deep Purple.
With such a wealth of eclectic, high-spirited music packed into a compact running time of 44 minutes, Human Groove Hormone have set themselves as one of the most promising young bands of the past few years, even if the majority of the "mainstream" progressive rock audience is still unaware of them. While Self [En]titled is clearly not prog in the conventional sense of the term, its undeniably progressive approach, high technical quotient and infectiously enthusiastic attitude should be enough to attract the interest of open-minded listeners. This is a wild ride of an album that will also bring a smile to your face - a feature that is all too often sadly lacking in the prog universe.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Rob Gould - The Broken Road
Tracklist: Away With The Fairies (3:58), The Singularity (2:42), The Deeper You Go, The Smaller You Become (2:14), The Broken Road (7:43), Blip (2.34), Zeplin III (2:32), The Shimmering Mountain (3:13), Daybreak In The Graveyard Of The Sentient Robots (2:58), Human Satellite (4:48), The Curve (2:04), Port Sunlight (11:36), Adrift (1:53), Land Ahoy (2:03)
Rob Gould is the founder member of UK neo prog group Fula and former keyboards player with Ashtar, the Brazilian Celtic prog metal band. On this, his sixth solo album, he for the first time includes compositions with vocals, with guest appearances from his colleagues in both Ashtar and Fula, the latter of which still continues to this day although they have not made a follow-up for ten years to their three previous albums.
Many influences can be heard in his music which has a dreamy, faraway quality to it that would associate with Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush or Tangerine Dream.
Beginning with the swirling aural colours of Away With The Fairies, The Singularity is a simple, haunting piano/keyboard composition which Gould says is about a space pilot hurtling towards a black hole but without a care about his predicament: more a feeling of letting go. The ethereal voice of Fiona Ford, who was with him in Fula and wrote the lyrics to this song, adds an other-worldly dynamic to the piece.
The Deeper You Go, The Smaller You Become is a plaintive acoustic guitar melody from Richard Taylor backed by Gould’s orchestral-sounding keyboards. This leads into the title track is a chillingly moving piece, almost operatic in its reach and delivery with Ford’s lovely voice emoting the lyrics which she wrote along with the melody which Gould underscores with more restrained and chilled keyboards. Adding different textures to the mix are the operatic voice of Ashtar’s Fernanda Gallo and Jason Gilman-Hawkes’ studied acoustic guitar creating waterfalls of cascading sound.
The song is in fact centred a bizarre landslip close to where Gould lives in Derbyshire which is known as the Broken Road which has become an interesting landmark. Gould also explains that the instrumental version of it was used during his wedding in 2010 to welcome the entrance of his wife- to-be to the ceremony.
Blip and Zeplin III are two work-outs for Gould with his keyboards and tenori-on, a new digital instrument fusing sound and light, which gives off a distinctly oriental vibe. The latter track is about dancing particles that can be found at the underground dark matter research facility at Whitby in north-east England.
A looping piano hook dominates The Shimmering Mountain, again another physical landmark close to where Gould lives, before it gives way to synthy keyboards and penetrating guitar lines courtesy of Eduardo Capella, his colleague in Ashtar.
What resembles the sound of buzzing insects starts Daybreak In The Graveyard Of The Sentient Robots, again with Gould playing two piano lines which fuse together beautifully. The Human Satellite has Lesley Davies, another lady singer possessed of a haunting voice, telling the story of the eponymous hero based on a real person who tried to run too fast in Manchester one night, thought he had taken off, headed for the moon but ran into a bridge wall instead. Again, Gould’s stately piano and relaxed keyboards underpin it all.
The Curve is a descriptive piece about the shape of the earth, paving the way for the longest track Port Sunlight which begins acoustically then glides through time and space telling the story of being lost at sea/search for land first via Lesley Davies singing and then Gerard McDonald’s sublime saxophone solo. It ends with Gould spelling out the song title over delicate keyboards before Davies returns to deliver a sung coda.
Rounding off is Gould on piano for Adrift followed by a flock of seagulls beginning Land Ahoy which floats away on a raft of keyboard lushness, both of which depict finally heading for land again.
This is an intriguing and deeply compelling album which does put me in mind of much of IO Earth with its ambient soundscapes and distinct lady voices. Perhaps the only minus mark is that it all moves at very much the same pace without much variation. However, coming in at over the hour mark, The Broken Road offers over an hour of heady prog escapism in space, on land and at sea.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Gunnelpumpers - Tritonium
Tracklist: Sir Cirrus (7:47), Eschatonus (9:49), McGroover (19:31)
Gunnelpumpers (whose distinctive name refers to "the act of standing on the rear gunnels of a canoe and propelling the craft forward by pumping one's legs") are a Chicago-based ensemble that comprises a core of six members, plus a revolving cast of guest musicians. The group was founded in 2002 by bassist Randy Johnson and percussionist Randy Farr, and released its first two albums, The 9th Wave and Symphonie Improvisé, in 2010. Tritonium, released in June 2012 on the group's own label, Spiritflake Music, like its predecessors is based on free improvisation. Gunnelpumpers are very active on the live circuit of their home region, and have an extensive archive of live recordings available on Soundcloud. At the time of writing, they are working on their fourth album, Montana Fix, whose release is scheduled for December 2012.
As the previous paragraph makes it abundantly clear, Gunnelpumpers's roots lie in jazz rather than conventional progressive rock. Those who prize prog's highly organized nature and see improvisation as something often unnecessarily messy, to be used sparingly (if at all), are quite likely to be put off by the unstructured quality of the material included on Tritonium. Though the technical proficiency of the individual members is clearly beyond question, Gunnelpumpers' approach to music-making seems to run counter to what many prog fans would expect. Indeed, the band's use of the word "progressive" in their press material reflects the term's original meaning rather than its later interpretation as a style with a recognizable set of features.
Besides the already mentioned Douglas Johson (Clevinger bass) and Randy Farr (congas, percussion), Gunnelpumpers include Chicago Symphony Orchestra member Michael Hovnanian (double bass), Tom Mendel (electric bass), John Meyer (electric guitar) and Bob Garrett (drums, percussion). With three different basses, a large array of percussion instruments, two pedal boards and an electric guitar, Gunnelpumpers' sound is both atmospheric and heavy on dynamic, complex rhythm patterns, unfolding in an unpredictable sequence of surges and lulls with a hint of dissonance that, however, is hardly ever jarring. The hand percussion lends a warm, organic touch to the rumbling bottom end provided by the basses, creating a backdrop for the guitar to unleash its full expressive potential.
Clocking in at a mere 36 minutes, Tritonium features three tracks that illustrate Gunnelpumpers' peculiar approach. Opener Sir Cirrus aptly sets the scene, sounding at its onset almost like a tune-up, with all the instruments getting ready to go in sparse order. Then the music develops, slowly gaining momentum, blending guitar improvisation with a warm, appealing ethnic flavour (which reminded me of another recent, improvisation-based album, Hillmen's The Whiskey Mountain Sessions) and leaving some room for the basses to do their thing. Eschatonus (meaning "the sound at the end of the world") introduces elements of space rock, as well as a faint but unmistakable Eastern tinge, with the drums injecting bursts of almost chaotic intensity that bolster the almost strident exertions of the guitar. More than half of the album is taken over by McGroover, a sprawling, almost 20-minute jam that allows the listener a glimpse into the group's dynamics, while also spotlighting individual performances. Some of the guitar passages bring sharply to mind Fripp's performances in the many King Crimson live improvisations captured on record.
Even though Tritonium is a very interesting effort, full of constantly excellent instrumental work with some genuinely riveting moments, its appeal to "mainstream" prog fans is rather limited. Even fans of instrumental music might find Gunnelpumpers' free-form approach a bit hard to take, while those who appreciate free jazz and the more left-field manifestations of progressive rock will find much to their liking here. While the album is definitely not easy listening, and somewhat of an acquired taste, open-minded music lovers could do much worse than giving Gunnelpumpers a chance.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Alkozaur – Serum Of Life
Tracklist: Forget The Sun (5:42), Sarah Smiles (8:00), Nice Trip (6:41), Serum Of Life (4:33), When Angels Fly (10:02), Dragonfly (5:25), City World (4:30), Sad Age (4:01), Last Flight (5:31), The Tournament (3:17)
Alkozaur was formed in 2003 by Anthony Ferrera (bass) and Didier Lapchine (guitar) who had previously been involved in a number of bands in France since the ‘70s. The current lineup, also featuring Thierry Laurent (drums), Serge Ruiz (keys) and Philippe Compagnon (vocals), formed in 2009 and their debut, Serum Of Life, emerged in 2011.
The material is at the melodic end of prog with a jazzy feel here and there. Other than a couple of longer tracks that allow the band to stretch out the pieces are succinct and to the point with the guitar as the focal point.
Stylistically the main focus is in the ‘80s prog vein (I’m not a fan of the ‘N’ word) a la IQ or Marillion, most noticeably the latter with atmospheric keys and emotive vocals. The music also strays into more straight forward rock territory and jazz on occasion to make for a quite entertaining listen that does not break any new ground. Opener Forget The Sun is strong with Pink Floyd atmospherics to start and melodic keys for colour whilst the drive and rawness comes from Lapchine’s guitar although it could be more muscular. Compagnon's vocals are very good and he has a nice if heavily accented tone in the same vein as Peter Gabriel. Most of the songs are sung in English but he reverts to French for the spoken word sections of When Angels Fly and sounds more comfortable for it. This is the longest track here and the band develop the piece through a number of transitions, atmosphere high on the priority list.
Sarah Smiles is another lengthy piece with washes of keyboards but as with other tracks there could be a little more depth to the guitar. The drums are solid with jazz-rock inflections but the bass could be a little higher in the mix. There is darkness and slight hints of a gentle King Crimson about the guitar here and there but overall the result is nowhere near as edgy as that particular band. Gabriel era Genesis also emerges as the track progresses and the instrumentation is tasteful and laid back with no one trying to claim the limelight.
The playing is good and solid if not the best I’ve ever heard and could be slightly more polished here and there but the band has certainly hit on a style of their own bringing together a number of influences to produce an enjoyable album. More IQ and Jadis influence can be heard in the opening of Nice Trip but without it all becoming too much. The track slightly outstays its welcome but there are nice changes of mood and feel and Alkozaur keep things comfortable so they don’t sound stretched which is to their credit.
The title track has a brooding Floydiness to it and possibly a bit of understated Fripp in the guitar with some Yes towards the end. Compagnon shows more of his range which varies things up and the result is pleasant if not spectacular. Elsewhere Dragonfly is darker and brooding with some nice clean guitar but is ultimately a slightly confused track while City World alternates a galloping pace with gentler verses. Sad Age is heavier and more straight forward but ultimately none of these tracks feel completely finished and lack a bit of sparkle. Some further polishing is certainly required as there is the odd wobble in the playing.
The instrumental Last Flight is jazzy with its feet in straight rock of the ‘80s variety and that might be part of the issue here; the influences are not leading the band to anything that you could really see them building on to get to somewhere new. The addition of piano makes for a welcome change and the bass finally emerges in a stealthy section that builds on a good rhythm with some nice guitar touches. The Tournament rounds things off but, again, is nothing too exciting and Compagnon sounds a little off.
Overall then a pretty entertaining listen on the whole but nothing that is going to set the world alight. There is certainly talent here and Alkozaur put together their pieces with dexterity but maybe some of the playing is not quite to a high enough standard that would make the album emerge from the crowd.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10