Reviews in this issue:
- Tohpati Bertiga - Riot
- Lee Fletcher – Faith In Worthless Things
- Erik Norlander – Live In Gettysburg
- Frequency Drift - Laid To Rest
- Manir Donaghue – Selene
- Eyevory – The True Bequest
- Skybicycle - Hours
- Day Of Phoenix - Wide Open N-way
- Daniel Crommie With Glyn Havard & Friends - Aquarius In Retrograde
- Sh.tg.n - Sh.tg.n
Tohpati Bertiga - Riot
Tracklist: Upload (7:57) , I Feel Great (6:39) , Riot (5:32) , Middle East (5:12), Pay Attention (7:10) , Rock Camp (4:40), Absurd (5:35), Disco Robot (4:09), Lost In Space (7:20), Bertiga (5:32)
Indonesian guitarist Tohpati Ario Hutomo (simply known as Tohpati) is one of the hottest names on the international jazz-rock scene. As one of the members of simakDialog, and then with his project Tohpati Ethnomission and their outstanding album Save The Planet, Tohpati's fiery, organic guitar style has elicited comparisons with such luminaries as Pat Metheny and Allan Holdsworth, and effectively bridged the gap between the rich musical tradition of his homeland and a typically Western mode of expression such as jazz-rock. The classic power trio Tohpati Bertiga is the latest of his many projects, given international relevance by cutting-edge NYC label and its mastermind, Leonardo Pavkovic, who in recent years have been exploring the thriving Indonesian music scene.
Those who expect a heady East-meets-West concoction in the style of Tohpati's previous releases with simakDialog or Ethnomission will, however, be disappointed, because Riot sounds very Western - though with a refreshingly spontaneous approach that is miles removed from the formally flawless, but often contrived stylings of a lot of jazz-rock. Recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs, Riot depicts the intense dynamics of a power trio at the top of its game, coupled with a genuine sense of enjoyment and freedom from the constraints of pursuing perfection at all costs (as the liner notes point out. While Tohpati and his bandmates - award-winning bassist and longtime associate Indro Hardjodikoro (also featured on Save The Planet) and drummer Adityo Wibowo (aka Bowie) - are world-class musicians with impeccable technique, the album is not about displaying their individual skills to an audience of fellow practitioners, but very much about the joy of making music in a relaxed situation.
The brief snippets of voices and laughter at the beginning of Upload set the scene, connecting the music with the informal setting in which the album was recorded. With Bowie's assertive drums setting the pace, the track blends the heaviness of riff-driven sections and a more understated, melodic feel, concentrated mainly in the middle. This laid-back mood continues in I Feel Great, which - much in the way of Jeff Beck circa Wired or Blow By Blow - pushes bass and drums to the forefront as much as the guitar. The title-track, while not exactly "riotous", shows a bit of a hard edge at the beginning and at the end, while the middle takes a decidedly slower, atmospheric direction. However, it is with the splendid Middle East that things really heat up: the gentle Spanish-tinged arpeggios of the opening develop into a melodic mid-pace, the guitar tone clear and sharp but devoid of abrasiveness, and Indro's discreet bass underpinning the exhilarating dialogue of guitar and drums.
More ethnic influences, mainly in the shape of warm, organic percussion work, surface in Pay Attention, which alternates laid-back passages with heavier, riff-driven ones, and showcases Indro's magnificent bass lines, bringing to mind some of Holdsworth's work, though in a more spontaneous, less polished fashion. While the energetic Rock Camp juxtaposes classic jazz-fusion modes with an engaging homage to classic rock'n'roll, Disco Robot introduces quirky electronic effects in its first half, before veering towards high-octane, riff-driven metal territory, and the dazzling, classic jazz-fusion style of Absurd and Bertiga allows for a few loose, improvisational passages. On the other hand, the almost rarefied Lost In Space provides a much-needed pause of reflection, richly enhanced by Tohpati's lovely, spacious guitar tone.
While to untried (that is, non-guitarist) ears the compositions featured on Bertiga may sometimes sound a bit too alike for comfort, the final result is fresh and engaging, and never descending into unnecessary shredding - as one might expect from such a talented guitarist as Tohpati and his equally talented sidekicks. Heartily recommended to fans of classic jazz-fusion with a healthy dose of rock energy, the album can be enjoyed by everyone who appreciates music that successfully combines chops and emotion.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Lee Fletcher – Faith In Worthless Things
Tracklist: Is It Me [Or Is It You?] (4:01), The Inner Voice (3:40), Faith In Worthless Things (4:02), A Life On Loan (5:06), The Number (3:15), The Answer (3:05), Miracles On Trees (4:30), Until The Playtime Whistle Sounds (1:14), Life’s A Long Time Short (4:21), Long About Now (2:41)
Before we start, the whole album is on Bandcamp streaming – see above – so why not play as you read?
Much more than just a solo album, this work includes guests of the calibre of B J Cole, Steve Bingham, Robert Fripp, to name but three. Lee is joined on most songs by his wife Lisa who sings the lead vocal, and the instrumentation is shared between Lee and Markus Reuter, running the gamut of guitars, keyboards, and lots of electronica, including something called a “Virtual Guitar”.
You may ask who is Lee Fletcher and I can tell you that he has worked with touch-guitarist Markus Reuter’s band Centrozoon in collaboration with Tim Bowness on 2003’s rather good The Scent Of Crash And Burn, and he has contributed to sundry other Centrozoon releases since then. Principally known for his production, arranging and engineering skills, Lee has also released other works with Lisa and Markus under the name [halo], as well as associations with Pat Mastelotto, Judy Dyble, Gavin Harrison and others, including O5ric, which is where I happened across him on Facebook.
This album melds styles from folk, avant-pop, contemporary ambient, pastoral prog touches, jazz and of course post-rock. Inevitable comparisons to Kate Bush cannot be avoided when any female singer employs a wistful style, as Lisa does throughout. However, the multi-tracking and real harmonies soon allow the listener to leave the baggage of any particular comparison at the door.
The lyrical themes of alienation, discovery of self, broken relationships, subservience to the system, the daily fight to preserve some dignity, parental longing and regret, are all contrasted with the gentle caress of the music. Not that it is one-paced, but the overall feeling is one of serenity despite the sometimes bleak lyrical imagery. Lee writes most of the music and nearly all the lyrics, and the closing song is a great cover of Scott Walker’s Long About Now, which Lee and Lisa treat with due respect but still manage to put their own stamp on it as it does not sound out of place with the rest of the album. This highlights the ability on show here, as no-one needs to be told of Mr Engel’s consummate writing skills.
Lyrics are a bugbear of mine as intelligent lyric writing, as here, is sadly the exception rather than the rule nowadays. Lee’s words are from the heart and full of soul, and most importantly REAL. Some so-called lyric writers would do well to learn a thing or two from this man, that’s all I’ll say on the subject. Cod philosophical mysticism this isn’t!
Jacqueline Kershaw’s French horn makes occasional appearances, such as on the dreamy title track, to great effect. Contrasted to this is the almost avant ambient confection of the next song Life On Loan where tribal drums, Chapman Stick, trumpet, and low whistle not so much battle as gently tussle to create a suitably restless atmosphere for the subject matter of subjugation to the system. Very nice indeed.
The only full instrumental on the album is The Answer, to which Robert Fripp contributes one of his ambient soundscapes and along with Luca Calabrese’s trumpet the piece washes over you leaving a warm glow. If you were expecting one of Fripp’s nerve-jangling extrapolations you’ll be disappointed, and anyway it would not have fitted the theme of the record.
Miracles On Trees as you may guess from the title is a hymn to nature, replete with birdsong, and a beautifully delicate thing it is too, quite unexpectedly developing into an almost jaunty rhythm at one point. Miracles On Trees is another charming vignette on an album full of subtle twists and turns, and this album should delight fans of no-man, Nosound, Kate Bush. With his first solo album Lee has stepped out from behind the mixing desk to reveal a burgeoning talent that deserves far wider exposure.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Erik Norlander – Galactic Collective: Live In Gettysburg
CD 1 ~ The Galactic Collective: Arrival (2:18), Neurosaur (5:05), Fanfare For Absent Friends (6:05), Sky Full Of Stars (9:37), Capture The Sun (9:11), Astrology Prelude (5:41), Secrets Of Astrology (7:18), Trantor Station (5:39), After The Revolution (10:06)
CD 2 ~ Echoes From The Collective: Garden Of The Moon (6:39), The Dark Water (20:59), Sunset Prelude (3:33), Into The Sunset (4:51), Dreamcurrents (3:03), Hymn (1:48), Into The Sunset Reprise (1:50), Sunset Postlude (1:53)
I’m a child of the seventies, I grew up with those early Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums on vinyl and I can vividly recall seeing images of Keith Emerson playing with a huge analog Moog Modular Synth that looked like something that NASA would use, it was huge and impressive but apparently unwieldy and prone to malfunction so not really practical for the rigours of touring.
Oh but the sound was huge! Often imitated but seldom replicated until now...
Erik Norlander has a long back history with various bands adding his keyboard wizardry to the likes of Lana Lane, the Rocket Scientists and the John Payne’s Asia, along the way he has released at least nine solo albums, he is also an arranger, a producer and an engineer. Erik is also an ambassador for the Bob Moog Foundation and uses the latest Moog Modular System on stage in his concerts. Unlike the unwieldy beast that Keith Emerson used this Moog is rack mounted in six flight cases and is less prone to the issues affecting earlier systems, it does however still sound immense as this recording testifies.
This latest 2CD/DVD pack captures the Galactic Collective being performed like at Rosfest in 2011 and I have to say is a perfect introduction to Erik’s back catalogue, it is largely instrumental with a few vocal pieces performed by Lana Lane and Debrissa Mckinney
The sound on this disc is awesome, when I played the DVD through a home cinema setup the Moog growls with a really solid low end and crystal clear upper registers. It is so loud that I had to turn it down or incur the wrath of my neighbours. In addition the DVD is clearly shot and captures a consistently fine performance. Coming as I did from not knowing Erik’s work I was captivated and enthralled by this.
The DVD is longer than the live CD’s as Erik explains, often in some depth anecdotes that relate to certain tracks which I think actually adds to the proceedings. In addition there are 2 epic tracks on here, The Astronomy section and also The Dark Water Suite. Often instrumental music can get a bit repetitive after a while, well I’m glad to report that these disc’s have plenty of variety during their 105 minute run time.
One of the highlights for me was the very emotive and moving Fanfare For Absent Friends that is a joyful remembrance or homage to those who sadly lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC (and Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania). This piece opens with a growling Moog washing over a rippling piano introduction, creating a sense of atmosphere before a lead Moog figure cuts in - this wouldn’t sound out of place on any ELP album. In fact at times Erik’s sound is reminiscent of Fanfare For The Common Man era ELP
A guitar then gallops the piece along with a riff not dissimilar to Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song, with further keyboards in the background emphasizing the melody. Erik’s keyboards being well to the fore here but never at the expense of the remainder of the band. The guitar plays a recurring motif underneath these sonic tapestries before unleashing a fabulous solo at the four minute mark, which is then counterpointed by a synth solo from Erik. It’s a great track that evidences the empathy that exists between the musicians.
Track 4, A Sky Full Of Stars, is dedicated to the memory of Bob Moog and this track uses the Modular Moog to great effect. Erik writes great melodies, memorable ones that have gravitas and depth to them. There is some great fretless bas playing on this track to and whilst this is a slower more contemplative piece initially, it is very atmospheric and shows how a relatively simple melody can be developed through its nine minute duration. This track runs into Capture The Sun, a track that ups the pace somewhat and is also the first vocal track. This song rocks along with some fine keyboard embellishments from Erik and more tasty guitar from Freddy DeMarco - the piece concludes by picking up the refrain of the melody from Sky Full Of Stars and ends a great 20 minutes of music across the two tracks.
Astrology Prelude is next, this song has some great chunky organ work underpinning the vocals and when you add in a guitar, that goes stratospheric at the four minute mark, you have a great track. This segues into Secrets Of Astrology a further vocal track. I have to say the vocals are very clear on this CD, in fact the whole recording sounds good, with clear separation between all the musicians. At the three and a half minute mark there is a guitar vs. keyboard duel that is a great addition to a great song. In fact throughout the whole CD there is some exemplary musicianship here. Noone overplays and together the whole is concise and very listenable.
Disc two has the epic track – The Dark Water Suite which has a run time of nearly 21 minutes. This is an epic track by any standards but this one features an extended opening from Erik before moving into an almost thrash opening again Erik keyboards punctuating the melody of the piece. This is solely an instrumental piece but with many moods and variations it is a great addition to Erik Galactic Collective canon. The CD concludes with the Sunset... piece which is 6 different tracks that form one further 16 minute piece.
I have to say I was hugely impressed by this CD/DVD package and would recommend it wholeheartedly to ELP fans and fans of quality keyboard driven progressive rock. It also certainly makes me want to go back and discover more of Erik’s back catalogue of works, It’s a well presented affair with a decent and informative booklet and like most things improves every time I hear it. On this basis I’m more than happy to recommend it highly and give it...
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Frequency Drift - Laid To Rest
Tracklist: Dead (9:40), Parted (7:44), Cold (15:44), Wish (15:25), Ice (9:12), Copper (12:22)
Formed in 2006, Frequency Drift is a group of musicians who come from Bayreuth in Germany, a place already steeped in musical culture with its annual music festival dedicated to the operas of Richard Wagner. However, this band widens the music boundaries of their place of origin with their own distinct sound which they describe as cinematic prog.
Inspired by the music from films such as Blade Runner and Lost, the band offers very sketchy details about themselves as their focus is for listeners to concentrate on the music itself and with very good reason.
Having released their debut album Personal Effects (Part One) in 2008 this was followed up by Personal Effects (Part Two) in 2010 which continues a sci-fi story of a girl living at a future time. Then along came Ghosts... which was released last September and in July, the band were one of the distinguished cast at the Loreley Festival in their native Germany.
Laid To Rest continues their adventures into beautifully atmospheric and dreamy prog, with all the compositions, though similar in shape, form and content, all bringing a different dimension to the album.
Their sound has an ethereal magic, due mainly to the engaging voice of Nicole Schamagi which floats waiflike over some beautifully imagined arrangements.
Frequency Drift’s main composer is keyboard player Andreas Hack and most of the songs are driven by piano with a selection of instruments swirling in and out of the melodic mix.
Piano chords start Dead along with the doomy violin of Frank Schmitz before Schamagi’s voice adds a plaintive air to the song. There are haunting Arabic motifs on violin interspersed with guitar breaks from Alexander Galimbis and keyboard trickery from Hack, while Jasper Jöris’ drums are beautifully controlled and understated. Add some intricate harp playing from Nerissa Schwarz and you have the perfect track to draw you into their dreamy world.
Parted begins with harp, piano and guitar before it gathers momentum with Schmagi comes in to tell a story of separation and pain. (All their lyrics are sung in English). The pace is far more urgent throughout but the track twists and turns with a delicious violin sequence one of its highlights.
Back to the melancholia with Cold that has an opening to send a chilly blast down your spine with its simplicity and sense of yearning before the vocals waft in with gorgeous harmonies. It then spins off into another dimension with synthesiser before another fiddling frenzy from Schmitz who emerges as one of the stars on this collection.
If you can draw a comparison of Frequency Drift to any other current prog band then it has to be IO Earth. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Wish that strikes an eerie note early on before it takes flight with a chunky guitar passage then Schamagi comes in sounding remarkably like IO’s Claire Malin. It is an epic and diverse composition down to a chorus of birds, possibly crows, making an appearance.
There is no let-up from the atmospherics as Ice begins with a blast of cold before some very coolly delivered guitar and keyboards take over with violin playing second fiddle in the mix. Moody strings and brass are the two dominant features of this song but listen out for an almost Celtic sounding passage with keyboards and harp.
The Arabic motifs return in the closing track Copper through Schamagi’s vocal dynamics, guitar and that haunting violin. Again, they pack a lot of ideas into the composition, including an echoey piano and what sounds like a recorder and slightly fuzzy guitar. The effect is stunning.
Overall, there is much to admire and appreciate throughout Laid To Rest, notably exemplary musicianship with a distinctive other worldly quality. It is a great place to get lost for just over an hour and drift away in a swirl of melodic delights.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Manir Donaghue – Selene
Tracklist: Behemoth (4:02), Interlude In Tavira (3:58), Rainbow Bridge (4:08), Selene (25:28): i Moon Over Water (4:26), ii Moonlight Chase (4:55), iii Raindrops And Regrets (2:42), iv Summer Moon (3:11), v No Memorial (4:36), vi Ascension (5:38)
With a trio of guitars pictured on the front cover there was little doubt as to the inclinations of Manir Donaghue’s 2009 debut album Reflections. Whilst the artwork for its successor Selene is more ambiguous, it continues Donaghue’s flair for creating atmospheric instrumental soundscapes using a variety of layered guitars with the occasional keyboard and percussive support. Born in 1965, his musical grounding includes two 80’s neo-prog outfits - Tribune and Coltsfoot (almost crossing paths with a young Steven Wilson) before his involvement with numerous Genesis related tribute projects.
Recorded between 2009 and 2011, Selene is perhaps more ambitious than its predecessor with a broader exploration of the tonal contrasts available when employing both electric and acoustic instruments. This is effectively displayed in the epic length 25 minute title piece which in reality is six individual tracks masquerading as one.
The album opens however with the appropriately titled Behemoth, an intense wall of sound using sustained guitars, rhythmic loops and electronic effects. It’s certainly a powerful statement although I’m not entirely sure if it works as a standalone track; reduced to half its length I feel it would have been more effective as the introduction to a longer piece. In contrast Interlude In Tavira (which is equally well titled) is a relaxed, sunny exercise for 12-string and lead guitar with some neat drumming from guest Ron Wikso. The beautiful Rainbow Bridge that follows is probably my favourite track with classical guitar sounding elegantly baroque and mandolin shimmering evocatively in the foreground. It’s a piece that would have been very much at home on a Steve Howe solo album.
The six part suite Selene opens with Moon Over Water which provides the inspiration for the album artwork. Distorted electric guitar cries mournfully in the background in true Robert Fripp fashion, underpinning an hypnotic rhythmic line before the propulsive Moonlight Chase returns to the mood and tempo of Behemoth. Some very fine soloing here which continues into Raindrops And Regrets with shades of Stevie Vai. Summer Moon is another delightful acoustic piece this time bringing Steve Hackett to mind whilst the bittersweet No Memorial and the concluding Ascension convey the spirit of Mike Oldfield at his most poignant making good use of Mellotron samples before closing with an inspirational (and very Oldfieldish) guitar coda.
Based around often slight melodies, Donaghue has produced nine pieces of atmospheric, mood driven music that demonstrates his versatility as a guitarist. He is not only a fine musician, like Oldfield and Howe he is able to construct tracks using a similar layering technique displaying a strong sense of dynamics and light and shade. Although for me several of these pieces work better than others its certainly an album that’s well worth investigating particularly if any of the aforementioned guitarists together with Anthony Phillips, Gordon Giltrap and the solo work of Iona’s Dave Bainbridge and Troy Donockley float your boat.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Eyevory – The True Bequest
Tracklist: Addiction To Affection (3:30), On My Way To Bliss (5:22), Black Bird (3:30), Blind Understanding (4:08), Divided (4:39), Mi Corazón (4:39), The Tower (9:37)
Twice the winner of the Deutscher Rock und Pop Preis, The True Bequest is an extended EP that lays the foundations for an anticipated debut album from this German quartet later this year.
Comprised of Jana Frank (vocals, bass), Kaja Fischer (vocals, flute, keyboards), David Merz (guitars, trigger pedals, keyboards) and Sascha Barasa Suso (drums, percussions), the band fuses heavy rock riffage, joyful flute melodies and catchy female pop/rock hooks for a collection of easy-going compositions.
From the flute-driven pop rock of Addiction To Affection, to the girlie-pop meets melodic rock of On My Way To Bliss, and onto the incredibly catchy Black Bird, this band’s prime focus is on melody.
We do have the odd instrumental detour such as the heavy riffs and flute towards the end of Black Bird or the sudden synth opening to Blind Understanding. The change of groove and language for Mi Corazón is also effective. The Tower, is the longest and closing track on the EP. It shows that the band is able to extend its compositions beyond the four-minute mark.
The production is a little rough around the edges. This disc can sound rather cold, whereas the warm melodies demand a more lush, cosy environment. However there’s nothing that a bit more time in the studio won’t solve.
The whole disc is currently streaming from the band's website and is available to buy as a download from the Amazon link above. Overall, I’d suggest the pop rock sensibilities and the pop rock vocal stylings will be a little bit too mainstream for those who prefer their ‘progressive rock’ to come with the adjective ‘complex’. However those who enjoy accessible melodic rock with a heavy reliance on classic riffs and flute will find much to enjoy here.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Skybicycle - Hours
Tracklist: Entrance (1:10), Blind By Trusting You (5:11), The Call (6:25), Tension (1:39), Using You Again (4:49), Golden Rainbow (4:46), Beyond The Sun (3:45), You Were Wrong (6:54), Hours (15:53)
Skybicycle, from the south of the Netherlands, formed in 2008 and have previously released the My Machine EP in 2009 with their first full length album, Hours, appearing at the very end of 2011. Their stated influences encompass Pink Floyd, Opeth and Porcupine Tree and there is certainly some diversity in the music.
After the introductory instrumental Entrance, all atmospherics with moody guitars and keys and hints of Pink Floyd, Hours opens up with the melodic Blind by Trusting You which features some nice guitar work, solid rhythm and a good chorus. The vocals are a little shaky here and there but overall the track is good. The Floyd sound is still present, definite Gilmour influence here and there, with some of the bands own personality added. Keys twinkle and the guitars get heavier to make for an enjoyable listen that starts the album in some style.
The Call delivers a vibe of foreboding with heavy guitars and theatrical vocals which show the versatility of Stefan Fokker but still leave me a little undecided on his delivery. There is an odd hint of Andy Tilison’s vocal style here and there but this is more suited to The Tangent than the heavier style chosen by Skybicycle. After its initial intensity the track calms down for a well played mid-section that sort of reminds me of early Marillion without the trademark keyboards. There are a number of different sections to this track and Skybicycle have put them together well.
Tension is another brief link of atmospheric guitar leading into Using You Again which is in the same vein as what has preceded it – good musicianship and writing with vocals that slightly detract from the whole. Fokker certainly has his own style and goes for the theatrical end on this one, a la IQ, attempting to convey the emotions of the lyric. However he sometimes seems to overreach and stretch too far as in this track we get melodic lilting vocals through to shouting. There is certainly emotion in the delivery but a little more polish in the delivery would be beneficial as the basis of the track is very good.
Golden Rainbow is a quiet and emotional piano led piece which works very well. The piano certainly adds to the quality and coupled with plaintive guitar soloing makes for a very enjoyable listen. Unfortunately the vocals move into a gruff section at the end which seems out of place and spoils the effect a little for me.
Beyond The Sun is another low-key track of rhythms and effects with atmospheric vocals that serves as a prelude to You Were Wrong, a more dynamic track than much of what has gone before, the piano introduction belying the transition to an insistent pace with good fretless bass from Vincent Krijger. This track develops into a very enjoyable listen that bodes well for the band’s future endeavours.
It is a shame that the promise of a 16 minute epic to close is shattered when the title track, which is actually very good and one of the best pieces on the album, cuts out after about 8 minutes for the disc to proceed in silence for one of those now oh so clichéd “hidden tracks” which comes back in around the 11 minute mark. The track in question is a gorgeous classically influenced piano instrumental from Willem van Maanen that deserves to be heard and would admittedly have been out of place on the album proper but I really do hate hidden tracks. Luckily for Skybicycle this is a really good one that shows off the skills of van Maanen to good effect. Meanwhile, back to the title track, Hours starts in good form and develops through a number of different sections to form a very satisfying whole that uses metal influences, keyboard solos, piano and theatrics to good effect.
There is a distinctly second wave approach to the music by Skybicycle and that is not to put them down in any way as they have a great deal to offer once some of their minor issues are resolved. The guitars of Jeroen Lukas and Fokker are very good throughout and the music is entertaining and enjoyable. The second half of the album features more dynamics than the first and seems to point to the way the band can best express itself. The title track is thematic, again pointing to Marillion here and there, and evolves nicely to a satisfying conclusion – if a little shorter than advertised.
The album is well played and put together with good production values. The artwork is also impressive and the band have clearly gone to a great deal of effort to produce a package that sets them apart. They have some work to do but this is a pretty enjoyable start with melodic and dynamic songs that sometimes edge to the heavier end of the spectrum.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Day Of Phoenix - Wide Open N-way
Tracklist: Wide Open N-Way (11:29), Cellophane #1 / Cellophane #2 (13:10), If You Ask Me (4:52), Mind Funeral (12:18), Tick-Tack (1:15) Bonus Tracks: (1969 Single) ~ Tell Me (3:01), I Think It's Gonna Rain Today (2:28)
Having recently reissued the first two albums from the legendary Danish band Ache, Esoteric once more turns its gaze to the small country for a source of inspiration. Day Of Phoenix is not a household name by any standards, but Esoteric have picked a most intriguing band to drag up from the depths of history.
In fact, the band formed in 1968, and, on this album at least, consisted of Ole Prehn on guitars, Erik Stedt on piano and bass, Henrik Friis on drums, Karsten Lyng on lead guitar and Hans Lauridsen on vocals. Interestingly enough, the band had the good fortune to open for the mighty Colosseum at a gig in Aarhus, Denmark, leading them to the attention of bassist Tony Reeves (Colosseum and later to feature in Greenslade). Reeves became impressed with the band and agreed to produce their albums. After Wide Open N-way, the band would record a follow up, The Neighbour's Son, in 1972 before calling it a day.
Guitarist Prehn reveals in the notes that the band's influences were Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Love, Clear Light and The Doors. All this should give you an idea about just how psychedelic the music is. Three of the album's five tracks are well over ten minutes in length, leaving plenty of space for noodling and improvisation, the kind you might hear at a live gig. However, the tracks do appear to have some kind of structure, even if wibbling on a guitar frenetically for a minute is an integral part of it. Somehow, even when the band are rocking out at their hardest, everything seems hushed and subdued, and the mood is melancholic on the whole. During the extended instrumental sections Stedt's bass occasionally whips up the music into a frenzy, creating a whirlwind of explosive psychedelic rock. Sadly, the same bassist would die from a drug overdose a year after this album was released. The provocative lyrics are sung in English; according to Prehn, 'somehow it's difficult to be as flamboyant in Danish.'
The album is presented very adequately, with informative liner notes containing excerpts of an interview with Ole Prehn. Also interviewed is Danish multi-instrumentalist Robin Taylor, who confesses his adoration for Day Of Phoenix readily, saying other Danish groups of the time were 'amateurish' in comparison. Appended to the disc is the band's 1969 single, whose artwork is shown in the booklet. I find it heartwarming that Esoteric chose to include this, as it stops precious tracks like these being lost in the oblivion. On the single, the band choose to cover two tracks, the first being Tell Me What You See In Me by the Strawbs from their debut album released the same year, although Day Of Phoenix abbreviate this to Tell Me. With drums included, this version is rockier, yet significantly shorter than the original. Surprisingly enough however, I prefer the B-side; beginning with some thick bass notes, the cover of Randy Newman's I Think It's Gonna Rain Today turns out to be the happiest song on the collection. Lauridsen's gravelly voice pours wonderfully over the delightful chord progression, in a version that I find superior to the original. As for the artwork reproduction, the front is in good condition, the back suffers from minor cropping, and the inner gatefold gets cut up and used all over the booklet. Not perfect, but could be much worse!
The question you really want to ask yourself before buying this is whether you want gritty, energetic, long-form psychedelic rock in your life. If the answer is yes, then recommend I this album strongly. The lengthy nature of the tracks allows one to either zone out or rock out (depending on your mood) for an extended period of time. If you like, you can even try discerning a meaning from the cryptic lyrics, like in the two part Cellophane, which appears to be about being literally wrapped in cellophane. While they were never going to become the next Beatles, Day Of Phoenix definitely had more than met the eye and this delightful reissue allows the listener to reassess this obscure Danish band. Oh, and please don't ask me what an N-way is!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Daniel Crommie With Glyn Havard & Friends -
Aquarius In Retrograde
Tracklist: Can You Feel The Change? (7:04), Kick Off (6:35), Disbelief (4:31), An August Elegy (4:11), Burn The Town Red (4:56), All Souls Day (5:05), Another Midnight In America (5:28), Primitive Future (10:14), Default (4:26), Green (5:25), Is It the Stars? (3:45), The Butcher Shop (6:01) Bonus Tracks: It Takes A Hurricane (5:19), Up Is Down Is Up [Space Jazz] (4:22)
The name Daniel Crommie was completely new to me when this album arrived in the spring of this year - although several of the guest musicians had a more familiar ring to their names. So as I know little of Daniel Crommie's past, simpler that I let the man himself do the introduction:
"Daniel Crommie is a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist (mandolins, buche, dulcimer, balalaika, recorders, flutes, synthesizers, etc.) and producer who has released over two dozen solo albums, several albums with Group Du Jour, four with Echo System and four with Saturnalia Trio over the last 25 years...
Daniel Crommie's musical palette includes forays into medieval, techno-pop, folk, electronic and experimental genres using a wide variety of acoustic and electronic instruments. A founding member of Group Du Jour, Echo System, Continuum and most recently Saturnalia Trio, Daniel's music has been critically hailed as far afield as Yugoslavia, England, Russia and Japan, and has been featured in several French & American films and television documentaries."
I have to say that this album has been with me for several months and across that time I've returned to it on numerous occasions. But even after all this time it is an album that hasn't quite sat with me fully. This isn't to say that Aquarius In Retrograde is a bad album, on the contrary it is quite enjoyable, with many highlights. Musically a laid back affair and one that relies as much on atmosphere and texture as as it does on the musicianship, so in many respects the choice of Glynn Havard and David Duhig from Jade Warrior was a wise move.
Certainly the opening two tracks seriously evoke Jade Warrior. The lilting groove of Can You Feel The Change? is initially complimented by Michael Maldonado's floating tenor sax, followed shortly after by Glyn Havard's velvet tones. The song shuffles along with an array of instruments performed by Daniel Crommie and with tasteful guitar work from James Havard and Jon Davis Miller. Keith Hatfield's congas add greatly to the programmed rhythm section. Kick Off would not have been out of place on JW's 2008 Now release. The soothing rhythm and gentle acoustic guitar also benefit from the airy flutes. Crommie has certainly captured the essence of Jon Field's magical flute work here and along with Glyn Havard's distinctive voice we are off to a great start.
Rhythmically and tempo wise Disbelief continues in a similar fashion with an engaging viola melody played by Leslie Gray and nicely harmonised by Crommie's flute. We are also introduced to Crommie's voice on this track and although not as pleasing on the ears as Havard's, it works well within the track. An August Elegy is the first of two instrumentals on Aquarius In Retrograde. Not a technical workout but as befitting the rest of the album a steady tempo allows another Jade Warrior, Colin Henson, to add some soulful acoustic and harmonised electric guitar. Eldon Hardenbrook delivers some subtle but highly effective bass. The middle section here is simple, beautiful and an absolute delight. Piano, light strings and Henson's simple but effective acoustic work sends shivers down the spine. This section could have gone on much longer for me, however not to be and the band return to conclude.
The tempo raises and with the inclusion of some nifty and infectious flute, another dimension is added to Burn The Town Red. On to the second instrumental from the album, All Souls Day, we have another strong piece, again a mellow track but this time with David Duhig's E-bowed guitar lending a Frippian flavour to proceedings. Duhig remains for Another Midnight In America, turning in some neat guitar. The track features a memorable chorus line, but the effected voice in the verses did nothing for me. Primitive Future, the albums mini epic starts in Warrior fashion with flutes followed by a driving beat, congas and a nicely pulsing bass from Eldon Hardenbrook. The first half of the track is a trade-off guitar section whilst the remainder of the piece features dreamy vocals, followed by some enjoyable ensemble playing and concluding with some floating flutes.
A 70's US cop film seems to be the foundation for Default - the sort of thing that Lalo Schifrin might have written. Musically strong, but sadly the distorted vocals return here and I can only assume that Crommie isn't keen on his own voice. If this be the case then I'd suggest he leave it to guys like Glyn Havard - who coincidentally sings on the delightful Green, which follows. Aided and abetted by former Jade Warrior congas man Allan Price.
Despite some pleasant flute in Is It The Stars? and Hardenbrook's catchy almost Felix Pappalardi bass in The Butcher Shop, there was very little that appealed to me in the two closing tracks, proper. Which leaves us with two bonus tracks? Why we have them as bonus tracks or why they are not part of the album - I don't know. It Takes A Hurricane is certainly the most upbeat track here and despite the vocals, a strong track and worthy of its predecessors. Up Is Down Is Up [Space Jazz] did feel more like a bonus track, or more appropriately a track that perhaps should have been left off altogether. A sort of psychedelic space rock jam.
So there we have it. At a tad under eighty minutes I thought Aquarius In Retrograde was just way too long. If you then add in to the equation that the tempos were a little one paced, then it did make this a lot to digest in one sitting. On the positive side however, the album has some really strong tracks, is a grower and the more I returned to it, the more I latched on to it.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Sh.tg.n - Sh.tg.n
Tracklist: Dead Baby (2:06), Deejays Should Have Low Self-Esteem (4:24), Eyafjallajökull (3:18), Shitgun (4:19), Camera Obscura (6:17), Shotgun [Afraid of] (3:58), Save Us From Bloody Women (1:07), Erase Her Dad (3:01), A Glimpse Into Eternity (4:31), Esta Mierda No Esta Democracia (3:12), 133 [I Don't Wanna See] (4:42), Black Beetle (7:58)
With their irreverent name (which reads "shotgun", but can also be interpreted as "shitgun", as hinted by a couple of song titles on their debut album) and colourfully macabre cover artwork, Belgian six-piece Sh.tg.n herald an almost revolutionary change of direction for Moonjune Records, the iconic NYC-based label founded by Leonardo Pavkovic in 2001. While the label's main emphasis has generally been placed on music within the jazz-rock or avant-garde sphere, there is no denying that Sh.tg.n belong to a different breed.
In 2009, keyboardist Antoine Guenet - currently a member of The Wrong Object, one of the bands on Moonjune's roster - thought of putting together a band in order to play the music he loved. He recruited a group of talented musicians from classical, jazz and rock backgrounds - vibraphonist Wim Segers, drummer Simon Segers and bassist Dries Geusens - later joined by guitarist Yannick De Pauw and vocalist Fulco Ottervanger. In the following years, the aptly-named Sh.tg.n have pursued a brisk concert activity in their hometown of Ghent and in other parts of Belgium, as well as a slot on the 2012 lineup of the Freakshow Art Rock Festival in Würzburg (Germany).
Though the cover might already sound a warning of sorts, those who are accustomend to the elegant, often understated productions that form the bulk of Moonjune Records' output are in for a shock once they put Sh.tg.n in their CD player. The instrumental opening track, Dead Baby, is enough to set the scene with its doom-laden riffing punctuated by the lilting sound of the vibraphone - an unlikely combination that evokes images of Black Sabbath jamming with Gong. After that, Fulco Otterwanger's vocals - mostly screams in hardcore/punk style - take centre stage, and all hell breaks loose. The 12 tracks as a whole alternate explosions of sound infused with all the raw energy of punk with atmospheric, more low-key sections, in a pattern that has been successfully used by a genuinely groundbreaking bands such as The Mars Volta - though without the sense of melody and pervasive Latin influences that distinguish the US band's output. Shotgun [Afraid of] is probably the best example of Sh.tg.n's wacky eclecticism - compressing a sludgy, Sabbathian riff-fest, blues-tinged vocals and spacey sound effects - all bound together by the slightly out-of-place tinkle of Wim Segers' vibraphone - into a running time of under 4 minutes.
Shock tactics are the order of the day on Sh.tg.n. The gentle, melancholy piano at the beginning of Save Us From Bloody Women suddenly erupts in frantic riffs and screaming vocals; while the distinctively-titled Esta Mierda No Es Democracia (which references both the Occupy movement and the thorny political situation in Belgium) is a punk-rap workout with lyrics in several languages that reminded me of fellow Moonjuner Copernicus - in spirit if not in musical content. Glimpses of melody emerge in 133, though the relentlessly aggressive vocals give little respite. Black Beetle, the longest track at nearly 8 minutes, closes the album by veering into Hawkwind territory, with a string of wild, Hendrixian guitar solos offset by an unexpectedly mellow vibraphone passage, and strident keyboards with a vague Eastern tinge.
Clocking in at a rather hefty 57 minutes, Sh.tg.n makes for sometimes exhausting listening, and - on account of its evident metal and punk overtones - it is definitely an album that might appeal to a younger crowd rather than the more conservatively-minded prog listeners. While it is undeniably a good thing to see a cutting-edge label like Moonjune Records trying to branch out, the experiment can be termed only partly successful. Indeed, though the band members are undeniably talented, and eclecticism is always commendable in a progressive rock context, the feeling that - like other modern bands of the "experimental metal" persuasion - Sh.tg.n are trying too hard to deliver something unique cannot be easily brushed aside. On the other hand, there are some good ideas on Sh.tg.n. that may be worthy of development, provided the band want to move beyond the in-your-face approach displayed on the album.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10