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2012 : VOLUME 35
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REVIEWS IN THIS ISSUE:


KingBathmat - Truth Button
King Bathmat - Truth Button
Country of Origin:UK
Format:CD
Record Label:Independent
Catalogue #:N/A
Year of Release:2012
Time:50:31
Info:KingBathmat
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Behind The Wall (9:16), Abintra (8:37), Book Of Faces (7:06), The End Of Evolution (9:00), Dives And Pauper (5:56), Coming To Terms With Mortality In The Face Of Insurmountable Odds (10:34) Bonus Tracks: {Digital release only} Slipstream, Lines And Dots, Dives And Pauper [alternative version], The Ugly Truth

Mark Hughes' Review

I thought it had been a while since DPRP had heard from John Bassett, the erstwhile leader of the trio that defies definition that is KingBathmat, when in one of those moments of unfathomable irony, I received an e-mail from the man himself just as I had finished playing the band's third album Fantastic Freak Show Carnival for the first time in far too long! News of an imminent new album was met with excitement as the last release from Bassett had been under the Gravity Field name way back in 2009. The reason for different name was because of the heavier nature of the album which, to an extent, seems to have influenced the style of Truth Button which is described as:

"a collection of 6 tracks that fuse and cross-pollinate the musical genres of Progressive Rock, Grunge, Psychedelia and Experimental Rock to concoct a vibrant intoxicating brew of complex, intricate melodies and heavy bludgeoning riffs..."

Certainly enough to rouse the curiosity.

The truth of the descriptive statement whacks the listener across the head from the opening of Behind The Wall whose initial hard attack gives way to a mellower section that, lyrically, gets to the heart of the concept behind the album, that of using the advancement of technology to make the truth more transparent, rather than confuse. Although guitar is to the fore throughout the majority of the track, the more quieter moments display an established subtlety with a variety of keyboard flourishes that add an element of calm amongst the riffs. Another nice touch is that Bassett makes good use of his pedal board giving the impression of multiple guitarists. Previously most Bassett/KingBathmat songs, with a couple of notable exceptions, remained around the three to four-minute length, but on this album the shortest track clocks in at a tad under six minutes with the remainder stretching out to new lengths. Fortunately, they are not just extended for the sake of making long tracks but exhibit light and shade, changing tempos and styles with fluidity without losing sight of the original song. Abintra, a Latin phrase meaning 'from within', continues the sonic assault with the guitars giving a little more headway to keyboards. A delightfully freaky middle section is followed by a prominent bass line over which the guitar solos freely.

In a none too subtle attack on Facebook, Book Of Faces poses the question as to just what is happening with all the information that is gathered from such social media/networking sites and how easily we can be tracked seemingly with our complete consent and co-operation. A faux string introduction gives way to a new wave urgency although with far more thought provoking lyrics than anything spouted by new wave artists. The End Of Evolution is somewhat of a dichotomy. The opening passage is imbued with lots of keyboards and electronic drums which are rather twee until the real drums batter their way through and the keyboard riff is taken up by guitar which sings its way intermingling with short and sporadic keyboard passages almost as if there is an intrinsic battle between the two. Again the attention is held throughout the entire piece by the thoughtful deliverance of the repeated musical motifs. Dives And Pauper also tackles opposites, those of the financial replete versus those of the financial destitute. A somewhat Middle Eastern musical phrase dominates although a section featuring the repeated chime of a clock adds a nice contrast. The guitar solo is the heaviest yet but again clever use of effects and different sound patches prevent the song being dismissed as a standard rock number, indeed there is an intricate complexity to the multiple overlaid lines.

Closing track Coming To Terms With Mortality In The Face Of Insurmountable Odds not only possesses a great title but is also somewhat of an epic in scope and duration. A melody from a musical box is intricately interwoven throughout the piece which is more in line with some of the earlier material produced by the band. With a catchy chorus, a lyrical warning and a very offbeat ending, the track is the pinnacle of a thoroughly enjoyable and original album that delivers a lot more than one originally appreciates on first listening. Available for download for less than a fiver with four bonus tracks that were not included in my preview download, complete artwork and various other items of interest, this is great value for money, and yes I am going to buy the album in order to get the bonus tracks and other material so I am putting my money where my mouth is!

Brian Watson's Review

KingBathmat are an independent/psychedelic/progressive/alternative rock band, hailing from Hastings in England. Initially started by singer/songwriter John Bassett, the band have now independently released five albums to date: Son Of A Nun (2003), Crowning Glory (2004), Fantastic Freak Show Carnival (2005), Blue Sea, Black Heart (2008) and Gravity Field (2009), the first three of which received DPRP recommended status. The 3-piece band comprises of John Bassett (bass, vocals), Lee Sulsh (guitar) and Bernie Smirnoff (drums).

I remember buying FFSC based on the DPRP review seven years ago. Which is quite good for me as I can’t now remember what I did this morning. That might be age. Or the tablets. Anyhoo, we’ve got album six to listen to now so let’s see what the band themselves have to say about it:

"Truth Button deals with an underlying theme of technophobia and social disconnection due to the ever-growing trivial use of modern technology. Truth Button calls for the advancement of technology to be employed to make the truth more transparent as opposed to it being exploited to confuse, convolute and restrict us. The press-button, a mechanical switch that engages us in a process, is a symbol of technology; we live amongst an ever-increasing complex web of button pushing gizmos and gadgets. These devices encourage us to interact with them for increasingly irrelevant reasons. Time absorbed by these inconsequential activities produced by these new technologies could be put to better use and it seems that these toys are deliberately created to distract us from events that unravel in the world today. Yet, if we had the choice of a Truth Button, would we push it? Would we choose to address the ugly truth or alternatively, would we continue to live in ignorance within a beautiful illusion?"

So there you have it. What would you do? Unfortunately, and despite the fact that the download album is available on the band’s bandcamp site with bonus tracks, album art, lyrics and so on for less than a fiver I did note that the album has turned up on quite a few torrent sites. Which saddens me as it directly affects the ability of independent bands such as KingBathmat to continue making music. There endeth the lesson. I’m recommending this heartily to all, so what can you expect to hear for your hard-earned pounds/euros/dollars?

Behind The Wall kicks things off with a veritable wall of sound that will make you sit up and take notice almost instantaneously. The sound is layered throughout the near 10 minute playing time, with lovely vocal harmonies, Mark Kelly-esque keyboard washes and rock steady bass lines but the guitar is never far away, weaving in and out and fair blowing the bloody doors off when the mood dictates. It’s as good a slab of ‘alternative’ progressive rock music as you’re likely to hear. As good as your Radioheads, your Porcupine Trees, your Muses (with whom the band share quite a bit in common sonically) and whatnot are, this is the real, independent deal. Right here. This band haven’t got 3 DPRP recommended reviews for nothing.

Abintra continues in a similar vein, adding a bit of Tool into the mix with the pulsating bass line. It’s propelled by a grungey guitar sound that’s turned up to 11 and throws some Floydian psychedelia and experimental soundscaping into the pot for good measure. With some great vocal harmonies to boot.

Book Of Faces starts off with string synths and is more restrained than what’s gone before, until it explodes into punk riffage before the strings return momentarily and the guitars go nuts – think early BOC meets the NWOBHM and you won’t go far wrong. The strings return to close out the track.

Next up is The End Of Evolution, pretty proggy in a Muse meets Frankie Goes to Hollywood (The Power Of Love) way. I know, sounds like it shouldn’t work but it does. It’s wonderfully cinematic and symphonic in scope, with organs, synths and anthemic guitar. It then gets really progressive with some fantastic Steve Howe guitar flourishes.

Dives And Pauper is up next. Ticking clocks and psychedelic guitar herald massive stoner guitar riffs putting me in mind of Queens of The Stone Age or Foo Fighters at their best. Keyboards take over, the ticking clock ever present before an Eastern mystic meets Celtic knees-up section. There’s a few amazing guitar solo to follow, for fans of Donald (Buck Dharma) Roeser.

Coming To Terms... is not only the longest song title, it’s also the longest track, clocking in at ten and a half minutes. Melancholic keyboards and a dripping tap gradually give way to QOTSA symphonic grunge, before keys and strings take over. Operatic in its scale, the song morphs into BOC circa the Imaginos guitar orchestra jamming with Brian May and fantastic vocal harmonies. Haunting, discordant piano then leads us down a different sonic path, neo-prog keyboard stylings providing some melodic relief from the brooding menace of the piano before it’s over. Without a flourish. Just a note and it’s gone.

This is a fantastic piece of independent, alternative/progressive rock music. And I haven’t even heard the bonus tracks you get for your fiver. Now 9s out of 10 are normally reserved for albums that make our top five but this year has seen so many cracking releases that I’m moving the goalposts somewhat and giving 9s for stuff that makes my top ten. This has done just that, by a country mile.

Conclusions:

MARK HUGHES : 8 out of 10
BRIAN WATSON : 9 out of 10



Romantic Warriors II – A Progressive Music Saga
About Rock In Opposition [DVD]
Romantic Warriors II – A Progressive Music Saga About Rock In Opposition [DVD]
Country of Origin:USA
Format:DVD
Record Label:Zeitgeist Media
Catalogue #:N/A
Year of Release:2012
Time:100:54
Info:ProgDocs
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Contributing Artists: Aranis, Guapo, Hamster Theater, Magma, Miriod, Present, Ruins Alone, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Thinking Plague, Univers Zero, Yugen

Following up Romantic Warriors I which highlighted 10 modern progressive bands from across the globe, Adele Schmidt, an award-winning documentary film maker with five full-length documentaries behind her, all aired on the USA Public Broadcasting Service; and José Zegarra Holder, film producer and co-founder of Zeitgeist Media, have made a compelling and essential introduction to what for some remains the slightly intimidating world of RIO/avant-prog.

Founded in 1978 by Henry Cow, the Rock In Opposition movement was instigated in order to give an outlet to the more uncommercial bands at the far-left end of the musical spectrum that were being neglected by the mainstream music industry. Henry Cow left Virgin Records in order to get control and ownership of their own music, free from commercial restraints, and they decided to form a support network of like minded bands in Western Europe, whom they had met on various tours over The Channel in the past.

The starting point was the first RIO festival on 12th March 1978 at the New London Theatre in London which Henry Cow organised, the poster for the gig declaiming “Five rock groups the record companies don’t want you to hear”. Calling themselves “rock groups” was probably a crowd-pulling device more than anything as none of these bands were really “rock”, some even in the loosest sense. All of them left what many would and still do define as “rock” way way behind in their quest for musical exploration. I must give a mention here to the good old British Arts Council, not mentioned in the film, whose £1000 grant went some way towards financing the concert, which is a damn good advert for central government support of art, something that then as now could only happen on our side of the Atlantic.

The other four founder members of the movement were arbitrary choices following on from Cow’s idea that for the festival there should be five bands each representing a different country who had the common ground of struggles with their home territories’ music industry. It was as much down to who was available at the time than anything else, and so Samla Mammas Manna (Sweden), Stormy Six (Italy), Etron Fou Lelouban (France), and Univers Zero (Belgium) became immortalised as co-conspirators, mostly by chance.

The labyrinthine spiders web that spun out from those five bands in the centre over the years is given due care and attention by Adele and José in the film, which includes interviews held on both sides of the Atlantic, and over the ether via Skype with all the surviving leading lights of the genre, all handled with panache by José, while narrator Roland Millman keeps things flowing nicely. The most interviewed musician is Henry Cow’s and later Art BearsChris Cutler who tells us that the initial movement lasted no more than 10 months, but such was its influence that it has inspired modern events like the annual RIO festival in Carmaux, southern France. I’ll leave the further developments to be revealed when you watch the film.

Closely associated with but never actually a part of the original RIO movement was Christian Vander’s merry band of French musical extremists Magma, who with typical wilfulness were a “movement” in themselves, namely “Zeuhl”, which Christian expands on later in the film. Magma pop up throughout, as their influence deserves, particularly falling under the spotlight in the first section, which is given over to a brief history and analysis of the highly influential French band and their pivotal role then and now in avant-prog. Indeed Christian gets most of the best lines in the film, and is a thoroughly entertaining chap with a singular vision of the place his music has in the grand scheme of things. He explains that “I’ve always said that I compose the music that is missing, the music I don’t hear anywhere else”, and that is one of his less poetic quotes.

The modern RIO/avant bands are well represented by the likes of Yugen (Italy), Thinking Plague (USA), and Aranis (Belgium), and others. Thinking Plague’s inimitable guitarist Mike Johnson surprises by saying “it must have been the 90s before I heard the term RIO”, but perhaps his splendidly isolated and beautiful location in Colorado had something to do with that?

There is some magnificent film from the rehearsals and from the now legendary appearance at Rock In Opposition 2011 in Carmaux of Once Upon A Time In Belgium, an unlikely but truly magnificent combination of Univers Zero, Present, and Aranis. Rehearsal footage is dominated by the ubiquitous Dave Kerman who seems to have been in just about every modern avant/RIO band of note, usually more than one at a time. Just watching this makes me wish I’d been there to see it, for it is utterly marvellous and spellbinding; and no, for all you folk who run scared of RIO, it is not at all frightening! Try it, you might like it! Somebody should release it on CD/DVD in its entirety, I know I’d buy it.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention and Dave is not alone in playing for several bands at once as in order to survive the musicians have to be constantly active, some needing day jobs too. This leads to a cross-fertilisation of ideas that keeps the music constantly shifting and developing, and indeed, (it’s that word again) progressing.

Returning to Christian Vander for a neat quote that sums up the sometimes difficult, sometimes frightening, sometimes beautiful but always interesting world of RIO/avant-prog - “At the time when I had the idea for Magma, they said, it’s not possible. Today they’d say the same thing... (but) it is always possible, even in the worst of circumstances, everything is always possible”.

Anyone who professes a love of adventurous and uncommercial music should at least watch this film even if they do not pursue their interest further, for it shows a group of disparate musicians spread over two continents and more than 30 years who all have in common a love of exploration and pushing boundaries, and isn’t that what prog should be all about?

Conclusion: 9 out of 10

ROGER TRENWITH



I And Thou - Speak
I And Thou - Speak
Country of Origin:USA
Format:CD
Record Label:Independent
Catalogue #:N/A
Year of Release:2012
Time: 60:39
Info:I And Thou
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Speak (12:19), ...And I Awaken (11:31), Hide And Seek (16:31), The Face Behind The Eyes (13:35), Go Or Go Ahead (6:43)

2012 has been a fantastic year for progressive rock music, and American prog in particular is in especially good health, with recent releases by Discipline, Glass Hammer, Echolyn and Izz. Fans of the latter should definitely take note of this new release by I And Thou - a band project formed by Jason Hart, keyboardist with Renaissance. More of the reasons for that in a moment...

Jason, as you might expect, plays all the keyboards but he also takes on lead vocal duties. He plays a ton of other stuff too: percussion, glockenspiel, trumpet, guitar and sound effects. Suffice to say, then, he’s an extremely talented lad. His vocals are a revelation, perfectly suited to the pastoral, symphonic prog on offer and his keyboard playing, apart from being fantastic, is highly reminiscent of Tony Banks.

As if this wasn’t enough, he’s brought in a few friends from Izz as guest players. John Galgano plays bass, Paul Bremner plays guitar and Laura Meade adds backing vocals. Most of the guitar work is handled by Jack Petruzzelli (Patti Smith) and Matt Johnson (Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright) plays drums. The third track, face behind the eyes features Keren Ann and a certain Mr Hogarth appears on the bonus track, a cover of Rufus Wainwright’s Go Or Go Ahead.

Musically this is a melodic, symphonic prog fan’s dream, with four epic pieces in addition to the cover tune. Think Genesis circa Wind And Wuthering or A Trick Of The Tail and you won’t go far wrong. There’s a strong Izz influence too, as you might imagine and all in all this is up there with the best of the year for me. In addition to the Izz-inspired elements here we’ve got a tranquil, soaring beauty to the music, very pastoral, very symphonic, very English. It’s beautifully produced too (by Jason Hart) achieving sonic peaks through a gradual build up, and layering, of instrumentation and not just by turning up the volume to 11.

Title track speak kicks things off, and is typical of what is to come, with haunting piano over which Hart’s fragile vocals are laid. Keyboard and guitar become gently intertwined before percussive elements build and typically Banksian keyboard sounds give a distinctive, One For The Vine vibe to the tune before a harder-edged swirling synth pattern takes over. The layering of instrumentation begins from this point, propelling the melodic elements ever forward to the inevitable, perfectly paced climax and denouement. I’d go so far to say that this is better than anything Genesis have done since And Then There Were Three.

Paul Bremner lays down some guitar solos in Hide And Seek and (personal favourite) The Face Behind The Eyes that are, in my humble opinion, as good as anything he’s done with Izz.

All four long pieces dovetail perfectly, hewn from the same cloth but each adding different rhythmic elements, melodies and textures. Overall they give the impression of comprising four sections of one longer suite before the Rufus Wainwright cover go or go ahead featuring Steve Hogarth on vocals. H is on top form, and the song, which I wasn’t familiar with, is quite simply, beautiful.

Now I’ve seen the album described elsewhere as ‘beautiful’ and you know what? They were right. Not only that, but the cover art, by Annie Haslam is perfectly suited to the material and overall it’s a lovely package. No lyrics, however, but that’s a minor irritation when the quality of the disc contained within is so strong.

Fans of Genesis, Izz or Hogarth are going to be in seventh heaven. And for me? Well, yet another American prog CD has made it into my top ten (it’s too good a year to just have a top 5). It truly is a great time to be a fan of progressive rock music, don’t you think?

Conclusion: 9 out of 10

BRIAN WATSON



Ligro – Dictionary 2
Ligro – Dictionary 2
Country of Origin:Indonesia
Format:CD
Record Label:MoonJune Records
Catalogue #:MJR047
Year of Release:2012
Time:73:29
Info:Ligro
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Paradox (7:11), Stravinsky (11:32), Future (7:17), Don Juan (6:13), Bliker 3 (10:15), Étude Indienne (12:51), Miles Away (4:15), Transparansi (13:16)

In the words of David Byrne, there’s a city in my mind. It sits on the edge of a seemingly endless jungle, which might be Judy’s. In The City, those lucky enough to work in air conditioned offices are sheltered from the suffocating humidity that the rest sweat and toil through. The stifling heat builds up every day until around 5:30pm when massive thunderheads form, eventually unleashing two or three hours worth of cooling deluge. While this is going on the workers, rich and poor alike, take shelter and leisurely indulge in an evening meal, usually garnished with exotic spices, chased down with ice cold beer. Then, it’s time to hit the town. We walk down dimly lit narrow streets, the occasional neon sign attempting to entice us into this bar or that. Suddenly on rounding a corner we hear a wonderful noise emanating from a hostelry a few feet further down the road. The bar is in semi-darkness, and through the clouds of cigarette smoke (they still allow it here), agitated by several ceiling fans gamely trying to disperse the soup-like humidity, there on stage are three gents enthralling the assembled throng with their amazing space-blues-fusion. The band in question is Ligro.

Then... my headphones fall off and I am rudely awakened from my reverie. The setting I describe was summoned by the swamp-jazz-rock of this remarkable band, formed in 2004 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Ligro when read backwards means “crazy people” in Indonesian, but this “crazy” is of the fun and not the scary variety. A traditional power trio format, that is anything but traditional and everything more than what you might imagine is led by guitarist Agam Hamzah, who, to these Western ears at least, seems to be an amalgam of influences from McLaughlin to Hendrix, via Tony McPhee and Allan Holdsworth.

Opening with some dissonant chording followed by blistering fretwork from Agam, you may think that Paradox is setting the scene for a journey through coruscating jazz scales and tempos that can only end in blistered fingers, but the mood is tempered on the following Stravinsky by a tongue in cheek intro on the bubbling bass of Adi Darmawan lifted from Bach that leads the band into an extemporisation on Stravinsky’s “An Easy Piece Using Five Notes” no less, a tune that ends up belting along like an express train making its almost twelve minutes fly by. Boy, I wish I was in that hot’n’sticky smoke filled bar! Adi’s bass stars on Étude Indienne (Indian study), which as its title suggests uses Indian scales of the type normally played on sitar, but here reproduced at high speed in tandem by Adi and Agam and later by Adi alone that leaves me breathless just imagining the fingers flying up and down the fretboards. This song also has a very spacey psychedelic feel as the lightning fast passages are joined together by quieter reflective passages.

This highlights the extreme chops these guys have, and as if we did not require more proof, Bliker 3 with Adi’s lovely piano intro morphs into a space-funk wigout where Agam goes through all kinds of twists and turns that makes me realise what an inspirational instrument the humble electric guitar can be in the right hands. What else is there? Well how about a lovely bass passage in the fusion ballad Future that leans on a recurrent theme in homage to the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Or, how about subtle nods to Miles Davis in Miles Away or the Hendrix influenced loose space-jam of Don Juan?

I’ve mentioned the dexterity of Adi’s musicality, and joining him in holding down several odd time signatures while simultaneously dancing round the beat are the almost lyrical drums and percussion of Gusti Hendi, who must surely be a Tony Williams fan. While no one member is the star of the show, Agam’s cliché-free guitar excursions which light up each song in sometimes obvious but usually unexpected flights of fancy are a pure delight.

Quite a few bands seem to think that in order to impress that they must fill as much of the 80 available minutes on a CD as possible, forgetting that the tolerable maximum for an album is probably around the hour mark. Ligro get round this by being different enough to hold one’s attention throughout. For once an album of over 70 minutes more than justifies its length!

Credit must be given to MoonJune supremo Leonardo Pavkovic, whom, each and every time he travels to his beloved Indonesia seems to come back with yet another find that makes you wonder how on Earth this massive country has managed to keep such talent hidden away in its hinterland for so long. True to Leo’s love of real progressive music, Ligro are a band that are not afraid of going out on a limb as they have more than enough talent to fulfil their lofty musical ambition. Ligro fully deserve your attention if you’re a fan of fusion, or simply love very good guitar playing. Definitely recommended!

Conclusion: 8 out of 10

ROGER TRENWITH



Autumn Chorus – The Village To The Vale
Autumn Chorus – The Village To The Vale
Country of Origin:UK
Format:CD
Record Label:Fading Records
Catalogue #:FAD 007
Year of Release:2012
Time:52:03
Info:Autumn Chorus
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Three Jumps The Devil (7:05), You'll Wait Forever (6:28), Never Worry (3:59), Thief (7:26), Brightening Sky (5:23), Rosa (16:09), Bye Bye Now (5:33)

Recorded and mixed over a number of years, The Village To The Vale is the end result of a long labour of love for this “new” Sussex band. English to the core, Autumn Chorus evoke images of misty hills, quaint villages, and a lost romantic world that owes much more to rose-tinted sentimentality than to anything realistic. And that, every now and again, is a good thing, and it sure is good for the soul.

Take a while to wallow in the pastoral splendour of achingly beautiful arrangements topped off with Robbie Wilson’s otherworldly voice, given extra piquancy by the occasional additional vocals of Anna-Lynne Williams. Think of Barclay James Harvest at their most romantic with Tim Bowness as lead singer singing tales of home and hearth, loss and melancholy. It should bring a tear to the eye; or at the very least leave you sighing at the passing of a nostalgic world that probably never was. An air of reverence coats the songs in a layer of dust-through-sunlight of the kind you would see in an otherwise dimly lit Norman church in the shires of Olde England, and a lovely thing it is too.

The instrumentation is largely acoustic and the perfect blending of string, brass, and choral arrangements and makes this album ideal for chilling after a hard day at your personal coalface. Falling somewhere between traditional English folk music, pastoral prog and post-rock, this band could well be the best trad-prog band to come out of this island for some time, and may well be our very English answer to Norway’s marvellous conjurers of Norse romanticism, Gazpacho, or even Sigur Ros. Yes, they are that good.

Just as the music reveals itself over several listens like a green and pleasant vista slowly coming to view through evaporating mists, so the lyrics are suitable ambiguous. Never Worry for instance:

“A life I heard out of the worry,
You were a wisdom, sweet and close to me.
I try, I try holding you lighter
Calling in wonder what's sweet and safe to me.”

The final song Bye Bye Now was apparently specially written to mark a sudden loss experienced by Robbie during the making of the album, an event that gave the project added impetus. Starting with a slow chord progression and a child’s voice one can only begin to imagine what tragedy took place, especially when on the occasionally appearing home movie soundtrack what is probably the mother is asking the child to say “Bye bye, now”. Like the rest of the album it leaves an impressionistic feeling, this time of great sadness.

Can Autumn Chorus live up to the hyperbole of my previous scribbling throughout the course of the epic-length Rosa you and I both wonder? Well, a slow amble through sheltered woods, emerging blinking into the sunlight of triumphal drums is only the start of a journey that ends with a climax built on waves of post-rock guitar that is life-affirming and utterly charming, so the answer is in the affirmative.

The reflective pastoral nature of the album is reflected in the sepia tinted pictures of a lone figure against backdrops of rural idylls in the lovely booklet, interspersed with snippets of lyrics, courtesy of Matt Gauke.

Keeping up the high standards of AltrOck Productions this is a thoroughly lovely and unusually for the Italian stable, a quintessentially English album, and I recommend it highly.

Conclusion: 8 out of 10

ROGER TRENWITH



The Mercury Tree - Pterodactyls
The Mercury Tree - Pterodactyls
Country of Origin:USA
Format:CD
Record Label:Independent
Catalogue #:N/A
Year of Release:2011
Time:42:38
Info:The Mercury Tree
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Hatchlings (6:44), Cephalopod (5:34), Time Lapse (3:31), Pterodactyls (7:15), Interstitial (2:05), The Frozen Seas Of Europa (4:59), Velociraptor (4:08), Bassosaur (4:45), Octarine (4:57)

The Mercury Tree, a trio hailing from Portland (Oregon), first started out as a solo project of guitarist/keyboardist Ben Spees in 2004. The project then turned into a full band in 2006 with the addition of three more members, and released its self-titled debut album the following year. After more lineup changes and the release of two EPs, Pterodactyls was released in 2011, followed by a short tour of the West Coast. Besides Spees and drummer Connor Reilly, the album features bassist Alan Johnson, who was replaced by Aaron Clark in the autumn of 2011. The Mercury Tree's new album, Inflexus, is slated to come out in the late summer of 2012.

The Mercury Tree's power-trio formula - augmented by keyboards used for texture rather than as protagonists - will not fail to bring to mind Rush, and indeed the Portland outfit's sound evokes comparisons with the mighty Canadians. However, while other Rush-influenced bands either take the band's "prog" period (i.e. the Seventies) as a template, or else their commercially successful, synth-heavy Eighties output, the raw, riff-laden feel of Pterodactyls put me in mind of Vapor Trails, Rush's 2002 comeback after a six-year hiatus, - an album often criticized by fans for sounding too loud and almost "grungy". The Mercury Tree, much in a similar way, present a dynamic, high-energy blend of sharp yet fluid riffs, powerful yet complex drumming patterns and very prominent bass lines, occasionally accented by keyboards, but noticeably low on solo spots. The vocals, on the other hand, are downplayed, and sometimes are so low in the mix as to be barely audible - which strikes as odd, since the songs on Pterodactyls are heavily vocal-oriented, and Spees' voice is more than adequate, though not as distinctive as Geddy Lee's.

In general terms, The Mercury Tree's music, though firmly rooted in the examples set in previous decades by the likes of King Crimson and the already mentioned Rush, possesses an intriguing alternative sensibility (Smashing Pumpkins and Primus are mentioned among their primary sources of inspiration) that adds to the "modern prog" feel. The razor-sharp angularity of the interlocking guitar riffs and twangy bass lines may also suggest a math-rock matrix, though the band possess a melodic vein that often eludes bands falling under the math-rock umbrella. Though the nine songs on the album offer plenty of tempo changes, frequently shifting from laid-back, atmospheric textures infused with keyboard washes to choppy, riff-laden sections, the album can come across as a bit repetitive. In spite of titles that may point to a concept album dedicated to prehistoric creatures, the song lyrics blend fantasy elements with a more conventionally sentimental bent.

While opener Hatchlings displays all the dynamic features of The Mercury Tree's sound, including a heavy emphasis on cymbals that lends a tinkling metallic touch, tracks like Cephalopod and Velociraptor bring the band's mellower side to the fore. The skilful use of quiet-loud dynamics, with sudden surges and haunting, chant-like vocals - almost used as an additional instrument - reminded me of New Jersey's The Tea Club, another young outfit that has the "post-prog" aesthetics down to a fine art. The Frozen Seas Of Europa juxtaposes the two main tendencies of the band's music, with jagged riffs and heady vocal harmonies backed by piano ripples alternating in the spotlight. The short, understated Interstitial, the only instrumental track on Pterodactyls, is strategically placed right in the middle of the album. As the title implies, Bassosaur is driven by a booming, fat bass groove that conjures echoes of Primus' Les Claypool, underpinned by crunchy, almost grungy guitar riffs; while closing track Octarine (the colour of magic in Terry Pratchett's iconic fantasy series Discworld), in spite of the reliance on whistling, burbling electronic effects, sports a catchy, melodic tune that is somewhat anticlimactic if compared to the intensity of the previous tracks.

Clocking in at a compact 42 minutes, Pterodactyls is a well-balanced effort, avoiding the overambitious flights of fancy that often detract from modern prog productions. However, it is not easy to find anything that actually stands out, allowing the album to make the leap from merely good to genuinely arresting - something that is sorely needed on today's oversaturated progressive rock scene. In spite of these reservations, this is a solid release from a promising band that should appeal to fans of Rush and King Crimson - as well as those who favour a more contemporary take on our favourite genre.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10

RAFFAELLA BERRY



Roads To Damascus – R2D2
Roads To Damascus – R2D2
Country of Origin:UK
Format:CD
Record Label:Melodic Revolution
Records
Catalogue #:MRR CD 20002
Year of Release:2012
Time:49:29
Info:Roads To Damascus
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Ghosts (3.48), Liven Your Mind, Part 2 (4:00), Warcry (5:08), Frustration (5:06), Morning After (6:23), That Smile (4:52), Forever A Picture (4:57), Early Hours (5:33), Liven Your Mind, Part 1 (4:44), I Dream In Mirrors (6:58)

Roads To Damascus is a five piece band who come from north-east Scotland, a land not renowned for a prodigiously large output of prog bands with Pallas and Comedy of Errors the best-known currently on the circuit.

They got together in 2008 when guitarist and writer Callum Jamieson was finishing off an hour-long concept piece called Roads To Damascus. He realised he was in need of a singer who could bring life to the songs and so found Steve Simms, who is also a lyric writer. With the help of a young drummer, Roads To Damascus was released in 2009.

The band then set about putting together a permanent line-up and along came drummer Dave White and bass player Mike Bruce. Then more set-backs ensued when Jamieson fractured his wrist, an injury which threatened to end his musical career. But they set about writing R2D2, an abbreviation of this being their second album, last year. Have finally recruited keyboard player, Mo Hammond, they looked ready to take off. That was until Jamieson had a riding accident and ended up in hospital with cracked vertebrae and internal injuries. But he is now fully recovered.

Their mission statement musically is as follows: Create prog music with accessibility by weaving lyrical melody through a gamut of emotions while maintaining memorable hooks. To all intents and purposes, they have gone a considerable way to achieving this.

Their style reminds me of so many of their contemporaries, for example Also Eden, Credo, Comedy of Errors and in places, IQ. Shades of Marillion drift in and out too – and to further enhance this, the back cover also carries a typically Marillionesque image.

Starting with the shimmery Ghosts, a slightly spooky-edged, keyboard-led song, Simms sounds uncannily like Also Eden’s Rich Harding, which of course, is an excellent thing. It is a great song but the comparisons are very hard not to overlook. And like Harding on Think Of The Children, Simms’ voice is very high up in the mix throughout.

Liven Your Mind, Part 2, rocks along nicely with Jamieson’s jangling guitar and Hammond’s piano chords underpinning the melody. “What you can’t change, you gotta let go,” sings Simms, again another good hookline which they are so good at writing.

Warcry(I Won’t Go Down Gently) has a very strong commercial feel about it, the lyrics seemingly all about subjugation and power battles in relationships, something with which we can all identify.

Frustration starts with phones ringing, faxes singing (common themes in prog) and straight into a nice lilting tune with Simms having a vocal rant about social media and other forms of communication. It is an effective, tongue in cheek commentary on modern life.

Morning After starts with crashing guitar chords and throbbing bass before settling into a very solid rhythmic groove, Simms phrasing really hitting the spot before it all slows down considerably and Jamieson delivers some spine-tingling guitar moments. This is the stand-out track of the album because of its ever-changing tempo and moods.

Tinkling keyboards, shuffling percussion and acoustic guitar starts That Smile whose enigmatic lyrics hint at so many different situations and interpretations. Again, it shows their great ability in putting together a great melody with some particularly pleasing harmonies and piano making this song very catchy.

Big Ben chiming and Adolf Hitler ranting are probably not two elements you would meld together to start a song but that is what happens at the beginning of Forever A Picture, before an acoustic introduction builds into an increasingly ebb and flow of rhythm and staccato guitars as Simms spits out the words, this time putting me in mind of Mark Colton of Credo singing Insane.

A simple piano launches Early Hours, quite Floydian in its content and includes a spoken section with Simms’ son Alfie asking his papa a couple of questions about what goes on in the sky. If the band wants to use one track to signpost an interesting way ahead musically, this is the one. Simms’ voice is particularly strong on this even though it is pared down in the mix compared to some of the other tracks.

After Liven Your Mind, Part Two comes Part One, which is the closest to a love song on the whole album with a “Thank you” refrain and delightful acoustic picking from Jamieson, plus lots of harmonising. To conclude comes the moody I Dream In Mirrors which starts with a radio changing channels - another currently popular prog motif and meanders along nicely with a very strong guitar line running through it, another huge vocal hookline and an echoey drum to end it all.

Sometimes quirky, accessible and very much wanting to be liked, R2D2 is in step with a lot of what else is happening out there in prog wonderland. If Mr Jamieson manages to keep himself out of hospital in the foreseeable future, then R2D3 could prove to be rather special. All the ingredients are here and ready to be mixed into something even more appetising.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10

ALISON HENDERSON



Mappe Nootiche - Cieli Sotterranei
Mappe Nootiche - Cieli Sotterranei
Country of Origin:Italy
Format:CD
Record Label:Ma.Ra.Cash
Records
Catalogue #:MRC 026
Year of Release:2011
Time:65:42
Info:Mappe Nootiche
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Fratelli D'Italia (11:46), Ahimsa (8.03), Cieli Sotterranei (9:21), Terra! (6:35), La Stanza Di Mandelbrot Pt. 1 (6:42), La Stanza Di Mandelbrot Pt. 2 (11:17), Cieli Sotterranei - Frattale (11:58)

Mappe Nootiche hail from the northern Italian town of Cremona. The first incarnation of the band, formed in 2000 by Andrea Fiorin (bass, vocals), Umberto Schirosi (guitars, vocals) and Luca Galimberti (drums, percussion) bore the name of M.C. Noon. After a few years of playing live in their home region, and the release of a self-produced CD titled Altroquando, M.C.Noon recruited keyboardist Mario Fiorin (Andrea's brother) and changed their name to Mappe Nootiche. Their debut album, Terra, was released in 2008, and followed in 2011 by Cieli Sotterranei, engineered by Beppe Crovella (of Arti e Mestieri fame) at his Electromantic Music studio.

The album is dedicated to a highly influential figure in contemporary culture - French-American mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, the inventor of fractal geometry, who passed away in 2010. The two-part epic La Stanza di Mandelbrot (which is also the album's subtitle) is Cieli Sotterranei's centrepiece, and striking images of fractals (including the Mandelbrot set itself) grace the CD booklet, together with photos of the four band members. In the liner notes, Marco Fiorin also pays tribute to the memory of Pink Floyd keyboardist and founder Richard Wright. The band's name comes from Elianto, a celebrated modern fantasy novel written by Italian author Stefano Benni in 1996, and denotes a device that allows people to travel to parallel dimensions. Indeed, Cieli Sotterranei comes across as a literate, intellectually-challenging package - a quality shared by a lot of Italian progressive rock productions, both vintage and modern.

In spite of the beautiful, haunting sounds produced by Mappe Nootiche (which makes using headphones almost mandatory), Cieli Sotterranei is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. The main problem with it can be summed up very simply: there is very little variation, and - as the album clocks in at a rather hefty 65 minutes, with most tracks around the 10-minute mark - after a while the listener's attention is bound to flag. Like the band's debut, the album almost completely dispenses with vocals (which only appear in the final number, Cieli Sotterranei - Frattale), and as a whole seems to rely on atmosphere, enhanced by assorted electronic effects and recorded voices (such as Gandhi's in Ahimsa). However, the constant recourse to an almost unchanging mid-tempo, with occasional surges in volume, while probably expected to create a hypnotic effect, engenders a sense of monotonousness that does not serve the music well. Though the influence of early Pink Floyd is hard to miss, the English band's flair for dramatic contrasts between laid-back moments and surges of intensity is conspicuously absent.

As can be expected, describing individual tracks in detail can be a bit of a frustrating exercise, as variety is not the album's strong suit. The music does not stray far from the Pink Floyd/Porcupine Tree template, particularly evident in opener Fratelli D'Italia, with its Gilmourian guitars and mournful organ (bringing to mind iconic songs such as A Saucerful Of Secrets or Echoes) - with nods to Tangerine Dream and their ilk in the spacey, electronics-dominated La Stanza Di Mandelbrot Pt. 1, where the guitar takes a back seat if compared to the remaining tracks. The mellow, hypnotic interplay of piano and guitar, supported by ethereal or eerie synth washes, unfolds at a steady pace, set by an unflagging drum pattern - so that, in the end, the music fades into the background, and the tracks blur into each other. As already pointed out, the use of headphones will allow the listener to appreciate the finer points of the lovely, crystal-clear sound, but it will not prevent the album from dragging after a while. Even the attempt at injecting some more excitement in Cieli Sotterranei - Frattale - in the form of Eastern-tinged chanting, church bells, recorded voices and even the Italian national anthem, emerging after a long pause of silence - ultimately comes across as patchy rather than eclectic. The rarefied, almost brittle fabric of the music is charming at first, but in the long run fails to capture the attention.

In spite of the criticism, Mappe Nootiche are a very talented group of people who, however, need to tighten up on the compositional aspect of their music and develop a sound of their own. While lovers of psychedelic/space rock and Krautrock may find a lot to appreciate in Cieli Sotterranei, the essentially repetitive nature of the album may be a turn-off for those who like healthy doses of variation with their progressive rock. All in all, this is an adequate release, but the band clearly have the potential to do much better than this.

Conclusion: 6 out of 10

RAFFAELLA BERRY


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