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Reviews in this issue:
- Dodson and Fogg - Derring-Do
- The Curator - Inside the Whale and Other Songs
- Jake Nielsen - Perspectives
- Phobos Corporation - Felicity [EP]
- Dewa Budjana - Dawai In Paradise
- Psychic For Radio - Standing Wave
- Flying Circus - Ones and Zeros [EP]
- Zauss - Notturno/Leise Im Wind
Dodson and Fogg - Derring-Do
Tracklist: Introduction (2:12), Flying High (3:01), The Leaves They Fall (2:54), Can't Hold Me Down (2:59), What Goes Around (3:35), Too Bright (3:43), To the Sea (3:24), Dreams Of You And Me (2:54), Like It Was Yesterday (3:24), I Have You (3:08), Everybody Knows (2:41), Time (3:06), The World Goes By (4:49), Derring-Do (1:48), Why Not Take Your Time? (4:19)
We reviewed Dodson and Fogg's debut a short while ago and we liked it. Leeds-based Chris Wade is the man behind the band and he sings, as well as playing guitars, bass, keyboards, percussion and flute. He's enlisted the help of Celia Humphris (Trees) on vocals on seven of the tracks, and Alison O'Donnell (Mellow Candle) on one, as well as Nik Turner (Hawkwind) on flute, Colin Jones on trumpet and Amanda Votta on flute.
"That's a lot of flutes", I hear you say and whilst other reviewers have mentioned Jethro Tull don't be expecting any standing on one leg frenzied flute action.
Indeed, for this review I am kind of going to recreate, through the medium of balloon modelling, a conversation I had with Chris the other night at an exhibition opening where his partner, Linzi Napier, exhibits her work. Linzi has provided the original art for the rear of the CD cover, and is an immensely talented Leeds-based artist.
What I said to Chris was that I have, over the past 9 months or so, become increasingly disillusioned with much of what passes for 'progressive' rock music nowadays. As its popularity increases, albeit very much still within a niche market, the number of bands pedalling generic, soulless bilge has increased exponentially. In my opinion of course but the genre is awash with Billingsgate fish market female shouters, Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree clones, extreme metallers who play a bit of widdly keyboard every now and then in between the grunting.
What I have found refreshing, though, are bands like Dodson and Fogg, These Curious Thoughts, KingBathmat and echolyn to name a few who are making truly original music, without seeing the need to clog the soundstage up with unnecessary instrumentation, over-production or Pro-toolery. The songs are given room to breathe, the melodies become all important and sometimes it's the gaps between the instruments that are truly spectacular, aurally.
The debut, and this second album have been garnering lots of positive reviews, and Chris was recently interviewed by the Classic Rock Society. There he mentioned his influences were Leonard Cohen, early Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, really early Jethro Tull. His favourite songwriter, though, is Ray Davies and there's a quintessential Englishness (have a listen to Too Bright) to this record that reflects that I think.
I love how no song ever outstays its welcome, how the vocals and lyrics support the tune, and not the other way round, and how every bit of instrumentation, be it trumpet, flute, acoustic or electric guitar is almost perfectly placed. Record and mix it any other way and it loses its beauty, its fragility, its inner core. It is, dare I say it, art. Art that serves no purpose other than to be art.
But what I love more than anything are the electric guitar sounds this young man creates. The trumpet on What Goes Around is pretty special too, as is the acoustic guitar and trumpet on Too Bright (early Tull, anyone?) but I digress. Guitar-wise, check out Can't Hold Me Down and Too Bright for example. I get very, very early Buck Dharma, in both Stalk Forrest Group and Blue Öyster Cult incarnations. Lovely, psychedelic, sparse guitar runs, or flourishes, even notes that make me at least beam from ear to ear. It's To The Sea where the guitar lets rip though, albeit in a very restrained, beautiful way. Notes, chords of electric guitar duet with strummed acoustic as the song gathers pace, wanting to break lose but resisting the temptation. The prog equivalent of tantric sex methinks. It's a staggering piece of music. And I'm spent.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
The Curator - Inside the Whale and Other Songs
The Curator, or Alistair Murphy for it is he, has been writing music for many years and has previously released a couple of albums under his own name plus the debut album from The Curator, 2010's Sometime Soon. As well as this he appeared as a multi-instrumentalist on Judy Dyble's 2009 album, Talking With Strangers which he also co-wrote/produced with No-Man's Tim Bowness, and as a songwriter Murphy contributed a track to No-Man's 2008 album Schoolyard Ghosts.
For Inside the Whale and Other Songs Murphy wrote the music and lyrics with string and horn arrangements by Phil Toms, strings by Steve Bingham (who is currently a live member of No-Man) and the Ely Sinfonia, Pat Mastelotto supplying the drums. Murphy's pseudonym is well chosen as he is in fact the curator of the museum at Cromer in Norfolk, a coastal town on the east coast of the U.K. with a seafaring tradition from where much of the inspiration for the titular track must have come. In fact there is a nice sense of history running through the whole album, which probably stems from Murphy's background, and stylish use of traditional instrumentation produced with a clean, modern sound.
Unlike Sometime Soon which was a collection of shorter songs, this new album feature's a lengthy centrepiece in the 20-minute title track, cheekily (and in line with tradition) listed as 'Side One' in the CD booklet. In fact the album is in many respects a game of two halves with much of 'Side Two' consisting of songs with a folkier acoustic feel. This singer-songwriter mode is slightly at odds with the more symphonic title track but the whole album is imbued with a '70s feel that flows along nicely with melody and taste, not feeling the need to wheel out bombastic excess just for the sake of it.
Inside the Whale is based on an epic seascape of watery-sounding instrumentation with hints of Pink Floyd and guitars imitating gulls at the start. The string arrangements work very well and this piece has a feel all of its own. Mastelotto is at his most laid back easing things along rather than driving them. Lyrically the song appears to deal with the thoughts of a man pressed into naval service with Murphy's fragile vocals appearing out of place on first hearing. However, the less than epic quality of his voice adds to the bleak setting and backing vocals from Diana Hare add depth and a new dimension that builds the piece up considerably. This is a languid song that is not in a hurry to get anywhere but requests the listener to relax and enjoy the journey. At around the 7 minute mark the feel changes with a sprightly string section and Murphy's archaic sounding keyboard line and there is suddenly more energy to the proceedings. The piece moves smoothly through a number of changes, wrapped up in the sense of a windswept sea voyage. Murphy's voice links nicely with that of Hare and the whole is very well put together. Initially the instrumental sections worked best for me but over time Murphy's voice seemed to find its place. The scale and grandeur of the piece is not to be ignored and it certainly succeeds on all levels.
'Side Two' opens with Snakes and Ladders, Diana Hare taking the cultured and very English vocal, harmonising with herself, for the tale of a broken relationship as seen from the female perspective. Mastelotto beats out a militaristic rhythm while strings dart in the background. Jeremy Salmon provides a bluesy, Gilmour-esque guitar solo supported by strings and Janet Brook's oboe with some typically exuberant drumming from Pat Mastelotto; splashes of cymbal and driving, off kilter rhythms. This is the most upbeat section of the album and there is a palpable sense of menace in the air. Oddly, near the end prior to a second solo from Salmon a string version of the Egyptian Sand Dance appears in the background. Strange one, that! This is without doubt my favourite track on the album.
The rest of the album is made up of three folky, singer-songwriter pieces with acoustic guitar central. All are strong and Murphy's voice seems more at home in this setting than on the epic, strings swelling behind. The Warmth On My Pillow initially reminded me of the descending note sequence that opens Hors d'Oeuvres from Roy Harper's wonderful Stormcock album and although much of Murphy's song is in more of a straight folk vein they both share the use of strings to colour the music. These wordy parables seem to tell of such things as the very earliest "is it or isn't it" stage of a relationship and life likened to being watched by spectators at a horse race. Closer First One Home couples the horse racing and sea themes into a song about a man who finds love again later in life.
Murphy is a fine songwriter and has succeeded in gathering a multitude of talents together to produce a very warm and likeable album that, due to good old fashioned English reserve, never allows itself to get out of control. As a genre label 'Adult Contemporary' says it all while also doing the album a massive injustice. This is a particularly well crafted album that has been lovingly thought through and prepared to a high standard, a very relaxed listen that in feel harks back to favourite musical highlights from the past and presents them anew in a modern setting. Although Murphy's voice is not the strongest it fits his songs well, particularly the latter trio as noted, and has a lived in quality of weary experience that makes his songs sound all the more real. The string arrangements are what really sets this album a cut above and huge amounts of credit for the end result should go to Phil Toms, Steve Bingham and The Ely Sinfonia.
A highly recommended, quality album for a quiet evening at home.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Jake Nielsen - Perspective
Jake Nielsen is a music teacher and also an independent recording artist who lives in Richmond, Virginia and has been involved with a variety of bands in the Richmond area. Starting piano and guitar lessons at the age of seven in his hometown of St. Anthony, Idaho he wasn't much of a music fan until he heard Billy Joel's Songs From The Attic when he was twelve, the experience having a big influence on him and making him realise what he wanted to do with his life. Along with Billy Joel, Jake listened to Elton John, soft rock and learnt classical pieces by Mozart etc., later discovering Def Leppard, Whitesnake and other hard rock bands. Jake also started listening to progressive rock music, becoming a fan of Dream Theater after hearing Images and Words, enjoying the blend of keyboards and hard rock, and then become a fan of Neal Morse, Spock's Beard and Ben Folds.
Perspective is an album that has been a long time in the making, all the music and lyrics were written by Jake and he played or programmed all the instruments on the album except cello which appears on closing track A Still Small Voice. The album clearly shows Jake's influences from Billy Joel and Dream Theater throughout with strong influences from Neal Morse both musically and lyrically.
The album starts off with To Be Content which has a good keyboard riff, like many found throughout the album, and straight away the Billy Joel connection can be heard on a rocking but in parts quite jazzy number.
Truth starts with an excellent two minute keyboard intro building into the vocals, this is a good progressive song with some excellent playing showing what a good multi-instrumentalist Jake is.
The third track, Decisions, is where the album really starts for me, not that the first two tracks are poor but on this one we are moved to the next level. The track starts with a lovely piano solo in typical Billy Joel style building into a great keyboard driven yet rocking song with another beautiful solo in the middle.
Autumn changes pace starting with acoustic guitars into a classic song featuring excellent lyrics and great vocals. With this lovely song the album really starts flying, the uplifting feel that Neal Morse gives his albums making you want to sing along. This is one of my favourite tracks here leaving you with a buzz and wanting more.
Let's Live is the longest and heaviest track on the album featuring driving keyboards and a solo that rocks in a Deep Purple style. With powerful vocals, this really is classic rock prog of the highest order.
The album's last three tracks all flow into each other starting with How Can We Know where the pace slows down into a mellow spiritual feel with nice clear vocals and a short spoken lyric which is very religious but don't let that put you off. I am not religious but still found it very moving, it is an excellent song performed with real feeling. Next is Prelude 1, a great instrumental flowing in lots of directions but very catchy and moving in parts, excellent prog with some top keyboard playing. Last is another mellow track, A Still Small Voice, featuring the aforementioned cello.
Perspective is a very good album which I really enjoyed and you can hear that much time has been taken to write and record it. The only drawback for some may be the religious lyrics, something I was put off by when first hearing Neal Morse, but after further listening to Morse I realised that the lyrics have two meanings and you believe what you want to believe then make of them what you want. So please give this album a chance and keep an open mind, the music is top notch with good lyrics and vocals. For me it ticks all the right boxes as after several plays the album really grows on you. Jake states that he enjoyed making the album but would prefer working with a band and hopes to take his music out on the road. I hope this comes off as it would be great to hear and I look forward to what comes next from Jake.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Phobos Corporation - Felicity [EP]
The Phobos Corporation is the brainchild of Greek keyboard player Spyros Papadakis. He started to write songs in 1996 and released his first demo in 2005 called As the Angels Stared. This demo is also included with this debut EP. 'Phobos' is the Greek word for fear but the music on the EP is nothing to be afraid about as the four songs are very strong indeed.
This is not a solo project by any means but a very international co-operation. Guitar and bass player Mark Jones is located in England while drummer Chris Sutherland lives in Canada. Sutherland toured Europe with Saga between 2007 and 2009 and is going to release a solo album this year featuring guest appearances by Michael Sadler and Spock's Beard's Dave Meros. The vocalist for this EP is 19 year old American singer Tara Louise who is part of Shelby, Tieg and Tara, a folk band that is described as a modern female Simon and Garfunkel. The orchestral arrangements on the EP were done by Jon Ong and Zach Lemmon who both come from Los Angeles. The U.K.'s Dave Chang is responsible for the mixing and mastering.
The EP is released through Freia music, a Dutch record company which specialises in releasing progressive music. They also released the new album by Dutch proggers The Aurora Project so all in all we can say that this EP very much represents the way modern day musicians record and work together. There are no borders.
Musically I think that Spyros Papadakis is very much in charge as the four tracks on this EP form a very coherent entity. The music is firmly rooted in the female fronted symphonic metal made popular by bands like Into Temptation, Epica and Nightwish. Now I must admit that this music is not my cup of tea but I am really impressed with the four songs that are on offer here. Despite an incredible wall of sound full of double bass drums, heavy guitars and big orchestra sounds (including choirs) the music still sounds very accessible and light even. Tara Louise is an incredible vocalist. Her voice is crystal clear and sounds like a ray of sunlight amidst the thundering dark sounds the band creates.
Because of the orchestration the music contains classical influences that immediately become apparent in the opening track One Eternal (Felicity's Song). The guitar sound could have been a tad less shreddy (is that a word?) but the track contains strong melodies and very good chorus'. There is a really short trumpet solo in the middle of the track which is a very pleasant and well chosen surprise. The trumpet is real and was played by a session musician hired in by the studio in Los Angeles where the vocals were also recorded. Conceived Fate is another blistering rock track with a short and to the point guitar solo after an atmospheric choral part. These loud/soft variations keep this track and the other tracks interesting for me. This Divine Tragedy contains a short guitar solo by Shoi Sen from the band Deprofundis.
The EP ends with a short atmospheric, classical sounding instrumental. Another thing about these tracks is that although there is a wall of sound, there is no unnecessary noodling which gives them a drive, accessibility and urgency I like.
As a bonus you get the demo released in 2005 but, to be honest, it can't match the first four tracks. Especially the lead singer, who goes by the name of Dolly, can't match the quality of Tara Louise.
If I were Freia Music I would cherish this band because I think that they have the quality to match a band like Within Temptation in the future and consider how popular they have become. I do not rate EP's but for all those out there who like female fronted Symphonic Metal bands (hey Brian!) this is one you should definitely check out.
Dewa Budjana - Dawai In Paradise
Tracklist: Lalu Lintos (7:44), Gangga (5:53), Masa Kecil (4:38), Kromatik Lagi (5:52), Back Home (5:47), Malacca Bay (10:37), Kunang Kunang (6:36), Caka 1922 (5:52), Rerad Rerod (5:09), On The Way Home (5:55), Dancing Tears (5:59), Devanada (2:47)
Like me you may well be unfamiliar with the name Dewa Budjana. Bali born, and based in Jakarta, Dewa is yet another discovery by Moonjune's Leonardo Pavkovic from his numerous and extensive travels in Indonesia, and his trawls through the country's vast music scene, and a discovery we can only be grateful for.
In his home country Dewa is most renowned for being the lead guitarist of Indonesia's numero uno rock band, Gigi, who since 1994 have released more than 20 albums and in the process sold millions of records. He has also had an extensive solo career as a jazz guitarist, playing with all the top line Indonesian artists in that genre, as well as appearing alongside many American big name jazz players.
Dawai In Paradise is his fifth solo album and is a good introduction, showcasing as it does many different styles and tempos, but all fitting in within an overall theme. About half the tracks were recorded in 2011 with the rest being older previously unreleased works ranging from the years 2000 to 2005. This album features a host of instrumentation, mostly provided by fellow Indonesians, but also with the assistance on a few songs of American jazz luminaries such as Pete Erskine (drums) and Dave Carpenter (bass).
Featuring an eclectic mix of Western and native influences, apparent on tracks such as the beguiling Gangga, Dewa can veer from fast and furious picking in the vein of McLaughlin to the more lyrical style of a Metheny with the ease of someone obviously very highly skilled and practised at his craft. Masa Kecil and Back Home have a curious "Clannad in the tropics" Celtic folk music feel to them, although that may well be a purely coincidental atmospheric similarity between Indonesian and Celtic folk idioms. Kromatic Lagi does what it says on the tin and brings to mind a rather unsettling image of Robert Fripp in beach shorts and sandals!
The longest song on the album is Malacca Bay and some nice acoustic picking at the start over quiet but lustrous synth strings easily conjures up the blue lagoon imagery one would expect. A long, languorous and liquid solo on effect-free guitar sails the song to the bridge where we find some lounge-jazz piano taking centre stage, and after a few cocktails it's back to the shore. A long sigh of a tune, and no doubt a good thing to put on after a fraught day at the day job, I'll give it that.
Caka 1922 is an acoustic blues-tinged lament with swooping strings and flutes that oozes wistfulness and longing and it is quite lovely, albeit somewhat lachrymose. For me the most interesting track on the record is the most ethnic sounding. With what I think may be an uncredited (or synthesised?) gamelan and (a real) suling bamboo flute, On The Way Home makes me wish Dewa would lay a truly ethnic album on us, with the Western radio-friendly influence stripped back to the barest minimum; now that would be interesting. Sadly, even this one has the well played but rather too bland "touristy" backing to it that by now I've become a tad weary of.
When Dewa goes full tilt for the Western influence, as on Dancing Tears, a piano-led almost angular piece of prog-jazz wizardry, it works, but I think he too often falls between his own ethnic style and the Western style, without a really satisfying conclusion to either. As I said before, I'd really like to see him do a real Indonesian guitar record, or an out-and-out Western jazz fusion record, but of course it may well be he's already done both in his long discography!
Hailing as he does from the tropical paradise that is Bali, it is no surprise that this is a thoroughly pleasant sounding and good natured record, and for this miserable Northern European it does makes a nice change from the over-serious navel-gazing that prevails in the progressive music of our currently rather cold world. But me, I like a bit of an edge, and at 72 minutes this album may be a touch overlong, and rather too nice.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Psychic For Radio - Standing Wave
Psychic for Radio is the brainchild of Shawn Gordon, founder of ProgRock Records. The band's first album Standing Wave was released at the end of 2012 and, according to the band, took many years to create and includes some big contributing names like Mark Zonder, Randy George, Martin Orford and others.
Opening track On My Own has a huge Spock's Beard influence, almost like a copy, with some Neal Morse-ian keyboard interludes at some points of the track. The second song, Euthymal, is a good and interesting prog metal track that reaches my musical heart though I have my reservations on the rhythm used. Track three is nice and well performed. The rest is a mixture of various styles from every corner of the musical spectrum, even from outside the progressive zone and including an Alice Cooper cover in between. Huh? Nice for a solitary play for some of us perhaps. The craftsmanship is good; the compositions are disappointing.
If this album is meant to be a coherent set of songs to introduce a new band then it is a failure. However, if this debut is meant to sort out what style suits the band best than that's okay. Choose the Euthymal approach because I think that is what Psychic for Radio does best. So I don't want to spend too many words on this album. All the guests that lend their hand don't help to make this release into an interesting debut. Because of Gordon's background and that of all the well known names I must conclude that this is an unbalanced and confusing debut album that presents only one or two fairly good tracks really.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10
Flying Circus - Ones and Zeros [EP]
When a German prog band, formed while the Berlin Wall was still standing, don't appear on ProgArchives - admittedly one of the most complete prog websites out there - you're bound to scratch your head and ask what are they doing wrong. This band are celebrating a quarter of a century and have scarcely made an impression on the prog community. Reputation ain't everything of course, and indeed, their last effort received a glowing review on our site. Still, you have to wonder what is holding this group back.
My initial thoughts were 'Oh, a female singer, that's cool!', but was astonished to find the vocalist is in fact a certain Michael Dorp, who has a very, ahem, unique voice. In fact, his singing will often imitate both sexes in one song. The music itself is undoubtedly neo-prog with a faint hint of metal, but sadly not the type you'd shout about. Hindered by uninteresting song structures, this EP never really gets off the ground. It's fun, but forgettable.
Conclusion: 3.5 out of 10
Zauss - Notturno/Leise Im Wind
Zauss are a collaboration between two high calibre experimentally inclined musicians, Markus Strauss and Francesco Zago. The latter is known to me as leader, composer and guitarist with currently one of the top avant-progressive bands in Europe, the wonderful Italian band Yugen. Here, Francesco plays electric guitar and loops. Markus Strauss is a Swiss free-jazz and experimental saxophone player, here also credited with "devices".
This is the duo's third album, and it creates soundscapes that veer from the cacophonous to the quietly unsettling. Notturno/Leise Im Wind is a two-part album, the first six tracks comprising Notturno (Night), the latter six Leise Im Wind (Softly In The Wind). I warn you now that the opening track Ein Reisenwusel will scare the crap out of your speakers if you've left them on volume 307 from a blast of Amplifier's last waxing. Markus instantly lets rip with some very free-jazz caterwauling bouncing in the red that fair made me jump out of my seat. Luckily things calm down, not that this would ever get anywhere near the CD player of a Lifesigns fan, for example. Me, I quite like it, but it's definitely not to be played within earshot of my better half, for sure!
It is difficult, if not impossible to make comparisons, but if pushed, I would say that had this album been made in 1975 it would have been a collaboration between Lol Coxhill and Robert Fripp. What I've said already in addition to that last statement probably means I've only got two readers left, and as you are both no doubt intrigued, let us continue.
Building on the template of free-jazz and electronic chamber music, Pulviscolare (Dusty) for example illustrates Markus' Coxhill tendencies, while Francesco sustains and buzzes around behind him. I would have titled this piece "Bees" rather than "Dusty". Leise Im Wind by its translation should hint at a calmer place, and that is what we get, as treated sax combines with hit guitar strings. Yes, it is calmer, but still very much on the left hand side of the road.
When some road-drill chording from Francesco makes an appearance in Mutazione it rather catches me off guard, as the track briefly threatens to enter "rock" territory, something you would not in the slightest associate with anything that had preceded it. I say "rock", but only in the context of say, Fred Frith, so still not for traditionalists!
The plaintive sax-wail on Carving Air puts me in mind of a similar passage from Faust's Faust Tapes album, and there goes another superfluous comparison. In fact this track and the closing Big Breath are for me the highlight of the album, where the link to some of Yugen's more spartan and avant moments is partly evident.
This is an album to be approached with caution, and it is fair to say one would have to be in a certain frame of mind to play it. I fully agree with the concluding paragraph of my colleague Raffaella's review of the duo's last album Überall In Terra Straniera Borders Beyond in that while this is most definitely progressive, it is not "prog" in any sense of the word, and therefore will unfortunately not be of interest to the majority of readers here, and for that reason I will also leave it at "unrated". However if you like free-thinking improvised music, then you will most assuredly like this.