Issue 2013-029: Colossus Project - The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
CD1: The Samurai Of Prog – The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward (14:43), Glass Hammer – Cool Air (9:41), Karda Estra – The Haunter Of The Dark (6:12), Unitopia – The Outsider (11:49), Simon Says – The Wailing Wall (10:12)
CD2: Jinetes Negros – Hypnos (6:57), Blank Manuskript – Beast In The Cave (5:40), La Coscienza Di Zeno – Colofònia (8:51), Guy Le Blanc – Beyond The Wall Of Sleep (8:03), Ars Ephemera – The Other Gods (6:01), Attilio Perrone – Topi Nel Muro (3:41), Ciccada – The Statement (5:04), D'Accord – The Doom That Came To Sarnath (11:01)
CD3: Sithonia – Il Gatti Di Ulthar (8:22), Daal – The Call Of The Cthulu (10:04), Kate – Dream-Quest To The Unknown Kadath (12:48), Nexus – The Colour Out Of Space (7:00), Safarà – Calendimaggio (7:17), Aether – Mountains Of Madness (12:34), Bonus Track: Goad - At The Mountains Of Madness (11:37)
Jon Bradshaw's Review
The Colossus Project, or simply 'Colossus' as it is now known, is a Finnish prog magazine and they have once again teamed up with Musea Records for what I believe is their 18th collaboration since 2003 (fact checkers to the rescue on this one). In each of the previous instalments, many of which have been reviewed in these hallowed pages, the notion is that a selection of prog artists from around the world writes a piece of music on a particular theme. This has covered movies (The Spaghetti Westerns, Star Wars, The Seven Samurai), books (Treasure Island, Dante's Divine Comedy, The tales Of Edgar Allen Poe, The Odyssey), or have consisted of tributes to or revivals of First wave proggers (Rökstenen [Swedish artists], Tuonen Tytär II [Finnish Artists]).
I'm quite a fan of these releases, but it must be said they can be very hit and miss. I like them because they are an opportunity to encounter bands I might not otherwise come across and I love them because of their conceptual nature - I'm a total sucker for a concept album. They are however, very expensive, the one under consideration here is 30 Euros. This is a hefty investment in, what has often turned out to be, only partial satisfaction. By comparison, the best $2 I ever spent was on MoonJune Records Christmas Sampler that they made available in December last year – 6 hours of extremely interesting music that I'm still in the process of absorbing. Additionally the Colossus works can be unwieldy, often with nine (or more) twenty-minute-plus suites and there's nearly always a sense that the unrelated musical ideas are being crowbarred into the concept without any regard for continuity. This is a natural consequence of the process, I suppose. The contributors don't collaborate in any way, they simply create a track that meets the conceptual criteria and someone, somewhere determines a running order (I'm guessing Marco Bernard in this case - he is credited with the concept)). The whole idea is unwaveringly daft and crushingly pretentious. But this is Prog (with a capital P), where daft and pretentious are desirable, right?
In their perpetual favour stands the booklet that accompanies these releases. Pages and pages of information to pore over just as we would have done in Ye Olde Times Past with 12" gatefold sleeves and there is a youthful delight in the sort of immersion that is on offer. In this case, a 56-page booklet is necessary to introduce and credit the contributors, many of whom are giants in their own right, but who go the extra mile to invite additional collaborators and guest musicians into the one-off project. Moreover, even though there are some incredible duffers on some of the other releases, there is invariably some truly excellent and exceptional music to enjoy. The Stories Of H.P. Lovecraft succeeds admirably in this latter regard and also surpasses some of the previous releases by its brevity. Track lengths are kept within digestible limits at around the 8-10 minute mark, on average.
As the title may suggest, the contributors have been asked to choose one of H.P. Lovecraft's stories and transpose it into music. I can admit little knowledge of Lovecraft, I've certainly not read any of his stories. What I do know of him comes from Graphic Novels and movies inspired by his work. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman have been influenced by his writing. The films of Clive Barker and Guillermo del Toro strike me as Lovecraft-ian in their essence. In music, Dream Theater, Metallica, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden have all written music around his stories, as well as a host of Scandinavian death-metallers. This list hints at the content of his tales, appealing as they do to the fantastic and dark nature of the aforementioned artists: they are about unfortunates who cannot escape the misdeeds of their ancestors whose curses hang over their present lives; scientists playing god, contravening natural laws and attempting bizarre experiments upon themselves and others; evil shades and monsters dwelling amongst us.
After his somewhat premature death, a group of devotees and peers established The Lovecraft Circle – a group of writers dedicated to his legacy by continuing to write in a similar style, or at least inspired by the nature of his storytelling. I think it fair to say that this project is an extension of that heritage.
The album opens with The Samurai Of Prog giving breath to The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Following on from their 2011 release Undercover and fronted (if that is the word) by project coordinator Marco Bernard, they open the album in uproarious style. Written by the irrepressible Steve Unruh (who can do no wrong in my book), this is a clattering slab of marvellously tongue in cheek chutzpah. Driven by Bernard's acetylene bass that could cut through bulkheads and Unruh's beautifully sprung drums, anyone familiar with Resistor will find the style here instantly recognizable. Deceptively simple, the hooks and anchors of the rhythmic and melodic structure mask a host of nuances and dynamics that invest the song with texture and interest throughout. Unruh's vocal delivery of the text, part sung, part spoken is compelling and ticklish as the macabre story unfolds brilliantly. TSOP have an album out later this year. If it's all as good as this, I can't wait.
Glass Hammer's Cool Air reins in the pace with a writhing and febrile piece that is characteristically dramatic and supremely well performed. Ending with breathless gasping, this is as chilling as it is intoxicating. Spiky, crystalline flakes of guitar contrast with swollen organs (I say! - Ed.) and Jon Davidson's delicate, trembling vocal. Karda Estra's The Haunter Of The Dark is inspired genius. Every soundtrack trope from every horror movie you have ever seen, from Boris Karloff's Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi's Dracula, through the Hammer Horror canon to modern ghost tales like The Others, The Skeleton Key and The Awakening are given expression here. It's simultaneously terrifying and hilarious with a brilliant arrangement ingeniously employing unusual and familiar instruments that make both music and noise to create an unrelenting tension in a brittle, candlelit foray through shadowy halls and corridors. This metaphor has nothing whatever to do with the story that inspired the music, by the way. Lovecraft's tale, as described in the notes is much darker and manifoldly more interesting than my description of it. Nevertheless, I find myself holding my breath in both fascination and wonder at what is a hugely versatile and endlessly inventive composition and rigid fear at what may lie around the next corner.
Unitopia are barely recognizable at first, but this is another astonishing piece. Mournful and grieving in tone, Mark Trueack demonstrates his undeniable vocal prowess with wonderful backing from a band that can be relied upon to deliver emotion and elegance. This captivating song superbly conveys the alienation of The Outsider and compares favourably with Unitopia at their best. I'll forgive the aping of The Great Gig In The Sky, largely because it's brilliantly done, with beautiful soaring vocals by Trace Tucker but also because it so perfectly fits the theme of the story and the development of what is a sublime and characteristically luxurious 'Unitopian' arrangement.
Disk 2 serves a different palate and strides more urgently and definitely into rock and heavy metal territory. There's a great deal more pomp and circumstance about some of the work on this disk, and I'm afraid it hosts a couple of the aforesaid duffers, in my opinion. I also can't escape the feeling that, for programming purposes, the first three tracks on this disk have been placed consecutively in the running order because they share a similar style. Unfortunately, this has a bit of a 'lumping' effect and they may have had a less fatiguing impact evenly spread. Broadly, the style in these three tracks is something like a hybrid of symphonic metal in the vein of The Trans-Siberian Orchestra or Arcturus with an Italian prog flavour, perhaps Maschera Di Cera, perhaps Le Orme, but these are rough references mentioned only to communicate the impression I get, rather than a comparison. Of course, this may fit perfectly with your tastes, dear reader, but I find it a bit tiresome and hackneyed.
Having said that, the bands here are all new to me, so it has an interest in that sense and it's certainly not bad, some of the music just doesn't suit me - like red sweaters. Take my opinion with a pinch of salt, therefore. To be more specifically critical, let's cast an ear through what's available.
Hypnos by Argentine outfit Jinetes Negros opens and a Carmina Burana-like portentous choir lead us into a keyboard-driven slab of symphonic stomping around, musically speaking. If Hypnos refers to sleep, the music is altogether perverse in its wired insomnia. The tale concerns two characters that must not fall asleep as they will age incredibly rapidly and suffer unspeakable nightmares. Jinetes Negros do a brilliant job of capturing this idea in music that is urgently slapping itself across the face into wakefulness. Switching in and out of 2/4 and 4/4, Octavio Stampalia's excellent keyboard arrangements are supported by Eduardo Penney's abrasive guitar work alternating between Wagner and Iron Maiden. It's as camp as Christmas and as predictable, but nonetheless spirited, as 'Last Night Of The Proms'. The Austrian four-piece Blank Manuskript presents The Beast In the Cave. They play things like electric bass and electric guitar, and you can tell. It's an energetic piece with a very live feel that builds in intensity and drive. Syncopated rhythms in a chromatic riff form the foundation of the arrangement, which shifts subtly and cleverly in its dynamics to create a beguiling light and shade. I can't help thinking of Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso pollinated with something more contemporary like Gargamel, to give you an approximate idea. I really dislike the guitar tone. It has that 'baffled speaker' sound - as if it's coming from the inside of a shoebox, but that's just me. Like chilli peppers (the vegetable, not the band), this offering from Blank Manuskript is interesting, but it doesn't or wouldn't flick my switches unless I'm in the mood for something very hot - it's something of a Scotch Bonnet therefore and, under normal circumstances, a Bird's Eye Chilli is at the upper limit of my Scoville tolerance.
The next track, La Coscienza di Zeno's Colofonia is something of a line in the sand for me, and I stress this is a matter of personal taste. I don't know whether it's good or bad, because my mind runs away from this sort of prog as soon as I hear it. It's the sort of prog that people who don't understand what prog is, think prog might be. It's neither heavy metal, nor rock, nor something either side or in between. To me, it's insipid and flaccid, lumbering and clumsy and pedestrian. It's the idiot bastard son. It's Neo-prog. The vocals appal me most. Rather than a personal attack on Sgr Calandriello, I can't abide the whole style. It's a throwback into '80s hair-metal: falsetto screeching, slightly shouty and melodramatic vibrato, yet unsupported in the baritone range - just don't go there, it sounds awful. There are very few male singers (now or ever) in the world that can genuinely pull this off in a way that isn't like nails on chalkboard to me. I'm not saying the composition isn't intricate, or that it lacks compositional skill or is poorly performed, and I am definitely not knocking Italian prog per se - there are lots of Italian artists, past and present that I genuinely love, plenty I admire and some I dislike. It's the same as any music and really has nothing to do with being Italian and everything to do with being 'Neo'. What's more, there is substantial praise for their 2012 debut album over at Progarchives and I know there is a massive market for this style of prog. It's not you, it's me.
Guy Le Blanc's instrumental Beyond The Wall Of Sleep gently propels us into new territory, the crossover prog sound of let's say, post-Bardens Camel, John Lees' Barclay James Harvest or post-Kit Watkins Happy The Man. It's melodic and pleasant enough for that, but ultimately lacks any grunt as it plods blithely through. With technically adept playing from Le Blanc who does everything, it's inclusion comes as airy but insubstantial relief.
Ars Ephemera up the ante with their retro-sounding interpretation of The Other Gods. Combining strands of Focus, Gentle Giant and Yes, this lovely, delicately poised, symphonic piece alternates between the baroque and the romantic with aplomb. Also, for the first time on Disk 2, there is some first-rate drumming from Martin Levac that reaches beyond the prosaic and invests the composition with a kinetic energy and articulation that sounds a lot more like it to me. Attilio Perrone develops this energy and articulation further still in the superbly crafted Topi nel Muro. A distinctly jazz vibe floats over his lithe and agile piano work supported by a fabulous rhythm section in Massimo Calabrese and Giuseppe Basile on bass and drums respectively. At just over three and a half minutes this is punchy and forthright and wonderful.
Ciccada bring a fascinating orchestration to The Statement that cross breeds a whole range of styles to form an eclectic and dynamic vignette of European prog history in a brief but involving five minutes where soloists on flute, synths and violins get a moment in the footlights carried on a Mellotron breeze. Nicoas Nicolopulos' (Vocals, woodwinds, Mellotron, (organ) and Yannis Illiakis' (drums) writing has created some gorgeous melodies. This track is airy but substantial crossing through a constantly changing landscape that blends the symphonic with the folky and, like the previous two artists, prompts me to want to hear more of their full-length works.
D'Accord close out the disk and this is a confident and self-assured piece of work that emulates a '70s heavy prog style and strongly brings Jethro Tull to mind, and not just because writer and singer Daniel Maage plays flute, something of the melody and structure of this 11 minute song has JT in it. Of course, it's very difficult to break any new ground when operating from this centre but D'Accord maintain the standards of some of the best modern purveyors of this retro vogue and I quite like it. It does burn itself out quickly and cannot sustain its musical ideas as long as it attempts, but there is enough variation and nice playing to almost keep it engaging throughout.
And so to Disk 3. Sadly, I must report a noticeable downturn in quality. Even the wonderful Daal (another great Italian band - you see! Ed.) cannot rescue this one. Their offering starts out promisingly enough with atmospheric chimes over a low, sirocco synth before introducing a Tubular Bells-esqe piano motif, but it manages to simply lumber along on two ideas that, fair enough, are explored to exhaustion. Fat, buzzing synths and Moogs are made deliberately ugly, and studio trickery in the form of reverse sampling and eccentric panning heighten the disassociative feel of a piece that serves only to alienate rather than involve.
Sithonia's I Gatti di Ulthar concerns the cautionary fable of the farmers who like to kill cats and is a folk-infused piece of quirky prog that again recalls the early Italian masters, especially Banco. It's nervy and unfocussed but with enough melodic ideas interspersed through the arrangement to keep it interesting, and its production techniques have a spare naivety reminiscent of a '70s Italian sound but without the analogue warmth. It's confused and overburdened with its disparate ideas, resolving, at its worst, into an almost amateurish pastiche of itself at the end. Finnish duo Kate are unknown to me but their Dream Quest To The Unknown Kadath begins as a lovely modal, pastoral piece with richly layered vocal harmonies that sound something between ecstatic and drunk. Then, 'The journey begins...' and we are plunged into a tumult of textural atmospheres that take their sweet time developing and blooming towards a gloriously psychedelic denouement. It's a simple, but very effective combo of drums, bass and keyboards jamming a '60s sci-fi theme that brings to mind the likes Of Dead Meadow, Dungen and perhaps Vibravoid. I really like this one.
Argentinian Sympho-Proggers Nexus can be relied upon to deliver energetic and complex prog with Lalo Huber's awesome and inventive keyboard work. The Colour Out Of Space is a whirlwind of a track and, whilst not exactly reinventing the wheel it manages to rise above the filler category by virtue of its musicianship. Safará's Calendimaggio suffers from dreadful (or maybe just weird) production but Francesca Saccol's vocal performance is a treat. Channeling Kate Bush, Bjork and Tori Amos she makes the utterances and nonsensical exclamations of Lovecraft'’s Cthulu into something living and impishly dangerous. Brazilian outfit Aether are superb musicians and Mountains Of Madness is a lush and diverse arrangement but it's hardly trailblazing stuff with all of the symphonic prog archetypes stacked up against one another in succession. I can't deny the excellence of the playing, the mastery of their instruments, but the track itself leaves me cold. Like Nexus' offering, it's serviceable, but leaves a stale aftertaste that makes me want to reach for my nearest Flower Kings album to remind myself of how it should be done.
Quite why we need a 'bonus track' in the form of Goad's At The Mountains Of Madness is unclear to me but I suppose their 2006 release of The Wood may go a lot of the way to explaining their inclusion. If we realize that a goad is a sort of cattle-prod for chivvying camels along, then I'm willing this lot to get on with it too. Their track is a strange amalgam of styles that, at times, sounds like two or three different compositions playing at once. For all its invention, it is mildly irritating and only the need to listen to it for review purposes prevents me from reaching for the stop button.
Disk 3 then, a pot-pourri of standard symphonic prog that features only Kate's track to really prick up my ears and there's the problem with the Colossus Project. Too many duffers. If this particular project were only Disk one, I'd be raving about it. If it were a double disk offering of Disks one and two, I'd remain reasonably enthusiastic, but Disk 3 just pushes the whole thing into a nosedive, not for being awful, but for being regressive. I say this solely because the ideas in the songs on Disk 3 have been around for too long and are being surpassed in the wider Prog universe by vastly more interesting work than another rehash of these ubiquitous symphonic idioms. I'm sure it's not, but it seems lazy.
I'll end as I began, if you're a collector of these, then this is as good, if not better than everything that predates it and you'll want to get your hands on it. If you're not, then this is probably a very good place to start, I'd certainly put it in the top three Colossus releases that I know, in fact, I'd have it in my top two, but is it worth it? Categorically not. I often make my final remarks bearing in mind how likely I am to come back and listen to an album after spending many hours reviewing it and grinding into dust through the mill of my critical mind, which always goes someway to spoiling even the most beautiful of musical things. The Stories Of HP Lovecraft is very likely to be an expensive, dusty ornament, I'm afraid.
Mark Hughes' Review
The latest Symphonic Collection of themed music is an assemblage of songs and instrumentals inspired by the work of American Science Fiction author HP Lovecraft. A three-hour assemblage containing music from 20 different bands representing almost the same number of different countries this really is an international effort. Co-ordinated and overseen, as ever, by Marco Bernard it is perhaps not surprising that his band, The Samurai Of Prog kick off the album (or that an advert for their forthcoming album is the only thing printed in full colour in the comprehensive accompanying booklet). TSOP are themselves an international band with latest recruit, the wonderful Steve Unruh, taking centre stage on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, providing vocals, guitars, violin, drums and additional bass on the song. Oh and he wrote the number as well! The excellent storytelling to me expounds the real nature of what such ventures as this album should strive for, giving the listener the essence of the original story in musical form, plus it rocks like hell! Perhaps there is a certain inevitability that there are similarities with Unruh's other band, Resistor, but it is none the poorer for such a comparison. Glass Hammer solidify their growing reputation of prog giants with Cool Air, a piece that avoids any over-the-top musical performances and focuses on the atmospherics resulting in a rather haunting and dark piece with suitable sinister narration. First instrumental of the set is by Karda Estra who offer up a reading of The Haunter Of The Dark. Accompanying main man Richard Wileman on this piece is Amy Hedges on clarinet and Helen Dearnley on violin and their contributions are vital in generating the delightfully gothic soundscape. Keeping to the more familiar groups, Australians Unitopia are next up. I admit to woeful ignorance of this group but on the basis of The Outsider I have plainly been missing a lot! A truly excellent song. Last up on the first CD is Simon Says, a band that I thought had long disappeared as my only previous encounter with them is the album Paradise Square from some eleven years ago. Seems that The Wailing Wall is their first recording in five years (although it may just be that their website has not been updated in that time!) but the quality does not suffer for having been away from the studio for that time. In true prog tradition there is a grand orchestral flair to the piece that makes great use of a range of different keyboards.
Disc two starts with Hypnos a contribution from Argentinean band Jinetes Negros who provide one of the heavier number on the set. All members of the group excel and the massed choir is a delight to hear, somewhat over the top but hey, this is prog! Austrians Blank Manuskript, who had a couple of pieces on the Colossus Project's Dante albums, provide the instrumental Beast In The Cave which features some fine Hammond organ playing by Dominik Wallner and some gritty electric guitar from Cecilio Perera Villanueva. The instrumental opening to Colòfonia from La Coscienza Di Zeno is excellent with some harpsichord-like flourishes and the high quality musicianship continues throughout the track. However, I couldn't really get to grips with the vocals which were rather too operatic in places, still can't blame them, being Italian and all. Hoping across the Atlantic again we arrive in Canada, home of keyboardist Guy Le Blanc, who also plays guitar, bass and drums on his contribution Beyond The Wall Of Sleep. Le Blanc, of course, was a member of Camel in their final days and his instrumental piece continues the fine musical traditions of that much missed group while maintaining his own character throughout. Fellow Canadians Ars Ephemera call up the spirit of Gentle Giant on The Other Gods. Living up to their name the band seems to have been assembled specifically for this project but nevertheless gel perfectly on the track with composer and keyboard player David Myers largely stealing the show. Impressive as from his website it seems he is mainly a guitarist. There is no doubt that Attilio Perrone is a talented pianist but claiming sole authorship of Topi Nel Muro is rather beyond the pale as Keith Emerson deserves a lot of credit for the music. The line between tribute and plagiarism is not so fine. One would be hard pressed to guess that Ciccada hail from Greece on hearing The Statement, a gorgeous ditty that ticks all the right boxes! Flute and violin intricately weave around numerous keyboard lines, a definite highlight of this disc and the whole album. Finally for the second CD, Daccord from Norway give us The Doom That Came To Sarnath. The quartet (although somewhat confusingly the accompanying photograph in the booklet shows five members!) provide a somewhat minimalistic piece whose strength lies in its relative simplicity. Vocalist Daniel Maage can sound a bit like Fish at times and his flute playing has a whiff of the Ian Anderson about it but on the whole the band have come up with a reasonable number that benefits from repeating hearing even if it doesn't quite match the excellence of some of the other contributions.
On to the third and final CD which starts with another Italian band, Sithonia and I Gatti Di Ulthar. This songs starts very positively with 12-string guitar and keyboard flutes forming a nice melody and interesting musical themes which continues nicely for the first three and a half minutes but then things start to deteriorate with the vocals (oh dear, it does seem I have it in for Italian vocalists today!) and switch to electric guitar. Nothing inherently wrong per se but the piece seems to stagnate somewhat and failed to hold my attention. Daal are also Italian but manage to avoid any singing-related reviewer disappointment by leaving The Call Of Cthulu as an instrumental. Despite the band being just a drummer and keyboard player, the clever use of samples and different synths have enabled Daal to come up with something rather unusual. Almost 'industrial' at times the arrangement is somewhat atypical, dark and often quite menacing. Again, the occasional paring things back to a sole piano line adds drama and tension. Kate who I guess take their name from an amalgamation of the first two letters of the names of members Kalle Aalto and Teemu Niemelä, is a lengthy piece (the second longest on the album) that would seem to be more suitable to a soundtrack of a film chronicling Dream-Quest To The Unknown Kadath. Ambitious in scope and very well played the first seven minutes require a lot of attention to remain focused on the largely soundscape nature of the piece. The introduction of a rather sweet melody, rather over-shadowed by the upfront nature of the drums (which suffer a lot in the production) improves things immensely but things do deteriorate towards the end. In my opinion this track could have been immeasurably better with some judicious editing and at least halving the running time as I failed to grasp how the music related to the story. Better is the classic prog instrumental The Colour Out Of Space by Argentina's Nexus and proving that I don't have it in for all Italian singers Safarà's vocalist does a great job on Calendimaggio (and the fact that said vocalist as an attractive female has absolutely nothing to do with that assessment!). Musically the band have something a bit different to offer up as well, layering effects throughout the piece to add tension and mystery. The final two tracks both tackle the same story. At The Mountains Of Madness which is presumably why Goad's contribution is labelled as a bonus track. However, it shouldn't be considered as a last minute addition as it is a fine contribution with an excellent arrangement including flute, trumpet and French horn and lyrics that include the outstanding line The sky above was a churning and opalescent mass of tenuous ice vapours, and the cold clutched at our vitals. Aether's version has a more direct guitar/keyboard/bass/drums approach with some accomplished playing by the quartet throughout.
Overall, a very nice compilation of prog music from around the world. There is more than sufficient high-quality music spread across the three hours playing time to justify the recommended tag, indeed the first disc alone justifies a recommendation! And with a comprehensive and informative booklet accompanying the set it really wraps up the album nicely. Right, off to re-read some of the original stories now!
Gert Hulshof's Review
Much can be said and written about the inspiration for this new Colossus release and who among us has never heard of H.P. Lovecraft? I dare say that 95% of those reading this most likely have. Some of them will have actually read his stories or books while others have only heard the name.
The making of an album based on H.P. Lovecraft stories is a very ambitious project indeed, but on the other hand if there is one musical genre that lends itself perfectly to storytelling then it must be our beloved progressive rock, a genre so broad that it is almost all encompassing. When offered a chance to participate in the challenge of writing a review of this Colossus project I took it straight away as I know the stories and have read them more than once. As a result of this I was anxious to hear what some of our favourite musicians may have come up with.
As always with a Colossus project many bands participate from all over the world and what's more from different backgrounds including Neo prog, Eclectic, Heavy prog, Art rock amongst others. Sitting through a musical journey for nearly 3 hours is hard and an almost impossible task to complete in one session but I told myself to at least listen to each of the 3 CDs in one session without a stop, trying to capture what each band/artist had in mind with their story.
H.P. Lovecraft stories have a tendency to be sinister, dark, occult and strange at the very least and I hoped to hear this when listening to the album. I am glad to say that I was not disappointed. The artists involved have really tried hard to push their limits to make an album of grand allure. What we get is a gigantic battle of different musical styles which remains consistent and coherent in a way that I did not expect.
A number of the bands featured on this set have been involved in Colossus projects before and shared the experience of writing and recording material based on an idea of the project group previously. Big names, or at least well known bands, like Glass Hammer and Unitopia often record concepts and are therefore also familiar with the writing required for such a project and it shows. Lovecraft stories are weird and strange which means that some peculiar music presents itself; long instrumentals, creepy narration, high pitched voices, huge soundscapes, flaming guitars. You name it, all is served up and served very well and the imagination of the listener is challenged on every track to a great extent.
So, it's 3 hours worth of Lovecraft stories set to music but the time seems to pass much quicker. A very successful Colossus project in my opinion and one that I will keep coming back to. By far my favourite tracks are Samurai of Prog's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and D'Accord's The Doom That Came to Sarnath, not that I do not like the others but these two stand out.
Geoff Feakes' Review
The DPRP have been reviewing the Colossus projects (courtesy of the Finnish Progressive Music Association and Musea) for eight years now and with over 20 releases to date they show no signs of flagging. Always on an epic scale, films and literature usually provide the subject matter and on this occasion it's the latter. Even if classic literature is not your thing the name H.P. Lovecraft should be recognisable as the influential American author of gothic horror stories in the early part of the last century. Normally the domain of metal acts like Metallica, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, it's refreshing to hear his work given a progressive rock interpretation. With each of the participating bands contributing a piece of music inspired by Lovecraft's writings, they have adhered to the usual requirement of using mostly analogue instruments. It's a multinational gathering with many names familiar from previous Colossus projects.
Shrewdly, the better known bands are located on disc 1 with The Samurai Of Prog fronted by bassist Marco Bernard opening the set (Bernard has been the mastermind behind Colossus from the outset). At nearly 15 minutes, The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward is the longest track, penned by DPRP favourite Steve Unruh who also supplies the vocals. This is loud, bombastic prog with plenty of tricky, stop-start time signatures which for the most part left me cold. Clever it maybe with meticulous musicianship, particularly the Hammond and violin, but there's scarcely a memorable melody or hook in sight. Next up is Cool Air from America's finest Glass Hammer who can normally be relied on to the deliver the goods. Adopting a pronounced British accent, bassist Steve Babb supplies the narration whilst singer Jon Davison is less open to Jon Anderson comparisons on this occasion. Like so many of the acts here, GH have taken Lovecraft's prose to heart with a dark and brooding organ heavy treatment which sadly did little for this reviewer despite the melodic guitar breaks from Alan Shikoh.
The U.K.'s Karda Estra are at least in their element here with moody, atmospheric instrumentals being a specialty. The Haunter Of The Dark is no exception, an expansive orchestral soundtrack that could have been lifted from a large budget horror movie. Those giants from down-under Unitopia attempt more of the same with The Outsider but despite Mark Trueack's sensitive vocal and the Pink Floyd inspired female backing, it's for me short of the band's usual high standards. Ultimately it falls upon the always excellent Simon Says to bring disc 1 to an imaginative conclusion. Strident orchestral keys and exotic percussion courtesy of composer Stefan Renstõm along with inspired guitar work combine to make The Wailing Wall a far more upbeat offering than the title would imply.
With the big guns out the way, discs 2 and 3 allow the lesser known bands the opportunity to show their worth. Argentina's Jinetes Negros rise to the occasion with the fiery Hypnos combining spiky guitar histrionics, rich keyboards and operatic voices. Blank Manuskript's aptly titled Beast In The Cave is another aggressive guitar and Hammond workout whilst La Coscienza Di Zeno's moody Colofonia is sung in their native Italian with inventive synth and celestial organ capped by a stirring coda. Next up is a pair of instrumentals from two Canadian acts, virtuoso soloist Guy Le Blanc and accomplished quintet Ars Ephemera. The former Beyond The Wall Of Sleep is tunefully evocative with excellent guitar and keys exchanges whilst the latter The Other Gods is a jolly Baroque romp reminiscent of both Gryphon and Steve Hackett. Two of the best tracks on the entire collection in my opinion.
Rounding off disc 2 is Attilio Perrone's showmanship (and very Keith Emerson) piano exhibition Topi Nel Muro, Ciccada's spooky and Mellotron rich The Statement, and finally D'Accord's lengthy The Doom That Came To Sarnath that (not wholly successfully) combines classic rock, retro prog and a touch of blues.
After listening to D'Accord and with disc 3 already in the player, I was reminded that surprisingly thus far I've heard very few echoes of vintage Genesis but that all changes with Italy's Sithonia. Appropriately Il Gatti Di Ulthar incorporates chiming 12-string guitar, Mellotron strings and flute, Arp synth, bass pedals and Gabriel-esque vocals. Also from Italy, Daal's keyboard driven instrumental The Call Of The Cthulu is a reflective piano and synth collage (recalling PFM) to begin with but hits its gothic doom-laden stride a third of the way in. Similarly fragmented is the 3-part Dream-Quest To The Unknown Kadath by Kate which moves from a lilting acoustic guitar and harmony vocal opening (shades of Anthony Phillips) to an ambient piano and organ mid-section before playing out with a lengthy drums and bass heavy jam.
"Here we go again" I thought when I first heard Nexus' strident and gothic instrumental The Colour Out Of Space but the blazing synths and Hammond remain surprisingly tuneful and engaging throughout. One of Argentina's most inspired bands providing for me the highlight of disc 3. And just when I was beginning to suspect there was a sexist undercurrent at play here, along comes the only female vocal just two tracks before the end. Despite Francesca Saccol's intriguing voice however (recalling Kate Bush) for me Safarà's Calendimaggio is let down by the sloppy instrumental arrangement. The same could almost be said of Aether's sprawling guitar obsessed Mountains Of Madness but all is forgiven thanks to a blistering synth/guitar finale.
I'm not sure how a bonus track becomes a bonus track but perhaps it's because here Goad have taken the same story as Aether. Either way, At The Mountains Of Madness is infused with enough atmosphere, mystery and drama to provide a suitable closer for this collection. Curiously, the lead voice conjures in the mind a strangulated version of a young Jon Anderson (if you can imagine such a thing).
Ultimately for me this is an interesting but not essential addition to the normally excellent Colossus canon. Too many bands I feel have taken a one dimensional approach to the subject matter, i.e. H.P. Lovecraft = dark and gothic. Many acts of course like Karda Estra and Nexus excel in this area as they demonstrate here whilst others including Simon Says, Guy Le Blanc, Ars Ephemera and Attilio Perrone have taken a different approach and as a result produced colourful arrangements. Elsewhere there are some superb and redeeming performances but not enough I feel to justify the excessive track lengths and a collection spanning 3 hours. They do say that reading H.P. Lovecraft's stories can bring on nightmares, if listening to this album has the same effect on me then being attacked by a giant Hammond will almost certainly factor in there somewhere!