Reviews in this issue:
- Fughu - Absence
- Fughu - Human: The Tales
- Fughu - Human: The Facts
- Willowglass - The Dream Harbour
- Art Rock Circus - Variations On A Dream
- Twelve Clay Feet - More Naked Than Obscene
Fughu - Absence
'Fugu' is the Japanese word for a puffer fish ("river pig"). Being deadly poisonous, Fugu must be carefully prepared to remove the toxic parts, whilst avoiding the contamination of the meat [as any Simpsons aficionado will tell you! - Ed]. The preparation of Fugu is strictly controlled in Japan. Only chefs who've qualified through in-depth training are allowed to prepare the fish.
And in many respects Fugu provides a good analogy to illustrate the attributes of this Argentinian band with the (almost) same name.
Originating from Buenos Aires, this quintet was formed in 1998. However it wasn't until 2009 that they released this, their debut album entitled Absence.
Musically the band is a melting pot of rock styles. They list their influences as heavy metal (Megadeth, Iron Maiden), NeoProg, classic rock (Deep Purple, Kiss), David Bowie and lots of synth-era prog (King Crimson, ELP, Van Der Graaf Generator). They've opened for Dream Theater, whilst their vocalist is a recognised opera singer.
Like the Fugu, if put together without great care and expertise such influences can result in a highly unpalatable musical dish.
Thankfully, Absence shows Fughu is a band of accomplished musicians and songwriters, who have produced a debut album of some stature.
The basis of the sound here is Dream Theater with the drive and melody of Symphony X: powerfully rich lead vocals and dark-heavy guitar riffs, with organ and synths providing balance and embellishment. Almost every track has elongated soloing passages, often with the keys taking the lead. The inventive drumming does much more than keep the beat.
However from the opening track, Ashes, it is clear that Fughu are no mere copyists. This is a band more capable of stamping its own identity on the genre. We begin with pretty direct, powerful ProgMetal, but as the track alternates between several themes and moods, the other side of the band's influences comes to the fore. Part jazz, part NeoProg, part refined mellowness.
It is a sophisticated blend that, upon repeat listens, reminds me of Queen. For those reasons Ashes and Dead End Start are excellent openers.
One of the biggest strengths of Fughu is opera-tenor-come-metal-frontman Santiago Burgi. He leads most of the songs and really can metamorph into a wide variety of vocal styles.
His performance on the third track, Storm, is quite simply stunning. As it rises from the gentle acoustic opening to the immensely rich, melodic chorus, I'm reminded of what Erik Rosvold and Chris Salinas have done for Zero Hour. This would have been my track of the year, if I'd discovered this album four years earlier!
The piano ballad Snow/Solitude/Sun serves as a similar showcase for Burgi, if rather more a one-dimensional listening experience.
Of equal note is Tilt. One of the best progressive instrumentals I've ever had the joy to listen to. Red V is a far less accomplished voice-free composition. Indeed the final six tracks, whilst decent enough, can't quite rise to the heights set by those which opened the disc.
Three of these are really just extended song openings. I wish bands would forgo making the tracklist seem longer than it really is and just build them into the one track - it's never done Transatlantic any harm.
Whilst the second half of this album isn't as consistent as the first, I think Absence is a very creditable start which should be on the shopping lists of anyone wishing to explore new names in heavy progressive music.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Fughu - Human: The Tales
For their second offering, Argentinian band Fughu has certainly taken an unusual approach to releasing its music. Human is an album in two parts: Human: The Facts and Human: The Tales. However, this is no multi-disc concept piece. It is really two different albums, released at the same time with the same (or similar) title. And by "different albums", I mean VERY different albums.
Fughu has often been given the banner "Progressive Metal". That seems to be based on the fact that they once supported Dream Theater. Whilst there are metallic elements, especially in the guitars and vocals, Fughu's music is so full of variety, that simple classification will only ever tell a part of the story.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than with the first three tracks of this classy disc. The opening quasi-title track is the perfect package with some clever changes of pace and dynamics, a crazy keyboard solo, world-class vocals and a melody that sinks into the memory.
Inertia too has some sublime passages that meld seamlessly. Kingcrow, early Pain Of Salvation and Headspace are the few bands who can achieve such quality in this style of music. The delicate, acoustic opening of Dry Fountain offers another dimension, before we pass through a section with a Floyd-ian vibe and then an expedition into Pure Progland in the sense of The Flower Kings, Kaipa or Neal Morse.
One of the biggest strengths of Fughu is opera-tenor-come-metal-frontman Santiago Burgi. He leads most of the songs and really can morph into a wide variety of vocal styles. More conservative listeners may not be quite sure what to make of him at first. But there is no denying that his is a top quality voice which amply suits this style of music, adding immediate melody and massive layers of interest. Nowhere is this better shown than on Twisted Mind, where after a dancey beat intro, the song takes full advantage of Santiago's vocal abilities.
The picture is further brought to life by both guitarist and keyboardist being willing to utilise a wide range of different sounds. There is some delicious lead guitar work from Ariel Bellizio. But whilst he delivers some neck crunching riffage he is equally happy to utilise gentle plucking and acoustic work.
With a job making keyboards, Marcelo Malmierca never holds back on introducing a different sound. Several different keyboards and synths are utilised in each song giving a wonderful variation, depth and unpredictability to the Fughu sound.
The variety continues with Evil Eyes, which after a spartan opening, bursts to life with a blend of alt prog rock (Jolly), classic rock (Deep Purple) and classic synth prog (ELP). Mayhem and Goodbye complete the picture, both being Prog tour de forces - even managing to utilise a didgeridoo.
Critical points are hard to find. There seems to be an interesting concept around the human condition which ties all the songs here, so I'd have liked a booklet and lyric sheet to help bring that to life a bit more.
Once or twice the band wanders off at an odd tangent too many. Such is the strength of the band's sense of melody, they need to ensure the hooks always remain the focus of a song.
Finally, with his opera background, Santiago has to be careful not to overuse that rich tenor vein. As an occasional tool it does work in this context. But a few times here, I felt it was overused and can be too overbearing.
This is a big step up from the more inconsistent debut album, Absence. The Tales is far from a straightforward listened but remains accessible throughout. I enjoy every song and the performances and arrangements are stellar. The complexity and variety will give this disc longevity in your collection. Thus I have no hesitation in highly recommending this to all lovers of heavy progressive melodic music.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Fughu - Human: The Facts
The companion disc to Human: The Tales, this second offering, although released simultaneously, is a very different beast.
The Facts is a very dark, very chaotic album whilst The Tales has melody to the fore. Here the emphasis is on the story and the demons within the reality of the human dark side.
The opening track, Void, is very much a scene-setter, albeit with a memorable, rolling guitar and bass riff at the end. The runaway album highlight for me, and the reason that I shall return to this disc in future, is Quirk Of Fate.
A connection-in-common led to Damian Wilson (Headspace, Threshold) agreeing to add vocal lines to this song and he has been given a track that really suits his voice. This could be a song from the next Headspace record. It is that good.
The rest of the album is just a huge mix of sounds. It is best described as a relentless barrage of complex arrangements, odd time signatures and heavily layered instrumentation with regular washings of ambiance.
Whilst the guitars are heavy and dark, this is much more of an eclectic, dark Prog disc than a ProgMetal one. The rich, powerful sound of Santiago Burgi is again a highlight although the opera-tinged moments are more frequent and the use of "sung" dialogue is rather persistent. The track Vater is a piece of German opera, which may be an acquired-taste-too-far for some listeners
Many will clearly enjoy this approach. It is well executed and I invite you to explore further. I find it too complex and dark for my tastes and need melody to be more central to my music and to come with a bit of variety to the dynamics. I can take the heavy but I do need a break.
The album is also performed in a very theatrical manner. This obviously suits the band's live show where they perform it in its entirety. However as a listening experience, I can't help feeling that the tale telling has overwhelmed the song-writing.
With these two Human albums showing two very different sides of a musical coin, I'm fascinated to see where Fughu take their musical journey to next time.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Willowglass - The Dream Harbour
Tracklist: A House Of Cards Pt. 1 (20:40), A Short Intermission (1:32), A House Of Cards Pt. 2 (9:05), Interlude No. 2 (2:04), The Dream Harbour (7:14), Helleborine (2:12), The Face Of Eurydice (7:35)
Willowglass is the pseudonym of composer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Marshall who is based in the rugged but picturesque Holme Valley in West Yorkshire, England making him a near neighbour of mine. With two DPRP recommended albums, Willowglass (2005) and Book Of Hours (2008), to his credit along with several appearances on the Colossus Project recordings, The Dream Harbour is his latest offering. Four years in the writing and recording, Marshall's guitars, keyboards and basses are supplemented by Hans Jörg Schmitz on drums and percussion along with Steve Unruh (who seems to be everywhere at the moment) on violin, flute and guitar. Whilst Marshall recorded his parts just down the road from his home in the town of Holmfirth, Schmitz recorded his in Germany and Unruh in the U.S.A.. The end result of this international collaboration is an impressively cohesive album of richly textured, instrumental prog.
Opening with a repeated synth motif and Unruh's lush violin and flute, the 20-plus minute A House Of Cards (Pt.1) certainly gets off to a convincing start. What follows is a succession of melodic set pieces including a synth, organ and Mellotron section, a haunting violin solo, stirring Hackett-esque guitar, a soaring symphonic interlude and even a brief drum solo skilfully integrated. Unruh's violin playing in particular is quite stunning with a versatility bringing the great David Ragsdale to mind and indeed throughout the album he is given ample opportunity to display both his violin and flute talents.
Following the aptly titled and syncopated A Short Intermission where the rhythmic electric piano brings Manfred Mann's Earth Band's version of Blinded By The Light to mind, A House Of Cards (Pt.2) appears to have little in common with its namesake opening piece. More up-tempo and strident, a triumphant intro (reminiscent of Kansas) gives way to violin, organ, flute section and a galloping riff before concluding with an ominous King Crimson like refrain complete with gothic Mellotron.
In my hand written notes I've described the next three tracks as the 'Anthony Phillips sequence' and for me they combine to produce the albums most successful moments beginning with Interlude No.2, a short but lyrical classical guitar solo recalling the baroque style of Gryphon. Fittingly the title piece, The Dream Harbour, is the most compelling with rippling 12-string underscored by heavenly Mellotron strings and a touch of flute. It develops into a stately Yes like melody to conclude. The similarly acoustic Helleborine is a lilting, undulating piece that owes a significant debt to Steve Hackett's instrumental Kim (from the Please Don't Touch album) which in turn was clearly influenced by late 19th/early 20th century French composer Erik Satie.
The concluding The Face Of Eurydice begins with a noble Camel-esque theme adrift on a sea of Mellotron. A jaunty organ interlude is incongruously underpinned by a military drum march before playing out with stirring guitar and Mellotron coda that briefly hints at Hackett's Spectral Mornings before a slow and lengthy fade to silence.
If I had to criticise this album on any one particular aspect it would be that the longer pieces (A House Of Cards Pt.1 & Pt.2 and The Face Of Eurydice) all lack a really strong and satisfying finish. That said, they and everything else here hangs together nicely with engaging themes and superb musicianship. Marshall's production in particular is razor sharp benefiting Schmitz's crisp and articulate drumming.
Whilst Marshall's instrumental style recalls vintage Genesis and Camel amongst others, on a more contemporary level he shares an affinity with the more melodious Dutch bands like Silhouette, Odyssice, Flamborough Head and Leap Day. His most conspicuous influences however are clearly the early solo albums of Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips.
Mellotron fans in particular would do well to give this album a listen. Complementing the music is the beautifully detailed artwork of Lee Gaskins whose fantasy imagery echoes the work of Per Nordin (Transatlantic, The Flower Kings) and Ed Unitsky (The Tangent, Unitopia).
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
|From the DPRP Archives...
Previous Willowglass CD Reviews:-
|"Although I don't think Willowglass will take the world by storm, it does make a perfect soundtrack for a reflective summer's afternoon sitting in a glade watching the world go by."|
(Mark Hughes, 8/10)
|Book Of Hours|
|"...a second solid release which is worthy of its recommended tag."|
(Mark Hughes, 8/10)
Art Rock Circus - Variations On A Dream
It is just as well this band are American; if they had been Brits, they'd be lumbered with the name 'Prog Rock Circus', an irony-free sobriquet that would inspire only groans from yours truly. Art Rock Circus sounds like a much better prospect!
Variations on a Dream is the band's fourth album to date, and their first fully instrumental offering. Covering the whole gamut of keyboard-led prog rock styles from ELP to Atomic Rooster via very early Yes, and just about every other possible influence, this band's music is a more than adequate reflection of their name.
Although keys player Milo takes centre stage, as this was originally intended as his solo album, arguably the man holding it all together is guitarist John Miner, who as well as having a writing credit, mostly with Milo, on nearly all the tracks here, also produced the album. John, along with bass player Ken Jacques were both part of prog supergroup K2 where John played second guitar filling in the gaps left by no less a luminary than Allan Holdsworth on 2005's Book Of The Dead album. That gives you a clue as to the calibre of the musicians in this project.
Kicking off with the pre-Wakeman Yes sounding Planet X, one is instantly struck by the somewhat flat production, a flaw that is a real shame. Music on this scale deserves a similarly lush sound, and unfortunately this is not the case here. Throughout the record Milo's keys imitate other instruments with panache, this time the flute and a chamber orchestra get the synth treatment. There are two bass players listed, so either Ken or Kelton Manning gets to pound out a Squire-like Rickenbacker attack near the end of the track. Sure, this is without a doubt retro-prog, but without the cloying cheesiness often associated with such backward looking music.
Variation 7, written by drummer Dr Nolan Stolz, is, suitably enough, an angular drums and percussion heavy affair that maybe would have fitted better as a bridge halfway through the album rather than the rather jolting experience it gives as the second track.
Crystal sees Milo studying hard in the Vincent Crane library backed by a charging rhythm section, John getting his first proper solo, and South of France goes for a pastoral vibe, replete with a longing keyboard flute and sax. These four opening tracks, while enjoyable, highlight the restless and magpie-like nature of the album. A bit of thematic editing would not have gone amiss.
Elsewhere on the faux-classical String Theory #8 we have a subtle Keith Emerson impression, if such a thing is possible; some prog-boogie on the cleverly titled Junk Male, and the longest track here is Gothic Sun which takes us on an eight minute excursion into an early '70s land of endlessly repeated Hammond riffs that until the last couple of minutes never really gets anywhere, akin to an endless introduction. That's what comes of listening to too much ELP, then.
I picked this CD up for review because of the taster given by Russian Spy on the recent Progstravaganza 14 compilation. Russian Spy is a song that is a fun ride into keyboard psychedelia reminiscent of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown; it's that Vincent Crane Hammond sound that does it. John Miner leaves it until this track to let rip on his guitar, Milo joins in with loud synth squiggles (that's a technical term, I believe), and Russian Spy would have made a great gallumping noisy conclusion to the record. Instead the closing track honour goes to Planet X Revisit, a track possessed of a spacey vibe and again different to most of the rest of the record. These last two tracks are much more like it, and form a solid end to the album, even if they may have been better sequenced the other way round.
In conclusion, this album is by turns enjoyable and frustrating, needs a firmer hand in the editing department, and it lacks a tad on the production side, but for all that is worth a listen.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Twelve Clay Feet - More Naked Than Obscene
More Naked Than Obscene is Twelve Clay Feet's second album, their debut, Totem Bells was released in 2012. The band is from Cambridge in the U.K. and was formed in 2010. The line-up on More Naked Than Obscene is Ian Jeffs (vocals), Jay Jeffs (guitar), Ollie Porsa (bass) and Rob Radford (drums). They classify themselves as an Indie Rock band and More Naked Than Obscene is made up of ten guitar fronted rock tunes.
Overall, I found their sound somewhat reminiscent of some early '90s U.S. grunge bands and hard rock acts, Pearl Jam coming to mind immediately, but more obscurely perhaps, I was reminded heavily of Ed Kowalczyk and the U.S. band Live. However, despite these reference points to grunge and alternative rock, one can't help but feel that these influences came later to the band. Ultimately, their style is more similar to the somewhat generic swell of U.K. indie bands which appeared in the mid-2000s around the time of the Arctic Monkeys debut album. In this respect, the music and, more pointedly, the feel of More Naked Than Obscene is steeped in the modish, British lad rock temperament which was so ubiquitous at that time. As such, Twelve Clay Feet's addition of Americanised vocals and grunge-like characteristics to a tried and tested sound feels disingenuous. Hints of the formulaic conservatism of lad rock seep through every aspect of this release.
I suspect, therefore, that much of what Twelve Clay Feet offer may not find great approval amongst DPRP readers. Unsophisticated in its approach to song writing, far too much of the music is unfortunately dominated by uninspiring and repetitive riffs, choruses and phases which, disappointingly, are rarely developed further.
The album opens with By the Station Light. This is an up-tempo piece in which the vocals are well sung. The vocals of Ian Jeffs may not be to everyone's taste but they positively dominate proceedings throughout the release. The guitar sound and drum beat that begins this track immediately drew comparisons to The Age of The Understatement by The Last Shadow Puppets, albeit with none of the subtlety and finesse that songwriters Alex Turner and Miles Kane brought to that classy, heavily orchestrated 2008 release.
You Can't Stop Me is dominated by a catchy hook and is a track that might be considered by some to be radio friendly. The tune is underpinned by the bass parts that, within the context of the tune, work well. Cities On Fire is a slower piece. Instrumentally, it has a mellow feel that contrasts with the recurring and full on sung chorus. The piece has a pleasant middle eight that has some acoustic guitar parts that end all too quickly, before the chorus drags and overshadows everything once more. The end part of the tune is characterised by some harmony vocals backed by subdued guitar parts. Rag and Bones is built around a riff that some might find attractive. Unfortunately, the piece fails to develop in any substantial way as the riff is frustratingly repeated and spat out with minimum melodic development, the insipid lyrics and dull chorus failing to elevate the song to anything more than a band jam. Wrecking Ball has a prominent early Arctic Monkeys influence with an energetic riff. It is a fast paced tune that is marred by the dull, recurring chanted backing vocal chorus of "wrecking ball!". I suspect that Wrecking Ball would not withstand many repeated plays before its tedious nature would make it totally unbearable for those who enjoy progressive rock.
Last Rat In Hamelin is a fitting end to this very disappointing album. It is difficult to find anything positive to say about this repetitive and poorly constructed tune other than I was completely able to empathise with the chorus of "Last Rat In Hamelin, Last Man Standing". Ultimately, I felt as though I was indeed the last person standing after enduring thirty plus minutes of such forgettable song writing on repeated occasions for the sake of this review.
On reflection, Twelve Clay Feet's music may find many plaudits amongst those who like basic guitar led rock. However, there is little on offer that would fit into the broad progressive rock genre of music. As such, I feel there is hardly anything within More Naked Than Obscene that would interest or satisfy readers of DPRP.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10