Argovia - Lost Letters
Song for Myself (4:20), My Only Savior (4:38), The Deceiver (3:26), One Day Left (4:32)
The tracks are precise and well-focused, showing middle-eastern, melodic tinges on the opener Song for Myself, along with a very nice synth solo. My Only Savior has a brilliant pop-rock melody and I found myself singing it (quietly I'll add) whilst working. The Deceiver has a more hard rock stance and is the least proggy thing here, but it is still a good listen. The closing track, One Day Left, is a great piano ballad, that builds nicely to its conclusion.
The music itself, whilst not overtly proggy, has some very pleasing touches that would suit prog fans who like Touchstone, The Reasoning and Panic Room, as, indeed, I do. This is a solid debut, nothing new or startling, but very tuneful and the duo displays some potential. I look forward to seeing which paths Argovia follow, as I hope they will continue to record.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Arlekin - Disguise Serenades
The Lost Path (8:22), Dance of the Jester (8:45), Romance (4:56), In This Puzzled Roundabout (15:01), Old Father East (3:59), bonus: silence, Dance of the Jester
Sydorenko proves that he really is a great lover of 80s Neo-Prog and manages to capture the magic of that genre on this album. The opening track, The Lost Path is a fine example and even has some Gilmour-esque guitar work. Dance Of The Jester suggests that this title could have been inspired by Marillion's Script For A Jester's Tear and that's absolutely the case, with keyboards, guitar and even Fish-like vocals. A nice tune.
There's also a prog rock epic of 15 minutes entitled In This Puzzled Roundabout in which all the influences that have inspired Sydorenko can be Found, making it a very special track. The climax of this epic song reminded me of IQ, but here the vocal limitations of Sydorenko are a big distraction to what otherwise might have been the musical highlight of this album.
Those vocal limitations are most annoying on the track Romance. I didn't have any romantic feelings listening to this track. It is by far my least favourite song of the album.
Arlekin is also guilty of another thing that made me unhappy: The Hidden Track! This time waster can be found after the conclusion of Old Father East. This is only a four-minute song but after waiting for six minutes, we are treated to a ten-minute alternate version of Dance of The Jester. What's the fun to listen to six minutes of silence? I will never understand such artists.
Musically however (with the exception of that six minutes) this is a great album that a good vocalist would have lifted to a much higher level. There must be a good Ukrainian singer around somewhere in that big country, because there are limits to what human ears can find pleasant to listen to.
It looks very promising for future releases, but just get a new singer. Please!
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Ben Bell - Patchwork Cacophony
Sketch of a Day (16:03), No U-Turn (9:07), Dance of the Fleet-Footed Heffalumps (2:51), Brinkmanship (10:57), Nylons for Parot (2:19), Dawn Light: Prelude (2:08), Change in the Air (3:51), No Time (3:25), Reprise (1:42), We Can't Stay (3:25), Rest My Feet (2:07), Scorched Earth (2:36), Final Sunset (6:12), Twilight Procession (2:38)
I still struggle to find "C" on a guitar, so I am always a little in awe of all these ingenious people. Even more so here, as the list of things Ben plays is a long one, including keyboards, guitars, basses, drums, and a vast array of percussion which adds greatly to the "hi-fi-ness" of the album. I can't quite pick out the "Szechuan shaker" or the "jingle scarf", but with the hundreds of tracks he obviously used to layer his first-born, they'll be in there somewhere.
However it would appear he is primarily a keyboard player, (he tickles the ivories with two bands, Fusion Orchestra and Broken Parachute) so this is effectively a keyboardist's solo album.
The first track, Sketch of a Day, is in my opinion, the best track on the album and worth the price of admission alone. A complex, well played instrumental with some lovely string synth and that Mellotrony flute-sound thing that is often heard in this type of music.
There are hints of soundtrack throughout, and parts of it you would wish had some short movie to accompany the music. The middle section of Brinkmanship for example, gave me visions of someone being chased by a small dog (don't ask why). But then looking at Candy Medusa's cartoon paintings in the CD booklet, does help to illustrate the intentions of the writing.
The album closes with a nine-part piece called Dawn Light that sees Ben add his pleasant singing to the mix. Of these, We can't stay caught my attention with it's tracked voices, organ riffage and Moog-like solo sounds.
This is very competently executed and a must for lovers of synth and piano, especially for purchasers of later Rick Wakeman albums (the ones with one of his mates singing on a couple of tracks, only here it's all done by one bloke). Good stuff, and I look forward to seeing what else Ben comes up with, and to check out those other groups he plays in.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
The Bob Lazar Story - Ghost Of Foodstool
Westminster (3:06), Suhmassshh (0:14), Threadkiller (1:32), Ghost of Foodstool ft The Sefton Knowledge (3:57), J-Rod's Pigeon Ladyshapes (0:32), Day Off More So (2:13), Funniest Cat Video Ever II (2:26)
The band is a trio plus two guest vocalists with Chris Jago (drums), Mike Fudakowski (bass) and Matt Deacon (guitars) joined by singers Tanya Didham and David Biedny. They have created a set of energetic rock and jazz fusion-tinged, melodic instrumentals.
They move from the wonderfully odd Westminster, with its squelchy synth that is basically a King Crimson primer in three minutes-flat, to the jittery guitar of The Cardiacs-like Threadkiller. We also have the jazz-inflected opening of the title track, which then breaks down into a gothic fairground organ with the vocalists reciting street names, plus the electric piano and bass duet of J-Rod's Pigeon Ladyshapes.
A keyboard and funky bass groove, propel Day Off More So, in an echo of the jazz-fusion of Return To Forever. This offering closes with a Gentle Giant-style piece that is guitar-led, and then develops complex interplay with a clavinet style keyboard. It becomes quite heavy towards its conclusion, in a pleasing way.
It is not often that I want the music to be of longer duration but here I do. So if you are a fan of the bands mentioned above, go and enjoy this EP, which has a slightly bizarre, but a great set of piercing and meticulous, small on the outside, giant on the inside, tunes. A review of the band's previous full length release can also be read here review here.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Eclipse Sol-Air - Bartok's Crisis
Intro (0:51), The Reactor Song (4:38), Waiting for you (15:06), Benedictus (11:06), Phantome (13:02), Die Rumanen (21:35), Tonight (3:49), Crazy in the Cage (8:04), Frere Jacques (3:46)
This is album number two and dates back to 2011 when the band was busy building a profile, with appearances at universities and festivals to help establish a stable line-up.
Six musicians are credited on the rather scant, four-page booklet, along with a cast of eight guest performers, plus a classical quartet and a choir. There is clearly a lot of ambition behind this 80-minute opus. Sadly the compositional and musical abilities of this collaborative are no match for that ambition.
What we have are four short songs and four long songs, of up to 21 minutes in length. Sadly the musical ideas have neither, the compositional depth or a cohesive form to warrant the time that they occupy.
I'll just offer two examples. The track Waiting for You seems to have two choruses. However both are repeated past their sell-by-date, with little of no variation in the accompanying instrumentation. Die Rumanen is like a child with ADHD. We even have a drum solo. Yet none of the elements have even the slightest link between them. The music simply stops and starts again, in a different form. There are some nice guitar and keyboard flourishes, however I find the drumming less inventive, seeming to prefer a very repetitive, plodding, waltz-style beat, when something more flamboyant is needed. The vocals fluctuate between French, German and English, often in the same song and frequently in the same verse or chorus. The male vocals are the more theatrical and often take a semi-spoken style. It's not a style that I enjoy and often Philippe is uncomfortably close to being out-of tune. The vocals of Mireille Vieogne are more melodic, but again she struggles to maintain them, on sections where a more powerful voice is required.
If you enjoy theatrical progressive rock which thrives on its unpredictability, which combines many random styles, and if you are not too fussy with some of the quality of playing and singing, then you may find more positives than I've been able to enjoy here. However for me, the whole album is directionless and unfocused and poorly performed.
If you take individual sections then there is some promise on this album. However when you are competing with the likes of Ayreon, Transatlantic and The Flower Kings for an audience seeking epic, theatrical progressive rock, then this album is so far from a finished product, as to be unworthy of comparison.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10
Eclipse Sol-Air - Schizophilia
Once Upon a Time (7:27), Destiny of Freedom (4;26), My Heart Belongs To You (5:25), Asylum (5:09), Watch Over You (9:36), Lydian Dream (4:28), Schizophilia (8;11), Final Time (6:40)
Founder member Philippe Matic-Arnauld des Lions handles keyboards, piano and vocals, alongside Mireille Vicogne (who also contributes some flute). Guitarist Fritz Hoffmeister is the other line-up consistency in what is now a septet.
'Schizophilia' is a word used to self-describe someone who wants to stand-out as different, a bit crazy, often with a bunch of mental 'illnesses', none of which have usually been diagnosed 'yet'.
The title matches a lot of the music to be found on this album. Like its predecessor, Schizophilia has a lofty ambition to blend and mix many different influences into something new, exciting and challenging. The vocals cover three languages (French, German and English) and are a mix of sung and spoken, male and female. Stylistically, we have a wild mixture of flute, keyboards, and violin added to the basic band structure, and pass through everything from jazz, prog, classical, rock, Broadway, Rammstein, metal, Pink Floyd, The Flower Kings and folk.
However, compared to Bartok's Crisis, we do have an album that sounds a bit more focused and structured (and 30 minutes shorter). The production is handled by Eloy's Frank Bornemann, which may be a factor in that?
Schizophilia is a concept album about the way of life. It starts with childhood, growing up, the troubles, bad ways, loosing, winning and finally ends with being a child again.
Bartock's Crisis sought to thrive on its sheer diversity, with the listener (and at times the band) never sure what was coming next. Here the songs are shorter and more focused, yet we still have too many compositions which as a whole lack a coherent musical dialogue between the various elements. For example the two halves of Destiny of Freedom have no relationship whatsoever.
There is an improvement in the vocals, with Mireille Vicogne especially sounding more composed, and confident in a style that really suits her slightly breathy delivery. I don't enjoy Philippe's more theatrical efforts, and tuning is still an issue for him at times (My Heart Belongs to You and Watch Over You).
However there are two songs where I feel the band has found its position. Both Lydian Dream and the title track thrive on a more immediate, pop-sensibility to their central melody. The instrumentation is still varied and detailed, yet manages to work with the vocals, whilst maintaining a coherence which makes everything, well, just more listenable and enjoyable. A whole disc with music of this quality and I would be considering a much higher number at the end.
Returning to the definition of 'Schizophilia' and applying it to Eclipse Sol-Air, this is clearly a band that wants to stand out as different and a bit crazy. That is to be applauded. However I think some more visits to the doctor are required, to help them decide exactly which musical diagnosis is best applied to their respective talents and ambitions.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Frequency Drift - Summer
Summer (12:00), Distant (7:42), Siren (4:50), Midnight (6:02), Ringshining (3:48), Summer's End (6:34)
Nowadays the length of Summer will make some people consider it an EP, rather than a full-length album. Although a length of just over 41 minutes, for a collection of six songs seems fine to me. After all, it's not quantity that counts but quality. In the case of Frequency Drift, I expect nothing less than quality songs, very well written and arranged. Summer is no different and the high musical and compositional standard is kept.
On board is a new singer, Isa Fallenbacher, who has a wonderful voice, full of emotion and very suitable for the music of Frequency Drift, where her dramatic tone comes out nicely. The album opens with the title track. Summer is a song slowly drifting forward, like a summer breeze. The classical instrumentation creates the atmosphere, together with some nice, romantic piano play. To brighten things up, the bass-lines are highly melodic and there are constant musical changes through the 12 minutes.
Distant takes things a little further and is a rock song with a lot of influences from the traditional folk scene. The ending quite nicely brings us to the pastoral, classic instrumental tune by the name of Siren. Once again we witness why Frequency Drift are who they are. Harp, flute and cello make this a really wonderful piece. Later, we have Ringshining where the music is even closer to classical chamber music rather than progressive rock.
This is what progressive rock stands for. Multiple types of songs and instrumentation gathered into one melting pot to be blended together to craft something as cinematic and wonderful as Summer.
It is needless to say any more. This intermediate album (EP or whatever you like to call it) is a success, a masterpiece. Well done.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
La Mar - Tides
Wanderlust (6:03), Compass (5:06), Rebelle (5:18), Light Bearer (6:07), Jukai (4:15), Guarimba (4:44), Oyster (4:06), Flips (5:49), Murmurs (1:25), Diaspora (11:18)
When Talk Talk supposedly gave birth to the genre of post rock with 1988's Spirit of Eden, how could they possibly have been aware of the amount of influence they would impose on other bands? Nowadays, the predominantly instrumental-based genre has become so diverse, that it's hard to determine what post rock exactly is. Safe to say, Sigur Ros is probably the most famous post rock band in the world. When I first heard that band's music, literally everything about them sounded strange and unorthodox. The guitars were drenched in layers of reverb and delay, with, towering above it all, high-pitched, vulnerable vocals sung in a non-existent language, which kind of fits the qualification of being instrumental.
Then there's a band like Tortoise, who can be considered post rock, but almost lean against jazz and electronica. Or take Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whose extremely patient, slow burning and intense soundscapes, incorporating heavy use of brass and strings, rarely end up being anything below 15 minutes in length. To make it even more complex, the post rock 'approach' has even infiltrated the metal genre. Bands like Isis and Cult of Luna are good examples of sludge/metal bands who draw a primary influence from post rock, resulting in a 'new' genre called, you guessed it, post metal.
There's a lot more to say about the genre, but this should give you a bit of a feel for it. As different as all these post rock bands may be, what binds them is their love for clean, reverbed guitars and a sophisticated sense of texture. Technical abilities are rarely at the forefront, but what the genre really shares with progressive rock, is its willingness to tread new ground by largely eschewing traditional song structures.
This second full-length by La Mar mixes the airy quality of the gentler side of post rock, with the heavier style of some post metal bands. The clean, reverb-drenched guitars are everywhere, backed by either driving, forward-leaning drum beats or busy snare patterns, almost giving a marching band type of feel.
Songs feature multiple instrumental themes, provided by guitars with a nice mix of clean and distorted sounds. A sense of cohesion is attained by a recurring theme provided by some simple synthesiser/organ sounds. Some songs feature portions of minimalist ambient sounds, and some songs merely evolve beyond that.
Overall, the music La Mar bring to the table is pretty triumphant in nature, but it's rarely overstaying its welcome. The tracks are all around five minutes, exploring a few musical ideas before culminating in a (sometimes rewarding) climax, before they either just 'end' or seamlessly make a transition into the next track.
The chord progressions are mostly basic, as are the various riffs. Harmonically and just sonically, La Mar lack the sense of unease and danger of some of the big post rock bands; the feeling that just about anything can happen. In the heavy department, things rarely get truly shocking, if you've listened to enough hard rock or metal.
Luckily there is some variation to keep things interesting. In the middle of the album, the band gets a bit heavier, a bit sludgier. Light Bearer's demanding 6/8 groove and overall mysterious atmosphere is one of the best tracks. The drums strike just the right balance between restraint and over-playing, and the guitar melodies finally really speak.
After an interlude, Jukai, Guarimba's drum frenzy recalls Tool's aggressive Ticks and Leeches. The track continues to be interesting, with some totally unexpected, redneck-style guitar riffs popping up from out of nowhere.
Flips suddenly ventures off into dub/reggae territory, with cheesy organ, rim shots and a lovely-sounding trumpet. The track ultimately explodes into a glorious collision of distorted guitars and trumpet, making it both the most remarkable and fun track of the record. The album closer, Diaspora, at 11 minutes is the longest track, and finally displays all the different aspects La Mar have showcased on Tides. The heavy is a bit heavier, and the ambience is even more minimalistic and drawn out. At the end, some guttural Baroness-style vocals can be heard.
In the end, La Mar do many things on this record. Lots of different instruments get played, from guitars to glockenspiel, trumpets, synthesisers, whispered vocals, shouted vocals; it's all there. But some of these traits don't get the attention they deserve, because of the mixing on this record.
So the most obvious area in need of improvement is the production. The recording quality varies a lot from track to track (some tracks literally sound much better than others), which ultimately stops the album from functioning as a unified statement.
Adding to that, the melodic themes and chord progressions lack the tension needed to become truly engaging. I feel the band is still searching for their own sound, judging from the various moods that each track addresses. Do they need to be serious? Do they need to be fun? Does it have to be atmospheric or heavy or both? Keeping all of these approaches, results in less of an own identity. I feel some bold, hard decision-making could help La Mar to define what their band can be.
However, for a sophomore, self-produced, self-recorded effort, this is not bad at all.
If you're after intricate grooves and instrumental frenzy, look elsewhere. But give Tides a listen if you enjoy atmospheric, lush and at times heavy instrumental music.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
PoiL - Brossaklitt
Fionosphère (10:42), Introklitt (0:46), Brossaklitt (04:18), Patachou (10:21), MAO (3:27), Goddog (7:03), Dins o Klitt (1:08), Pikiwa (14:19), La balade des gentils minouchoux (5:41)
Of course, the dadaistic attitude is up front, but the musical quests play a more important part. While Mr. Bungle always focused on the vocal techniques and stunts that Mike Patton had in mind, they composed their weird music around it. PoiL on the other hand, are more focused on the musicianship and compose their pieces with an instrumental focus and add the vocals on top. And this is the key reason why I consider them superior to Patton's band.
Since PoiL frees itself from a theme to base its tunes upon, its musicians can go in musical directions as bizarre as they wish. Literally everything becomes possible, and the three thankfully reach into their treasure chest of a repertoire and take anything that comes to the surface.
So what are we to hear on the album? Well, I'd say the band's main direction is Zeuhl, in the vein of Magma, blended with the weirdest form of Zappa, Frederic Chopin, Carl Orff, Guru Guru, Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. However there is literally no limit in style and they throw in whatever comes to mind. Vocal-wise they do the same, but always appropriate to the instrumental arrangement. The lyrics indeed are no more than a humorous spice to the mix, another dadaistic element, mostly of no sense, alternating between different languages, including fantasy ones.
There aren't too many people on this planet able to listen to this album in its entirety; many will hit the stop button during the second song. But those who have a sense for this sort of fun will be rewarded greatly. Because this band is more brilliant than Mr. Bungle ever was. Oh, and beware, never listen to this while operating dangerous machinery!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Relative Awareness - The Illusion of Control
The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of... (4:07), Cracks in the Wall (4:21), Nightmare in a Leather Armchair (5:56), The Black Maelstrom (5:40), No Exit (3:57), The Illusion of Control (4:26), A World Inverted (13:16)
The Illusion of Control is a concept album. The story starts out with a man who has accomplished everything for himself just fine: he has it all. Slowly, but surely problems are creeping into his life, and of course things get worse as the story progresses. While that may not sound like the most interesting story for a concept album, if the execution is good it may just work out. It's always good to see musicians operate with a clear idea of the story they want to tell.
The album's style can best be described as slightly progressive and symphonic death metal, with sudden shifts in dynamics, and a couple of weird breaks and odd time signatures to keep things interesting. Sonically, you'll hear the typical abrasive, high-gain guitars and death metal vocals throughout. But there are some clean passages that might remind one a lot of Opeth's earlier material. Also, some traces of Between the Buried and Me's atonal guitar-riff mayhem can be found in some of these songs, especially at the start of Cracks in the Wall. While the album gets a bit same-y overall in tone, if you're into lightning-fast arpeggios and screaming guitar solos, there is some of that on here, and they sound pretty good. The technical chops are there, no doubt about that.
Production wise, the album sounds a bit sterile. The drums are heavily sample-replaced, which sometimes works out fine, but on this record they sound a bit small and artificial. Though one thing I'll give the production, is that everything sounds very clear, and it doesn't happen too often that an important part gets buried in the mix.
I haven't mentioned that there are also pianos, organs and string patches on the album. With the (digital) technology available today, I'm sure they could've sounded a lot less plastic than they do here. Some attention could be given to that aspect next time around. Vocally there's also room for improvement, especially the clean vocals, which are only passable at best, when it comes to quality of voice and intonation. Fortunately, the pastoral way in which they are delivered and mixed, makes them work well enough in the context of the album. The old familiar death metal vocals sound authentic, although it seems that there has been some difficulty with that. Because of the sometimes lengthy sentences, the timing can sound quite awkward here and there.
Overall, this is a valid attempt at creating death metal concept album, but it's not quite there yet. The ambition is admirable, and there are some headbang-worthy riffs (No Exit), but ultimately a lot of ideas sound too undeveloped to leave a lasting impression. Still, if you can handle some intelligent, harsh death metal and can look past some of its shortcomings, give it a listen. You might just enjoy this album, even if it's only to check out the birth of this new project.
A second album will definitely see the light of day, according to Jelle Hamstra, and who knows? Opeth's early material arguably wasn't that brilliant, and we all know how that went.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10