ISSUE 2015-13

Reviews in this issue:

And They Are Us - And They Are Us
And They Are Us - And They Are Us
Country of Origin: USA
Format: Download
Record Label: independent
Catalogue #: n/a
Year of Release: 2014
Time: 41:18
Info: And They Are Us
Samples: And They Are Us website
Track List:
Last Days Of Summer (2:57), Groove Modulator (5:02), Odyssey (3:14), Elvish Has Left the Building (4:29), Mind of the Machine (3:25), Twin Radio Mouse (5:11), Nihongo (4:45), HX-1 (5:01), Horizon (MIC) (3:22), My Own Personal Travelizer (3:57)
And They Are Us is a dance-prog collaboration between Dustin DeMilio (aka Dust Magnet) a visual artist and producer, and guitarist Christopher Schreiner (aka Drop.Kick.Pop).

And They Are Us is their debut release. It is an instrumental album, which uses electronics, voice and music samples, and a wide range of electric guitar sounds. The music consists of hard-edged, urban soundscapes. There is nothing bucolic about this release.

ATAU use an adventurous genre mash up of dance elements, space-rock, trip-hop, hard house, break beats and touches of pyschedelia. The music reminds me of some of the proggier aspects of Underworld's 2nd Toughest in the Infants album. ATAU's tracks are generally shorter and punchier throughout. None of these tracks outstay their welcome.

The opening track, Last Days of Summer, has the frenetic, skittering percussion of hard-house, which counterpoints, rather than underpins, the melodic elements of the track. These melodic elements are developed by a piano motif and taken-up by grungy guitar chords, all is topped with a searing guitar solo. This in some ways sets the tone for the album.

Across this album, it is the guitar playing that lifts this into prog territory, as it flies over and sometimes cuts-through the dance-come-trip-hop soundscapes. Some of the pieces come over as shorter, more precise versions of David Gilmour's collaboration with The Orb on Metallic Spheres. This is most obvious on the funky, bass-driven, Groove Modulator, where a change of pace and dynamics brings in a smooth and passionate guitar solo. The Floydian influence can also be heard on the slow, world music-meets-spacey noodling, of Nihongo.

Odyssey samples music from the score of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (the most prog film ever?). It has an engaging, slow, rolling groove, and seems just about the perfect length. The brilliantly named, Elvish Has Left the Building, features scuzzy, heavy guitar over a jazzy beat, whilst the percussion-led, Mind of the Machine feels like The Prodigy, but in a slightly less head-banging way.

The bass thrum and reverberating surf guitar of HX-1 provides an intense listen, and the looping Radiohead-like melody of Horizon (MIC) finishes far too soon.

How 'prog' this release is, does depend on your attitude to prog. Is it dependent on the models and pinnacles of the classic era? Or do you want something more adventurous? This is music that breaks with that 'classic' tradition and includes styles that, I for one, do not usually listen to. I will readily acknowledge that this is music from the hinterland of prog, where strange things are happening, but it is still an interesting listen.

ATAU has produced an album of short, mainly attention-grabbing pieces that are probably quite leftfield for the readers of this site. If, however, you want to give an adventurous genre mash-up a go, you could do far worse than this well-constructed, well thought through, mix of urban beat soundscapes and strident, passionate guitar playing.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10

Ashent - Flaws of Elation
Ashent - Flaws of Elation
Country of Origin: Italy
Format: CD
Record Label: Lion Music
Catalogue #: LMC338
Year of Release: 2013
Time: 63:50
Info: Ashent
Track List:
Flaws of Elation (0:29), Mhysteric (3:42), Awakened's Transitions (5:11), Fallen Angel (4:45), Illusory (4:23), Silent Remedy (5:10), Anaemic Ardency (4:53), Persistence of Frailty (4:54), A Puzzled Sentiment (4:56), Eden (05:22), Awakened's Transitions (demo 2003) (5:03), Fallen Angel (demo 2003) (4:49), Anaemic Ardency (demo 2003) (5:00), Eden (demo 2003) (5:21)
Ashent, is an Italian progressive metal act formed in 2001 by brothers Gianpaolo and Onofrio Falanga who have fully released two albums: Deconstructive (2009) and Inheritance (2012). These demonstrated the evolution of a band which has gone through a mixture of Progressive Metal, Power Symphonic Metal and some Thrash Metal influences. Their musical path has been established very well with their two most recent releases, but this album offers a chance to talk about their origins.

Flaws of Elation was the band's debut release in 2006, and was re-released by the Lion Music label in 2013 with the addition of four demos made in their early days from 2003. In this album we have two different line-ups. The 2006 version which was formed by Steve Braun on vocals, Paolo Torresani on keyboards, guitarist Onofrio Falanga, Gianpaolo Falanga on bass, Davide Buso on drums and second guitarist Cristiano Bergamo. The other line-up is from the demo of 2003 and was formed by Gianpaolo Falanga (bass, vocals, growls), Onofrio Falanga (guitars), JC (drums), Thomas Giro (guitars) and Max Zhena on vocals.

What we have here is the first effort of the band to reach a level of musical maturity. We can observe an insistence to imitate bands like early Dream Theater, with both vocalists trying to keep a high vocal range like James LaBrie, and bands like Spheric Universe Experience. You can feel the effort made by them and the lack of vocal techniques and harmonies by Steve Braun and Max Zhena in several moments. Musically, this album has good moments in which they combine the prog metal arrangements with some jazzy elements as on Persistence of Reality which is my favorite song from this album. The complexity of their compositions is well applied in a song like Silent Remedy

In other ways we have progressive metal compositions gone wild, with some kind of extremely complex but disordered succession of musical notes, resulting in dense compositions as noise, and with singers that don't helped with their lack of skills. On the plus side, we have some incredible work done by Onofrio Falanga in the guitars, and both drummers who make their best efforts to make reality, the complex drums arrangements. Also, the technical work done in the latest sessions for this reissue aren't too satisfactory. Of course this is my personal point of view.

Remember that I'm talking about something that happened more than 10 years ago and the whole scene has changed for good now for the band.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10

Jet Plane - Loud to Sleep
Jet Plane - Loud to Sleep
Country of Origin: Russia
Format: CD
Record Label: Ricco
Catalogue #: RIC-021
Year of Release: 2014
Time: 60:32
Info: Jet Plane
Samples: Jet Plane on Bandcamp
Track List:
Laurel Trees/21 Guns (9:55), Loud To Sleep (6:21), Snow Rock (9:20), Fog (5:25), Sundog (11:06), (You Can Hear Them) Whisper (9:23), Whale (8:55)
Jet Plane is a Russian quintet featuring twin guitarists Sergey Sapunov and Maxim Berezko, drummer Dmitriy Bulavintsev, bassist Konstantin Kiselev and multi-instrumentalist Igor Zyuzko, who contributes violin, schaferpfeife (shepherd bagpipes) and glockenspiel. Loud To Sleep is the third album by the band, following on from the mini-album shelled (2010) and the full release All The Static Stars (2012).

Purely instrumental, the music falls broadly into the post-rock category, although Jet Plane offers up a slightly different take on things. Sure, Sundog has the characteristic overtones of Mogwai and their ilk, and is of equal quality to enable the Jet Plane song to stand alongside the more established bands as a virtual equal.

However, Zyuzko's contributions add an element of originality. One may not be too eager to hear how bagpipes fit into the overall scheme of things but I assure you they do fit in very well and are not the teeth-clenching drone that one may associate with the Scottish variety of bagpipes! The violin playing is also very well entwined in the music, with Loud To Sleep reminding me of something from the excellent Hoelderlin Live Traumstadt album.

With the shortest track being five-and-a-half minutes, there is plenty of scope within each number for the band to create atmosphere and to vary the tempo. Again, the glockenspiel on the intro of (You Can Hear Them) Whisper adds variety, and provides an interesting counterpoint to the two different melodies played by the guitars. It is clever writing and one that is very effective. However, it is the closing number, Whale, that clinches it for me, a marvelous piece of music that is brilliantly arranged and performed.

I was very taken with Jet Plane and eagerly purchased their other albums from Bandcamp, all at ridiculously low prices as well. If you can get hold of the actual CD, it is well worth it, if only for the very original and clever artwork.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10

Napier's Bones - The Wistman Tales
Napier's Bones - The Wistman Tales
Country of Origin: UK
Format: Download
Record Label: independent
Catalogue #: n/a
Year of Release: 2014
Time: 44:52
Info: Napier's Bones
Samples: Napier's Bones on Bandcamp
Track List:
A.D. 1069 : The Harrying Of The North (9:06), Work Will Set You Free (5:20), Lost And Found (6:40), Room 237 (2:20), Fear And Trembling (7:22), Wistman's Wood (14:03)
Very little information accompanied the download of this, the debut album, by the UK's Napier's Bones, a duo of Gordon Midgley and Nathan Jon Tillett. Midgley shoulders the bulk of the credit for the album, as he writes all the songs, plays all the instruments and also produced it. Tillett provides the voice and created the artwork, which reminds me of something from The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal era, a sort of mixture of the Preying Mantis logo and a Magnum cover.

Cards on the table, I didn't like the album all that much, it was rather too 'prog by numbers' for me. It is a concept of course, but not one that I could easily understand or get into. The programmed drums were a distraction throughout, and the vocals didn't really do a lot for me, having a rather grating timbre to them.

As for the music, well A.D. 1069 : The Harrying Of The North just seemed to be a long guitar solo wailing over keyboard chords, with very little melody or structure to the piece. Work Will Set You Free was somewhat better, with a twin electric guitar melody line and an underlying acoustic, but the vocals were somewhat too earnest, and towards the end it seemed to be a conflict between the keyboards and guitar with a real lack of breathing space.

The onslaught continued through Lost And Found and it was not until Room 237 that there is any real respite. Here, a rather eerie keyboard piece again lacked any coherent structure. In many ways it sounded just like someone playing about with different settings, rather than being consciously composed.

Fear And Trembling had more promise with its simplistic piano intro gradually building, with gradually-introduced keyboard washes and some rather tasty and atmospheric guitar playing leading to a nice solo. The piece is rather more considered and open, resulting in an enjoyable instrumental piece showing a degree of promise. The closing 'epic' Wistman's Wood is again troubled by being too busy, with no light and shade and the vocals sounding rather muffled. The piece doesn't really hold together too well either, with the various sections not being that interconnected.

Philosophically it is said that every journey starts with a single step, and in that respect The Wistman Tales is a rather faltering and off-balance step. But everyone has to start somewhere and credit where credit is due, the duo has taken the bold step of laying themselves open to the critics. And yes, I have been critical, but hopefully not unduly. It is just my opinion. The duo are generously giving the album away on their Bandcamp page, so please give the album your own personal appraisal. I am happy to be proved wrong.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10

Peter Banks Empire - The Mars Tapes
Peter Banks Empire - The Mars Tapes
Country of Origin: UK
Format: 2CD
Record Label: Gonzo Multimedia
Catalogue #: HST245CD
Year of Release: 2014
Time: CD 1: 53:48
CD 2: 40:55
Info: Peter Banks Empire
Track List:
CD 1: Out Of Our Hands (8:32), Medley: (a) Foundation (b) Destiny (c) Far Away (18:28), Somewhere Over The Rainbow Bar And Grill (8:43), Do What You Want (8:54), Dancing Man (4:05), Where Yes Means No (5:04)
CD 2: Off With The King's Head (5:13), Something's Coming (West Side Story) (17:11), The Fall of The Empire (3:06), When The Banks Overflow (3:27), Ascending To The Planet Mars (2:09), Bonus Track: Sky at Night (featuring Phil Collins) (9:46)
Peter Banks died of heart failure on 7th March 2013 in the London Borough of Barnet, where he was born 65 years earlier. At the time of his death he was preparing to go to a recording session, typical for a man with such a long and dedicated career behind him.

Although his studio albums included five solo, three with the band Flash and three with Empire (the successor to Flash) as well as numerous guest appearances, for many he will be remembered as the original guitarist with Yes. With his customary, wide-bodied Rickenbacker, his playing on their first two albums Yes (1979) and Time And A Word (1970) was certainly key to Yes' early development, and as such he was a pioneer of progressive rock.

For the uninitiated, he was an extremely versatile player combining jazz-infused licks with a keen sense of harmonics, where his guitar could sound like a violin. It's a pity he never made more of an impact outside Yes. Whilst he had moderate success with Flash during the early 70s (especially in the US), his erratic solo work never realised his full potential.

Following his departure from Flash and a brief collaboration with Phil Collins under the unlikely name Zok And The Radar Boys, Banks formed Empire in 1973 with his then partner and singer Sydney Foxx (real name Sidonie Jordan). They released Mark I (1974) and Mark II (1976) before encamping to the Mars Studios, Los Angeles in the summer of 1979 to rehearse and record the third album. It was released later that same year. This 2 CD set includes previously unreleased material, as well as demos for Mark III and older Empire songs they were rehearsing for forthcoming shows.

Whilst much of Empire's studio output was prog-lite, fans of early Yes in particular will be gratified that the nine years separating his last gig with the band and these recordings, had not dampened his commitment or technique. The fiery but articulate playing that was a highlight of the debut Yes album, (on Time and A Word he was hamstrung by Jon Anderson's insistence on using an orchestra) is evident from the very start. In fact the opening chords of Out Of Our Hands (the song that opened the first Empire album) instantly brings Yes to mind, whilst the lightning-fast call-and-response guitar / synth exchanges, recall the Howe/Wakeman partnership that highlighted the live version of Starship Trooper.

With the Empire line-up constantly changing from album to album, here Peter and Sidonie are supported by Paul Delph (keyboards), Brad Stephenson (bass) and Mark Murdock (drums). Their playing is an absolute revelation and one can't help thinking that had they not been tied to Empire's relatively rigid song structures, then jazz fusion, full-on prog rock and any manner of instrumental possibilities would have been open to them.

That said, one cannot underestimate Sidonie's stunning voice. The medley of Foundation, Destiny and Far Away destined for the third album, allows plenty of scope to showcase her abilities, ranging from pop-ballad sensibilities to a raunchy, soulful delivery that put me in mind of the very wonderful Elkie Brooks. For his part, Banks demonstrates his mournful, weeping guitar. He was a superb exponent of this technique, as was his good friend, the great Jan Ackerman (of Focus fame).

Concluding disc 1 is the lively Where Yes Means No propelled by Stephenson's and Murdock's galloping rhythms. One cannot ignore the irony of the title, which is surely a comment from Banks at his neglectful treatment at the hands of his former bandmates. Just for the record, in addition to his invaluable guitar contributions, Banks came up with the Yes name, as well as the design for the pre-Roger Dean Yes logo which appeared on the first two album covers. Ironically, when the second album was released in the US, Steve Howe appeared on the cover.

With the exception of the closing song, all the tracks on disc 2 are instrumental. The best of these is probably Off With The King's Head, a suitably punchy opener with a persistent riff, very similar to Steve Howe's guitar line on Roundabout. It seems that this collection (and Peter Banks) cannot escape the spectre of Yes.

Speaking of which, Something's Coming was originally recorded by Yes back in 1969 resulting in one of the best cover versions ever. Here, clocking in at a sprawling 17 minutes, Banks uses it as a springboard for a lengthy bout of improvisational soling, with scant recognition of Leonard Bernstein's original melody. It does however reach a semblance of order in the latter part, incorporating other tunes from West Side Story including the Jet Song and Tonight.

The bonus track aside, the rest of the tracks on disc 2 sound very similar to the opening instrumental, and although they contain some very fine and committed playing, they generally come across as unfinished works in progress. The track titles also display Banks' sharp line in witty wordplay, with references to the band, himself and the recording studio.

The concluding Sky at Night is a bit of an oddity given that it originates from the debut Empire album, played by a completely different line-up that included Jakob Magnusson (keyboards), John Giblin (bass) and Phil Collins on drums and backing vocals. It's a pleasant and restrained, jazzy workout with fine ensemble playing and a sensitive vocal from Sidonie, although the cynic in me can't help thinking that the real reason for being here (other than to fill some space) is to included Phil Collins' name (prominent on the CD cover sticker) and thereby boost its commercial possibilities.

Whilst I'm unfamiliar with Empire's studio output, based on the performances here I'm willing to bet that for Peter Banks' and prog fans in general, The Mars Tapes is the album to own. Whilst his playing is perhaps a tad self-indulgent at times (especially during Something's Coming) there's no denying that his dynamic, sometimes raucous style, has the ability to thrill and impress in equal measures.

On a cautionary note, the sound quality does reveal the origins of the recording, which has been taken directly from the original tapes. That said, once you get used to the limitations, there is much to enjoy where guitar, synth and bass in particular slice through the sonic mire, like a hot knife through the proverbial butter.

I've often pondered on the dual guitar potential, had Banks remained in Yes following Steve Howe's arrival. After all, in the late 80s Howe collaborated with Steve Hackett in GTR, and in 1991 the almost unthinkable occurred when he toured with Trevor Rabin as part of Yes' 'Union' package. But in the competitive atmosphere of the 70s, would Howe's ego have allowed a partnership with Banks? Probably not.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10

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Published Sunday 22 February 2015

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