Argus - Tell Me!
Crisis (9:34), Tell Me (7:01), What If (8:11), My Star (9:39), Sick Girl (7:38), The Wall (7:25)
Being a former cover band the influences of that band are still recognisable in their music, for instance on the title track Tell Me with one guitar solo quickly following another by the two guitarists. It doesn't mean that the music is all about the seventies though. Influences of more modern prog bands like Spocks Beard and IQ are present, as well as the obvious influences such as Pink Floyd and Genesis. The vocals of Nooijen sound somewhat raw and hoarse, but are not unpleasant and blend well with the music.
I should also mention the use of a special musical instrument used on the album called the Theremin. It's the same instrument that can be heard in the title music of the series Midsomer Murders on the BBC. One of the more famous players is Jimmy Page who played the instrument in Whole lotta love, and also live on stage. On the final track of this album, The Wall, the instrument is clearly present.
There is some nice work on Hammond and Mini-Moog and fine soloing on guitar. The opening track Crisis has a nice build-up with Hammond sounds, and after the vocals have joined in, this track evolves into a more heavy prog rock piece. The drums and bass deliver a solid performance and though I think this band is not (yet) in the "Champions League of Dutch Prog", it's a fine debut album by these guys.
I couldn't find any YouTube videos of this band but if you want to see and hear the band in action, just go their website or Facebook page.
Peter Swanson: 7 out of 10
John Bassett - Aperture
Break The Wall (4:52), Joy In Despair (4:28), Awaiting (4:03), Jenna (3:15)
As with the debut album, the music here is more of a sweet sadness that somehow imbues elements of hope in the seemingly hopelessness. By any account, the lead track Break The Wall is an outstanding composition, beautifully arranged, played and sung. However, it is not alone. Joy In Despair harks back to the earliest King Bathmat numbers in style, although the years of writing experience show, as despite being a relatively simple and straight forward piece musically, there is an inherent maturity in the writing that shines through.
Continuing with Awaiting, a stark guitar initially performs against a backdrop of keyboard chords before blossoming out into a mellow and melodic number, which has the vocals pushed into the background, almost as if there is a hesitancy or reluctance for the lyric: I'll be there, awaiting to be heard. The instrumental Jenna rounds things off delightfully. With four tracks that flow delightfully into eachother, Aperture is that rarity of things; an almost perfect set of songs that just makes sense together, released as an EP.
I am an unashamedly big fan of Bassett and have been since hearing his first release way back in 2003. Since that time he has become one of the most consistently engaging artists in the UK independent music scene. But you don't have to take my word for it, head on over to Bassett's Bandcamp Page and download the Aperture EP for a mere 99 pence (even better value for non UK purchasers given the falling sterling exchange rate!). You can even get it in FLAC format for the same price, for all of you who are dismissive of mp3s!
What else of lasting beauty can you get for under £1 (unless of course you also download Bassett's Unearth album for the same price!). Just do it. Now.
Mark Hughes: 9 out of 10
Big Big Train - Folklore (hi-resolution audio version)
Folklore (7:30), Along the Ridgeway (6:06), Salisbury Giant (3:36), London Plane (10:11), Mudlarks (6:11), Lost Rivers of London (6:07), The Transit of Venus Across the Sun (7:18), Wassail (6:47), Winkie (8:26), Brooklands (12:38), Telling the Bees (6:03)
I chose to review the hi-resolution version of Big Big Train's latest album because its tracklisting makes it a far superior collection of music than the "normal" CD version. I own both, but I listened to the CD tracklisting first, and I did not think much of it. I would probably rate it at an 8, whereas the hi-resolution audio tracklisting gets a solid 10. This version was also released as the vinyl tracklisting, suggesting that it is truly the definitive version. The brilliance is its inclusion of Mudlarks and Lost Rivers of London, both from 2015's Wassail EP. The order of the tracks is also slightly different, with Folklore blending into Along the Ridgeway, rather than into London Plane.
Everything I disliked about the CD tracklist has been remedied by this definitive tracklist. While I thought both the Folklore and Wassail songs were a bit too poppy, they both work splendidly in this hi-resolution setup. The upbeat nature of the songs adds much to the beginning and middle of the album. The beauty of the first track is its ability to have catchy hooks along with brilliant prog elements, particularly in the bridge. The immediate transition to the quieter Along the Ridgeway/Salisbury Giant works so much better than transitioning into London Plane.
The addition of Mudlarks and Lost Rivers of London (my favorite BBT song) fully rounds-out London Plane. These three songs are essentially one song, since they all have the same thematic overtones. They cause one to ponder the history of London and the consequences of gradual urban expansion. Listening to Lost Rivers and you can almost hear the trickling brooks and streams of years long past. Without these songs (as in the CD version), Folklore just isn't complete.
The mythic beauty of the lyrics in this album truly stand out. The Transit of Venus Across the Sun, which references the celestial event that occurred last year, combines real events with the mythic past. Yes, the transit of Venus actually occurred, but the band tells the story as if it were told by someone 1000 years ago. The ability to tell a story through music is Big Big Train's best gift. Winkie finds the band at their best in this department. This true story focuses on a pigeon carried aboard an RAF bomber that crashed in World War II. The plane crashed, but the crew survived because the pigeon was able to make it home and alert the military to their position.
Just as with Curator of Butterflies on English ELectric: Full Power, the band ends Folklore perfectly with Telling the Bees. The song deals with the tradition that beekeepers must tell their bees about major events in the family's life, or the bees will leave the hive. The music remains upbeat without being pop-oriented, and the lyrics themselves are quite educational. I can't think of a more perfect or beautiful way to end an album.
The musicianship of Big Big Train has never been questioned, at least not by this reviewer. These are truly some of the most talented musicians in the world. Influences such as Steve Hackett are clear in Dave Gregory's and Rikard Sjöblom's guitars, as well as Tony Banks with Danny Manners' and Andy Poole's keyboards. Of all the influences though, Jethro Tull's Songs From the Wood shines most clearly in Folklore. While by no means a copy of Tull's masterpiece of folk/prog, BBT take what Tull created, and progress it for the listener. They dig deeper into English culture and mythology, both musically and lyrically.
As I stated before, the hi-resolution/vinyl version is far superior to the CD tracklisting for this album. Its pacing is much better, with the quiet songs balancing the more upbeat tracks. While not disappointed with the music itself, I am rather disappointed in the band's handling of this release. I don't believe a band should release multiple tracklists of their art, for it merely confuses and annoys the listener. After hearing the CD tracklist, I almost passed this album off as a (relative) failure. I'm glad I gave the hi-res version a chance. It merely goes to show how much of a difference a tracklisting can make. By releasing multiple versions, similar to what they did with English Electric, the band just frustrates the whole process. I hope that in the future they choose consistency. My recommendation to all of you is to buy the hi-res dowload, or the vinyl version if you prefer that.
After growing to love the album and all of its tracks, I find the CD version tolerable and a bit more accessible, since it is a bit shorter. However, it took the definitive edition to really grab my attention. Let's hope BBT goes for consistency the next time around. Until then, pass this album on, and hand it down.
Bryan Morey: 10 out of 10
Big Big Train - Folklore (standard version)
Folklore (7:31), London PLane (10:11), Along The Ridgeway (6:06), Salisbury Giant (3:36), The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun (7:18), Wassail (6:48), Winkie (8:26), Brooklands (12:38), Telling The Bees (6:03)
After their huge success with their previous albums, The Underfall Yard (2009) and English Electric Part One and Part Two (2012/2013), expectations were really high for Folklore and the band hasn't disappointed us.
Slightly more folky influences than its predecessors, but combined with the horns and strings it's still very much typical BBT. Of course many listeners will recognise some Genesis moments caused by the atmosphere and the melodic song structures that we know from them, but BBT can never be accused of being copycats because of the use of the horn and string instruments.
The album is like a book filled with short stories. Among them are a story about a centuries-old tree on the banks of the Thames, a story about a medieval giant, and an epic tale about a pigeon in World War II. The writers, David Longdon and Greg Spawton have really managed to create another masterpiece that should probably be number one on many proggers list of best albums 2016.
As the title might suggest, the folky influences are most recognisable on the opening track ,Folklore with lots of string sections and a very catchy tune to listen to. The track Wassail was already released earlier on EP but for everyone who didn't buy that one, it's a good thing that it's included on this new album as well. Such a great song deserves to be on a full album and not on an EP only. The opening of the track Winkie reminded me of Jethro Tull, but what I liked most was this whole story about a pigeon. A great song just like the track Brooklands, with some beautiful harmony vocals.
The melodic, beautiful but also razorsharp soloing of guitarist Dave Gregory, with magnificent Hammond sounds by Rikard Sjöblom, atmospheric violin playing by Rachel Hall and great keyboards by Danny Manners lead to an album without any weaknesses. And I even haven't mentioned the vocals by one of the best vocalists in our prog world, David Longdon, who also adds to the typical BBT-sound. He has a very recognisable voice and just lifts up every track, with his powerful but smooth voice. Someone who isn't British, but has been part of the line-up for some years now, is drummer Nick D'Virgilio who really has become one of the driving forces in this band.
If you liked the previous albums by this band, I can't imagine you not liking this new offering; despite having slightly more folky elements. I personally like this added element but maybe some will not appreciate this as much. The artwork is also of great quality, so don't hesitate to buy this album.
Peter Swanson: 9.5 out of 10
Renaissance - Live at The Union Chapel [DVD]
Prologue (7:26), Carpet of the Sun (3:37), Ocean Gypsy (7:36), Running Hard (9:39), Grandine Il Vento (6:54), Symphony of Light (12:53), Northern Lights (4:16), The Mystic and the Muse (7:58), Mother Russia (10:07), Ashes Are Burning (18:20)
At the end of that evening, Annie Haslam announced the imminent filming of a gig in the UK, to which she looked forward to. The resulting live DVD, entitled Live at The Union Chapel, contains the full concert featuring the same songs as during the Dutch shows, as well as a nice interview with the full band.
To focus on the latter, the interviews are nice to watch because of the very cosy atmosphere, seeing the band members sitting pair-wise in front of the hearth, Annie with band leader Rave Tesar, guitarist Mark Lambert with drummer Frank Pagano and bass player Leo Traversa with keyboardist Tom Brislin (well-known for his playing in Yes and Camel). They all do their best to answer the questions, and they all express the good relationship within the band. But none of them can hide from the simple fact that they are unpretentious musicians who simply love to play long, acoustic, melodic and very, very symphonic music, and who are still amazed, if not blown away, by the warm welcome they have experienced during their short European tour. In other words, they simply can't believe they are legendary! Well, maybe Annie can but the rest of the band most certainly not, and that alone makes the conversations great to watch. It was also nice to hear them remembering the Dutch and Belgian gigs as being the ones with the loud audiences .. sorry guys! Another attractive feature is Annie's story how she manages to keep her voice in such an excellent shape.
Renaissance has always been a band for which only the music counts. No spectacular shows (if you call playing with a full symphonic orchestra 'not spectacular'), no special light effects, no fireworks, no choreography, no multi-media. So watching this band on stage is a bit boring, not much is happening. Just sit back and enjoy the music, that's enough, and that's exactly what the seated audience does. Maybe because of the seated character of the gig at The Union Chapel, the reactions from the audience are more polite than enthusiastic; quite a difference from the cheering crowds in Holland (and apparently Belgium).
However the setting of the gig is spectacular. The Union Chapel is an awesome church full of history, and therefore an ideal setting for this band. Ms. Haslam seems to value that cultural aspect of this venue after the usual opening song, a slightly different version of Prologue. Probably the presence of ancient culture made the band even more focused on the music, with a desire to play everything as perfectly as possible, in which they succeed. However as a consequence of that focus, the interaction with the audience is quite minimal, with just Annie introducing the songs. She does so in a way that anybody would be convinced that she still loves those songs, in spite of their sometimes ancient origin.
The gig is filmed with a multitude of cameras, which gives a splendid view of the stage and of the individual musicians. That way, the intricate keyboard playing by Rave Tesar is shown in nice contrast with the more wild playing of youngster Brislin, both being responsible for recreating the orchestral arrangements that make these songs so special. The bass is also very prominent in the music while the importance of the concentrated and sometimes restrained drumming by Pagano can easily be underestimated. Yet it is as indispensable as Lambert's acoustic guitar playing in the full band sound. His solo in Symphony of light is as simple, yet as great as the overall complexity of the song.
The lighting of the stage is moody, with the nice indigo colour dominating the booklet as a calming, atmospheric background, and with the musicians bathed in yellow or white lights. The crystal-clear sound of the DVD does all these elements full justice. My only criticism is the not-so-convincing rendition of Northern lights which has a slightly slower pace than the original, and not-so-good harmony vocals by Lambert.
Compared to the previous DVD set containing the 2011 full performance of the Turn of the cards and the Scheherazade and other short stories albums, this film is superior in sound and image quality. The venue is stunning, the blue lighting of the stage very appropriate, and the musical performances excellent. This is certainly a must-have for Renaissance fans.
Because of the choice of three songs from the band's newest album in addition to the classics, listeners who are not familiar with Renaissance music may find these a bit too far out of their comfort zone. That makes this set probably the second-best choice for newcomers. Even so, this is a DVD to cherish, especially for those who were less fortunate and not able to attend this great European tour.
(Besides the DVD, the band's bandcamp page also offers an audio only download of this recording. - Ed.)
Theo Verstrael: 9 out of 10
Tides From Nebula - Safehaven
Safehaven (5:30), Knees To The Earth (5:17), All The Steps I've Made (4:49), The Lifter (6:01), Traversing (6:28), Colour Of Glow (3:30), We Are The Mirror (5:47), Home (6:21)
Keyboards come to the fore with the opening of the title track, before being joined by a booming drum figure and jangly guitars that build layers of melody. This mid-paced opener contains a quiet-to-loud passage that is a thing of beauty. Tides From Nebula then up-the-tempo on the fabulous, percussion-led Knees To The Earth. Here noisy guitars and pulsing synth lines battle each other throughout the piece.
There is a Beatles-like melody in the opening of The Lifter before it is washed away with an electro-pop bass line that has a pulsing riff. Slide guitar is layered over the backing, providing flowing counterpoint to the beat. A quiet piano coda gives a breathing space before the next track. The up-tempo Traversing has powerful, duelling wah-wah guitars smashing across the melody. These are two terrific tracks back to back.
Tides From Nebula have an electronic interlude with the shortest track Colour of Glow. They invert the post rock template, by having the guitars provide the washes of colour over an insistent Daft Punk-style melody (minus the dance inflections). A return to a more traditional post rock template follows, with the last two tracks. Of which We Are The Mirror is the standout number, with its controlled but seemingly freefall drumming, that somehow settles into a lovely loping grove.
With Safehaven, Tides From Nebula have given us a great album that has a singular sense of purpose posessing smart arrangements, terrific instrumental colour and emotionally engaging melodies. So make room at the post-rock top table Mogwai, for Tides From Nebula have arrived.
Martin Burns: 8.5 out of 10