All three previous releases by this Norwegian quintet (Identity (2009), All Rights Removed (2011) and 2013's The Greatest Show on Earth) have provided easy-yet-not-essential listening for me. The music sounds nice, and the performances and production have been stellar, yet I have been unable to get past the compelling similarities to Pink Floyd and more latterly Porcupine Tree. There is clearly plenty of soul, skill and passion in the playing and composition, but the end result sounds too smooth and calculated (manufactured-almost). Without the invention, risk, and edge that gave the original purveyors of this style the cutting edge, it all lacked a bit of excitement and unpredictability.
Judging by the rafts of positive reviews these albums have garnered, there are plenty of people who do relish a more familiar approach. Those seeking a modern polish to their Pink Floyd and neo-prog record collection, will have found much to enjoy from Airbag's sounds.
Generous reviews and a listen to the opening track, led me to believe that Disconnected could be the album that finally won me over.
The album features six songs with a common issue tying the lyrical and musical themes together. Disconnected is a reflection on the theme of alienation between the individual and society; about one's failure to meet the expectations that society expects, and the resultant state of feeling on the outside, and out of touch with those around us.
It is an issue that many experience at stages in their lives. But again the message is not one that I really buy into. Instead of seeing any lack of conformity to society's expectations as a failure, I would see an individual path as being something to celebrate, something that everyone should be encouraged to seek.
Airbag's music has been described as "epic, scenic rock" and there continues to be something of the cinematic in the lush, expansive soundscapes in which they indulge. For much of the 50 minutes spent with Disconnected, it is more about soaking up the atmospheres, as opposed to exploring the song writing.
For its first half, the opening track is very much the exception to the norm. Killer is simply a great slice of modern song writing. Think Simple Minds, or U2 with The Edge's guitar detailing and groove, yet without Bono's histrionic singing. It offers an impressive and very different (for Airbag) opening, and the first four minutes would make a great single edit. The central section is a cinematic pause with some programming, before we head off towards an extended ending section with Floydian keyboards and a groove that brings to mind late-period Talk Talk.
We then have three tracks which pretty much follow the same pattern, giving an impression of a band on cruise control. All have the same plus points. The sound is rich and lush, especially Anders Hovdan's thick, warm bass. If you play this on a big sound system, it is impossible not to be impressed.
The same thing can be said of Asle Tostrup's rich vocals. The guitar work throughout the album from Bjørn Riis is superb. There are some lovely details which enlightened every track; the clever drum patterns halfway through Broke, the blending of mood and message on Slave and its great guitar solo at six minutes, and the subtle change of mood and melody for Sleepwalker. However as the heart of the album, this trio of tracks is too one-dimensional and single-paced (slow) to generate much excitement.
The 13-minute title track is the album's other highlight, primarily because it does try to bring in a bit of variety. The mid-way instrumental section visits a lounge bar jazz club, the surreal vocal phrasing give a psychedelic turn and the chorus offers some rare urgency and joie de vivre. It wanders on cruise control again for a little too long, before another brilliant guitar solo recaptures one's interest towards the end.
We are brought back down again though, with the disappointingly sparse and simplistic Returned.
And that is pretty much what you get for your money. Fans of this band's previous work and those seeking some lush, Floydian neo progressive rock could easily add another point to my score. Those seeking music that progresses more than it regresses, should probably look elsewhere.
I found this very well performed with enough good melodies and performances to keep Disconnected sitting next to my music system for the times when I need to disconnect from the world with some late night atmospheric rock.
CD: Last Chance to Hear Part 1 (4:23), Critical Mass Part 1 (3:00), Critical Mass Part 2 (3:25), Spy in the Sky Part 2 (4:42), Spy in the Sky Part 3 (8:23), The Remarkable Man (5:00), Spy in the Sky Part 1 (4:47), Revenge of Dr Komodo (2:35), Last Chance to Hear Part 2 (6:41), Mortal Remains (3:16)
DVD: On The Set With Ben Craven - The Making Of Last Chance to Hear (20:40), The Remarkable Man (Official Video) (5:03), Critical Mass Part 2 (TuneLeak Video) (3:31), Revenge of Dr Komodo (TuneLeak Video) (2:33), Spy in the Sky Part 1 (TuneLeak Video) (4:34), Spy in the Sky Part 3 (Ben Craven Vocal) (4:02)
Australian Ben Craven follows up his 2011 album Great and Terrible Potions with Last Chance to Hear. As with his previous albums, all songs were written, performed, produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by the artist, with only one intriguing guest appearance, more of which in a bit. If undertaking every task himself was not impressive enough, the fact that the album manages to sound like the work of a well-honed and established band, is a major achievement that should be applauded.
The majority of the album is impressively instrumental, with only three pieces containing lyric. Huge sonic landscapes have been carved out of the ether to captivate and enthral. First and foremost a guitarist, Ben's tracks are infused with plenty of tasty fret-work. Check out Spy in the Sky Part 1 and Last Chance to Hear Part 2 as prime examples. Craven is no slouch on keyboards though, making great use of synths to add textures and dynamics across the album, even creating an effect synth and guitar duel with himself on the end of Spy in the Sky Part 3. When keyboards are used as a lead instrument, it is mainly the piano that takes to the fore, and none more so than on the beautiful closing track, Mortal Remains. It is a piano ballad that somehow manages to be optimistically sombre!
Of the two songs featuring Craven on vocals, the album opener Last Chance to Hear Part 1 is a deliciously upbeat and frothy number, displaying an amusing lyrical bent to Craven's writing. The song section takes up the first half of the track, before being superseded by a frantic instrumental closing, performed as if it was indeed your last Chance to Hear.
The other Craven vocal occurs on The Remarkable Man and really stands out from the rest of the album, as it has different textural qualities from the other pieces. Whereas Last Chance to Hear Part 1 set the tone, and provided a perfect introduction to the album, The Remarkable Man just seems a bit out of place, and doesn't really blend in with other pieces. Consequently it is my least favourite song of the album. That is not to say it is inherently poorer or in any way not a worthy song, if anything it actually emphasises just how good the rest of the album is.
So I mentioned an intriguing guest, three tracks that had lyrics (note I didn't say three songs had vocals) and that Craven only sings on two songs. So it shouldn't take the detective capabilities of Sherlock Holmes to work out that the other track with lyrics is the one featuring the guest - none other than Captain James Tiberius Kirk himself, AKA William Shatner. Although that may be somewhat surprising on a prog album, anyone who has heard Shatner's remarkable cover versions of songs like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, will know that his musical career is one that tackles things from interesting angles. His contribution to Spy in the Sky Part 3 is superbly brilliant, and I have to say he practically steals the show! The fact that Spy in the Sky Part 2 and Part 3 are brilliant pieces of music makes Shatner's characteristic spoken delivery even more remarkable. To ask Shatner to contribute to the album was a bold and inspired move by Craven and one that has paid off in spades.
The album is accompanied by a DVD, the centrepiece of which is Craven talking about the album's inspiration and the meanings of each track. As I prefer to make my own mind up about music, and wanting to focus on the album as a whole, rather than hearing snippets in isolation, I didn't watch the DVD until after I wrote the above review.
Parts of the interview were a bit of a revelation, others confirmed my initial thoughts. What does come over is what a decent and well-rounded individual Craven is, as well as his passion, not only for his own creations, but for music as a whole. There are five musical tracks on the DVD, only one of which, the video for The Remarkable Man, is duplicated on the CD. I now have a better understanding of the thoughts and reasons behind The Remarkable Man and how it fits in with other parts of the album, and I have to say that the video captures the inspiration for the song brilliantly.
The three TuneLeak video tracks are works in progress, that were posted on Craven's TuneLeak website to give people an indication of where his new music is heading. It is a nice idea and worth having the slightly different versions in one place, accompanied by some publicly sourced videos. The Dr Komodo video in particular is most amusing. Finally, there is the pre-Shatner version of Spy in the Sky Part 3 which remains a great song, but emphasises just how much Shatner's contribution turns something great, into something brilliant.
Overall, Last Chance to Hear is a fantastic album that just gets better on every hearing. The album has a great flow and the music is uniformly of an exceptionally high standard. Have no doubt, this is a major release in the prog world and should make a lot of more established and popular acts sit up and take notice. There is a new kid in town about to steal their thunder.
A Million Stars (4:56), Ancient Spirals (4:58), The Scented Chamber (5:03), Here Lies a Mermaid (6:38), The Fall of the Cards (A Quip for a Jester's Ear) (10:14), Flight from the Enchanter (9:37), The Humours of the Grave (7:56), Mister Silver (10:17), I Trespass in the Kingdom of the Black Doll (8:28), The Ship of Jesters (9:14)
Any cover of a prog album featuring a jester might suggest that the music is reminiscent of Marillion. Well if you were hoping for that, I must disappoint because that isn't the case for this British band. Imagine being at the court of King Arthur and listening to a minstrel. That is closer to what expect. Of course we have some more modern instruments, but the music of Lyrian is full of medieval elements. It's a concept album and the story is about the jester, who is a comical knave, and his journey in search of a mysterious prize.
Along the way he meets wise flowers, alcoholic angels, mermaids, shape-shifting fortune-tellers, aged magicians, shining metal men and a whole shipful of fools. In between the songs, we can hear a narrator and that's a role played by Brian Nash, father of keyboard player Paul Nash. He also plays the pipes, some guitar and additional vocals. The other band members are John Blake (vocals, guitars), Alison Felstead (bass, vocals), and Edgar Wilde (drums, percussion).
The music can be described as seventies prog with a medieval touch thanks to lots of Mellotron, Moog and flute. Elements of Gentle Giant and Genesis (Gabriel years) can be heard. The playing time makes it a problem to sit out the entire album, especially because of the somewhat whining voice of Blake. Some of the lyrics are inspired by well known stories like Moby Dick and The Wizzard Of Oz. The IQ-ish track The Fall Of The Cards has a nice Moog solo, whilst Mister Silver contains a theme from classical composer Georg Friedrich Händel and the recurring intro of an ELO song entitled Poor Boy. There is also some fine guitar work on this track in the style of Steve Hackett.
One of the most attractive things about this album are that the lyrics are full of humour. Fortunately the CD booklet provides us with the words, so we can read along while listening to the music. What about a subtitle A Quip for a Jester's Ear? That must ring some bells and raise a smile with all prog fans of the band mentioned at the start of this review.
This is not your average prog album, and some might not have the stamina to listen to the album from start to finish, but if you want something really different and if you love your seventies prog, then this might be a really nice surprise. For me it could be a little more adventurous, with some additional dynamics. So The Jester's Quest in the City of Glass will not be everyone's cup of tea, but a fine job has been done by this band and it is probably their best album to date.
Spiritual Ouverture II (1:14), The Maze of Babylon (5:36), Society (2:37), The Fugitive (3:46), Amazing (4:58), Game Over It's Me (2:10), We are Legion (5:40), Special Laws (4:30), Cosmos (2:28), About Time (4:24), Revolutionary Soul (5:37)
Arriving three years after the release of the original episode, Spiritual Revolution Part 2 is the continuation of a concept album inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's The Simarillion. One of the fantastic things about writing for DPRP is the opportunity to discover bands that I may have missed. Never having heard Sailor Free previously, Part 2 of this concept was really more of a part 1 for me. To some degree I went into this album with the cautious viewpoint of judging its quality by how much it would inspire me to listen to Part 1. Well, I am happy to say that it succeeded.
Over the last few years, the influence that Steven Wilson has had on progressive rock has become quite clear. The number of bands who display elements of his sound and style continues to grow. The main problem is that even though imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, originality gets lost in the mix at times. This problem is not just reserved for bands that are influenced by Wilson, but I have heard quite a few bands recently that present more of a paint-by-numbers replication of what he does.
The prog genre in general is heavily reliant on influence, so that in itself is not a bad thing. The truly successful bands can match their own creativity with whatever influences that they may have. A mixture of various influences that creates a fresh sound. Sailor Free fits securely into that category.
The album rides a comfortable line between prog, rock and even pop, in a completely accessible way. There is even a bit of a low-key alternative rock style at hand, but the overall vibe still feels adventurous. You won't find any epics here, but the solid, conceptual flow creates that feeling regardless.
The album works so well as a whole, that calling out specific tracks is tough. The transitions from track to track are effective and there are no noticeable lulls in quality. That said, The Maze of Babylon, The Fugitive, Amazing, We are Legion, Special Laws and Revolutionary Soul seem to be the highlights for me. Ultimately though, this is an album best listened to in full. Its shorter legnth makes that quite easy to accomplish.
To go back to my original point though, this album did inspire me to look into part 1 of Spiritual Revolution and Sailor Free's back catalog in general. If you have never heard the band before, Spiritual Road Part 2 is a good place to start. It is definitely an entertaining example of modern prog.
Conglomeration (or: The Grand Pathetic Suite) (26:54), A Failing Ember (9:27), Stalker (19:55)
My neighbour Addfwyn Cyllell burst into my garden yesterday. Inspired by TV adds extolling the wonders of virtual reality technology, he was clutching his own home-spun device and lilted: "It's for you Owen, to help you with a difficult review. To help you experience the music in a sensory way. To help you fuel your imagination and to make an album stand out from the pack."
The fitting was painless; smoke-lensed eye goggles to colour my thoughts, a necklace of herbs to stimulate olfaction and a textured belt, snuggly-fitted with twenty pouched compartments. These contained an array of carefully chosen textured materials to heighten my sense of touch.
His barked instructions were clear: "Listen to the music, bathe in the aroma and explore the pouches."
As Shamblemaths' opening epic Conglomeration began, it was apparent that Addfwyn's device was a distraction. Nothing but the music was needed to colour my imagination. The device was not necessary! The interest created by this challenging, yet accessible piece quickly filtered through, to gain my full attention.
Shamblemaths is a Norwegian duo made up of Simon Ellingsen on vocals and assorted instruments, and Eirik Mathias on bass. The duo is joined by a number of guests who provide extra layers to the multi-faceted compositions. The album consists of three lengthy suites. Conglomeration weighs in at over twenty-six minutes, A Falling Ember lasts almost ten minutes, and the final piece, Stalker, unravels its story in just under twenty.
The duo's appreciation of DPRP and the pair's commitment to progressive rock was set out in the personal note which accompanied their album. It read 'Thanks for the great work DPRP does for the strange music we love'. The duo's unfailing love of all things prog is proclaimed loud and proud throughout their self-titled debut.
During the course of this album, a wide variety of styles associated with prog are entwined with care and skill, to produce something that sounds familiar due to its points of reference, but is ultimately totally unique. The album includes sections that has some avant-garde moments but also channels such diverse bands as VDGG, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Magma, ELP, Hatfield and the North and more modern influences such as Porcupine Tree.
The instrumental sections are wonderfully constructed, and somehow the pair tie together all of the disparate styles into a coherent creative expression that works superbly on a number of levels. Those who appreciate complex cerebral prog will find much to ruminate over in this release. There are also many carefully constructed pastoral moments and tune-based melodies to enjoy. These are brush-coloured by an acoustic palette of instruments. As a contrast, the release also contains a plethora of virtuoso instrumental performances. The organ, saxophone and guitar work is impressive throughout.
Conglomeration is outstanding in every respect. The lyrical subject matter is dark and relates to loneliness, depression and isolation. This is brilliantly counterbalanced by the music, which for the most part is positive and spiritually uplifting.
The caustic lyrical nature of much of the suite is reflected in the titles of some of the sub-sections such as, The Different Tastes of Sick and Life is Tough (when you're me). Taken as a whole, the suite has a self-effacing, tongue-incheek air that is also suggested by some of the darkly-ironic humorous lines that occur.
In the midst of the suite, there is even a musical reference to Ian Anderson's Sossity composition entitled Saucy Tiara Woman. It is an imaginative piece which consumes Anderson's bright melody and regurgitates it with a heavily-disguised makeover that many ardent Tull fans would not recognise. It is however, a palatable banquet for those who are interested to hear an imaginative restyling of this beautiful tune.
If I had any reservations about the album as a whole, then they would relate to the vocal sections. They are well sung and skilfully executed, and often act as a bridge between the instrumental sections. However, I enjoyed the instrumental interludes so much, that I would have liked them to have been longer. This is a matter of personal taste though, (I usually prefer instrumental albums) and on the whole, the vocal parts in Shamblemaths do not detract from the overall excellence of the album.
For many who discover the album, the vocal passages will be viewed as an integral part; vital for communicating the concept, and as a gateway to access the more challenging instrumental parts. The vocal sections successfully achieve both of these roles.
The remaining pieces do not reach the heights achieved in the opening suite, but are successful in their own right. Falling Ember is a bright tune that wears its classic prog influences of Genesis and the like proudly in its fire-lit arrangement. The bass parts are particularly full-bodied and firmly-toned, in this piace and also in Stalker. The sleeve notes state that they were recorded in the 'Room of Mystery and Magic' and one can only imagine the fun the duo had on those occasions.
Falling Ember is also garnished with some classic two-part vocal harmonies and ample acoustic guitar parts. The mood changes at the seven minute mark, with baby cries and some enchanting, retro-styled Mellotron. The end part of this piece is strangely evocative, and conjures up an image of kaleidoscopic lights and the pungency of psychedelia.
There is somewhat of a Canterbury vibe in the opening section of Stalker, although the vocal phrasing brought the work of Genesis to mind. The chorus of this piece, for a prog composition, is unfashionably catchy, and its full bodied arrangement cries out Euro-pop. There is nothing to fear though, as contrasting passages jostle and emerge to take the composition onto a rocky outcrop surrounded by unpredictable, bubbling, progressive waters. The electric guitar tones are expressive and the playing emulates the melodic style of Andy Latimer. It is perhaps though, the full-fleshed tone of the excellent saxophone passages that ensure that this piece stays in the memory long after the sweet vocal melodies have dissipated.
Addfwyn Cyllell called by today to collect his device. I smiled enthusiastically and nodded politely when he asked whether it had helped me experience music in a different way. I didn't have the heart to tell him that Shamblemaths' album did not require any buoyancy aids to keep it afloat and make it stand out from the pack. Instead, I simply handed him this review.
Château Pèlerin Part I (2:47), Burnt Corals (2:34), Hopeless Warrior (3:08), The Arrival of the Magister (2:25), Shadow and Dust (5:49), Wistful (2:36), Red (6:07), Château Pèlerin Part II (2:03), Voyage of the Magister (8:11), Nahia (5:49), Château Pèlerin Part III (4:02), Departure (4:16)
The Magister is the first solo project by composer and guitarist Tal Rubinstein from Israel. He chose his nickname Stein as the band's name. Besides Tal, we have Hod Sarid (drums), Amit Shtriker (bass), Eran Zilberbuch (keyboards, backing vocals) and Maayan Bramson (flute) performing on this album. The inner sleeves also mention Maya Menachem (vocals) and Ray Livnat (backing vocals), a fact that is interesting since we don't have a single word sung on the entire album except for some vocal harmonies on Nahia. The songs were recorded in 2011/2012, but released only in 2016. The album is self-produced, with an excellent sound quality and high-standard musicianship.
The Magister is an instrumental, symphonic, progressive rock concept album. It tells the story of the Magister in his journey through the battled land during The Crusaders' last period in the Holy Land. It is a good example of what, in classical music is known as programme music (a style which attempts to musically deliver an extra-musical narrative, such as Mussorgski's Pictures at an Exhibition and Smetana's Die Moldau). Looking at the song titles and listening to the songs themselves, I get the feeling that the mission of the Magister did not seem to have been crowned with success, but appeared to have been rather futile (somexhat like the crusades altogether).
The track The Arrival of the Magister evokes that his arrival is without pomp and glory. A song such as Wistful describes the people's longing for peace and tranquillity, whilst the final track Departure musically suggests the failure of his mission. He disappears unspectacularly without leaving many traces (as evidenced by the sad-sounding melody and the mellow acoustic guitar outro). All this realistically characterises the crusaders' hopelessness towards the final stages of the crusades.
The album consists of 12 tracks, varying from two to eight minutes. All songs seamlessly merge into each other. Whilst being symphonic by nature, the music is a mix of dreamy, catchy melodies, tingled with folky elements and quite heavy riffing, not unlike the prog-metal band Threshold, coupled with some drama and pathos of bands such as Within Temptation and Opeth (both without their characteristic vocals, though).
The first three songs seem to describe the dangerous situation of the crusaders until the arrival of the Magister. The tenor is rather heavy with good interplay between guitar and keyboards, especially Hammond and Mellotron. The Magister does not arrive out of the blue, but gradually, evidenced by the rhythms becoming more and more intense, underlined by a melodic Hammond background.
Reminiscences of Camel become apparent on various occasions later on in the album. Shadow and Dust is one of my favourites, being very melodic, with catchy guitar and keyboards. It is powerful and strong, evoking the strengths and hope provided to the people by the arrival of the Magister. I hear some similarities with Willowglass and Mike Oldfield.
Consequently, the people long for peace, tranquility and normal times, and the Magister is seen as a redeemer. But it is quickly back to the brutal, everyday life of those times, when Red (the colour of blood and fire) again shows the prog metal abilities of Stein. Consequently, it's back to the safeness of the pilgrims' castle.
The musical similarities of and the recurring themes in the three parts of that song, with its folky elements, suggest a certain degree of (false) normality. The Voyage of the Magister is a melodic song with recurring musical themes provided by guitar and keyboards alternately, and reminds me of the music of Yak.
Nahia (which, if I am not mistaken, is synonymous to a regional or provincial territory) is another strong song with catchy melodies provided alternatively by guitar and synthesiser. Previous projects by solo musicians such as FreddeGredde and Shaun Guerin may serve as references. The album closes with the departure of the Magister, leaving open the question of his achievements.
I have provided a decent degree of personal interpretation of Stein's songs. Of course that is very subjective, and other listeners may have a completely different assessment. But that doesn't matter. What is appealing about Stein's music is the fact that, whilst keeping up the listener's tension throughout the entire 50 minutes, it is relaxing and unpretentious enough to let someone's mind wander. Don't hesitate, listen to this album and dig into the life of the crusaders towards the end of the crusades.