ISSUE 2016-059

Reviews in this issue:

Antoine Fafard - Sphere
Antoine Fafard - Sphere
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 52:01
Links:
Track List:
Reminiscence (5:55), Renaissance Man (5:15), Facta Non Verba (5:51), Fur & Axes, Pt. II (5:04), Still Invictus (7:57), Cherishing (4:32), No-Brainer (5:18), Celestial Roots (5:59), Bubonic Groove (6:05)
Sphere is the fourth release from electric bassist Antoine Fafard, here joined by Gary Husband on drums and keyboards, and by Jerry De Villiers, Jr., on guitar. Fafard wrote all of the tunes but for three, which he co-wrote with De Villiers. The CD follows the jazz-fusion path of Fafard's earlier releases, the first of which, Solus Operandi, was labeled as "magnificent" in its DPRP review.

The new CD provides an excellent example of the jazz-fusion genre, and, notably, the music is current yet pays homage to the 1970s. The CD is a tour-de-force of sorts for all three musicians, who play their hearts out and collectively. Fafard's bass, which occasionally solos, is brisk and pronounced. Husband's drumming is heavy yet precise (although when less active, it sounds a bit wooden), and his keyboard playing is quick-paced, melodious and bubbly (in the styles of Jan Hammer" and Barry Miles*). De Villiers' growling, legato guitar-licks unmistakably evoke long-time master-of-this-genre Allan Holdsworth. Notably, the players seem to exercise much musical freedom, but still keep a proper eye on compositional boundaries.

The songs, occasionally slow and heady (for example, Cherishing) but mostly mid-paced, are more appealing for their bursts of striking musicianship, than for their hooks. As the tunes pass by, sometimes without obvious signposts, any of the three musicians' chops could catch and hold the listener's attention. Perhaps most notably, the guitar playing displays great proficiency and sometimes provides quick rushes; and when not in the leading role, the guitar effectively balances, and mutes the business of the remaining instrumentalism. And there's not a clunker to be heard on the CD.

So, this is a solid release in all respects. Fans of jazz-fusion generally, and those of Allan Holdsworth's early solo output in particular (which likewise featured Husband on drums), will likely relish in this music and long for more.
Conclusion:
Joel Atlas: 7.5 out of 10

Half Past Four - Land Of The Blind
Half Past Four - Land Of The Blind
Country of Origin: Canada
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 26:03
Links:
Track List:
Mathematics (5:33), Mood Elevator (5:28), Toronto Tontos (3:39), One Eyed Man (4:38), Mirror Eyes (6:44)
Canadian band Half Past Four can hardly be described as prolific given that in their 17 years of existence, the mini album Land Of The Blind is just their third release. The band is comprised of guitarists Dmitry Lesov and Constantin Necrasov, (who formed the group in 1999), keyboardist Igor Kurtzman who jumped on board in 2002, and the extraordinary singer Kyree Vibrant who joined up three years later. The current line-up was completed in 2012 when bassist Marcello was pulled into the ranks. I can find no mention of who plays the drums, and although he is missing from the website, there is definitely one present on the CD!

Despite only featuring five tricks and a running time of twenty-six minutes, the breadth of musical styles on Land Of The Blind is quite amazing. There are plenty of groups than defy pigeonholing but this Canadian combo definitely take the biscuit in terms of being very difficult to pin down. However there is no doubt that the group fall into the progressive domain, given their use of offbeat and varied/varying time signatures, and their supreme musicianship.

The EP kicks off with Mathematics, a rather straight-forward song featuring a lovely melody and sublime vocals by Kyree. We also have a collection of solos, one by each of the guitarists, split by a meander across the keyboards. It all shows off the chops of the members, before a final chorus shows the group also has a handle on harmony singing. In complete contrast Mood Elevator is a really quirky number, whose introduction bears a strong resemblance to Adrian Belew-era King Crimson. Initially, it was a bit of a surprise volte-face, but after a few spins, the whole piece becomes quite a delight with riffing guitars, a phenomenal piece of scat singing and an amusing narrative.

Fellow Canadians Max Webster are honoured with a cover of Toronto Tontos from the art rockers' debut eponymous album of 1976. It is a pretty straight cover, in that Half Past Four haven't dramatically altered the song, apart from adding some amusing squeaky toys into the mix, but anyone familiar with the Rush-endorsed combo will know not to expect anything simply ordinary. One Eyed Man continues the quirky nature, with once again the soloists shining through. One never knows in what direction the band will head off, from one moment to the next, as the songs are far from linear, mixing tempo and stylistic changes throughout.

The mini album finishes with Mirror Eyes, whose introductory vocal section showcases Vibrant's rich and sonorous voice. Once again the instrumentalists shine without being indulgent. It is a pity I can't name-check the drummer whose sterling performance makes a great contribution, but needless to say he (or she) fits in perfectly with what the rest of the band are doing. A jolly vocal refrain brings the all-too-short album to a happy close.

With a striking cover, a visual representation of the old saying: 'In the Land Of The Blind the One Eyed Man is King', this is a delightful EP of excellent, modern, melodic progressive music. Well worth investing in.
Conclusion:
Mark Hughes: 8 out of 10

Heliopolis - Epic at the Majestic: Live at RoSFest
Heliopolis - Epic at the Majestic: Live at RoSFest
Country of Origin: US
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 49:19
Links:
Track List:
New Frontier (10:54)), Take A Moment (09:27), Mr.Wishbone/Opticall Delusion (4:28), Elegy (6:18), Love and Inspiration (18:52)
Heliopolis is a Los Angeles-based prog band that consists of former members of Mars Hollow, Ten Jinn and Genesis tribute band, Gabble Ratchet. The band released their debut in 2014 and was asked to perform at the Rosfest progressive rock festival in Pennsylvania the following year. Epic at the Majestic is a document of that performance.

Consisting of each track from their debut studio album, this live presentation showcases the complexity of the band's music and the significant talents of each member. Heliopolis is a symphonic prog band, but there is also a clear fusion quality to be found in some of their material. This style is showcased most prominently in some impressive instrumental passages. Vocalist Scott Jones does good work here, but like many prog vocalists, he often takes a back seat to some of the instrumental strength going on around him.

I was familiar with the band's studio album and did enjoy it. In Andy Read's review of the album on DPRP, he criticised some elements of the production and a certain lack of "balls" in the last two tracks. I think his points were solid, and what struck me the most about this recording is the extra kick that these songs have in a live setting. There are bands whose music extends to another level when performed live, and Epic at the Majestic is a good indication that Heliopolis falls into that category. Each song contained here is an improvement on the studio version. The only possible exception is the addition of Jerry Beller's drum solo during Love and Inspiration. The solo is impressive, but in my humble opinion, drum solos don't carry-over well into a live recording. I think they often break the momentum of the song and that is the case here. I do understand the need to keep the performance whole though, by including it on the album.

Aside from this slight distraction, Beller gives a great performance throughout the set, matched equally by his band mates. Kerry Chicoine on bass, Matt Brown on keyboards and Mike Matier on guitar, are all excellent. If you are a fan of their debut, this is an opportunity to hear the music of Heliopolis kicked into another gear. If you are not yet familiar with their work, Epic at the Majestic is a perfect introduction. The positive reaction of the Rosfest audience is apparent and it is quite possible that your reaction will be similar. As Andy stated in his review of their debut: "They have the ingredients to produce a great modern prog album". If they can bring the energy of their live performances into their next studio release, I would say that they have a good chance of confirming Andy's opinion.
Conclusion:
Patrick McAfee: 7.5 out of 10

Moonlight Sky - The Four
Moonlight Sky - The Four
Country of Origin: Slovenia
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 57:17
Links:
Track List:
Tour de Vir (6:51), Sestka (7:53), MAKEDONSKA (11:13), Microcosm (4:36), Nearest to Inexpressible (10:01), Light Hours (4:59), Taino (6:48), But I like Blues (4:59)
Slovenian band Moonlight Sky released their self-titled debut in 2006. A second album, entitled I Am, followed in 2009. These albums featured vocals and were reviewed by Alex Torres for DPRP in 2012. By the time that their third album was recorded, the group had undergone a change of direction with the departure of vocalist and keyboard player Andraz Krzič, and had become an instrumental band featuring drums, bass and guitar.

To reflect this change of style, the aptly named Changing Parameters was released under the moniker of the Moonlight Sky Trio in 2012. In that album, the band presented an approach which was firmly rooted in jazz–fusion. When reviewed by DPRP, it received a positive recommendation. In a genre where electric guitar and keyboards tend to have dominance, Changing Parameters was refreshingly different and did not conform to that norm. The album was characterised by the impressive use of acoustic and classical guitar as the principal lead instruments.

For their latest album, fittingly titled The Four, Moonlight Sky has reverted to a quartet and have also decided to use their original band name. The line-up on the album includes long-standing members Miha Petric on acoustic, classical and electric guitar, Žiga Kožar on drums, and Janez Moder on bass guitar. The quartet is completed by Jan Sever. He is the most recent addition to the group and he provides keyboards, piano and electric piano.

The Four is a very impressive album and should appeal to those who enjoy fusion, liberally flavoured by contemporary jazz. This is a release that has no qualms about displaying its jazz roots and influences, in the delightful arrangements that so crisply illuminate the players' prowess and mastery over their respective instruments.

There is always something reassuring about an album that immediately brings to mind a host of other artists, and this is superficially the case as the excellent compositions of The Four unfold. The band appears to channel elements of the spacious and stark soundscape that are commonly associated with the ECM record label during MAKEDONSKA. Similarly, at other points during the album, it is relatively easy, but not entirely justified or accurate, to make cursory comparisons to the style or work of artists such as, Al Di Meola, Gary Boyle, Paco de Lucia, Chick Corea and Rainer Bruninghaus.

There are occasions in tracks such as in the blisteringly brilliant Microcosm, and in the peppy piano-led interludes in Light Years, when the band's style is comparable with some of the best work of Return To Forever's Romantic Warrior period. Similarly, the beautifully-plaintive guitar melody and tones chosen in the first part of But I like Blues are as evocative as John Etheridge's shining contribution in Soft Machine's Song of Aeolus.

However, below the shimmering surface of the album, there are a plethora of ingredients that gives The Four its own unique style and fascinating identity. These appealing aspects often centre on the virtuoso playing of Petric and Sever. Their skills are to the fore throughout the album and are boldly emphasised in the album's standout pieces MAKEDONSKA and Nearest Inexpressible.

Other equally rewarding, but understated elements have a role to play in making the album a totally satisfying experience. For example, guest player Goran Bojčevski on clarinet excels in the unexpectedly avant garde middle and concluding sections of Nearest Inexpressible and gives the piece a distinctive character. His sparse and creative yowls produce an array of ethereal sounds, which create an edgy and disconcerting atmosphere. The impact that this generates, contrasts magnificently with the otherwise pleasant ambiance of the piece and of the album as a whole.

The album contains eight compositions and each piece is a showcase for some splendid ensemble playing and a multitude of deftly constructed solo parts. Many of the pieces, such as Taino, feature quick-footed rhythms that are delivered with aplomb. This provides a vibrant platform and gives an opportunity for many satisfying changes of pace to occur. On these occasions, the band shows the benefit of playing fewer, rather than many notes. A spacious feeling is created, that enables solos to be carefully introduced and developed.

In the latter stages of Taino the players are given a chance to highlight their considerable collective and solo skills. During this piece, there are numerous opportunities for Petric to showcase his nimble fretwork. The flowing piano work of Seder is also superb, but is flamboyantly matched by Petric's outstanding input on both acoustic and electric guitar. His exuberant style brilliantly embellishes this piece and each of the album's compositions with panache.

Petric's versatility is emphasised during MAKEDONSKA, where his flamenco-styled flurries are particularly eye-catching. He then switches to electric guitar in the final stages of the composition, to deliver a powerhouse exhibition of his skills.

Mention should also be made of the terrific contribution of Janez Moder and Žiga Kožar throughout the release. They provide a pulsating framework and are adept at delivering the complex time signatures which are such a compelling feature of the album. The opening piece on the album, Tour de Vie, and the tightly spun Sestka perfectly demonstrate Kozar's persuasive knack of executing stop-start rhythms with ease. Moder's bass work is particularly satisfying and decorates The Four with a mix of delicate and muscular tints. This is convincingly illustrated by the attractive solo bass parts in MAKEDONSKA and in a number of gratifying bass phases during Sestka.

If you appreciate fusion that retains a flavour of jazz, that has restraint when necessary, but also has moments of muscular abandon, then The Four may well tick a number of boxes.

It is an imposing and rewarding album. Its compositions are complex and the arrangements are striking. The players perform the pieces with an abundance of warm-hearted feeling and are able to convey the band's creative vision with consummate technical expertise.

The Four will remain on my playlist for a long time.
Conclusion:
Owen Davies: 9 out of 10

Paradigm Shift - Becoming Aware
Paradigm Shift - Becoming Aware
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 50:29
Links:
Track List:
A Revolutionary Cure (14:50), An Easy Lie (8:50), The Void (3:21), The Shift (4:33), Masquerade (9:33), Reunification (9:22)
This young, London-based band have, with Becoming Aware, produced a concept album that tackles the varieties of slavery that they see existing in the world, from wage slavery to the ideological variety. They have explored this with a series of songs that appeal to lost ideals of freedom. Now, if all this sounds a bit conceptually heavy, do not worry, as it is all smuggled-in on an album chock-full of melody, virtuosity and intricacy.

Mixing up the melodic nous of Pendragon and Muse with the metallic edges of Dream Theater and the synths of eighties Rush, they feel somewhat like a politically, rather than spiritually, engaged Neal Morse Band. The sound quality is terrific, as one would expect when you know that it is mixed by Rob Aubrey (Big Big Train) and mastered by Acle Kahney (Tesseract). The band has an obvious virtuosity, that adds, rather than detracts from the songs.

Paradigm Shift mix in vocal samples (play spot the political leaders) and electronica on the long opener A Revolutionary Cure along with a twisting, turning mix of prog metal riffs and jazz fusion, whilst subtle drumming underpins it all. It segues smartly into An Easy Life, where they use rap-like singing and some funky guitar playing to great effect.

A couple of excellent instrumentals follow, before classic rock raises its head on the twin guitar attack of Masquerade. It is in parts like Thin Lizzy doing prog. It also has a boogie section that is a bit of a welcome surprise. The album closes with the strong musical summation of what has gone before, with Reunification.

So with Becoming Aware, Paradigm Shift have produced an album that is a slice of metallic prog with some fabulous piano throughout. It is modern, but familiar in its retro-feel. It leaves one wondering how good an album they will produce when they have gotten their, admittedly low-key, hero worship out of their collective system. A very promising debut.
Conclusion:
Martin Burns: 8 out of 10

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Published Sunday 20 November 2016

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