The Game (6:11), Life's A Glitch (5:46), Propaganda: Part Two (1:40), They Promise Everything (7:31), There's Still Hope (5:37), She's (6:48), Spider On The Ceiling (3:09), Clouds (12:27), One Sweet Word (5:31)
Steve Hughes' output over the past couple of years has been impressive. His excellent debut album Tales From The Silent Ocean appeared in March 2015 (review here), followed by Once We Were - Part One in May 2016 (review here). A double album released in two parts, Once We Were - Part Two duly arrived seven months later. Not bad for a musician whose main claim to fame before embarking on a solo career, was drummer with Big Big Train (1991-2007) and The Enid (1994-1998).
His two previous albums made my list of top prog albums of 2015 and 2016 respectively, so understandably I had high expectations for this release, and I wasn't disappointed. True, there is nothing here that quite matches the splendour of the epic length Summer Soldier that opened the last album but there is still a great deal for the prog connoisseur to savour.
Given that Steve's recordings normally revolve around his guitar, keyboard, bass and drum talents, the opening song The Game came as a surprise. The tasteful sax playing of guest Richie Phillips is front and centre for much of the time, giving an already memorable tune a glossy sheen.
Elsewhere Steve's usual sense of dynamics and meticulous attention to detail is very much in evidence, from the edgy and wryly-titled Life's A Glitch, which possesses a Yes circa-Drama feel, to the infectious They Promise Everything with its incessant piano rhythm and sizzling synth and guitar gymnastics, courtesy of Hughes and guest Dec Burke respectively.
The catchy There's Still Hope has a cool 80s vibe that tips its hat to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, whilst the restless She's moves from mellow beginnings, to a hyperactive Frost-like density, demonstrating Hughes' rhythmic prowess.
Clocking in at 12 minutes plus, the (mostly) instrumental Clouds is the album's pièce de résistance, allowing Hughes ample scope to flex his instrumental muscle. The opening section has shades of Genesis and the Canterbury scene, with a jazz-fusion interlude featuring some impressive bass and guitar noodling. The guitar, synth and piano interplay during the latter half is simply stunning, with superb support from guitarist Keith Winter and violinist Maciej Zolnowski.
The concluding One Sweet Word is a song that Conspiracy (the Chris Squire/Billy Sherwood partnership) could have written and performed, featuring engaging counterpoint harmonies and the parting words "The end", appropriately fading into the distance.
Like the last album, Hughes handles virtually all of the vocals himself and his light, airy and very English voice, with just a hint of vulnerability, seems to improve with each album. Although this was recorded during the same 18-month period as the last album, to my ears the instruments have more breathing space, and overall the sound is more transparent.
Whilst Once We Were - Part Two is not perfect (One Sweet Word is perhaps a little too low-key to make for a truly satisfying closer) it does bring this two-part saga to a logical conclusion. And to be fair, given the subjects tackled, including war, political deceit, grief, loneliness and lost love, an upbeat ending was never really on the cards.
Despite the 'Part Two' tag, this is an album that can be appreciated and enjoyed in its own right. If you've yet to sample the musical delights of Steve Hughes (and I strongly urge that you do), this would be as good a place to start as any.
Ignore Alien Orders (3:48), Remarkably Human (6:38), Impossible Things (7:12), Poison Touch (4:25), Hypergiant (7:33), Weakened by Winter (7:58), Fear Had Him by the Throat (5:40), A Sick and Injured Brain (9:31)
Canadian guitarist Nick Johnston's fourth CD, Remarkably Human is a rock-solid jazz-rock release. Built on the pairing of strong compositions and marvelous playing, the entirely instrumental CD cries out for repeated spins. Comparisons of Johnston to Steve Vai and Joe Bonamassa abound, but what stands out most here, are the musical hooks, and Johnston's craftiness. Indeed, unlike so many examples of the genre, here the songs sink-in rather than merely float by. Throughout, Johnston entertains with tasty and refined chops, rather than glitz.
The high-end band accompanying Johnston, including drummer Gavin Harrison, fills-out the sound without intruding on Johnston's starring role. Here the lead is (almost) always Johnston's, but, if you can take your mind off of his playing, you will notice that he's in excellent company.
Peppered throughout Johnston's playing are unexpected, tactful flourishes. Often, in the midst of an already satisfying lead (and the CD is chockablock with these), a sound burst surprisingly surges, and further lifts the experience.
No clunkers are to be heard here, and a good debate could be had among those trying to choose a favorite tune. But Impossible Things andWeakened by Winter should be near the top of the heap: on each (and on other tunes), the guitar lead builds energetically and the flowing, Allan Holdsworth-like runs are somehow both dainty and powerful. Fear Had Him by the Throat is a tour de force where Johnston's guitar lines flow wonderfully. No doubt the mellifluous, bluesy guitar lines in the closer, A Sick and Injured Brain, might cause that tune to also receive near-top honors. Really though, any jazz fusion fan would likely love all of this stuff.
So, it's time to visit Johnston's back catalogue. More, please!
DVD: Glitterball (6:13), Lust (13:04), Guernica (6:38), The War Bride's Prayer/Preikestolen (6:32), Devil at the Crossroads (15:01), Towers of Hope/Demons (10:30), R.A.W. (4:35), Pearl (9:23), Metamorphosis (17:01), The Lizard King (13:32)
CD: Glitterball (5:44), Lust (12:41), The War Bride's Prayer (2:28), Preikestolen (3:42), Devil at the Crossroads (14:45), Pearl (9:11), Metamorphosis (16:35), The Lizard King (13:32)
With their highly acclaimed 2013 album The Twenty-Seven Club Wales-based proggers Magenta definitely established themselves in the premier league of prog music. All four dprp-reviewers rated that album higher than 9, an exceptionally high and consistent judgement from quite critical, independent individuals. So now the band could take that big leap forward, to fulfil that immense potential they had shown ever since their debut release.
But instead ill-fate struck the band hard, with serious health problems coming unto singer Christina Booth, augmented by sad family matters. Because of that, many shows accompanying that new album had to be cancelled and the focus had to be put elsewhere, whilst hoping things would turn out for the better.
When word came that Magenta would re-record Steve Hackett's Spectral Morning it became clear that the prospects for Christina and the band had turned for the better. Then, in the autumn of 2015, the announcement followed that Magenta would play at the goodbye concert for fellow-proggers Touchstone. That memorable gig at The Assembly in Leamington was filmed and is now released as the band's first DVD since 2007's Live at The Point. And with the DVD comes a fine audio CD with the greater part of the set packed together in a cardbox sleeve.
The first thing that struck me was the enormous rise in confidence that the band as a whole, but especially Christina Booth, display here. They are obviously glad to be on stage and to play together again. That pleasure is obvious throughout the film, presenting this devoted band from many different angles, including a camera on the neck of Dan Nelson's bass guitar.
"A glorious return to the stage" would also have been an appropriate name for this DVD but instead they choose to use a phrase from The Lizard King, together with The Devil at the Crossroads and Pearl songs from The Twenty-Seven Club album. From the somewhat disappointing Chameleon album, another three songs are played. A very convincing Glitterball is the opening of the gig, followed later on by a heavy version of Guernica and a tight R.A.W.. The Metamorphosis album is also represented by three songs. The beautiful, quiet The War Bride's Prayer is cleverly glued together with Preikestolen, that has a similar mood, with beautiful orchestral sounds from Reed's keys. A shortened version of the title track is an impressive end of the regular set. In between are live favourites Lust, from Seven, and Towers of Hope and Demons from the Home album.
Christina is, as expected, the natural focal point of this band. Her nice, new, short coiffure as well as her awesome, crystal-clear voice and her charming presentation towards the audience (as well as to all the band members) takes you completely in. Also Chris Fry, a phenomenal guitarist with a continuous big smile on this face, plays a stunning set, both on acoustic and electric guitar. If Steve Howe was to have a successor, Fry is most certainly is the best candidate.
On the other hand Rob Reed, the musical genius behind Magenta, stands shyly in front of the audience but doesn't interact with the people at all. His keys are all around, most of the time supporting the melodies and sometimes doing solos, yet never does he take on the leading role, except when starting a song. It is good that we know that he loves to play live, otherwise the false impression could emerge that he is too shy to feel comfortable on stage.
A special mention should go to the rhythm section. Bass player Dan Nelson and drummer Steve Roberts do a terrific job, swirling through the many time-signature changes and moods that is characteristic of Magenta's epic music. Listen to Nelson's driving bass during the extensive guitar and keyboard solos during Lust and you realise that this band has two first-class musicians backing the intricate musical themes.
But that also brings me to some serious criticism of this DVD. It has nothing to do with the music that is offered here; that is absolutely first class, but this set comes in a cardbox package which offers little-more-than-nothing in terms of information on the band, the production, the gig and the special circumstances. The names of the musicians are nowhere to be found, which is especially sad (or actually unacceptable) for Nelson and Roberts, who are part of the live band but do not play on the studio records. They also played on the former live album Live: On Our Way To Who Knows Where, but those who have not had the privilege to see this band live or own that album would, of course, not be aware of that. They have to be credited, it is as simple as that.
There is, of course, a reference to the band's website but that website ranks among the worst in the scene, as there is nothing to be found there. It is incomprehensible that this fine band invests so little in marketing their music, the band members and their products. Strikingly, the same criticism was similarly applicable to their Singles compilation earlier in 2016.
Furthermore the reaction of the audience is hardly audible on this DVD. It is really strange to watch a formidable band play their music enthusiastically and very well, but to barely hear the well-earned applause. Why this is mixed down, remains a mystery to me. There are no extras on the DVD. That is too bad but the set comes with a very nice low price on it, so that can hardly be something to complain about.
All in all this is another highly enjoyable DVD-set, full of high quality prog music by this great band, but with an enormous flaw when it comes to informing the listener.
La Notte Prima (1:18), Diluvio (4:29), Nebulosa (6:01), Resto Qui (7:34), Nel Profondo (1:20), La Coltre Viola (2:57), A Ferro e Fuoco (7:13), Il Tempo dei Miracoli (8:02), L'Attesa (6:01), Il Fiume Sa (9:01), Comandavo il Vento (6:09), Quando Volo (4:03)
Nathan hail from Savona in Italy. The band began its career in the late nineties as a cover band playing songs by Genesis, Supertramp and Pink Floyd (something they still do). Nebulosa is their first album containing self-written songs. Looking at the album cover and its title, one might be inclined to think that one is having to deal with space rock, but we are talking about symphonic progressive rock with that Italian touch, in the vein of the best Rock Progressivo Italiano (RPI).
Nathan consists of Piergiorgio Abba (keyboards), Bruno Lugaro (vocals, bass guitar), Fabio Sanfilippo (drums) and Daniele Ferro (guitars) plus guest musicians Marco Milano (keyboards), Monica Giovannini (backing vocals), Mauro Brunzu (bass guitar) and Davide Rivera (Flute). Looking at the band members' pictures, it becomes clear that we have some very experienced musicians performing on this release. Lyrically, Nebulosa is a science-fiction concept album about a population in search of a world with water, when its own world runs out of aquatic resources 300 years from now.
Musically, the listener gets everything one would expect from an RPI release. There are lush keyboards, especially piano, Mellotron and synthesiser, acting both as a solemn tapestry and lead instrument. In addition we have crisp guitars, that slightly dramatic and melodic Italian singing, plenty of accessible and catchy refrains, and a good balance concerning the role of each instrument. Lengthy instrumental passages alternate with singer songwriting-style vocals, and calm and introspective parts with instrumental outbursts.
Being very well performed by talented musicians showing their abundant musical abilities, the music avoids unnecessary complexity whilst remaining highly varied. Fans of bands such as La Maschera di Cera, Il Tempio delle Clessidre, Logos, Höstsonaten, Narrow Pass, Barock Project, and Mosaico will find quite a few similarities. In comparison to the music of the Italian masters from the 70s such as PFM, Banco, and Le Orme, Nathan's music has a slightly stronger neo-prog feel, despite being sung in the band members' native tongue.
Not totally surprisingly, it is the songs clocking at over seven minutes where the elements of Nathan's music comes across the best, especially evidenced by the beautiful Resto Qui. Starting quietly with a little piano run, the strings and flute are followed by a synthesiser outburst, the melody of which is taken on by the guitar, leading the way to Bruno Lugaro's melodious and slightly contemplative singing. The song ends with an alternation of fierce and catchy synthesiser and guitar solos. Great! This song is the closest to what Banco did 40 years ago, but tracks such as A Ferro e Fuoco and Il Fiume Sa also show a great variety and strong melodies. The closing track Quando Volo falls off a bit, as compared to the rest, it is more of an airplay-suited pop, rather than a progressive rock song. But that is only a minor downer.
Nathan's music does not pretend to be ground-breaking and particularly original. Being a typical representative of this particular musical style, their music is both for those listeners who don't mind listening to the umpteen Italian symphonic progressive rock release (such as myself), as well as those wishing to test the waters concerning their affinity for this particular musical sub-genre. Both type of listener can't go wrong in getting hold of this record. Enjoy!
Prelude (1:14), Home (5:16), Perceiving Red (6:24), Munich (4:32), Stars Under Water (5:22), Interlude 1 (1:17), The Sea (8:36), Fire Walk With Me! (6:20), Interlude 2 (0:57), Where Did the Summer Go (3:12), Lighthouse (4:48), Postludium-Walk of Atonement (4:03)
It is not very often that I come across an album that is so utterly perfect as Oak's Lighthouse. It is even less often that such an album comes from a band that is all-but-completely unheard of, even in progressive rock circles. Hailing from the Norwegian capital of Oslo, Oak's music ranges from atmospheric and ethereal, to heavy and melodic. The album flows brilliantly, with the songs often gradually building from quieter moments, to heavier walls of sound.
Each musician delivers a heartfelt and pristine performance that rewards with every listen. Sigbjørn Reiakvam on drums manages to continually offer the perfect balance of restrained beats with excellent chops, very similar to Nick Mason's work with Pink Floyd. Øystein Sootholtet's bass work matches Sigbjørn's drums to create a powerful rhythm section that carries the band through the course of the album. Ole Michael Bjørndal's guitar work reminds me of the atmospheric moments of Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, Steven Wilson, and Riverside. At the forefront of the music, however, is Simen Valldal Johannessen's vocals and piano. His deep and soothing voice balances the music quite well. While many bands making "atmospheric" prog might tend to stick to synth sounds, the use of piano throughout grounds the music and broadens the band's musical scope.
I've already mentioned the musical similarities or influences regarding Bjørndal's guitar work, but I believe those bands also offer a good comparison for Oak's sound as a whole. That is to say, if you like Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree in their atmospheric moments, you are almost sure to enjoy Lighthouse. This is not mere coying, however. Far from it. Oak is one of the most unique bands I have listened to in a long time. Interestingly, although I've never been to Scandinavia myself, their music seems to match the images I have in my mind of that part of the world: vast, quiet, sparse, lonely, reflective, yet strong, formidable, and fierce. I believe these adjectives aptly describe Oak's music as well.
The Sea wonderfully encapsulates everything I enjoy about this album. As the longest song, it allows the band to fully develop their sound. Starting off quiet, the song gradually builds to their heaviest moment. While not quite metal in nature, this part of the song really is quite heavy, before dipping down again to a quiet moment. The transfer to the next song, Fire Walk With Me! is seamless. In fact, the transitions throughout the album make the whole piece sound rather like one long song, which makes sense considering how short most of the songs are. The prelude, interludes, and postlude tie the songs together without being filler. If you were to listen to Lighthouse without looking at when the songs change, you may not even notice when they change. It all fits together that well.
Oak excel lyrically as well. While the music is what will grab your attention, on repeated listens, the lyrics gradually begin to wash over you. What I like about them, is that they aren't obvious. There is room for interpretation, which means repeated listens are never stale. The more you listen to Lighthouse, the more goodies you will find both in the music and the lyrics.
If you get the sense from my review that I really really liked Lighthouse, you would be correct. This was my favourite album of 2016, and I plan on listening to it for years to come. However, I don't think this has de-legitimised my objectivity. I've seen nothing but positive responses to this album, both in reviews, concert reviews, comments, and personal correspondence with several people about the album. It seems that everyone who gives Oak a chance is not disappointed by what they hear. Personally, after being introduced to the band by a review on another website, I checked out a few of the brief samples on iTunes. After listening to maybe two minutes of the band's music, I was hooked and instantly downloaded the album. It was the best musical decision I made last year.
Because of the way Oak avoid limiting themselves to a particular sound or genre, their music should appeal to many. While their music is largely atmospheric, it is not minimalistic at all. There are no loose gaps in the music, and the album is never boring. Every note is there for a reason, and none are wasted.
Unsettled Cyclists Peloton (7:55), Collapse Of Time (5:55), Rhubanabarb (8:21), Shape Suggestion (9:14), An Eccentric Introvert In a Study Filled With Broken Mirrors (11:47), Astroepos (14:08), Buy 2, Take 3 (5:12)
With a name drawn from the Sanskrit phrase "tat tvam asi" that means "that thou art", this jazz-prog quartet produce music of some instrumental intensity, mixing jazz, with avant-garde rock and folk-inflected bursts of melody. The founder and leading man, guitarist Grzegorz Lesiak was an experimental folk musician before a tragic car crash left him hospitalised and a fellow musician deceased. After a ten-year gap he returns with a new direction and a fierce spirit.
Gathering around him tenor saxophonist/arranger Tomasz Piątek, bassist Łukasz Downar, and drummer Krzysztof Redas, the album Parts of the Entirety is a manifesto for his new direction, and it is a very interesting direction.
Often the tracks are duets between guitar and tenor sax. They bounce melodic and harmonic ideas off each other with the secure underpinning of bass and percussion. As an ensemble they are able to turn on a sixpence, as they establish melodic and rhythmic patterns, before deconstructing them with time changes and blasts of avant-garde rock. The album has a warm and lively improvised feel.
They throw in some world music-tinged blues on Shape Suggestion before dividing the song between a guitar solo and then a sax solo. On the longer tracks, such as excellent Astroepos and the wonderfully titled An Eccentric Introvert In a Study Filled With Broken Mirrors, the band give themselves space to range freely, developing and expanding the musical pallets used. Both Lesiak and Piątek produce an extraordinarily varied set of sounds from their respective instruments throughout the album.
They do occasionally, as on Collapse Of Time, go into Coltrane-like honking that has plenty of notes but little melody. Whilst the closing track, Buy 2, Take 3, is a more standard, theme and solos jazz number and suffers by comparison with the rest of the album.
So with Tatvamasi's Parts of the Entirety you get jazz-rock-prog that brings to mind the late sixties, early seventies releases of Miles Davis that heavily feature John McLaughlin, such as Jack Johnson and In a Silent Way. With Parts of the Entirety Tatvamasi manage to, on the whole, match the intensity and invention of these albums.