ISSUE 2017-023

Reviews in this issue:

Damnation Day - A World Awakens
Damnations Day - A World Awakens
Country of Origin: Australia
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 48:20
Links:
Track List:
The Witness (4:45), Dissecting The Soul (4:47), Colours Of Darkness (4:58), I Pray (5:43), Into Black (3:05), To Begin Again (5:02), The Idol Counterfeit (5:21), A World Awakens (6:14), Diagnose (5:11)
They've been around for 12 years but this is only the second album from this accomplished Australian prog-power metal quartet. It's taken five years since the release of their debut album, Invisible The Dead, but extensive touring with the likes of Nightwish, Accept and Soilwork have provided some great learning opportunities, that have clearly been well-used. A World Awakens is a big step up in class in terms of the song writing, performances and the sheer power and energy showcased in the nine tracks on offer here.

This style of melodic prog-power metal was pretty common in the 90s and early noughties as bands mixed influences from the days of melodic hard rock (White Lion and Q5), with the early proponents of prog-metal. A more accessible prog-metal if you like.

However the number of bands playing this style of metal has declined considerably in the past decade. So fans of Morifade, Vanishing Point, Kamelot and most of all, the much-missed Magnitude 9, will find much to enjoy here.

The line-up of Mark Kennedy on vocals and guitar, Anthony Finch on bass, Jon King on guitar and drummer Dean Kennedy are exceptionally tight, with Kennedy's strong voice being a real asset. Just have a listen to the huge range he employs on the more balladic Colours Of Darkness.

Whilst there are no bad songs on the album, the highlights, the songs that will draw you back for repeat listens, become obvious after a couple of spins. The opening pair are just great slices of melodicity (if there is no such word, then there should be!). The Idol Counterfeit has a similar impact, but it is the more prog-metal leanings of I Pray that stands as my favourite. Think Darkwater mixed with early Quennsryche and Transcendence-period Crimson Glory. It indicates a compositional strength and depth that the band would do well to develop if they wish their sound to evolve in future years.

Until then this is another heavy hit from Australia.
Conclusions:
Andy Read: 8 out of 10

The Gift - Why The Sea Is Salt
The Gift - Why The Sea Is Salt
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 57:48
Links:
Track List:
At Sea: i Bon Voyage, ii Battle Stations, iii Storm Force, iv Becalmed v Tritons (10:28), Sweeper Of Dreams (5:18), Tuesday's Child: i Road Of Ashes, ii The First Flower, iii New Horizons (9:44), The Tallest Tree (6:14), All These Things: i The Vow, ii Harvest Of The Hollow, iii Feeding Time, iv The Jackdaw, Magpie and Me, v Swan And Butterfly, vi Heartfire (20:43), At Sea - Reprise (Ondine's Song) (5:19)
Over a decade ago, one of the most exciting record labels for new progressive music was Cyclops, who helped to break numerous international bands in the UK as well as promote home-grown talent. I was a regular customer of the label, both via mail order and at numerous prog gigs where label supremo Malcolm Parker routinely set up his stall. One of the bands on that label was The Gift, a band from London who put out a single album of two lengthy epics called Awake And Dreaming and then disappeared.

The band was resurrected a few years ago by vocalist Mike Morton with a new writing partner, guitarist Dave Lloyd. The two of them handled all instruments, except drums. The critically acclaimed Land Of Shadows was released in 2014 on the newly formed Bad Elephant label, prompting the recruitment of additional members that could bring the music to life on stage. Back came original guitarist Leroy James, with the line-up completed by bassist Stefan Dickers, keyboardist Gabriele Baldocci and drummer Neil Hayman.

A large attraction of this album for many will be the appearance of two ex-Genesis guitarists Ant Phillips and Steve Hackett adding 12-string acoustic and lead electric to The Tallest Tree, a lovely song that could easily have stemmed from one of Phillips' own solo albums.

However, there is a lot more to this album than the presence of star guests, as the band themselves have more than enough talent to spare. Baldocci is a fine pianist, as is evident from the first three instrumental sections of At Sea, which act as an introduction to the fine vocal section Becalmed, which has a touch of Big Big Train about it. The Tritons finale hands itself over to the guitars and some more electronic keyboards. It is quite a stunning opening number.

Sweeper Of Dreams is a rather more straight-forward song with some wonderful melodies and expressive guitar work; the two guitarists are easily differentiated in the clear mix, each providing crisp and concise solos. Morton has a pleasing voice that entirely suits the music, and he even twists the melody about on the enjoyable chorus. Road Of Ashes, the opening instrumental section to Tuesday's Child is some simply superb prog. The First Flower, the largely acoustic middle vocal section, leads into the pinnacle of the track, New Horizons, which concludes things in a rather stately manner. Morton's lyrics are erudite and tell a meaningful tale both as a stand-alone track and related to the overall nautical theme of the album. One minor criticism is that At Sea and Tuesday's Child have a very similar structure. Both are excellent songs but one can sort of predict how they will progress.

The album's long-form song is All These Things, a true test of compositional skills. The opening section, The Vow, did not really grab me and it was not until midway through Harvest Of The Hollow that my ears really pricked up and I started to take real notice. However, the transition into Feeding Time was, I thought, a bit clunky and somewhat of a forced introduction of a different style. The vocal introduction is not my favourite of the album but the guitar section is excellent and the link into The Jackdaw, Magpie and Me is a whole lot better, with this part of the overall song being a highlight of the album. The piano and vocal Swan And Butterfly is also rather reminiscent of similar sections in other songs. The concluding Heartfire provides a suitable apt amalgamation of styles, yet lacks a really dramatic, concluding musical statement. At Sea - Reprise (Ondine's Song) is a good way to end the album, summarising things that have gone before and winding things down to a peaceful close.

Overall, this is a pretty decent album but lacking that small spark that elevates it into the higher echelons of essentialness. No doubting that The Gift have it in them to produce something of utter greatness, particularly if the band can really fuse as a writing and performing unit. However, there is enough on evidence here for the band to pick up an ocean (pun intended) of new supporters, and there will be few purchasers of this album that will come away disappointed.
Conclusions:
Mark Hughes: 7 out of 10

Mantra Vega - The Illusion’s Reckoning
Mantra Vega - The Illusion's Reckoning
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 55:23
Links:
Track List:
Every Corner (2:25), Island (5:53), Veil of Ghosts (6:48), Lake Sunday (6:10), Mountain Spring (6:09), In a Dream (5:20), Learning to be Light (5:03), I've Seen Your Star (6:00), Island (reprise) (1:42), The Illusion's Reckoning (9:53). Bonus track: Mountain Spring (acoustic version)(6:02)
Leaving Mostly Autumn in early 2010 was a brave decision by lead vocalist Heather Findlay. She had been the band's main focal point because of her distinctive voice, her song-writing abilities, her live performance and her overall appearance. Yet she choose to follow her own path and split ways with the band that made her well-known.

Her first solo outing was the, to my ears, disappointing The Phoenix Suite. The EP primarily showcased the rockier side of her talents, as if to stress that she wanted to emphasise the musical difference with her former band, albeit that the split was heartbreaking but friendly. She brought the album to the road and did a couple of live dates with the Heather Findlay Band featuring Dave Kerzner (Sound of Contact), Chris Johnson and Alex Cromarty (both Mostly Autumn and Halo Blind). After an acoustic live album with Johnson (Live at the Café 68) and a normal live album with the Heather Findlay Band (Songs from the Old Kitchen) she more or less disappeared from the scene, committing herself to family matters. She did vocal duties on albums by Ayreon, Iona and Karnataka but it wouldn't be until 2016 that she returned as her own performing artist with the album The Illusion's Reckoning under the name of Mantra Vega.

In Mantra Vega the former Heather Findlay Band members Kerzner and Johnson, plus bassist Stu Fletcher (We Could Be Astronauts) and Cromarty re-unite, augmented by David Kilminster (Steven Wilson, Roger Waters) and several guest musicians amongst who are Arjen Lucassen, Angela Gordon (nowadays part again of Mostly Autumn), Irene Jansen (Ayreon) and Troy Donockley (Nightwish).

And what a return this is!

The division in roles within Mantra Vega looks very much the same as in Mostly Autumn. Kerzner takes care of almost all music, as Bryan Josh does in Mostly Autumn, except for two tracks, the laid back Lake Sunday and the melancholic ballad I've Seen Your Star, which were written by Findlay. She also did all lyrics, as well as the album cover.

The album as a whole is very varied in atmosphere and in pace, taking the listener from spoken words (Every Corner) to jazzy ballads (Lake Sunday, Learning to be Light), intimate soft pop (In a Dream with Findlay's children adding vocals) through to fierce rock songs (Veil of Ghosts) and Oasis-like stadium rock (the deceivingly-simple sounding Island that sticks to your memory immediately, and Mountain Spring with beautiful recorders). It all leads towards a complex prog epic (the title track) which closes off the album. The instrumentation is quite rich too, featuring recorders played by Angela Gordon, bansuri (a kind of Eastern bamboo flute) played by Remco de Landmeter and mandolin, played by Matt Dorsey. In spite of all this variety in styles and spheres, the album is still coherent because Findlay's voice and the tight playing of the band keep it all together.

Yet there is room for improvement. The album opens with the short track Every Corner featuring Kerzner on atmospheric keys as the background for Findlay's spoken words. The lyrics are inspired by eastern philosophical masters, as the booklet states. As an opener it completely fails to impress me because it has almost nothing in common with what is to come. I think it would have worked better as an album closer. Also, in this track I found it hard to hear the pronunciation of the lyrics. Learning To Be Light and I've Seen Your Star are two nice songs but musically speaking rather unremarkable, although the bansuri on the latter is very beautiful. They are too good to be considered as fillers but the album wouldn't have suffered much if they hadn't been on it. Findlay sounds more relaxed than on her first solo EP. Her singing is very good, both in the soft and in the fierce parts. The band suits her well, while the co-operation of some of the finest guest musicians imaginable will have added to her self-confidence. The medium length of most songs give the band full room to build an attractive musical landscape, with ample room for instruments, sounds and atmospheres. Let's hope that Mantra Vega is not a one-album project but that the tangible synergy between these musicians and their friends will lead to more convincing musical outings.
Conclusions:
Theo Verstrael: 7.5 out of 10

Duo Review
The Mute Gods - Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
The Mute Gods - Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 62:50
Links:
Track List:
Saltatio Mortis (1:57), Animal Army (5:00), We Can't Carry On (5:11), The Dumbing of the Stupid (7:09), Early Warning (3:56), Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth (5:02), Window Onto The Sun (6:00), Lament (2:01), The Singing Fish of Batticaloa (8:24), Hallelujah (5:50), The Andromeda Strain (2:57), Stranger Than Fiction (4:21).
John Wenlock-Smith's Review
I've spent much of this week listening to, and allowing this album to seep into my mind, and it's been time well spent, as repeated listens have indeed revealed this to be a truly awesome and outstanding album from The Mute Gods, and even a vast improvement on their impressive debut Do Nothing 'Till You Hear From Me from last year.

So whilst this album comes just a year after that one, it's like they've stepped up a gear and jumped a few rungs up the ladder towards glory. Over its 12 tracks, there is an ongoing development, or progression even. The songs are stronger, more memorable and are ably propelled by some choruses that really resonate.

The subject matter is dark and heavy and ranty, as they talk of the blindness of many to the plight of the modern world, taking rather a few pot shots at organised religion in the process, as they criticise blind faith and allegiance without questioning. In that respect it really is a good companion album to the F.E.A.R. masterpiece by Marillion last year.

Yet in the midst of the darkness is a shaft of light, in the album's closing song of hope. Yet even whilst the subject matter may be harsh and brutal, there is an over-riding sense of melody on offer here, with some catchy riffs and hooks woven throughout the songs. Prog goes pop and survives.

The band are on stunning form throughout, with each member really adding significantly to the music, especially Roger King who seems to relish the chance to shine, and the rhythm section of Beggs and Minneman showing why each is so highly regarded.

This is an album that needs to be heard loud. Nick Beggs' Chapman Stick basslines can boom as they should, and the keyboards of Roger King can shimmer and add icing to proceedings as each song warrants.

The highlights for me are Animal Army, We Can't Carry On with its catchy chorus, and the title track. Also worthy of mention are Window Onto The Sun, Lament and the very Lamb Lies Down-sounding song with a funny title: Singing Fish of Batticaloa. But in reality everything here is of a significantly high standard and I guarantee that you will not be able to shake the melody of the title track from your brain.

Sadly this album may by-pass 99% of the population, which is a shame, as whilst people rave about the new Ed Sheeran Divide album, they are missing out on this challenging musical feast. In addition, the cover artwork is clever and the lyrics are challenging and informative, and Nick Beggs has grown in confidence as a singer too, sounding on good form on every track.

It's only March, and this is the third album to make my best of 2017 already. Yes it really is that impressive. The gods may be mute (debatable) but these ones certainly aren't, and have something to say and something that is very worth listening too.


Tardigrade...

Raimond Fischbach's Review
What is a Tardigrade? "It refers to a water-dwelling, eight-legged micro-animal capable of living in extreme conditions," says Nick Beggs about the song and album title. "They've been found living on the outside of the international space station and inside nuclear reactors. If humanity continues down the path of extinction, they may well be the next dominant species."

On the sophomore album of his newest band, Beggs puts the current pathway of our societies in question, and expresses his worries about our fragile existence on this vulnerable planet we mistreat so well. "This album asks people to take-off their rose-tinted spectacles and consider the reality facing us. At this point in my career, I feel strongly that it's important to use music as a vehicle for truth, not just feel-good entertainment," Beggs adds.

On this mission he has helped create a set of songs of a heavier mood, not only lyric-wise, but also in terms of their sound. It's not that Beggs has suddenly veered into metal. No, not that far, and he is still the man who has dedicated his career to radio-friendly music, and thus is a master in applying great, ear-pleasing melodies; something which he has achieved perfectly again.

However his arrangements and instrumental tones have become sharper than on the first Mute Gods album and most of his Stick solos are ear-pinching outbursts of anger. The rhythm guitar tone of his Stick is mainly distorted, and using the Chapman Stick's midi outputs for heavily processed synth tones, he really leaves no doubt about his thoughts and opinions. This album makes a good move out of the pop comfort zone, and into the alternative label. Furthermore, a delicate use of oddly-measured time signatures and advanced chord and harmony structures, lift this album far out of the ordinary.

Being an icon, yet a centrepiece of the British pop scene ever since the early eighties, Beggs manages to combine decades of popular music into one single album of progressive delicacy, in a way other highly talented writers only can dream of. The way Beggs weaves his roots of Kajagoogoo and Ellis, Beggs & Howard with reminiscences of Yes and Genesis, into a rather modern sounding album that mainly sounds like the "heavy shit"-era of Porcupine Tree, has left me flabbergasted. Yes, his recent works for Steven Wilson surely leave an audible mark on this album, but not in a way one would think of. The Dumbing Of The Stupid appears like a full rip-off of Porcupine Tree's Strip The Soul.

But Beggs also benefits from these efforts by having such incredible band members, who don't need any introduction themselves. Marco Minnemann on drums and Roger King on keys appear to be the natural choices to complete this album of musical prowess and complexity, while managing the impossible task of letting it sound as if everything was the easiest to play.

With its ongoing catchy melodies and this immense musical treasure chest under their hood, Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth is one album that has the potential to bring progressive music back to the radio. If we ever try.
Conclusions:
John Wenlock-Smith: 9.5 out of 10
Raimond Fischbach: 9 out of 10

Anthony Phillips - Private Parts & Pieces V-VIII [5CD Box Set]
Anthony Phillips - Private Parts & Pieces V-VIII
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 64:27, 59:18, 53:45, 64:39, 61:42
Links:
Track List:
Twelve: January (5:58), February (4:40), March (5:11), April (4:51), May (4:41), June (5:37), July (6:23), August (5:21), September (4:09), October (6:25), November (5:13), December (6:30)
Ivory Moon: Sunrise Over Sienna (3:21), Basking Shark (5:09), Sea Dog's Hair (2:37), Safe Havens (1:15), Tara's Theme (from Masquerade) (3:23), Winter's Thaw (9:40), The Old House (15:22), Moonfall (4:02), Rapids (8:30), Let Us Now Make Love (6:31)
Slow Waves, Soft Stars: Flight Of The Snow Petrel: Glacier Bay (5:18), Flight Of The Whale-Birds: Blizzard Mountain (3:39), Flight Of The Albatross: Ice Island (1:28), White Heaven (3:30), Cathedral Of Ice (2:18), Beachrunner (2:51), End Of the Affair (2:49), The Golden Pathway (1:42), Behind The Waterfall (3:25), Carnival (1:36), Through The Black Hole (3:15), Pluto Garden (2:09), Sospirando (2:58), Elevenses (3:11), Goodbye Serenade (2:29), Bubble And Squeak (1:03), Vanishing Streets (4:20), Slow Waves Soft Stars (6:12)
New England: Aubade (1:00), Infra Dig (1:47), Sanctuary (4:04), La Dolorosa (4:00), New England Suite i (1:47), New England Suite ii (4:12), New England Suite iii (3:44), Last Goodbyes (2:19), Sunrise And Sea Monsters (10:37), Iona (0:58), Cathedral Woods (4:18), If I Could Tell You (2:00), Jaunty Roads (1:06), Spirals (0:52), Pieces Of Eight i Pressgang (2:22), Pieces Of Eight ii Sargasso (3:12), Pieces Of Eight iii Sea-Shanty (4:53), In The Maze (0:56), Unheard Cry (4:03), Now They've All Gone (7:00)
Private Parts And Extra Pieces II: Cathedral Woods link (0:57), Jongleur (5:07), Sanctuary (piano mix) (4:40), Emerald Forest (1:48), Unheard Cry link (0:27), Skylarks Over The Water (6:55), Sir Isaac (from Masquerade) (3:25), Across The Forbidding Horizon (5:59), End Of The Affair II (2:28), Autumn Falls (1:16), Beachrunner II (3:18), Highland Dawn (1:28), Sanctuary link (0:27), Unheard Cry (guitar demo) (4:07), Moonfall (demo from Masquerade) (4:26), PLuto Garden (alternate mix) (1:10), Cathedral Of Ice (alternate mix) (1:50), A Place To Rest (1:36), The Riddle Of The Sands (10:18)
Being a former Genesis member, means your solo output is not, by any means, a prolific endeavour (unless you were one of their guitarists, that is). In that case it turns out you are a creatively-generous artist. Certainly Steve Hackett hasn't been resting on his laurels, neither has Anthony Phillips. His 30-strong album body of work is good proof of that.

What adds even more interest to Phillips' oeuvre, is its multi-faceted nature. Along with his more "conventional" prog albums, such as classics The Geese And The Ghost (1977) or Wise After The Event (1978), he has also released a vast array (11 volumes so far) of titles under the Private Parts & Pieces moniker. This on-going series, embraces a wide range of styles and performances, from film music to so-called new age, and from solo acoustic guitars to layers of synthesisers; all presented in diverse formats, from 30-second bits to 15-minute workouts.

This box set includes Volumes v to VIII, and these four instalments (plus a bonus disc) give an accurate overall idea of the series' idiosyncrasy. A thorough summary of its contents would take up a lot of pages (and of our time). But to give you an idea of the eclecticism involved, we can describe these albums as "the solo guitar one" (Twelve), "the solo piano one" (Ivory Moon), "the new age one" (Slow Waves, Soft Stars) and "the band one" (New England) respectively.

Released on 17th January 1985, Twelve features, you guessed it, 12 pieces for 12-string guitar, each one devoted to a month of the year; Also, Ant' chose an unusual tuning for the instrument, so it all makes for a quite daunting listening experience. Based on Ralph Bernascone's operetta 12 Vodka Night, it can become monotonous and repetitive after a while, although there are some selections which stand out from the rest; Certainly all of the Summer sections are quite lively and engaging, so is November, which is perhaps the best and most varied track on the album.

Ivory Moon devotes its 59 minutes to piano pieces composed between 1971 and 1985, so it gives a very good perspective on Phillips' evolution as a composer. Of special interest is the inclusion of Genesis' lost gem Let Us All Make Love, presented here as it was in its inception. Elsewhere, the most interesting piece here is The Old House, a 15-minute, multi-part epic where the spirit of Tony Banks can be felt, though funnily enough I think you can definitely sense a strong Keith Emerson influence throughout the CD.

Released in the summer of 1987, and lying somewhere between documentary soundtrack and new age, Slow Waves, Soft Stars , though sharing its intimate atmospheres with its predecessors, is a different beast. It uses a larger palette of sounds, from the synthesiser leitmotiv of the Ice Flight suite, or the exotic percussions found on Behind The Waterfall, to the acoustic beauty of both Beachrunner and Carnival, which are the most evocative and memorable tracks on the album.

New England might be the most traditional of the lot, but it is still far removed from what could be called "commercial" pop music. Certainly, it features the closest thing to a song you're likely to find in the box set, as both Sanctuary and Unheard Cry have lyrics, but Ant's quiet and rather bland vocals definitely don't provide them with hit single qualities. On the other hand, the New England suite and Sunrise & Sea Monsters are worth the price of admission, thanks to Ant's tasteful playing and the addition of Martin Robertson's soprano saxophones.

To cap it all off, there's also a bonus CD included here, with "extra pieces" such as alternate mixes (Sanctuary, Pluto Garden), demos (Unheard Cry, Moonfall) or accompanying pieces to some of those already present on the original releases (Beachrunner II, End Of The Affair II), as well as a very informative booklet with liner notes written by Jonathan Dann.

So, sit back and relax, for this is a collection of mostly gentle, restrained (and utterly English) music, free from flights of fancy, but surely awash with imagination.
Conclusions:
Héctor Gómez: 7 out of 10

Alan Reed - Honey on the Razor's Edge
Alan Reed - Honey on the Razor's Edge
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 40:48
Links:
Track List:
My Sunlit Room (4:09), Razor (3:46), Cross My Palm (5:47) , Leaving (4:30), The Other Side of Morning (8:53), The Covenanter (4:54), Used To Be Someone (6:03), Northern Light (4:06)
This is Alan Reed's second solo album since leaving the prog band, Pallas. His first, First in a Field of One was a bit of a departure for Alan, in that much of it had a folky, laid back feel. Honey on the Razor's Edge, on the other hand, returns him to much more familiar territory. There is a harder edged, neo-prog feel to much of this album, that should make fans of his work with Pallas feel at home. As entertaining as his first album was, there is an increased confidence on display here. That is perhaps due to an increased comfort in the studio as solo artist. Whatever it is, there is a positive, self-assured feel to this recording.

My Sunlight Room begins things with a keyboard riff that instantly confirms this as a return to his musical roots. It is tough not to be reminded of some of the great neo-prog of the 90s while listening to this song. It also happens to be an extremely entertaining track. Razor is a more straightforward rocker, but is equally as effective. With it's pounding beat and hard rock vibe, it reminded me of something that Fish would record. The song also features some great harmonica work by none other than Steve Hackett. Whereas Steve's guest appearances are usually guitar related, it was a stroke of genius to ask him to bring this alternate talent to the track. His work here has a significantly positive effect on the overall success of the song.

Cross My Palm is another track that leans more towards hard rock, but there are also some great prog elements intertwined as well. Leaving is a more mellow acoustic track, that contains some really nice keyboard work. It is also a perfect example of the strong songwriting contained on this album. The same can be said about The Other Side Of the Morning. A mini epic, this is not only a highlight of this release, but of Alan's career as well. Dramatic, sweeping and wonderfully melodic, the song makes all of the right moves. The Covenator is another good rock track and Used to be Someone provides a melodic and even hummable experience. Northern Lights is a bit of an anthem, with some very effective duetting with Christina Booth from Magenta that ultimately transitions into an excellent instrumental second half.

Clocking in at a relatively short 40 minutes, there is a lot of substance to Honey on the Razor's Edge. It bounces from rock to prog to acoustic moments effectively and the performances throughout are top of the line. It is a truly consistent effort that is tremendously entertaining.

I should mention that though I appreciated the talent of the band Pallas, I never considered myself a fan per say. I enjoyed Alan's solo debut, but it isn't an album that pulled me back for repeated listens. All that said, Honey on the Razor's Edge grabbed me from the first listen. In the humble opinion of this reviewer, it is the best work of Alan's career and definitely worthy of your attention.
Conclusions:
Patrick McAfee: 9 out of 10

White Willow - Future Hopes
White Willow - Future Hopes
Country of Origin: Norway
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 49:47
Links:
Track List:
Future Hopes (4:30), Silver and Gold (4:04), In Dim Days (11:07), Where There Was Sea There is Abyss (1:59), A Scarred View (18:16), Animal Magnitism (7:15), Damnnation Valley (3:16)
Throughout their history, White Willow has released many fine albums. Though there are elements to their sound that are consistently there, each album is unique in its own way. For anyone familiar with their work, this fact (along with their definitive talent), creates anticipation about any new output from the band. Plus, as an added twist, Future Hopes introduces new singer, Venke Knutson. She is an established artist who has had a number of hit singles in Norway, but she comes to the band having some big shoes to fill.

The first striiking thing about Future Hopes is the wonderful Roger Dean cover. Considering the many fine albums that he has graced with his talents, this alone sets lofty expectations for the music contained within. So how does this new release measure up?

Well, the cover is appropriate because Future Hope is more traditionally progressive than some of White Willow's previous works. The album contains some extended instrumental moments and keyboardist, Lars Fredrik Frøislie seems to have channeled his inner Tony Banks for this release. The musical performances by each band member are excellent. That's not a surprise, considering their history, but their work here is often stunning nonetheless.

Singer Knutson is a fantastic addition to the band and her talent seems tailor-made for the complexities of this music. Her work on this album is stellar and there are times when her vocals are simply breathtaking. This fact is established right from the start by the title track, which opens the album. There is a lot happening in the relatively compact length of this song and its success relies heavily on her performance. Venke meets the challenges head on, and the song provides her with the opportunity of a memorable introduction.

Silver and Gold is a simpler acoustic track that is effectively sandwiched between two more complex numbers. Ultimately, one of the most impressive aspects of this recording is how distictfully different each song is. With that said, the album is no way disjointed and it flows effectively from start to finish. In Dim Days is the first of the album's two longer-form songs. Dark in tone and with a compelling edge that plays well against Venke's celestial vocals, it is an excellent track.

The highlight of the album though is the epic, A Scarred View. Some of my favorite prog songs are epics, but many of my least favorite prog songs are also epics. When they work, there is almost nothing better about the genre. When an epic fails though, there is nothing worse. This track seems to be a bit of an homage to the great progressive rock bands of the 70s. You know, some of whom also had Roger Dean covers. Though it may be respectful of the past, the song sounds fresh and impassioned. Whatever the band's intent, A Scarred View is absolutely brilliant. When I heard it for the first time, I immediately hit repeat to listen to it again. I tell you, prepare yourself for the goose pimple moments. The song is a triumph and a career moment for White Willow.

The album also contains two entertaining bonus tracks, both of which fit in nicely. The second of which, Damnation Valley is an instrumental and a true must-listen for any fan of Tony Banks.

Future Hope is another winning release from this extremely talented band. In fact, to my ears, it may be their best to this point. Four listens in and the album just keeps getting better and better. What more is there to say, other than: Highly Recommended!
Conclusions:
Patrick McAfee: 9.5 out of 10

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Published Thursday 23 March 2017

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