Some albums you take to straight away. Others you have to allow the music to be absorbed. Others you struggle with. This is one of those albums. The fault is with me I'm sure, for Face is quite a remarkable piece, being a ten-year labour of love for German classicist Markus Reuter and Pat Mastelotto of King Crimson and Stick Men, and previously of 80s prog popsters Mr Mister of Broken Wingsand Kyrie fame.
This CD and track is in a far more experimental vein, being a musical journey that reinvents itself at every turn. Primarily Reuter plays guitars and bass, whilst Mastelotto plays drum and hits other things along the way. They are aided by a plethora of accompanists including one Steven Wilson on "vocal chords" or more specifically wordless voices filtered into the sound.
It opens as most things do with keyboards and a piano motif and some percussion in the background, over a mid-tempo drum pattern for about a minute, before picking up the pace and deepening the intensity and adding some weird synth effects. Those ethereal, wordless voices appear throughout the whole 35 minutes whilst various themes are introduced, manipulated, explored and then revisited. It's all based around the notes of F, A, C and E, and various different tones and instrumental voicings are added at differing stages.
It is pretty challenging stuff and took me at least four listens before I began to grasp what was going on, and for it to start to make some sense. In that respect it is fairly visionary, as it actually involves the listener becoming involved in what is being played and heard. If you lose your way, there is always Pat Mastelotto's precise drum rhythm to guide you back to the themes being explored, although they do change direction constantly.
This is a long listen, best heard singularly and possibly on headphones to grasp the remarkably clear sonics of the piece. I found following one instrument helped me to make sense or navigate my way through it all, but you may take a different tack! But whichever path you take, you need to hear this album, as it is rather a unique piece of music, that is consistently shifting shape, tone and timbre, with interesting things going in and out of the sound during the entire track. This is truly bold and epic in scope, and its construction and imagination. It is challenging to listen to, but oh so worth the trip in the end.
So take a good look at this face, and see what you think of it. I guess this will appear on various end-of-year lists, for those who enjoy articulate and intelligent music.
I have very much enjoyed the challenge that this piece presents. It's a bit like a musical Rubix Cube; one that you have to twist in your mind to get the complete picture. It's fractal and abstract, yet very compelling, interesting, diverse and bold. Fans of Mike Oldfield, King Crimson and Henry Cow will find this of interest I'm sure.
Kickstarter (4:06), Hot Groove (2:46), Hobbit Hall (4:00), Asia (6:31), Noxiologic (4:25) Tandoor (3:04), The Arcosanti Pork Ritual Gangsta Race (4:52), Bright Light On High (8:18), Wild Night At Tall Jacks (5:16), The Dream Of Cecila (6:58)
Jazz fusion is like Marmite, you either love it or you loathe it. Fortunately I rather like it, as I grew up on a diet of Al Di Meola and Stanley Clarke and Spirogyra and have developed a love of Miles Davis in all his eras.
This album has its roots in that seventies jazz fusion style and you can spot the Mahavishnu Orchestra influence a mile off, especially with the very fast guitarists. Progression use a viola rather than a violin and are certainly a very capable band, with good soloists, two fiery guitarists and a great viola player with a funky, tight rhythm section and strong but not intrusive keyboard player supporting everything that is happening musically. There are some fine tracks on the album, namely Kickstarter, Asia and Bright Light On High.
There are some really great solos on this CD, and the bass playing of Jan Olof Standberg is terrific throughout, with some fine fretless bass on the track Hot Groove. What is also good is that this album has four live cuts that showcase the band in 2009 and 2012, and where they show that they can do live equally well what they do in the studio (perhaps even better).
I really like this album with its dexterous rhythms, with its free flowing soloing and with its fine, clear production and eye-catching artwork. I would love to hear more from this band who are clearly a cut above the norm, offering a really good listen for fusion fans. Whilst not groundbreaking by any stretch, it certainly carries the fusion legacy forward into the 21st century.
The Echoes Of Their Cries (6:38), Thus Have We Made The World (5:45), Commuting To Murder(4:45), Hoping Against Hope (10:07), The Great Leap Backwards (4:02), A Dirge For The Unwitting (13:46)
With Hoping Against Hope, USA-based RIO/avant garde outfit Thinking Plague have released their seventh full length album, yet they have been around in various line-ups since the beginning of the 1980s. Yes almost 35 years of experimental music to enjoy, and I am happy to say that the high standards of their music has stayed throughout all these years.
A lot can be written, or rather not be written, about the RIO/avant garde, and also the zeuhl scene. It is filled with highly skilled musicians, yet is more difficult to understand and get into than any other genre within the prog description (maybe even within the whole music business).
The music is based around melodies, but the music has so many hooks, twists and turns, that the melody lines seem to disappear for the average listener. Listening to RIO, avant garde or zeuhl often requires being in the right mood. It does not really function as background music. Most people would go stark raving mad if it was played in their background. I can listen to it very well, although always I have to have a certain mood to really get into the music; usually one in which I am able and willing to wander off into my imaginary world.
For this seventh outing the TP line-up consists of Mike Johnson (guitar, samples, midi instruments), Mark Harris (soprano and alto saxes, clarinets, flute), Dave Willey (bass, drums and accordion), Selaine di Falco (voice, accordion, piano), Robin Chestnut (drums and percussion) and Bill Pohl on guitar. Musically Thinking Plague have not really changed that much musically in almost 35 years. Line up changes have been plenty though, with only Mike Johnson being a member from the start.
Hoping Against Hope can be considered as a goody bag of musical extravaganza in the RIO/avant garde scene, and for this style of music it is not too difficult to get into once you have the right mood.
I can highly recommend this album to any one liking this genre of music, but more importantly, it may appeal to a wider audience who would enjoy freestyle jazz or jazz fusion with a twist. But do not just spin this once, as that will not be enough. The standard and musicality of the album is very high.
Groyul Ghoul Gho! (1:37), Gceme Zele Dle (1:46), Blaszh (2:57), Bhomega (3:56), Gabosh Di Maga (1:41), Zigevomida Zwogh (1:13), Hollo (4:04), Wookh Zladas (1:14), Zwaaakh (1:26), Zhimi Bagi Da (1:10), Bom zoi (2:42), Brumiga Hugu (3:25), Gluf Zwago Zigevomida! (3:45)
Not so very long ago I reviewed Utopianisti's third release, The Third Frontier, and already I am listening to the fourth effort by Markus Pajakkala (a.k.a. Utopianisti). This time the music is even harder to get into, than all other releases by this talented Finnish multi-instrumentalist composer and what-not.
He has really outdone himself with this experimental work of art. And yes it is a work of art. A piece of craftsmanship of the highest level. What I am listening to here is experimental music of the highest standard, with influences of jazz, fusion, avant garde and RIO. I honestly would not know how to label the music on Brutopianisti.
Markus plays a wide variety of instruments on this release: drums, bass clarinet, soprano sax, xylophone, various flutes and additional vocals. He has had a little help from Marko Eskola, who is responsible for screams, growls and voices on a number of tracks. Also helping out were Sampo Salonen with some throat singing, (if you can call it singing as such), Ismo Makinen doing squeaking on track 8 and Anssi Solismaa, on modular synths on tracks 7 and 12. There are no guitars, no bass and almost none of the normally traditional instruments so favourably present in prog music.
Brutopianisti consists of 13 tracks, varying in length from one to four minutes, and I am absolutely flabbergasted by the energy on this outing. The sheer joy oozing from the music is very impressive, as is the high quality of it, especially when we remember that The Third Frontier was only released four months beforehand.
I may be a bit biased here because ever since I heard the first album by Markus Pjakkala in 2011, I have been a great fan of all his works. Trying to describe the music in the various tracks is near-to-impossible but I guess it falls into a style that you will either like, or pass it by all together. No middleway is possible. Extraordinary hooks and twists and turns make it all the more exciting, and at the same time harder to grasp too.
Giving hints on where to categorise this, is as difficult as describing the music. I would say that fans of Thinking Plague, Mirthkon, zuehl, klezmer, generic avant garde or experimental music may give this a go, but even here lays a possibility of complete dislike. Musically, the album sounds more like continuous improvisation, rather than something that has been composed.
Anyone who wants to give it a try, you can listen to this work of experimental musical art on Utopianisti's Bandcamp page in full. Once again Markus has succeeded in making an album of high standards.
Morphine (7:22), Dust (4:39), The Suffering (7:57), Gravity (8:15), 'til Nothing's Left (6:28), Knell (5:46), Black Rabbit (11:28)
Andy Read's Review
Vangough is the Oklahoma-based progressive metal creation of guitarist and singer Clay Withrow. It is a band I have followed and enjoyed ever since buying their 2009 debut, Manikin Parade. Their second album (Kingdom of Ruin) was more grandiouse, whilst 2013's Beyond The Madness was a darker, angrier affair. Then two years ago, Living Madness provided a wonderful live summary of the band's career to date (read my recommendation in SFTW here).
Vangough purveys a powerful, intense, emotive and somewhat dark style of progressive metal, through a line-up that currently consists of Withrow alongside bassist Jeren Martin and drummer Kyle Haws. Put simply: Warpaint is another successful episode in their career.
The opener Morphine is how progressive metal should be written. It offers the essence of Dead Soul Tribe, mixed with the emotion of Pain of Salvation, and a bit of heavy Fates Warning riffing (veering towards the Arch Matheos album). The first half of the song is stripped down to the basics. As we reach the second half, the song suddenly explodes. I love it.
Dust opens with a broody guitar motif straight from the quieter moments of Metallica. On top of it, Withrow's bright vocals add clever contrast. The riff evolves, but retains its Metallica origins, especially in the plucky bass groove. The vocals, still bright, evolve into an almost Nickelback sound, especially in the use of harmonies. The first half is vocally-led. The second half is based on an extended guitar solo. It's not obvious to me why, but without being obviously melodic, this short song has stayed memorable.
The tempo rises for The Suffering. The guitars are dark and riff-hungry. Very riff hungry. And very dark. That is until the vocals come in; plaintively tender and exposed. Think Daniel Gildenlow on the early albums of Pain of Salvation. Indeed there is something of the Gildenlow effect in the vocals across this album. I guess that is not so surprising, as Withrow stepped in to assist Pain Of Salvation on tour when Daniel Gildenlow was in a bad way with his health a couple of years ago.
After the first verse, the vocals take on more of the anger of the guitars, and this track turns out to be a real metal belter. However, after an effective change of pace halfway through, the guitar again takes over, only for the song to lose its purpose somewhat.
Dead Soul Tribe again comes to mind on Gravity, with its busy groove, that again quickly builds through some great and varied guitar textures. This is another winning track. The brooding, stripped-to-the-bare-bones mid-section, and the way it evolves into a totally new theme, is probably my highlight of the album.
And that, for me, is the key to this band's successful recipe. The progressiveness in Vangough is not about showcase-playing or complexity, it is about building, developing and rebuilding moods, themes and emotions. It sounds like it should be easy to create music like this. But believe me, making this sort of heavy music work; making it so that it engages and moves the listener, is no simple feat. Strong, yet at the same time fragile, this is the sort of album that has a long shelf life.
Til Nothing's Left is what should have been the single. This is as far from pop, as music can be, but offers an insanely hummable vocal melody which dominates the six-minute playing time. For once the song stays pretty much within a single mould and style. It is reflective in a way that even Steven Wilson fans may appreciate. The lead solo towards the end is just gorgeous. Fans of Jim Matheos (Fates Warning) will enjoy this aspect. The fade out however, is a let down.
Echoes of Leprous confront me, as Knell introduces itself as the penultimate track. If the preceding material could be classed as moody or dark, this track just keeps building.
Saving the longest track to the end is a common device on albums such as this, and flowing well past the ten minute mark, Black Rabbit fulfils that role here. Guitars take a back seat, as military drum beats open the song to good effect. However things quickly get a little too intensely manic for my tastes, especially the drumming. The guitars also lack the refinement previously shown, with one thudding chord after another. The track runs through lots of phases but lacks a melody to stick in my mind, or a theme to tie it all together. The ending is overlong and dominated by chugging riffage.
It is a shame, as what until this song has been a magnificent example of darkly-refined progressive metal, ends with a bit of a bum note. If I can remember to press 'stop' after Knell, then I will remain very impressed with this album.
Those who enjoy any of the above-mentioned bands will relish this album. There is unlikely to be a better independently-produced, old-style prog metal album released in 2017.
Arno Agterberg's Review
Warpaint is the fourth studio effort by the American trio Vangough. The band has been active since 2007 and is becoming more and more an outfit to be reckoned with. Their dark and intense sound is again a great foundation for the melancholic and moody lyrics by vocalist/guitarist Clay Withrow. He has an emotional and dark style that is very complementary to his compositions and themes.
Considering their earlier releases, this new album is a logical but good step forward. Although the band has always had a very mature sound, the production on Warpaint is very solid and of a high quality.
From the opening track Morphine, to the grand finalé Black Rabbit, this album really has no weak songs, providing just under an hour of quality music, yet without ever being too demanding, as progressive rock sometimes proves to be for some.
Withrow is again backed by bassist Jaren Martin and drummer Kyle Haws. Both musicians are as much a part of the sound as the founder and main songwriter, and it must be great for both of them to be part of such a strong and powerful unit.
Because this album is made up of just seven songs, and all of them are very good, it's hard to tell which one of these tracks is my favourite. But after listening to them a lot, I would consider The Suffering and Till Nothing's Left as the highlights. The build-up in The Suffering is great and the track soars as the guitars and vocals come to a very dramatic climax. I bet this track will work great on an eager and willing live audience.
Till Nothing's Left is a song with a big Alice in Chains feel to it, but in a very positive way. Everything I loved about the sound of that grunge band is represented in the riff and tone of this track, and I really think the vocal abilities of Clay Withrow are a perfect match for this great piece.
Opener Morphine and Gravity are very moody and typically Vangough. The album closes with Black Rabbit, a song inspired by the Watership Down novel, that features a dark rabbit who is the Grim Reaper in the mythical world of the rabbits. The song is as strong as the other tracks, and serves as a wonderful closer to this album.
I really recommend this album to anyone who is into bands like Tool, Leprous and even Coheed and Cambia, and I do hope to catch them live somewhere in the future. I would love to hear them play these tracks in a live environment, where I think the tracks would blossom to their full potential.