Necronauts (11:00), Space Mountain (6:10), Yugen (4:48), Fishing for Kraken (9:29), Fade In//Space Out (13:43)
Astrosaur is a young power-trio from Oslo. They create an adventurous mash-up of prog, post-rock, prog-metal and space-rock. Their debut album Fade In//Space Out moves from the whispery to the fierce. They touch on, and sometimes give a good kicking too, many points along the way on their instrumental rock journey.
The five, mainly, expansive tracks start as you might expect by fading in before guitarist Eirik Kråkenes creates a squall of sound. Quickly joined by Steinar Glas' bass and Jonatan Eikum's drums, Necronauts is a stop-start heavy prog take on post-rock tropes. It has great dynamic and tempo changes and sets the template for the album.
Astrosaur then set the controls for Space Mountain as they kick off in full-on space-rock boogie mode. They mix in hiccupping prog-metal riffing and doom laden, grinding bass. This is definitely not your usual slow-build and release instrumental rock. Fade In//Space Out continues with a flowing guitar solo over a lovely melody line on Yugen, whilst Fishing for Kraken mixes the metal riffs with a quieter section that dusts on jazzy harmonics.
The least interesting piece is the lengthy title track. It spends nearly half its running time fading in as the guitar atmospherics build up, but it did test my patience. However, it almost manages to redeem itself in its second half with a proper guitar wig-out and an avant-rock conclusion.
Astrosaur have good melodic and dynamic instincts, and they will come up with a killer riff in the future. Fade In//Space Out is to be applauded for its singular take on the instrumental power-trio format. Astrosaur's refusal to settle into a particular groove or genre for any lengthy period is to their credit, and demonstrates this album's adventurous spirit.
Last Flight of the Ratite (18:31) , Take Five, Seven, Six, Eight, and Nine (16:01)
With a band name that brings to mind the work of groups such as, Black Sabbath, Black Widow and the celluloid cloven rituals of The Wicker Man, listeners might be forgiven for reaching for a necklace made up of scapes of garlic to ward off any malevolence that might be encountered when giving Hooffoot a spin.
Nothing could be further from the truth; on offer are two glorious tunes that radiate warmth, whilst evoking fading memories of summers of love. This is an album that unashamedly presents an ambience that enables a listener to bask in a retro sound that is reminiscent of jazz and rock bands associated with the seventies.
Whilst Hooffoot are able to create a sonic footprint that comes across as fresh and unique, there is no denying the influence of bands such as Fläsket Brinner and Soft Machine, in determining the path that the band choose to tread.
Hooffoot are a large format rock jazz fusion group from Malmö in Sweden, Their debut and self titled album was originally released on vinyl in 2015, but due to numerous requests by prog fans across the world it has now been issued on CD.
The album is an essential buy for anybody who appreciates the music of Swedish bands as diverse as Agusa and Änglagård. In this sunlit and at times sublime album, valid comparisons can be made with the approach and breadth of style normally associated with both bands. It is an album that has the complexity and wide dynamic range found in the work of Änglagård, but it also contains the insistent pulsating and ever evolving groove associated with the music of bands such as Agusa.
Regardless of influences, what is on offer is consciously cogent and deftly arranged. The bands impressive rhythm section is able to lay down a powerful and well developed framework for a series of harmonious melodies to be introduced and where recurring phrases compete to impose themselves. These, never outstay their welcome, and are consistently developed and adapted. Each piece on the album is enjoyably stimulating and both compositions successfully emit an after fragrance that gently wafts and caresses the senses long after the album has ended.
Nevertheless, Hooffoot's debut is not simply restricted to refreshing the mind with sweet toothed melodies. A melange of ideas is explored that seamlessly incorporate melody, dissonance and rock edged peaks. These ingredients are skilfully blended and adroitly developed over the course of each track.
The band seems to have no problem in changing the atmosphere or direction of a piece by introducing tart flavours and brash discordant riffs when the need arises. These are used sparingly and therefore have the effect of firstly surprising and then mesmerizing the listener with a strident approach that simply rocks. When this occurs the music loses its smooth and polished veneer. In its place a heavily pitted side emerges that is equally as rewarding.
The end section of Last Flight of the Ratite is a perfect example of the double sided union between beautiful and ugly music that the band are adept at creating. Bassist Pär Hallgren's evocative playing is striking and the black skied menace created by his bilious tone is palpable. Waves of low end distortion break free to burst, bubble and bulge in an attempt to create an effect that is arguably even more unexpected and shocking than the discordant intervention of John Wetton's bass in part 1 of the title track of King Crimson's Larks Tongues in Aspic album. It is without doubt my favourite section of the album and each time I hear it I am transfixed by its power, malice and hideous attractiveness.
Live footage from the band at the Bad Hertzburg festival in 2015 can be found on Youtube and gives an impression of the fluidity of their style.
The live footage includes renditions of the two compositions which make up the bands self titled album and as a consequence is a great visual companion to that studio release.
During the impressive introductory section of Last Flight of the Ratite, I was reminded of the approach of Ian Carr's Nucleus. This was largely due to the expressive trumpet parts that are a feature of this part of the tune. The atmospheric blowing of Gustaf Sörnmo provides a meaningful platform, for the other instruments to take on a more prominent role and explore different musical directions as the piece develops.
In this respect, the use of two guitarists and two keyboard players as part of Hooffoots' chosen instrumental voice comes in to its own as interlocking layers of guitar and keyboards create a pervasive and at times totally absorbing mesh of sounds. To balance the fine ensemble playing that is a feature of the album, there are also numerous opportunities for frenetic and sometimes inspiring solo parts to take centre stage.
One of the most stirring solo parts of the album occurs during the Last flight of the ratite when the organ becomes the dominant instrument. This section ticks all of the right boxes. It channels a vibe and approach often associated with prog in the seventies. The swirling interlude contains just the right amount of technical complexity to satisfy analytical purists, whilst not losing its undoubted energetic and gut grunting primeval appeal.
Of the two compositions Last Flight of the Ratite is probably the strongest, but Take Five, Seven, Six, Eight, and Nine also has much to commend it. It is a jaunty piece that also includes a slowly evolving, meditative section where the principal instrument sounds like a flute. As no flautist is credited on the album I can only assume that the convincing flute parts that lap reflectively are sampled, or are perhaps a keyboard effect.
Take Five, Seven, Six, Eight, and Nine has some outstanding changes of tempo and at times the infectious rhythms that play a prominent part in the piece were reminiscent of the care free style of Lapis Lazuli. The piece is also notable for a magnificent Rhodes solo that fizzes along with great panache and intensity.
To say that I have enjoyed Hooffoot is an understatement. The quality of the recording is superb and its warm and inviting clarity puts the poor sound quality that is to be found in recent releases by bands such as Syd Arthur into perspective.
Hooffoot is impressive in almost every respect and the only criticism that might be expressed, is that at a running time of just thirty four minutes, it is over far too quickly. I hope that Hooffoot's next release is much longer. If it is, there is a strong possibility that it could be even more rewarding than their excellent debut.
I look forward to hearing more from this group of talented players!
On the Road Again (2:37), Heat (4:26), Code of Life (4:33), When the Curtain Falls (4:21), Dream On (5:21), Fail (5:05), Storm Is Coming (4:42), Dazed By Glory (4:26), Farewell (6:14), Swamp Song (5:57)
Jerry van Kooten's Review
Having no knowledge of any Lion Shepherd music, I didn't know what to expect. That can be a good thing.
The first impression was made by the packaging, which consists of a beautiful, multi-panel digipack with an extensive booklet, including the lyrics. Lots of dark artwork, which I like, and the one colour photo depicts an atmosphere of dry desolation, which I also like.
My maiden voyage into the music of Lion Shephard, however, was marked by question marks as in which ways this album would be of interest for readers of DPRP. There are a lot of classic song structures regarding verses and choruses. With the music rocking melodicly, never becoming really heavy, and with the sometimes AOR-like vocals and vocal lines, I was looking for AOR references to let you know which bands I was reminded of. But I couldn't find any proper AOR references. This is not AOR. The music also never becomes really proggy, but definitely has progressive elements.
The opening track sounds like a combination of middle eastern melodies based on blues, played in a spaghetti western setting. An interesting combination. Vocal lines and harmonies have AOR quality. The vocals are warm and often rough, something I prefer over the clean vocal type you hear all too often in prog. The atmosphere depicted by the artwork is complemented by the music (or rather the other way around, of course). It's a dry, hot, brooding atmosphere, as if the album was recorded in the middle of the desert. Other songs, like Fail, have a swamp-blues kind of feel to them. I like it when you can almost feel this. it makes me think of the theme song for the TV series Bloodline.
The chorus of Code of Life is the first where things get a little heavier. Dream On has some melodies that come across as middle-Eastern, same as in Dazed By Glory. Some of the acoustic guitars have a folky touch to them, similar to bands like Mostly Autumn. In ways of arrangements, atmosphere, and instrumentation, I am thinking of Kristoffer Gildenlöw. In other, rockier, acoustic parts, and here we go with the AOR reference, even Bon Jovi comes to mind. And one more comparison? Some of the vocal lines in choruses, like Code of Life, remind me of Bryan Adams.
Looking at the album at a whole, some of the vocal melodies seem to be returning. Or repeated, depending on your point of view. A good voice but a bit limited in the way he's using it. Although the music is not very adventurous, composition-wise, the songs are clever in the way of layers and arrangements. And, again, the atmosphere and intensity of the songs and performance really do it for me.
The clever arrangements and wonderful mix become clear after listening to it some more, making this album grow on you slowly. But you might need some persuasion to get there. I prefer my music darker and heavier but still this appeals in some way. Although the songs are not very complex, the varied arrangements keep the album interesting. I can't remember when I listened to an album with so many different elements blended into something of their own, yet still very recognisable and familiar.
But will it stick? Time will tell. Novelties wear off and something too familiar is not distinct enough. But for now I can only say that I am intrigued by my mind not being able to make its mind up, which the rating will reflect.
This is a varied album in some ways, a very consistent album in others. One that could find its way to the CD player on a Saturday night, closing off the day with a glass of something Islay, when I also tend to listen to dark and bluesy or psychedelic music like The Doors (skipping the happy songs, of course), Hendrix at his most bluesy, Birth of Joy or DeWolff. Even when Lion Shepherd are not as bluesy, not as heavy, and not as psychedelic as those bands, this album fits the Saturday night mood.
Andy Read's Review
As someone who enjoys a musical mix of western with more eastern flavours, the debut Lion Shepherd album, Hiraeth, was a very pleasant surpise. Thanks in part to the wonderful stand-out song, Lights Out, it made my list of favourite albums of 2015. This follow-up was thus something that I was keen to experience. First impressions were ... well ... impressive.
The fold-out digipack, and the booklet within, are top quality. Attention to detail in the packaging is always a good sign that an artist takes care over the whole product. The production is crisp and bright.
Described by the band as a "prog-oriental project", Lion Shepherd is led by Kamil Haidar and Mateusz Owczarek. The music they create is a mix of world music, progressive rock, folk and blues, and Middle Eastern motifs. In addition to traditional European instruments, there is the Syrian oud lute, the Persian santur and various Indian and Arabic percussion instruments.
The project involves not only musicians but also graphic artists, film makers, design artists, people working with mapping art and even fashion designers. The video for the first single off of this new album is quite simply stunning (see the video below).
Musically, Heat is far more straightforward than the debut. The middle eastern influences are still apparent, but have been completely absorbed into the dynamics of the songs. They occupy very little space in their own right, unlike on Hiraeth. Thus the ten songs here show a blend of influences.
The songs are also more direct, featuring a clear verse and chorus, and deviating little from the main themes. This album is almost 30 minutes shorter than the debut. In effect, whilst being immediately recognisable as Lion Shepherd, in terms of arrangements, they are two very different discs. It is quite possible that those who enjoyed the debut may find this too simplistic. Those seeking a more direct style of music, may find this the better of the two.
I like them both, for what they are.
Kamir is a superb vocalist, who has a very bright future. Owczarek's guitar playing is varied, imaginative and utterly convincing. Every song has a memorable melody and there is an interesting variety of moods, energies and rhythms. I would select Heat, Dream On and When the Curtain Falls as my favourite tracks but they're all of a very favourable quality. Fans of Votum's Metafiction and those who enjoy the lighter sides of Riverside, should give this a listen.
Criticisms? I would have liked a couple of the songs to have evolved a little bit more, with the incorporation of a second phase or theme. Most clock-in around the five-minute mark. This is an album that sticks to a style and pace that is very comfortable and easy to listen to.
That extra depth would have brought Heat much closer to the wonderful debut album, Avalon (2011) by Sully Erna. It is certainly of a very similar style, and Kamir's voice is very similar to Erna's. However Erna's songs are sharper, the hooks are deepr and there is a greater variety and change of pace across the album (read my mini-review here). However as Avalon stands as one of my all-time favourite albums, then to hold Heat in a similar light, is no mean compliment.