The Calling (3:28), Under Burning Skies (5:03), Oath of Darkness (11:23), Siren's Song (6:27), Painted Shadows (6:05), Rhapsody of Fire (7:20), My Dark Morning Star (6:20), Fallen Souls (19:04)
Anthriel is a name for those with a good memory. This Finnish prog metal quintet was formed back in 2004. They first came to my attention with a three-track EP in 2007, followed by their debut album, The Pathway, which I reviewed for DPRP back in 2010.
Two marriages, lots of children, the loss of their rehearsal rooms and also of two members, meant that efforts for a quick follow-up took a seven-year detour. Anyway, better late than never, and Transcendence is well worth the wait.
As with their previous album, this doesn't strive to offer anything radically new. But what they do, they do very well.
The opening, introduction track is a bit weird as it tends to suggest a more ambient prog, rather than the metallic version which follows. I tend to begin with track two, Under Burning Skies which offers a more authentic opening to the album, especially the way that it cleverly blends into the excellent, ambitious and epic Oath of Darkness. This is a superb slice of Symphony X-inspired prog-metal, that rolls back and forth through numerous themes and moods. A great piece of songwriting and my favourite song on the disc.
Thankfully, impressive vocalist Simo Silvan was not one of those lost members, and he is again the biggest asset of the band. He really shines on this long track. The keyboard-led instrumental section halfway-through, also impresses in the way that it adds a different flavour.
Siren's Song follows a similar approach, with the band concentrating on an ever-shifting style, with tempo changes and some intricate compositions. Painted Shadows takes a different tact. It is more bombastic, built on keyboard symphonics taken from the Royal Hunt book of composition. Blend-in an aggression borrowed from the likes of Savatage and Sabbath, and this song really belts along.
Rhapsody of Fire sounds like ... well ... Rhapsody of Fire. At least in the aggressive opening, although it quickly develops a more flamboyant approach. The guitar and keyboard interchange halfway through is again excellent.
My Dark Morning Star continues the variety, with a clear power metal styling; one that would not be out of place on an album by Blind Guardian or Edguy. The chorus is bright and memorable.
This disc is certainly heavier and darker than its predecessor, especially lyrically. To quote the band: "Basically the story we're telling on this album is about a moment of life when there is nearly no hope; where one has to find different ways of navigating through the darkness around and within. It's a story of coming to terms with the darker aspects of life/oneself and embracing them. Of loving oneself as you are, and life in general, with all its flaws."
If I were to be picky, then I'd prefer a few more killer hooks and riffs to take this collection of songs to the top level. This need is most evident on the closing track, the 19-minute Fallen Souls. It's an enjoyably proggy listen, but one that requires something a little more memorable to hold it all together, and to warrant its extended playing time.
But overall, Transcendence is a very enjoyable second album. Whilst staying firmly in prog metal territory, there are a lot of clever nuances that keep this album interesting and that reward repeat listens. This is certainly a top 20 album of the year contender for me, and one that is recommended to all who would enjoy bombastic, symphonic progressive metal with a great singer.
Tethered And Bound (4:58), Trouble In The Forest (7:32), The Motorway (8:22), Cut The Corn (5:08), Melancholy Death Of A Gamekeeper (4:58), Hay-Man (12:38)
For those unfamiliar, Cosmograf is a progressive rock project lead by Robin Armstrong, a multi-instrumentalist musician from England. There is an unabashed nostalgia to his music, that touches on the classic prog rock of the 70s, but also has a modern edge similiar to the work of Steven Wilson. The Hay-Man Dreams follows that template and employs a largely retrospective sound that Armstrong makes no apologies for. In publicity for this release, he states: "I'm pretty tired of the notion that everything has to be new and original to be good. I like old stuff. The best music was made in 1970s. It's a sound I'm familiar with and one that I fell in love with when I was 15. Classic rock-inspired guitar, bass and drums, with some vintage keyboards. In fact you won't find a single instrument on the album that wasn't available in 1973."
Whereas the concepts of previous Cosmograf albums were science fiction-based, this one is more grounded, both lyrically and from a musical perspective. It tells the story of a farm labourer who meets an early death and leaves behind a loving wife and young family. His widow builds a scarecrow effigy as a shrine to her loss, and this "Hay-Man" spends his days in eternity, dreaming beyond his field. Another change from previous albums is the lack of involvement from well known prog musicians. That said, Armstrong has still gathered a very talented group of people to help him with this, his sixth album. Of particular note are Rachael Hawnt, who provides wonderful vocal support, and voiceover artist, David Allan, whose narration helps to drive the story.
There is an acoustic, vintage feel to much of The Hay Man Dreams, that matches the rustic setting of the storyline. This is especially true of the middle section of the album. The effective album opener, Tethered and Bound employs a modern, Porcupine Tree-like vibe, while Trouble in the Forest starts the shift in tone to the above-mentioned, quieter and more mellow feel.
That isn't to say that there aren't moments where things kick into a heavier gear, such as on the second half of The Motorway. Armstrong states that Deep Purple was a huge early influence, and that can certainly be heard on this track. Cut the Corn, is reminicent of modern day Marillion, all the way down to the impassioned vocal style utilised. The song works well and is a prime example of the essential stregnth of this album: strong songwriting.
That is also true of Melancholy Death Of A Gamekeeper, which is a musically-sweeping highlight and features exceptional guitar work by Armstrong. The song will easily grab the attentive ear of any Pink Floyd fan. Hay-Man brings the album to an epic close and is a spotlight moment for the previously mentioned Rachael Hawnt. Here she handles the lead vocals in excellent fashion and there is a dramatic pull to the track that actually exists throughout the entire album.
An essential feature of the best concept albums is to successfully set the mood of the story. There is a haunting, melancholic feel to this entire recording that is extremely effective.
Ultimately, by coming down to earth, Armstrong has created his finest work to date. The Hay Man Dreams is a home-run in just about every possible way. The songwriting, production and performances are all top of the line, and the unique concept plays out in compelling fashion. As stated above, the music of Cosmograf is a reflection of the classic progressive rock that its creator loves. The catch though, is how well an artist can utilise those influences, yet still produce something fresh that showcases their own individual talents. With this latest release, Armstrong presents a textbook example of how to accomplish this. Running at a strong and concise 45 minutes, The Hay-Man Dreams is easily one of the best albums of the year thus far.
Prelude to a Dark Vortex (1:52), The Fermi Paradox (3:19), Ceres (1:36), Obelisk of Cruithne (6:46), Anatomy of the Heavens (4:48), Solar Riviera (6:42), Legacy of Theia (4:21), Kklak! (3:45), Free Fall on Tyche (4:51), Nemesis (5:35)
Infernal Spheres is the 14th studio album by Karda Estra, a band whose sheer existence and music were completely unknown to me until now. Richard Wileman is the big man behind it, taking care of all music and arrangements and playing guitars, keyboards and bouzouki, as well as not-so-common instruments like rastrophone and Appalachian dulcimer, whatever they may be. He has called in the help of eight other musicians to add the sounds of oboe, violin, cor anglais, trombone, trumpet, woodwinds and drums, the latter in only two tracks, amongst who are his wife Ileesha who adds some non-wordy vocals.
The music on Infernal Spheres is hard to categorise. Album opener Prelude To A Dark Vortex puts some (sampled?) English brass band sounds to the fore and could therefore be called a bit folky. Second song The Fermi Paradox, on the other hand, could also have been part of an Astrud Gilberto album, with its lazy tempo, the electric piano and vibraphone sounds. Ceres could have been a John Hackett tune, while Obilisk of Cruithne sounds like a modern classical piece with odd time signatures. The absence of any recognisable melody and atonal notes creates a sound piece that is as far from rock as one can imagine. It could very well serve as a sound track for a horror science fiction movie or as a formal chamber music piece.
Anatomy of Heavens on the other hand is a very melodic, even melancholic song, with a slow and relaxing melody played on oboe and other wind instruments. In Free Fall on Tyche we are back in a lazy Brazilian-like bossa-nova style, while album closer Nemesis presents the listener with some haunting sounds and wordless vocal lines, emphasising the mysterious sides of the journey you have just ended.
The variety in musical styles continues throughout this fully instrumental album, but it doesn't make it an unbalanced album and that alone is a major achievement. The consistence is in the overall slow speed, the total lack of big outbursts or other rock-like components, and in the overall quiet and well-thought atmosphere.
A remarkable feature is the track titles that vaguely remind me of King Crimson album titles. They refer to a solar odyssey across the universe that was Wileman's major inspiration for this music, taking him to places he couldn't even have imagined existed. And that is reflected in an original way in the music, such as the haunting feeling one can experience on such a journey (the weird sounds in Obelisk, the threatening sounds in Solar Riviera), interspersed with more cheerful feelings such as on Kklak! (great title by the way!).
To my ears this music sits somewhere between etherical muzak (not meant negatively), Eastern world music, chamber music, soundscapes, movie scores and minimal classical music. But as it has snippets of all these styles, but none of these specifically, it is good to review it here, as fans of electronic music (Tangerine Dream, Schulze) as well as of minimal music (Philip Glass) or even jazz rock may find something attractive here.
After a couple of spins I started to realise that I began to like certain parts, while at the same time some other parts really put me off. For those who like previous Karda Estra albums, then I guess this one is a safe buy. For me it is a nice listen, but not too often.
13 (0:53), Answer Me (6:26), The Apple (3:50), Beg (2;47), Alone (9:28), Kek (10:30), Clarity (7:28), Pause (4:23), Mr. Mime (3:18), Isolation (1:27), Denial (8:06), The Wanderer (19:46)
Next To None are doing their best to solidify their musical career at a very early age. Sadly, the band seems to receive a fair amount of derision online because of their youth. Accusations that the band has had an unfair advantage in the industry, center on the fact that their drummer, Max Portnoy, is the son of... well, take a wild guess. While that obviously has not hurt them any, it also does not take away from the fact that these guys are incredibly talented. They are better than a great deal of the more established bands out there, and when was the last time you heard a teenage band that was even remotely decent?
With all that in mind, Next To None's second album, Phases, is heavier and angrier than their first, A Light In The Dark, although thematically this new album is much lighter. One of the band's most important contributions to progressive metal is their ability to transcend sub-genres of metal and make different sounds work together really well. At points, they can sound like mid-90s Dream Theater, current Haken, Slipknot and Avenged Sevenfold, all wrapped into one. The result is a unique and intense form of metal, that is heavy and progressive.
Aside from the aforementioned Max Portnoy on drums, Next To None features Thomas Cuce on vocals and keyboards, Kris Rank on bass, and new guitarist Derrick Schneider on guitar. Original guitarist, Ryland Holland, decided to leave the band to pursure a formal musical education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
This band is at their best when it comes to instrumentation. Portnoy is a beast on the drums, and in many ways, he is a much heavier drummer than his father. This is clearly displayed on The Apple, which Portnoy says was written in response to the claims that the band hasn't earned the relatively prominent position in which they find themselves. This song demonstrates a lot of what the band does in a very short song, including intense drumming, screaming, and clean vocals.
Next To None's biggest weakness is their inconsistency. Musically, the band is excellent. However, their lyrics can often be a bit sophomoric, although I think that will change as they grow older. While cursing in music has never bothered me, I find myself wondering if it is necessary in some of these songs (there isn't that much of it). The spoken portion of The Apple had a lot of potential, and it started off good, but the line "Grandma needs a new pair of shoes" just made me cringe. I don't think Haken or Devin Townsend would ever write lyrics like that. Furthermore, that section would have worked better if Max Portnoy had spoken it.
However, as I mentioned with the inconsistency, sometimes their lyrics are quite good. On Kek, for instance, the band took a communal approach to writing lyrics, and the outcome was quite sturdy. This song is one of the best on the album for multiple reasons. The lyrics are thoughtful, Cuce's softer vocals are his best on the album, Schneider's guitar shredding is reminiscent of John Petrucci's, and Schneider's backing vocals, at the end of the song, are outstanding. In fact, I would love to hear some lead vocals from him in the future. He has a great voice. Overall, Kek is the most complete song on the album. Interestingly, Denial, which blends perfectly with Cuce's great clean piano on Isolation, also features Schneider's backing vocals and is one of the other better songs on the album.
Cuce's vocals are hit and miss for me throughout. His screaming is generally excellent, although it sounds off on Beg. Sometimes his clean vocals are a bit thin and nasally, which will hopefully improve as he gets older. His soft vocals, like on Kek and the beginning of the almost 20-minute epic The Wanderer, work really well. His range is good, but when he gets in the upper register, it sounds too boy-bandish. I'm beginning to wonder if it would work better on future albums, if Cuce handled the screaming, while Schneider sang clean vocals.
The Wanderer is a truly ambitious song for the band. Like several Next to None songs, it starts off slow, and builds its way up. It mixes myriad styles, including some surf rock sounds around the four-minute mark. It quickly moves back into instrumental metal territory, allowing Schneider's shredding to take center stage. When the vocals kick back in, around the six-minute mark, I really wish they would have been screaming. It would have fitted the heaviness of the song much better than the clean vocals. However, this song has a fantastic chorus that is really well written. For their youth, these guys are proving themselves to be good writers. They know how to write a catchy chorus and melody, and I think they will only get better at that. This song is a great way to experience Next to None's music for the first time.
My only other complaint related to this review is the poor sound quality of the review copy. The DPRP was not sent a CD or a lossless FLAC file for this review. Instead, the label sent us a heavily compressed MP3 file that sounds awful. The result was a thin, bass-free recording that is unbefitting a metal album. While Mike Portnoy produced their first album, he did not produce this one. Ergo, it could very well be a production issue on Phases, but I'm inclined to believe it has something to do with the cheap review copy.
Overall, Phases is best after the fifth song, Alone. As I look over the whole album, I see that my few complaints mainly lie in the first few songs. After those songs, the songwriting generally improves. While still inconsistent at points throughout, Next to None are demonstrating that they are serious and willing to work hard. They play the small clubs and supporting roles willingly and enthusiastically. I saw them live in support of Haken before the release of their first album in 2015, and they put on a good live show. I'm sure time and experience has made them even better.
As an album, Phases clearly demonstrates their experience, as it is a firm step forward from their debut. Before judging these guys based solely upon their drummer's last name, give them a chance on their own merit. They bring a lot to the prog metal genre that is overlooked by so many bands, and they offer a glimpse into the future of progressive rock as a whole.
Black Eyed Susans (4:24), Thirteen (4:17), Sally Won't Remember (3:49), Spite House (5:43), Little Keys (4:01), This (6:57), No Stone Unturned (5:11), Driving All Night (5:00), Colorado-Smile For The Camera (17:24)
Valdez is the first musical adventure from the ex-Tinyfish vocalist and guitarist Simon Godfrey since moving to America. It came about from a chance meeting between Godfrey and Echolyn's bassist Tom Hyatt at a comedy club in Philadelphia, where the pair instantly hit it off and, on the spur of the moment, decided to jam the following evening at an open mic night.
After being a surprisingly big hit with the crowd, they decided to take things a step further and form a band. The partners in crime joining the duo are keyboard player Joe Cardillo and drummer Scott Miller. The majority of the material was written by Godfrey, although it is clear that the rest of the band had a big say in the arrangements, particularly vocally, as the songs are replete with harmonies and superior backing vocals. It is certainly handy having three strong vocalists in the band (Godfrey, Hyatt and Cardillo) with a fourth in producer and additional guitarist; the wonderful Brett Kull.
Godfrey has stated that: "For us the song comes before absolutely everything else. It doesn't matter if it's a short song, a long song or mad, complex one. As long as it's good, we'll grab it with both hands and spin it until we're all dizzy." That is entirely evident from the nine songs on the album. There honestly isn't a clunker among them. However, if you are expecting a slew of progressive rock, then you will be disappointed, as the band stick to their ideals, and produce good, sometimes great, honest songs that are insidiously addictive. Sure there are elements of prog, (like the keyboard solo on Thirteen and the lengthy closing pairing of Colorado and Smile For The Camera) but overall there is a much mellower feel, with an emphasis on melody and adroit composition. One of the highlights is Sally Won't Remember, a beautifully laid-back song that utilises harmonies to great effect, while the following track, Spite House utilises some great chord inversions, to add some fine flourishes.
All credit to Kull, who as producer has pulled out a clarity in each performance and a crisp and clean overall sound. I particularly like the booming bass drum, although I suspect that some may disagree with me on that one. There are some, if you'll excuse the pun, echoes of Echolyn and Kull's own solo albums, just small little quirks and musical tricks that have a certain resonance, but maybe it is just the style of music.
Godfrey's lead vocals are assured and pleasant on the ear, rarely having to struggle against the instrumental backing, and helped by the relatively limited use of electric guitar, with the acoustic instrument taking prominence. Cardillo utilises a range of keyboards and brings in elements almost akin to Steely Dan, (no doubt an influence from his other band Cold Blue Electric), but again the parts are neatly arranged and compliment the song, rather than forcibly push the music.
This has, for me, been the biggest and most welcome surprise of the year to date. It is likely that I wouldn't have picked up on this album if not for DPRP, as Tinyfish passed me by and the cover of the album, by noted DC Comic artist Mark Buckingham, does not really reveal the type of music that Valdez perform (although it does make perfect sense having heard the album). However, I can honestly say that tracks such as No Stone Unturned, Smile For The Camera and Sally Won't Remember have definitely improved my life.
Mr. Sun (4:50), Distant Star (5:37), Bobby (6:38), Shine (4:22), Master of Illusion (2:40), Endless Highway (4:13), Ceylon Sailor (3:17), Blue World (4:18), The Future Was Here (5:17), Travelers (4:00), Distant Star (instrumental) (5:35)
Geoff Feakes' Review
The Winter Tree is a band I knew by name only, so to gain an insight I read their previous album reviews, but I found little that prepared me for this album. I say "band", but in reality The Winter Tree is the adopted name of songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger and occasional singer Andrew Laitres. Up until 2010 he recorded under the name Magus, with Mr Sun being the fifth album credited to The Winter Tree.
More art rock than prog rock, Mr. Sun is a showcase for Laitres' eclectic tastes, with a disparate array of styles, sometimes within the same song. There are 11 tracks in total and only four of those break the five-minute barrier. It's far from a one-man-band effort however as Laitres employs a (surprisingly) wide assortment of guest musicians and singers.
With its mellow tone, the title song Mr. Sun is a deceptively simple but engaging tune. The lead vocal is provided by Alistair Gordon whose previous claim to fame is singer with Tony Banks' short lived Bankstatement in 1989. The keyboard orchestrations and haunting backing voices bring The Moody Blues to mind.
Bobby is another standout track, dominated by an impressive guitar solo from Neil Taylor that owes a good deal to the fluid, bluesy style of David Gilmour. Although Taylor's CV includes many well know mainstream acts, he will be best remembered by DPRP readers of a certain age, as a member of Tears For Fears during their classic Songs From The Big Chair / The Seeds Of Love period.
Elsewhere, the tracks see-saw conspicuously between distinctively American soft rock (Shine, Travellers) and 1990s European electronica (The Future Was Here, Distant Star). With its dual lead vocals (Justin James and Laitres) Travellers has a melodic Fleetwood Mac sensibility, whilst the closing instrumental, Distant Star, demonstrates Laitres' mastery of keyboards and electronics, evoking Tangerine Dream amongst others.
If that wasn't enough, 80s synth pop (Master of Illusion) and Middle Eastern textures (Ceylon Sailor) also make an appearance, although these feel more like short experiments rather than fully-fledged tracks. To add to his strange musical choices, Laitres occasionally uses synthetic drum loops to monotonous effect (most notably during Blue World), despite the presence of a bonafide drummer, Tom Dupree III.
There is no doubt that Laitres is a fine musician and a songwriter with a keen sense of melody. His transparent production and astute use of guest musicians and singers also adds a polish to the whole enterprise. The only drawback for me is the random nature of the material, resulting in an album that lacks a sense of structure and continuity.
Patrick McAfee's Review
The Winter Tree was formerly known as Magus, with the constant being band leader Andrew Laitres. Though I had previously heard of each album, Mr. Sun is my introduction to Laitres' work. When researching this album, the first thing that caught my eye was the inclusion of Alistair Gordon, who sings lead vocals on a few tracks. Alistair was a member of Tony Banks', Bankstatement in the late 80s, and though I hadn't heard much music from him since, his involvement on this project was intriguing. Also appearing as a guest is Neil Taylor, who has lent his guitar talents to many artists, most notibly, Tears for Fears during their 80s heyday.
Both artists make an immediate impression via the album's opening title track, Mr. Sun. With its power pop/prog style and memorable chorus, both Gordon and Taylor shine (bad pun intended). This track also sets the musical tone for the entire album, which is proggy, but never strays too far from an accessible, melodic core. Bands like The Winter Tree are a reflection of the commercial prog sound of the 80s that was established by Genesis, Yes, Alan Parsons and others. When done well, this type of prog can be very appealing, and I would certainly place this album in the positive category.
The song writing and performances are strong, and the use of multiple vocalists provides some effective variety. In terms of the tracklisting, of special note are the potently smooth Distant Star, the funky Bobby, the acoustic ballad, Shine and the album closing anthem, Travelers.
The album also contains three very entertaining and diverse instrumentals. Along with his own fine work displayed here, Laitres provides ample opportunity for Neil Taylor to showcase his significant guitar talents throughout the album. In fact, I would say that Taylor's performances on Bobby, Endless Highway and the rythmic instrumental, The Future Was Here, are definiite highlights.
If you are receptive to this more accessible style of progressive rock, there is a lot to like about Mr. Sun. Though a few tracks don't quite measure up to the best that the album has to offer, overall it is a fine collection of songs. With no prior knowledge of the band's discography, I can't make comparisons, but it is apparant that Laitres has put together a great line-up for this release. There is certainly enough complexity to the music to appeal to a prog audience, but this is a very pleasant, undemanding listen as well.
Crossing the line between prog, pop and rock in a successful manner isn't easy, but The Winter Tree completes this task winningly with the entertaining, Mr. Sun.