Chorale (1:57), Made In Chelsea (Apocalypse in 15/8) (4:16), The Dead Hand Talks In Braille (1:45), KnobInANova (4:19), She Flew (5:20)
The third production of this very inventive quartet from Southampton, UK, is what we focus on here. And it's an even better one than the yummy previous two, which are wonderfully eccentric and phenomenal in all aspects too.
Firstly, a short introduction to this powerful and progressive band. I had the awesome opportunity to have A Formal Horse over to Holland for their first gig abroad, opening for The Gift, back in 2014. Which was big fun, as well as a perfect way to get to know the band members. Three fine lads that have been in this band from the beginning, and a lovely girl singer that has changed every album. We've got Mike Stringfellow rigidly playing drums, Benjamin Short on guitar (like his life depends on it) and Russell Mann on his massively boosted bass. Although all three instruments are crucial to each song, I might say Russell Mann's powerful bass is the most defining one. The compositions are written by all three lads.
And then there are the albums and the girls. The first, Emily Tulloh, was singing on the fabulous, self-titled debut EP, but had already left A Formal Horse when the band played that EP live in Holland. Francesca Lewis replaced her and had the almost impossible task to sing the songs written for the voice of her predecessor. But Francesca did a really outstanding job live, and she went on the record vocals on the band's second EP, called Morning Jigsaw.
Now, for the band's third release, Made in Chelsea, we again welcome a new singer, Hayley McDonnell. I have to emphasise the fact each of these three singers are very, very gifted and perfectly fit their specific albums. Amazingly, there are dozens of bands out there that can't succeed in finding a singer at all. The boys from A Formal Horse seem to be able to find a more than perfect one for each release!
In short, this release from March 2017 is as innovative and powerful as its predecessors. But again it is built on a totally new musical base, perfectly designed for the new voice of Hayley McDonnell. The EP opens up like a cannonball, rollercoaster power ride, throwing riffs, bass lines, drums and tiny cymbals as it takes you through quick, high speed corners and vast ascents and life-threatening descents. Chorale is here to wake you up and get your body from rest. It is crammed with adrenaline in only one minute and 56 seconds.
There is no time to take a deep breath, as the title track Made in Chelsea (aptly subtitled Apocalypse in 15/8) takes over and introduces Hayley's opera-like voice after only 90 seconds. She does a serious attempt to give your ears a little rest at three quarters, but with the help of the boys, she perfectly returns to a high-tensioned apotheosis. You are granted some rest with a jazzy timbre in The Dead Hand Talks in Braille, followed by Mann's deadly pounding bass and Short's intricate guitar riffs in the instrumental KnobInANova. All are neatly knitted together by Stringfellow behind his drumkit.
Onto the final track already, and the album's glamorous highlight is She Flew. It's the songs that the former songs were vigorously working towards. Hayley McDonnell gives her very best, with a performance that is guaranteed to send some heavy shivers down your spine. She takes full control over the lads and their instrumentation through her voice and presence only. Degrading them to filling in the gaps. Which they willingly and splendidly do. A masterpiece.
It can't get any better than this, but I know that A Formal Horse will. I think this album is essential for anyone stating to be a progressive individual. Listen to the album on Bandcamp, and whilst you are there, also listen the full set of three EPs and buy them all. Highly recommended.
In A Bell's House (6:04), Barlafüs (4:57), A Lie (4:25), Waiting For A Savior (3:30), Stress (7:23), Stringa (2:04), Chi era Laynson? (3:29), Looking For An Ashtray (5:36), Anonimo (6:10), Maybe (9:50), Taste The End (5:58)
This is the third "solo" album from Sergio Caleca under the Habelard2 banner. The first, Qwerty received a less than glowing review from DPRP back in 2013. It was followed in 2015 by Il Ritorno Del Gallo Cedrone. Sergio is also keyboardist with Ad Maiora, a modern prog band from Milan.
Instrumental albums and in particular electronic-led instrumental albums are not really my thing. However as part of my New Year's Resolution to try to review at least one album from outside of my comfort zone every month this year, and as I was intrigued by the unusual cover image, I thought I should give this a try.
Now, I rarely provide a track-by-track style of album review. But such is the nature of this album, that in this case I will. Hopefully by the end, you will see why.
Appropriately enough, it's a synth, like a bubbling brook, which builds the opening track. In a Bell's House reminds me of a nature documentary soundtrack. A skating, electric piano gears up the pace, the groove and clever melody reminding me of classic-era Fleetwood Mac. The final third features a different, fuzzy synth noodle, before the pace dies down again.
Barlafüs offers a clever change of mood that suggests this album is not going to be a one-trick pony. This is a cool, laid-back jazz bar-room sort of song with lovely, flowing guitar work, alternating with electric piano.
Piano is the lead instrument in the first of the three vocal pieces on this album. A Lie is a nice, melancholic pop track, with more jazzy undertones. It doesn't really move too far from its central theme, unlike the playful Waiting For A Saviour, which mixes a folksy, bluesy, pop/rock style around some decent vocals by Alberto Ravasini of vintage RPI band Maxophone. It reminds me of a more restrained version of Germany's Cryptex. Both tracks are sung in English, the latter having some effective additions of violin, sax and flute.
The album then returns to three instrumental tracks, and again 'variety' is the keyword. Stress is pure German electronica or Krautrock, where brooding, pulsing, electronic waves build and diminish to create a dark symphony. The mood is immediately lightened by Stringa, a classical guitar interlude with a similar natural-world feel to the opening track. Chi Era Laynson?, is a clever stab at creating a regal symphonic instrumental. I think I spot harpsichord, viola, church organ, oboe, flute, brass, and Mellotron.
All three tracks are great examples of their style but I would have liked at least one (probably the latter one) to have evolved further.
Looking For An Ashtray is the song I will come back to the most on this album. Another stab at melancholic pop/rock, the melody, well sung by Ad Maiora's vocalist Paolo Callioni glides over a gentle, strummed groove. The synth fest in the middle section works well, as does the atmospheric Mellotron to the end. The vocal refrain should have been repeated and developed in an additional final phase but this is a great song.
Genesis meets Tangerine Dream would be the reference points for Anonimo, the first of another three vocal-free tracks. The quirky mid-section always makes me smile. The guitar work which follows, is again inventive.
The title track is the instrumental highlight. This time, not that different from its predecessor, but very much more in the Genesis and RPI vein and with the heaviest Canterbury vibe. As a whole, the arrangements are delicate and elegant. A real joy to listen to.
Taste The End leaves a pleasant final savour via a reflective, piano-led instrumental, with lovely bluesy guitar soloing from Ad Maiora's Flavio Carnovali.
As hopefully I have described, Maybe is a delight for those who enjoy albums that seek to encompass a wide range of moods and styles. Sure, this is electronic-led music, but whereas most such instrumental albums seem to stick to a chosen groove and style, this is a real celebration of instrumental progressive diversity. The three vocal tracks add further interest, whilst the contributions by numerous guests add to the album's depth, in particular Francesco Lattuada's viola is a constant treat, as is the guitar work.
The use of drum programming on four tracks (due to "guest" musicians not submitting material) is a shame, and I do feel that at least two of the compositions would have benefited from further expansion. But for Sergio, this album is a real credit to his skills as a musician and composer. That's not a maybe. That's a definite!
Veils Open (1:37), The Unavoidable Wayfare... (13:25), ...To the Place of Origin (11:09), Mother of Depth (2:05), Nyade (2:55), The Art of Make-Up (2:22), Suprema Lex (8:14), Ignes Fatui (3:37), A Visit to the Mouse Barber (2:09), The End of Dithyramb (20:04), Curtain Call (3:13)
King of Agogik is the project of German drummer and multi-instrumentalist Hans Jörg Schmitz, which started in 2006 and has given birth to five releases prior to this one. Morning star is inspired by and based upon the lyrics of German poet, author and translator Christian Morgenstern (1871 - 1914), who is eponymous to this record (Morning Star being the literal translation of the German word Morgenstern). In musical theory, Agogik means the method of ongoing slight variances in tempo of a piece of music at the discretion of the musician. Not really a reference for a drummer, who is supposed to be the metronome of a band. However, according to Hans Jörg Schmitz, this name is to be interpreted with a wink anyway.
Besides drums and percussion, and as with his previous records, Hans Jörg Schmitz plays guitar, bass and keyboards and is supported by an abundant guest list of musicians consisting, amongst others, of American progger Steve Unruh (flute and violin, quite distinctive on this record), Andrew Marshall (Spanish guitar) of Willowglass, Pantelis Petrakakis and Gary Farmer (bass), Dago Wilms (guitar), Erik Vaxjö (Mellotron, also fairly recognisable) and Chip Gremillion and Philipp Schmitz on keyboards.
Christian Morgenstern was a poet whose work largely was inspired by English Literary Nonsense and who gained strong popularity (albeit posthumously) because of his humour, the spiritedness, the versatility, and the richness of his poetic language. Consequently, one would expect to find these characteristics in progressive rock music inspired by his work.
As for the humour, I don't fully recognise tat in these songs. Some of them, such as the beautiful ...To the place of Origin with its Eddie Jobson UK-like violin playing are rather melancholic, whilst Suprema Lex is too furious to be funny. However variedness, abundance, originality all come across in King of Agogik's music, with a little bit of l'art-pour-l'art here and there as well.
The order of songs is fairly similar to the one on the band's preceding records, Exlex Beats and From A to A. The longtracks (four in number on this one) are interspersed with some short breaks. The music is a blend of styles and influences: ethno, folk, post rock, jazz rock, funk, oriental, prog metal, symphonic, (neo) prog. There is a constant change of moods and tempi, and a wide variance from mellow to brutal, from disharmonic to very melodic.
Whilst appreciating and respecting this musical abundance, I sometimes found myself wondering: where is the central theme, where is a clearly recognisable song structure. The album as a whole, as well as some of the songs themselves, appear to be somewhat scatty, a mere sequence of styles and ideas, yet without eventually crumbling into incoherent bits and pieces. Excellent musicianship (drums at foremost), melodies, virtuosity and atmosphere keep prevailing. The use of flute, violin, Mellotron and acoustic guitars create the most haunting moments of this album.
With so many styles and influences, it is almost impossible to single out any references. Perhaps Mike Oldfield and Camel for some of the guitar solos and the flute. Marillion for the keyboards. German band Frames or Curved Air for the violin, along with some Al di Meola, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Terje Rypdal. My favourite is the longtrack The End of Dithyramb, precisely because, in this one I find a structure, with building-up and recurring themes being covered by various instruments (violin, flute, Mellotron, guitar). Overall the production is flawless and the album comes in a skilful digipack with a 32-page booklet.
I must confess, this review lingered a bit longer on my desk than usual, as it took me some time to come to terms with this album. This is a release which requires leisure and patience for the listener to make up his/her mind. I was hovering between variedness and incoherence with respect to the musical style(s), not being totally sure whether Hans-Jörg Schmitz had put too many musical influences into it or whether his music is just original and abundant.
What finally made the balance turn towards valuing this release as varied, rather than incoherent, was my decision to consider this music as a progressive rock collage, a sort of musical journey across various styles.
There can be no doubt that King of Agogik's sixth album is challenging and demanding, but if one is prepared to seriously get involved with it, he/she will discover that it has every ingredient to be a worthy representative of this wonderful and fascinating musical style called progressive rock. Yes, recommended, but take your time!
Aurora Overture (4:29), The Oldest Lake (4:32), Wise Man's Invitation(4:14), A Bottled Light (5:52), Souls of a Kind (6:40), Glass Mountain (4:39), Eternally Young (6:10), Moonless Sky (4:34), War of a Lost Child (7:05), Confrontation (11:15), Turn to Me (3:34), Northern Light (5:50)
It's been 11 years since the last Medea album, Room XVII, which was one of my favourite releases from 2006 (review here). Medea is the alter ego of Henry Meeuws, one time keyboardist with Dutch proggers Casual Silence who sadly split following their last album Vertical Horizon in 2011. Northern Light is only the third album from Medea in a timeline spanning 14 years.
A 'rock opera', Northern Light is similar in style and tone to a good many Dutch symphonic metal acts and more specifically the ambitious concepts of Arjen Lucassen and the musicals of Clive Nolan. Meeuws is responsible for all lead instruments including guitars, keyboards, piano and orchestrations, assisted by Igor Koopmans on drums and Frank de Groot on bass.
The opening instrumental Aurora Overture features an ornate string and flute arrangement (courtesy of keys), overlaid with crunching power chords and weighty drums. Appropriately, it introduces the main themes that will appear over the following 11 songs.
It's the vocals that prove to be the album's prime asset, with no fewer than six singers credited, including Ernst Le Cocq d'Armandville, Joss Mennen, John Cuijpers, Sandra Peeters (ex Casual Silence), Rob Laarhoven (ex Casual Silence) and Josien Obers. They each portray a different character within the narrative, but as my promo copy came without sleeve notes, unfortunately I'm unable match the singers to the songs.
That said, the performances are uniformly stellar, from the sensitive male voice of The Oldest Lake to the strident angst of Wise Man's Invitation. Elsewhere, the counterpoint harmonies are superb, particularly during the euphoric Souls of a Kind, the token male/female duet Glass Mountain and the a cappella gymnastics of Northern Light. War of a Lost Child features a children's choir to dramatic effect, underpinned by a bolero drum pattern.
Meeuws demonstrates that in addition to his keyboard talents he's no slouch on guitar with strident soling during Eternally Young, supported by gothic organ. Likewise, War of a Lost Child (another highlight) benefits from some sizzling guitar, piano and synth flights. The classical guitar noodling that opens and closes Confrontation is also very impressive. Perhaps the only drawback for me is the over use of the obligatory combination of orchestral keys and heavy riffs.
There are no such distractions during what is probably the album highlight however. The heavenly Turn to Me is a show-stopping piano ballad in the style of My Way, Wind Beneath My Wings and See Me, Feel Me.
Since Meeuws' last album, works like Ayreon's 01011001 (2007) and The Theory of Everything (2013) and Clive Nolan's She (2008) and Alchemy (2013) have raised the bar for theatrical prog-rock. And whilst the passage of time means that Northern Light doesn't sound quite as fresh and inventive as its predecessor, it's still an impressive effort from an artist who sets high standards in terms of composition, musicianship, vocals and production. But then again, I always was a sucker for a grand concept.
On We Sail (6:21), Elements Of Life (7:54), Theodora (5:55), Ascension (5:19), Ghost Written (9:40), The Perfect Black (9:30), Growing Up (5:42), Over Again (4:06), Tigers (10:34)
Ah, The Samurai Of Prog, a band whom I still think have an appalling name but who keep delivering the goods musically, and visually. Artist Ed Unitsky has produced some of his best work to encase On We Sail, which is saying something given his wonderful contributions to multiple prog albums. I hope that one day he will follow Roger Dean and Hipgnosis and release a book of his collected artwork.
So the album looks great, but what does it sound like?
Although TSOP are officially a trio of Marco Bernard (Rickenbacker basses), Steve Unruh (vocals, violin, flute, guitar) and Kimmo Pörsti (drums and percussion), their strength lies in the ever-growing roster of guests they collaborate with. On this current album there are seven keyboard players, six guitarists and three vocalists stemming from a total of nine different countries and four continents. The assertion that the album was recorded 'all over earth' is no idle boast. But what is truly amazing is that despite the array of musicians, the music maintains an identity that is uniquely TSOP, even though none of the core trio contributed to the writing of the music (although Unruh does provide some of the vocal melodies), which was in the hands of the keyboard players. Given that the musicians are from bands as diverse as Presto Ballet, The Musical Box, Unitopia, Latte E Miele and Simon Says, plus the world of theatre and TV, that there is any consistency at all is somewhat astounding.
Despite having the TSOP stamp, there is naturally considerable variety amongst the pieces, which adds a freshness to proceedings. In addition, having guest vocalists alongside Unruh provides different focal points along the way. The album starts with the title track and the first of two compositions by Kerry Shacklett (of Presto Ballet). There is a nod to classic rock with the sound of the Hammond organ and Unruh's violin sounding like a complete string section. It is a song of intent, purpose and positivity, whose emphatic chorus raises the spirits with a cry to arms. Serbia's Srđjan Branković (Alogia) plays an important but somewhat minimal contribution, but the song definitely belongs to Shacklett and Unruh.
The renowned Argentinian theatre and TV composer Octavio Stampalía's piece for the album is Elements Of Life, a dramatic piece of music that throws together a variety of different electric keyboards and an acoustic piano with a mysterious air provided by Unruh's flute and violin. Spaniard (at least I think he is a Spaniard!) Rubén Álvarez has control of the guitar on this number and his perilous guitar solo, along with the raging other instruments, perfectly encapsulates the white-water rafting tale of the song's adventurers as they explore an ancient canyon.
Theodora sees lyrical contributions from Pirkko Salhi and Kev Moore, although vocalist Moore does not appear on the song, the main vocals being taken by Michelle Young, known for her contributions to Glass Hammer and Clive Nolan's various prog musicals. Unruh and Pörsti provide lovely harmony vocals, whilst Álvarez's guitar blends seamlessly with the violin. Both enhance the staccato of the main musical themes, crafted by Luca Scherani (Finisterre and Höstsonaten amongst others).
Ascension is one of three instrumentals and the first of two by the excellent pianist David Myers, who also plays the role of Tony Banks in Canada's The Musical Box. It is a very jaunty piece that has a delightful piano and flute conclusion. Jacques Friedmann, Myers' band mate in Ars Ephemera, plays guitar, although from the photos in the booklet one could be forgiven from thinking they are one and the same person.
Myer's' second contribution to the album is the elegant, grand piano composition Over Again, an oasis of calm and class that provides the perfect introduction to Tigers, more of which later. The final instrumental, The Perfect Black, continues prog's tradition of merging rock and classical music. A very dramatic piece, it very successfully simulates an orchestra using just the keyboards of Italian Oliverio Lacagnina (Latte e Miele) and the one-man orchestra of Steve Unruh. Some excellent classical guitar is added by fellow Italian Flavio Cucchi in a piece that is a modern equivalent of ELP in their glory days.
Ghost Written sees the first released fruits of the reunion of Unitopia's Sean Timms and Mark Trueack. It is an epic composition by Timms that revitalises the Unitopian sound. Trueack and Unruh have very complimentary voices and the intermezzo sung by Trueack, accompanied by Unruh's flute, has one of the most gorgeous chord changes I have heard in a long while. White Willow's Jacob Holm-Lupo provides guitar throughout, apart from a brief solo by Rubén Álvarez, to complete a track that is possibly worth the price of admission alone.
One of my other favourite pieces has to be Growing Up by Kerry Shacklett. The opening and refrain is pure Jethro Tull, which the group reinforce by the cheeky inclusion of the title of Tull's Mother Goose in the lyric. This time the guitars are shared by Echolyn's brilliant Brett Kull (whom I hope is involved more in future TSOP releases) and the composer. Another excellent song and, again, benefiting from the shared lead vocals of Shacklett and Unruh.
Earlier I mentioned that Over Again provided a perfect introduction to the final track, Tigers, the final solo piano lines merging perfectly with the introduction of the full band. Tigers is the final song written by Stefan Renström from Sweden's Simon Says who, obviously aware of his coming end, pens a very reflective and plaintive song which faces up to the inevitable conclusion that comes to us all. The band, Barnard, Pörsti, Unruh, Kull and Roberto Vitelli (from Taproban on Moog Taurus bass pedals) provide the perfect accompaniment to Renström's keyboards, while it is fitting that Simon Says vocalist Daniel Fäldt sings the final lyrics written by his band mate. Although perhaps not the most perfect vocal rendition, it is definitely the most emotional and honest performance on the whole album.
I closed my review of TSOP's previous album with the words: "The Imperial Hotel raises TSOP to a higher level, and sets for them a benchmark release that will be hard to follow. But, boy, I hope they do."