Reviews in this issue:
- Caravela Escarlate - Caravela Escarlate
- Iris Divine - The Static And The Noise
- Melanie Mau & Martin Schnella - The Oblivion Tales
- Melanie Mau & Martin Schnella - Gray Matters - Live In Concert
- Taylor's Universe - Almost Perfected
- Damian Wilson & Adam Wakeman - The Sun Will Dance In Its Twilight Hour
Caravela Escarlate - Caravela Escarlate
Um Brilho Frágil no Infinito (5:13), Caravela Escarlate (4:39), Atmosfera (6:30), Gigantes da Destruição (6:53), Toque as Constelações (5:22), Futuro Passado (4:46), Cosmos (8:35), Planeta-Estrela (11:34)
These primary instruments are faithfully flavoured and rigorously rendered with the sonic stylings of the past. This creates a kaleidoscopic garland of never-fading blooms that brazenly clasp the listener with the retro-style and musk-fragranced ambience of classic prog.
Caravela Escarlate is hardly innovative or progressive, but set against the stylistic boundaries it has set itself, it is often superb.
I am not readily attracted to albums that have a retro sound, or bands that emulate the style and ambience of classic prog bands such as Genesis and Yes. As a general rule, I much prefer releases that are unpredictably progressive, in terms of their approach to composition and instrumentation. However, once in a while an album arrives, that despite its generic prog traits, simply makes me sit up, take notice and listen.
There is much to appreciate in Caravela Escarlate. The full-bodied bass and wonderful keyboards that play such an important part of this release will no doubt appeal to those who enjoy the recognisable style, sound and instrumentation associated with 70s prog. Its retro sound is pleasing to the ear and brings to mind the style of many diverse bands including amongst others ELP, PFM, Asia Minor and Camel.
Originally, Caravela Escarlate was a duo comprising of multi-instrumentalist David Paiva and keyboard player Ronaldo Rodrigues. Rodrigues is also the keyboard player for Arcpelago and has worked previously with Massahara.
The pair's first album, Rascunho, released in 2016 was an all-instrumental semi-acoustic work. On Caravela Escarlate the duo has been joined by drummer Elcio Cáfaro. In this release the musical colours associated with the trio's Brazilian homeland are sparingly blended with a raft of prog influences to create something that is, for the most part, reassuringly familiar, but is on occasions also novel and mysteriously alluring.
The album is made up of eight compositions, two of which are instrumental pieces. Their positioning in the running order, at numbers three and seven respectively, helps to keep things fresh by offering a contrast to the other tracks, which although predominantly instrumental, have substantial vocal elements.
Whilst the vocal passages of the album are not weak, they are perhaps the least compelling aspect of the release. I am assuming that the vocal sections have some important lyrical content, but unfortunately as a non-Portuguese speaker, I can only comment on their pleasing, tuneful style. The delivery of the vocals and band flourishes which underpin them, are quite laid back and are often reminiscent of the melodic qualities associated with the Turkish band Asia Minor.
This is particularly apparent in the plaintive and heartfelt vocal lines of Gigantes da Destruição. It's a tune that has many alluring instrumental elements, making it an example of old-school symphonic prog of the highest order. Although arguably never as inventive as progressive jazz fusion, its combination of dirty, bass-driven riffs, sweeping organ fills, classical influences and a warm synthesiser sound to caress the heart, more than make up for any lack of innovative originality.
Atmosfera is an excellent instrumental. Its sleek arrangement and quick shifts of tempo show the abilities of the trio to good effect. It is characterised by a beautiful melody and a memorable motif that drifts in and out of prominence, and which, in parts, has a remote and vague similarity to Slapp Happy's The Secret.
The composition includes some fine electric piano parts and many impressive bass and drum fills. However, the spotlight soon falls upon the spirited synthesiser parts that are an undoubted highpoint of this piece, and which also shine brilliantly through much of the album. There is glowing warmth to Rodrigues' playing and his part in Atmosfera's engaging arrangements radiate with quality. His skilfully crafted contribution, cascades colourfully, as a series of thrilling patterns are explored. These take the piece to a musical dimension that fans of bands like ELP will simply adore.
Cosmos is the second of the instrumental pieces. It has a loose-spun feel that makes it quite endearing. The slow pace of its prominent, recurring theme is contrasted with some outstanding, fast-paced instrumental passages. The up-tempo parts have a bubbly effervescence and possess the air of a band who are clearly enjoying themselves.
Whilst I enjoyed much of what Caravela Escarlate has to offer, I was left with the impression that, despite its numerous impassioned instrumental parts, some of the tunes (like the sweet-scented ballad Toque as Constelações and the clichéd nature of Futuro Passado) were a trite bland. I could not allay thoughts that the album as a whole, if played repeatedly, would perhaps fail to fully satisfy in the long term. Nevertheless, I am sure that this feeling would have been, at least partially, overcome if I had been able to easily discern what David Paiva was singing about.
On balance though, there is much more to praise about Caravela Escarlate than to constructively criticise. It sounds great. The performances are outstanding. Most of all, it evokes faded memories of an age long-gone, where shoulder length hair, amber beads, grandpa vests, cotton loons and sweat-encrusted kaftan's triumphantly adorned the pages of publications like the NME, Sounds and Melody Maker.
More importantly, Caravela Escarlate also points to the future, and shows that symphonic prog, subtly tinted with the colours of Brazil but also possessing a comfortingly familiar retro sound, can still sound relevant and thoroughly enchanting in 2018.
Owen Davies: 7.5 out of 10
Iris Divine - The Static And The Noise
Catalyst (5:21), Taking Back The Fall (5:50), Echoes / Effigies (6:12), Fractures (4:54), The Static And The Noise (5:31), Like Glass (4:08), The Acolyte (6:26), We All Dissolve (6:58)
During that time two things have continued to bug me more than anything else. The first is the enduring disappointment at how few bands take the time to say just two words: "Thank you".
The second is a more recent problem: the failure of musicians to showcase their endeavours in the best possible light. In my humble opinion, writers can never do a valid review based on low quality mp3 files and no artwork. "No, I will not being reviewing your album from a YouTube video. If you want my honest and considered opinion, please send me the full CD."
So it is really nice when an artist does take the time to say a little "Thank You". Even nicer if they add a few words of their own to show that they genuinely appreciate the support.
I'm only human (honestly!). I am more likely to go out of my way to support a band that does take the time for such things - and thankfully there are quite a few who do.
Hailing from Virginia, Iris Divine came onto my radar in 2011 with what I think was their debut album, Convergence. It had a wonderfully catchy opening song, Broken Arms but lacked depth and was a little light on the metal for my tastes. (The whole thing is still available as a pay-what-you-wish download from the Iris Divine Bandcamp page.)
Reduced to a trio, the band won a worldwide release via the Sensory record label for their sophomore album in 2015.
Karma Sown was (and still is) an absolute killer collection of melodic progressive metal that still gets regular spins chez moi. The band kindly wrote to thank me for my rather gushing review (read it here). They wrote again to say "thank-you" when I listed it as one of my top 10 albums of 2015 (featured here).
Then, as 2017 turned into 2018, Iris Divine sent me their new album in the post. The full CD!
This time around, The Static And The Noise has received direct funding via Kickstarter. The album is independently released via the band's website and Bandcamp page.
On a first listen one thing is clear: the band's music has changed (or progressed). There is a definite move towards a more alternative sound. There is more power, a few screams, and the guitars possess a dirtier, nastier tone. Check out the opening 58 seconds of Catalyst.
For fans of Karma Sown however, the band thankfully remain true to their emphasis on amazingly-catchy melodies, delivered with a progressive rock/metal heart. The emotive, mid-range vocals of Navid Rashid remain the biggest attraction. So few singers today are able to nail such killer hooks on (almost) every track on an album.
The drumming of Kris Combs also continues to impress. The rhythm and groove he is able to create with bassist Brian Dobbs, is again the making of the Iris Divine sound.
Other than the closing track, which lacks a sense of direction and is further confused by needless voice-overs, each of the seven preceding songs are hits.
From the angry opener, that reminds me of Ray Alder's solo album project Engine, to the AOR chorus and harmonies and the pop groove that sparkles in Like Glass, there is a clever dynamic shift that prevents this album from becoming predictable.
But again it's the unavoidable hooks that make Taking Back The Fall, Fractures and the title track, three of my favourite songs of the past year. The immense opening riff to The Acolyte ain't bad either!
This is without doubt my favoured style of progressive metal, and The Static and the Noise is one of the best melodic progressive metal albums I have heard since, well, since Karma Sown! That is now two musical statements of which these three musicians should be proud.
Thank you Iris Divine for sending me another great CD!
Andy Read: 8.5 out of 10
Melanie Mau & Martin Schnella - The Oblivion Tales
The Spire And The Old Bridge (5:19), Treasured Memories (6:09), Words Become A Song (4:35), Close To The Heart (5:04), The Horseshoe (7:54), Wild West (5:43), My Dear Children (6:57), Die Zwerge Vom Iberg (8:16), The Dwarfs King (6:04), Erinnerungen (5:40), Melanie's Theme (5:39)
Noteworthy is the almost complete absence of keyboards on this record (with the exception of Tobias Reiss virtuous piano playing on Wild West), something I find rather uncommon in progressive rock. The band is helped out by a number of guest musicians performing on the various songs, amongst them Dave Meros on bass and Jimmy Keegan on drums (both known for their playing with Spock's Beard) plus Rachel Hall on violin and Jens Kommick on tin whistles, low whistles and uilleann pipes.
As the band states in the introductory notes in the inner sleeves, The Oblivion Tales are the untold and truthful stories affecting their hearts and reminding them of people who have enriched their lives. Lyrically, this release covers a spectrum reaching from myths and legends of the Harz region, (sad) memories, (unfulfilled) desires, wild west heroes, and the fortune of having children. Some of the texts have left me a bit melancholic. The same holds true for the music.
This record is the first one that the band released under its own name containing self-written songs. The music, labelled as acoustic prog/rock, celtic/folk by the band itself, is unlike anything from their bands mentioned above. It is yet another example of a release where inevitably a reviewer (and probably many of the listeners) may ask themselves whether the music still passes for progressive rock. I have always tried not to be too dogmatic about this, and after all, everyone is free to define their own scope of "progressive rock". What counts at the end of the day is the music's quality, and to this effect this band scores highly.
The musicianship on this record is outstanding. Singling out one element amongst many strong ones, I would opt for the vocals. Not only Melanie Mau's emotional singing, but the beautiful multi-vocal harmonies and the catchy refrains and melodies provide for many goose bump-producing moments, notably with respect to the first two songs The Spire And The Old Bridge and Treasured Memories (probably the strongest song on the record).
Additionally, I found Martin Schnella's virtuouso (mainly acoustic, but also electric) guitar playing particularly appealing, especially in combination with the vocal harmonies mentioned above. He reminds me a bit of Peter Horton and I assume he must have listened to Steve Howe as well. His playing provides for a healthy degree of complexity inherent in progressive rock, without just being simple l'art-pour-l'art. The use of whistles and pipes, as well as the violin, accounts for the folky elements of the music.
Whilst the overall musical direction of this release is acoustic, this does not keep the band from interspersing a couple of rockier pieces with excellent electric guitar soloing and fierce drumming by Jimmy Keegan (Die Zwerge vom Iberg and The Dwarfs King). Although some of the songs come across in an upbeat way, the prevailing mood of this record is somewhat melancholic and contemplative. Those familiar with the German language will acknowledge the strong, emotionality emanated by the lyrics of Erinnerungen (memories), something that is also coming through by just listening to the music itself.
Recording, mixing and mastering of this record has been done by Martin Schnella himself. The production is flawless, and the sound quality excellent. The CD comes in a professional-looking digipack with beautiful artwork by Martin Huch (one of the guest musicians). The record is self-distributed and available through email@example.com only.
Although maybe not progressive rock in the purest sense of term, I recommend this CD to anyone wishing to enlarge their musical spectrum with catchy, intelligent and emotional music. References, if at all, may be Clannad (without the keyboards, though), or Eddie & Finbar Furey for the folky elements. And, for all you male progsters out there wishing to persuade your wives, girlfriends and even daughters that progressive rock is accessible and worth listening to, then this is a perfect example to start with. At least, it worked with my family!
Thomas Otten: 8 out of 10
Melanie Mau & Martin Schnella - Gray Matters - Live In Concert
Digging In The Dirt (Peter Gabriel) (5.14), You'Re The Voice (John Farnham) (4:39), Conviction Of The Heart (Kenny Loggins) (5:22), Miracles Out Of Nowhere (Kansas) (5:55), Green Tinted Sixties Mind (Mr. Big) (3.13), The Storm (Flying Colors) (4:33), Message In A Bottle (The Police) (4:50), Africa (Toto) (4:42), Close To The Heart (Melanie Mau & Martin Schnella) (5:23), Curse My Name (Blind Guardian) (6:31), A Thousand Miles (Vanessa Carlton) (3:25), I Want You Back (Jackson 5) (4:34), A Touch Of Evil (Judas Priest) (6:28), Ain't Nobody (Chaka Khan) (4:10), Jolene (Dolly Parton) (4:46)
Melanie Mau, responsible for the vocals and Martin Schnella on acoustic guitar and vocals, were joined by Niklas Kahl (percussion), Fabian Gödecke (drums and percussion), and Stephan Wegner (acoustic guitar and vocals), all of them were also active on The Oblivion Tales.
The catalyst for this CD to see the light of day, was the fact that a friend of Melanie Mau and Martin Schnella had fallen ill of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, after the US baseball star who died of it in the 1940s. Consequently, the band decided to release a live recording of their 2016 Christmas concert and to donate part of the income from the sale of this CD to an organisation which morally, judicially and financially supports people affected. Having witnessed the course and the consequences of this fatal and incurable disease in my immediate family environment, I felt particularly concerned and touched by this charitable move.
The track list on this record is somewhat different from the studio version of Gray Matters, with less emphasis on progressive rock artists (one song each from Kansas, Flying Colors, Peter Gabriel, and Toto) plus Close To The Heart, the only "own" song, which can be heard on The Oblivion Tales as well. This live set instead contains a varied mix of songs from different musical styles ranging from heavy metal (Judas Priest, Blind Guardian) via rock (The Police) to funk (Chaka Khan), singer-songwriting (Kenny Loggins) and country (Dolly Parton).
In principle, the quality of a CD containing "just" cover songs very much depends on the selection of those songs, plus the way these are performed. I know that some people may have mixed feelings about covers, and having been a bit sceptical myself with respect to covering songs generally (especially if they are musically close to the originals), this record has convinced me on both counts.
Besides the variedness inherent in the choice of the tracks, the musicianship is at a very high standard and the sound quality is excellent. The music comes across in a laid-back but professional, mature manner. In a way this is powerful, but also subtle and intimate. The whole performance displays an atmosphere of confidence. I believe this to be intentional given the purpose of this release.
I also liked the interaction with the audience. Towards the end of Miracles Out Of Nowhere, the public starts applauding, causing Martin Schnella to state: "Hey, that wasn't it yet."
Again, this record comes in a professional-looking digipak with excellent production, mixing and mastering, as well as being self-distributed by Martin Schnella through firstname.lastname@example.org. I would also encourage the listeners to visit the YouTube link for many other acoustic and electric cover songs by Melanie Mau and Martin Schnella. Especially worthy are the Kansas covers which are so awesome, that the originators shared the respective links on their homepage and Facebook account.
Although not being a progressive rock album per se, I recommend this for two reasons. Firstly, the songs are varied, and performed intelligently, maturely and emotionally. Secondly, on a personal note, the charitable character of this release deserves wider recognition.
Thomas Otten: 8 out of 10
Taylor's Universe - Almost Perfected
Mean Attack (11:42), Definately Greek (He said)(10:48), Remembering Johannesburg (9:23), Dark Side Of Alec (14:28)
A number of these albums have received positive DPRP reviews (you can see here at the DPRP Search page for a list of albums reviewed). Discovering Almost Perfected and investigating Taylor's extensive discography has been an exciting and thoroughly worthwhile experience.
Almost Perfected is an album that contains re-imaginings and carefully constructed revisions of four tunes that have previously featured in his discography. Taylor was not satisfied with these tunes in their original form and had an opportunity to revisit the compositions; to alter, improve and perfect them (almost).
What is apparent from the opening moments of the album is that Taylor uses a loosely-spun raft of influences in his compositions. The album displays some of the colours associated with jazz, whilst some of the saxophone parts blow hard, treading a fine balance between composed structures and enigmatic improvisation. The gorgeous phrasing of the saxophone during the introduction of Mean Attack is quite bewitching and can be likened to some of Jan Garbarek's most compelling and atmospheric work.
The unexpected transition from the sax to the guitar in the opening of Mean Attack is quite superb. It is an indication of the quality of Taylor's compositions and arrangements. It is a clear signpost of the quality of much of what is to follow.
Although the compositions and arrangements of Almost Perfected are, for the most part, complex and inventive, it is a thoroughly engaging and readily accessible release. It is an album that can be experienced on many different levels. It sounds pleasant as background music, but many intriguing facets reveal themselves when listened to in a more thoughtful manner.
This is particularly true of the recurring riff and the strident soloing that is a feature of the call-and-response passages that dominate much of Mean Attack. These enjoyably powerful interjections have the power to move hips and shape lips and ensure that Mean Attack displays an outer garment that has instant appeal. Delve daringly beyond this superficial outer layer, and listeners may well discover that there is much more to experience.
The rhythm section generates a pulsating bass and has an insistent energy that gives the soloists a great platform to soar. The keyboard, guitar and saxophone bursts are quite stunning and the weighty combination of all three in a succession of explosive solos is quite brilliant. There are some great shifts of tempo and surprising detours along the way, as the piece shifts dynamics in an exciting way. The use of a flute sound, a jazz-styled guitar, a heartfelt sax interlude and a fluffy synth solo in the latter stages of the tune are particularly attractive.
Mean Attack is a hugely rewarding tune, and Almost Perfected as a whole, offers something new on each occasion it is heard. It is an album that should appeal to a range of listeners including those who appreciate, jazz, prog and fusion. Many of the compositions have recurring themes which weave in and out, to create a memorable impression. These sometimes linger for a while, or sometimes re-emerge for a fleeting moment. This has a mesmerising effect and gives much of Almost Perfected a broad, cinematic quality that is able to vividly feed the imagination.
Over the course of the album, its rhythmic qualities offer numerous opportunities for head swaying and synchronised thumb and toe tapping. It is at its most enchanting when its mix of instruments creates an appealing symphonic soundscape. This is tastefully embellished and enhanced whenever the guitar, saxophone or keyboards take on a more dominant solo role.
The album contains many inventive and engaging guitar passages and these provide many moments that fans of bands as diverse as Camel, King Crimson and Pink Floyd might appreciate. The melodic phrasing of the languid guitar solo at the start of Definitely Greek is particularly appealing. Its beguiling structure and delicate melody made me draw comparisons with some of John Etheridge's work on Soft Machine's Softs.
The combination of tasteful guitar, sweet-flowing synthesiser parts and expressive vocals make Definitely Greek an inviting experience. It is one of the highlights of the album. The brief change of direction in the second half of the tune works well and ensures that the interest, tension and excitement are all successfully maintained. The coda that completes the piece, brings all of the tune's key elements together and ends proceedings in an impressive manner.
All of the tunes use wordless vocals, and this vocalising style gives the release a warm, human appeal, that contrasts well with the technically adept instrumental parts that dominate. On more than one occasion during Definitely Greek, I was reminded of the expressive vocal approach that is found in the minimalist music of Ikarus. Conversely, there were occasions during Remembering Johannesburg that were redolent of the effervescent vocal expressionism of Zeptelar.
During Almost Perfected the vocals are very much a part of a whole ensemble sound, but there are times when I would have liked the scat parts to have taken on a much more prominent role, as for example Norma Winstone provided in Michael Garrick's outstanding Home Stretch Blues album. Nevertheless, this is a minor gripe and for the most part the vocal parts complement the overall sound of the album perfectly.
Remembering Johannesburg is a fine tune, where all of the members of Taylor's Universe excel. It combines jazz, symphonic and ambient elements. However, for lovers of progressive jazz fusion, the tune probably does not detour enough from its set path, to fully impress or satisfy. The saxophone parts, that are beautifully blown by Jakob Mygind, display a style that is similar to that which Klaus Doldinger perfected in his early Passport albums. The piece also includes a magnificent acoustic guitar interlude in its mid-section and an expressive guitar and keyboard solo to bring it to a fittingly fine conclusion.
Dark Side of Alice is the longest composition on the album and it concludes the release in style. The beginning has a dramatic atmosphere that is reminiscent of the Dutch band Finch. But the comparison ends there, as Dark Side of Alice develops to encapsulate all of the unique attributes of Taylor's fine compositional style. It's a good tune that is instantly appealing. It contains a number of sparkling solos. The blistering guitar tones that are strongly featured in the opening minutes are impressive. To add to this, there are lots of playful jousts and brash, bare knuckled exchanges between instruments. The rousing interplay and tuneful rivalry that is exhibited by saxophonist Mygind and guitarist John Sund is absolutely magnificent.
The second half of the tune takes on a greater ambient air, as guitar soundscapes, organ flourishes, background vocals and sax embellishments meander, dart and flow through a changing and evolving landscape that is never lacking creative ideas.
Overall, Almost Perfected is a very good album. It certainly kept me entertained and I have played it on numerous occasions. It is a release that is full of feeling, has an irresistible quality and is crammed full of fine playing, wonderful arrangements and mouth-watering compositions. Almost Perfected is an apt title for a release that has so many impressive attributes. I recommend that you check it out!
Owen Davies: 8.5 out of 10
Damian Wilson & Adam Wakeman - The Sun Will Dance In Its Twilight Hour
The Last American Hero (4:26), On This Battlefield (3:24), Only The Lonely One (4:31), Blackpool Clip Joint Racket (3:22), Laugh In Time (3:28), Better Than That (5:18), Red Socks (2:43), Shining A Light On A Miracle (4:29), Tried And Tested (2:55), The Sun Will Dance In Its Twilight Hour (4:18)
Adam Wakeman and Damian Wilson are best known for their work in the prog and/or metal categories. That said, much of Wilson's finest material is contained on his folk/rock solo albums. Wakeman too has released some quality, acessible pop/rock over the years. The Sun Will Dance In Its Twilight Hour is their second acoustic album together and it showcases their strong talents as not only performers, but more specifically, as songwriters.
This is not in any way a prog album, but much of the material proves to be compelling in a simpler way. There is a dramatic quality to many of the tracks, but they also consist of catchy choruses and memorable melodies. Utilising mainly piano, acoustic guitars and other string instruments, there is a sparse feel to the album. In lesser hands, that fact could have placed it in the pile of pleasant background music. That is definitely not the case here, as the songwriting and performances command attention.
Running at a brisk and effective 37 minutes, the album is consistant in quality from beginning to end. I am challenged to call out highlights, as there really isn't an off-track to be found. That said, The Last American Hero, On This Battlefield, Always the Lonely One, Better Than That and Shining a Light on a Miracle display a sense of melody that is particularly impressive. If you are looking for an album of laid back, accessible music that permeates with intelligence and quality, you can't go wrong with The Sun will Dance in its Twilight Hour.
Patrick McAfee: 8.5 out of 10