Reviews in this issue:
Cary Heuchert - Blue Rain
This is an album that flew very low under the DPRP’s progressive radar, given that its prog-rock credentials are tenuous to say the least. Late 60s / early 70s psychedelic folk rock would be much closer to the mark.
Canadian multi-instrumentalist Cary Heuchert originally released Blue Rain in 2015. This remastered version appeared in 2017 with the addition of the bonus track Mirror Of Dreams. Although this is Heuchert’s second album (following the 2012 debut Nocturna And Other Stories) it's his first on CD.
This is very much a one-man band effort, with Heuchert responsible for all compositions, production, vocals and instruments including acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, bass and drums. The sound is very sparse at times, with a home-made, demo feel that the revealing remastering cannot disguise. I was reminded of Tyrannosaurus Rex before Marc Bolan reinvented himself as the “electric warrior”. Guitar is clearly Heuchert’s first instrument, and whilst he’s also a proficient keyboardist, the drums and percussion are rudimentary to say the least.
Although Heuchert doesn’t have a particularly strong voice, his singing has a mellow warmth reminiscent of The Moody Blues’ John Lodge that’s perfectly in tune with the retro, laidback songs. Factor in the vintage sound of the Mellotron on several tracks, and the melancholic charm of late 60s Moodies, circa On The Threshold Of A Dream, is never far away. When his voice is paired with acoustic guitar, the songs have a folky vibe, bringing to mind Roy Harper and Gordon Lightfoot amongst others.
With 11 tracks mostly around the three to four minute mark, cleary there is little room for excess here, but the occasional solo does allow Heuchert the opportunity to flex his instrumental muscles. Although it’s the shortest track on the album, the instrumental Maoershan, with its authentically out-of-tune Mellotron is one of the most engaging. The longest track, Not Just Another Day, is really two songs in one, featuring a taut guitar solo, whilst the pastoral Someday has a haunting quality that’s hard to resist.
Whilst Heuchert clearly has an ear for melody and Moody Blues-ish song titles (with “dreams” being a recurring element), if there was ever an album that would benefit from higher production values and dynamics, this is it.
Njet Njet 9 - Dark Soul
Finnish nonet Njet Njet 9's latest album Dark Soul has a contagious appeal that is bound to satisfy anybody who enjoys the music of bands such as Nucleus, The Keith Tippet Group and the large ensemble, jazz-tinged leanings of Frank Zappa displayed in albums such as Waka Jawaka.
The release features eight excellent tunes that bristle with impressive ensemble and individual performances. The tunes include a skilful array of foot stomping rhythms driven by powerful, punchy bass lines. Dark Soul is a hugely enjoyable album and contains some of the most engaging brass playing that I have heard for quite some time.
The release also contains many fine keyboard parts featuring a diverse range of effects. The keyboards are an important back component of the band’s sound, and provide many subtle textures. In tunes such as the Hour Of The Wolf, the swirling keyboards take on a more prominent role and the result is impressive.
The organ effect that features in the beginning of the opening piece, Dancing With Demons, provides a perfect springboard for fiery interplay to occur, and for the other skilful band members to develop the tune. Dancing With Demons is a jaunty affair, which has a memorable motif. Much of the piece brings to mind the melodic qualities, enthusiasm and controlled mayhem of The Keith Tippet Group in their magnificent debut album You Are Here I Am There. When the pace eventually subsides, the plaintive piano that concludes the piece on a reflective note is quite outstanding and provides a near-perfect ending.
Sax flourishes, which are played with great energy and tenacity, are often used to excellent effect to embellish the themes created by keyboard player, band leader and principal composer, Ville Kyttälä. On these occasions, the style and rhythmic approach of Josef Zawinul’s Weather Report is frequently recalled.
Nevertheless, the standout feature of this fresh-sounding release is without doubt the energy and sheer enthusiasm for the music that the players are able to convey.
Each member of the nonet has an important role to play in creating the ensemble's larger-than-life sound. A trio of saxophonists provide much of the band's energy. Their hard-edged blowing and combined power provide an identifiable element to the ensemble's style. The explosive playing of the trio is able to generate a great deal of excitement.
The combined riffing in High Hopes drives the tune in a relentless and thoroughly captivating manner. This allows the harmonious combination of both the trumpet and the trombone to explore the piece's melodic theme. Such an unlikely mix of low-end, frenetic-pulsed intensity and sophisticated high-end beauty creates an unforgettable tune that has an anthem-like quality that could easily feature as a soundtrack, or as a dramatic, sonic accompaniment for the silver screen.
High Hopes has many other interesting facets, not least of which is its interesting use of electronic effects. These brought to mind some of the techniques used by Dinosaur’s Elliot Galvin in his outstanding, recently released album The Influencing Machine. The piece also includes an extended trumpet solo, where Martti Vesala shows his immense skill and virtuosic command of his instrument.
The album is enjoyable from start to finish and the inclusion of a guitarist, Veikki Virkajärvi, in the nonet adds an extra dimension and offers an opportunity to add some contrasting textures to the band’s sound. Virkajari largely plays a supporting role and is quite low in the brass-heavy mix, but on the occasions when he has an opportunity to take centre stage, his high energy playing gives pieces such as, Kulkuriveljeni Jan and during the latter stages of Maybe In Some Parallel Universe an extra metallic oomph
However, the quintet of brass players is more than capable of providing pure excitement, bombast or subtlety when required. Whilst alto sax player Ville Vannemaa excels in a series of expressive solos throughout, baritone sax player Linda Fredriksson supplies a plethora of gruff, chugging parts to provide a forceful bottom-end to the album's brass arrangements. The burping, spitting baritone introduction to the magnificent title track is outstanding and gives a platform for the other players to excel.
This piece embodies many of the stylistic traits shown by the wonderful collective of The United Jazz and Rock Ensemble that was active in the 80s. It is a piece that provides numerous opportunities for the explosive trading of notes between all the players. This creates a tune that is broadly accessible for listeners who enjoy tapping their fingers to fiery jazz rock, but is also complex enough to satisfy those who might predominantly think of music as a cerebral experience.
The piece features a virtuoso solo from Vannemaa that contains copious amounts of breathy squawking that is entirely in keeping with the tune's measured aggression. However, it is the shape-shifting, note-bending glissando banshee wails of the trombone that are perhaps the most evocative, unsettling and unnerving aspect of the piece. Yelps and yowls emitted from the depths of an extended instrumental melee, ensure that the title track lives up to its name in every respect.
My favourite composition of the album is probably Öis. It has many unusual properties and incorporates a range of styles. It has a great groove that at times reminded me of Weather Report. The mid-section of the tune has a percussive feel that Buddy Rich would have been envious of punching out.
Different parts of the piece conclude in a stop/start manner, punctuated by the piercing sound and the expressively shrill interjections of a trumpet. This is similar to the manner in which Ian Carr would break up parts of the arrangement of Nucleus. The tune also has a slow-paced section that works particularly well as a contrast to the piece's energetic rhythms. The slower part of Öis is vaguely redolent of the fairground waltz that featured in Terje Rypdals Stenskoven in his Waves album.
Overall, Dark Soul is an impressive album and I fully recommend it to anybody who appreciates a full-bodied jazz rock sound epitomised by albums such as Zappa’s The Grand Wazoo and Ian Carr’s Belladonna.
Dark Soul is an album that incorporates some of the traditions of a big band, fused with a number of nuances often associated with prog. It oozes energy and has an infectious spirit that often makes the whole experience it offers, simply irresistible.
Phi - Cycles
Like many bands, Phi's previous albums were largely collaborative creations born out of rehearsal room sessions. However when guitarist and vocalist Markus Bratusa sustained a finger injury that prevented him from playing, he decided to utilise the time normally spent on rehearsing and performing, by composing. For the first time, there was no filtering of the ideas through other musicians, no incorporation of the suggestions of others, no diplomacy nor compromise. The result is certainly a bit of a departure for Phi as there is a lot more aggression and power to the music than on previous releases.
This in part comes from a rearranged line-up, primarily the addition of second guitarist Stefan Helige, who doubles the sonic assault, as neither guitarist seems to have a preference for acoustic instruments. Founder member Arthur Darnhofer-Demár makes a final contribution on bass, having quit the band shortly after the recording was finished (his replacement is David Loimer) and after a four-year hiatus, drummer, backing vocalist and keyboard player Nick Koch returns to the fold.
The sound takes its cue from the post-rock scene, with intense riffing interspersed with moments of lightness and plaintive, melodic soloing. An example of this is on Dystopia, which has more layers than an onion. However one could easily have chosen In The Name Of Freedom or Children Of The Rain to make the point.
Although Phi are not newcomers to absorbing post-rock influences (it has been a component of all of their previous albums), they seem to have taken things to a higher level here. Bratusa's vocals are complementary to the music. His clearly articulated singing adds another string of diversity, one that makes Phi stand out from the typically instrumental post-rock bands. Amber is his real moment to shine, the soothing delivery in counterpoint to the maelstrom going on behind his singing. Good, intelligent lyrics as well.
With each of the songs being seven-plus minutes in length there is plenty of opportunity to provide variety, particularly as Dystopia and In The Name Of Freedom seamlessly merge into one. Yes, there are times when perhaps there are a handful of bars too many, but none of the songs really outstay their welcome and I have found myself getting quite absorbed and lost in the music, to the extent that it seems to be over too quickly.
I would love to experience Phi live on stage, as I should imagine they would be a force to be reckoned with, particularly with Helige providing additional guitar lines to the older material. So if you live in Austria or Germany where most, if not all, of their live shows are held, pop along and let me know your opinion.
But take some ear plugs...
Puzzlewood - Gates Of Loki
This is an impressive debut album from a trio of young Russian musicians, Tony Legatov (guitars, vocals), Nikita Lipatov (bass, keyboards, backing vocals) and Eugen Semenov (drums). They term themselves as "post-progressive" which, judging from the overall sound of the album, is alternative rock with progressive tendencies. But then again the press release also stated that King Crimson and Pink Floyd are post-progressive, not that there are a lot of similarities between the bands, other than the instrumental opening track.
And that is good, as Puzzlewood, named after the the mysterious and enchanting place in England's Forest of Dean that was an inspiration for several famous science fantasy writers, have created their own unique sound, creating a type of music that only a trio seems to be able to manage. Everyone has to hold their own, as there is nothing to hide behind. Fortunately the three musicians are very competent and, unbelievably, original in their approach to music. Semenov adds multiple rhythm lines, aided by guest percussionist Kirill Rossolimo. Lipatov provides a powerful and melodic bass that anchors everything, and Legatov coaxes a wide range of sounds out of his guitar. It also helps that Legatov has a wonderful voice, that I would defy anyone to identify as not originating from a native English speaker.
The gritty Remember My Name merges into the more mysterious Obsessed, with a quite spooky flute added by the nationally confused Olga Scotland. Heavier instrumental breaks are slotted into the song in a manner that Porcupine Tree used to employ. The impassioned Come Back Home takes things down a bit, with some great-sounding acoustic guitar, which gives one a chance to listen to the lyrics, which I have to say are very good. Legatov is quite the polymath.
Твой Дом (Your House) is the only song sung in the band's native Russian and displays more of a native, Eastern influence as opposed to the West's rock 'n' roll. The tuned percussion is a lovely touch, not only in the intro, where it stands alone, but also throughout the song where it has a prominence not usually allowed in rock music. A more straight-forward drum pattern opens To The Void, which for the first two-and-a-half minutes doesn't really promise that much, but it is saved by a two-minute instrumental section, before revisiting the opening musical pattern.
Hollow is a lovely combination of different musical vignettes that are perfectly fitted together, while Jerusaelem (which I believe is the Israeli spelling) takes on a more Eastern rhythmic style and makes good use of Legatov's expressive vocals. Tempo changes keep the interest high and provide opportunities for the unexpected, which are delivered with aplomb, particularly the rather manic ending featuring the violin playing of Basem Al-Ashkar, although I would have liked a more explosive ending.
The album closes Road Will Lead which is my least favourite track on the album, being as it is rather too disjointed and not displaying the same consistency as the rest of the album. But it does show that, even at this early stage, Puzzlewood are open to experimentation and trying different things.
Puzzlewood have delivered an album that is well worth a listen and suggests there is a promising future ahead for this Russian trio.
Sonic Tool Box - A Space In Time
I guess nobody likes writing bad reviews, but sometimes there is no option. You can listen to the album once more, trying to discover new details. You can try to listen to it in different situations or places, while driving, while running... But sometimes it is what it is and you simply don't like it. This has happened to me with Sonic Tool Box´s new album A Space In Time.
When I received my copy to review, my first impressions were not good. I understand that we are taking about music, but this album cover is not helping at all if the band wants to get some attention.
A Space In Time is the second album from this Danish combo, formed by Lars Boutrup and Michael Miller, both former members of different bands that, honestly, I don't think I'm going to listen to. Don't expect the music to be progressive rock or even rock. To me it sounds like 80s pop music with some kind of gothic atmosphere flying above the whole album, with some electronic sounds.
This could be a good mix, even for a progressive rock lover, but not this time. All the songs sound very similar and even when you try your best, in the end you feel like you're not paying attention, and believe me, I have tried many times. To me, A Space In Time is a boring album and really difficult to listen to from start to finish.
Of course I'm not going to review each song but I encourage all our readers to listen to the whole album. Maybe I'm the only one not enjoying Sonic Tool Box. I hope someone can write me back with a different opinion but for now I can only wait for the next one to be more to my tastes. The good thing is, that that won't be difficult.