Reviews in this issue:
Crystal Palace - Scattered Shards
Germany's Crystal Palace have been around for nearly a quarter of a century in which time they have released eight studio albums, one live album, one compilation and a number of EPs. They have also had almost as many changes in personnel as King Crimson! In fact none of the original band remains and I think that this latest album is the first time that two consecutive albums have had the same line-up. This consistency has its benefits as I also think this is the shortest time between albums with there being a gap of only two and a half years since the release of Dawn Of Eternity. The quartet consists of Frank Köhler, the longest standing member, on keyboards, Jens Uwe Strutz ('Yenz') on bass and vocals, Nils Conrad on guitar and Tom Ronney on drums and additional keyboards.
The band have been lumbered with the ridiculous term neo prog and have been compared, admittedly on their earlier albums, with IQ and Marillion and more recently with Porcupine Tree. Well either they have changed completely or I am living in a parallel universe, but I can hear no resemblance to the first two bands and the only thing in common with the third band is that there are some crunchingly heavy guitar chords throughout the album. Which, overall, is a good thing as it means, to me at least, that Crystal Palace are their own band and don't feel the need to be like anyone else.
The lyrics are in English and Yenz has a good and clear unaccented voice although sometimes the vocal melodies don't seem to completely blend with the music being played by the band. The group are not afraid to mix heavier rock sounds with more electronic styles, such as on Logic Of Fear, and can even blend those two elements with a lighter more dare I say it, commercial approach on Inside Your Dreams, and before you run screaming for the hills it is a very successful blend with plenty of stylistic and tempo changes throughout that ensures even the most ardent of prog nuts can't complain too much. In fact the band quite often pulls a surprising about face, Craving is ostensibly a riff heavy dirge that is a bit repetitive until out of nowhere Conrad breaks out a solo that is seemingly so out of context with the rest of the song that it is almost startling. But it is the making of the song.
Unafraid to get political, Collateral takes a dig at the US military who, in conflicts throughout history, have through a rather gung ho attitude been the deliverers of friendly fire, which I am sure will mean their name won't on top of the invite list to any festivals in the more militaristic US states. And goodness knows what Simply Irresistible Cruel Intentions is about, although it could be used in a Fifty Shades of Gray film as it would fit both lyrically and musically with its contrasting strong and sweet passages.
Opening and closing numbers Inside and Outside The Box are a fine pair of connected songs but taking an opposing point of view, strongly emphasised by the musical interpretation of the melody and the very clever reversal of the lyrical tale. Indeed, these pieces are my favourite on the album, which probably says more about me than anything as I am now at the age where a great melody will beat heavy riffs every time!
Scattered Shards was an interesting and overall pleasing introduction to Crystal Palace, and although they are not contenders to become my new favourite band I am sure that this album will be enjoyed by many.
Downriver Dead Men Go - Departures
When a band calls themselves Downriver Dead Men Go, it is almost impossible not to be intrigued. Originating from the Dutch city of Leiden, where I have lived for more than 25 happy years, added considerably to the motivation to review their sophomore album Departures that is released three years after their debut Tides (review here). But getting into their music proved harder than expected.
The band comprises of Gerrit Koekebakker (lead vocals, guitar), Fernandez Burton (bass), Michel Varkevisser (guitar, backing vocals), Remco den Hollander (keys) and Manuel Renaud (drums). Their post-rock type of music makes me think of bands like Anathema, The Pineapple Thief and also The Gathering, while Pink Floyd during their Atom Heart Mother period is never far away. The most conspicuous characteristic of the songs is the absence of tempo; all songs are slow to very slow with the only exception of Prison Walls that starts off up-tempo but falls back in pace after just over a minute.
It makes their music quite relaxing, very listenable but also a bit dull and without real surprises at first glance. That changes when you grant yourself the chance to undergo this mesmerizing music more often. You then hear well-executed music with enough variation and much subtlety to keep the listener’s attention. The frequent outbursts on guitar, either to play a loud riff (as in Prison Walls) or to play a fantastic solo (as in Familiar Face), intermingled with delicate piano and organ playing by Den Hollander, are the most important assets of the nine songs in the album.
Koekebakkers’ voice is far from expressive but surprisingly effective to colour and support the instruments further while bass and drums primarily lay the solid base for guitars and keys. Most songs are medium length and that gives the band ample room to develop and to structure the music.
The albums opens with the 4-minute soundscape Lamentation that is nice but not very special. It flows into Mother, the first of several slow songs with more or less the same structure. A quiet intro on electric or acoustic guitars, accompanied by some nice piano or synth leading towards a slow vocal melody that builds towards a moody atmosphere or a fierce long and repetitive outburst of guitar like in Uncertainty. The music is neither simple nor complex, but foremost melancholic, almost depressive.
An exception is the title track that opens with a very slow, atmospheric sound played by Steen Gees Christensen on a duduk, an old Arabic wood wind instrument. Together with the wordless female vocals sung by Inge den Hollander (I guess the spouse of...) gives the music a very mysterious, oriental mood. The organ provides a Richard Wright or Rick Wakeman flavour to the music before the lead vocals fall in after some four minutes. A rather simple and very moody song, definitely not for those who already feel depressed, but beautiful for all others who still believe that this life is worth living despite all its troubles. The creative instrumentation and overall melancholic mood makes this the highlight of the album; a really stunning song. Apart from the album opener all are quite enjoyable songs.
The cover of the new album is sombre with a dead bird lying on its side against a sepia background, illustrating the central theme of, indeed, departure. Taking into account that the lyrics mainly deal with unwelcome goodbyes, painful departures and all the emotions accompanying those, it is by no means a cheerful experience. It may even be depressing for some who don’t succeed in listening through that upper layer of slow and mesmerizing music. But there is quite some beauty hidden in all this.
Departures was something different than I had expected. At first listen I found the album rather inexpressive and without surprises. That changed after a couple of spins when it really opened up towards me. The production is fantastic with all sounds very well balanced and the vocals mixed as part of the total music instead of laying upon it. A bit more variation such as offered in the title track would have made it better. New, unprepared listeners must now take some trouble to get into the music. It is worth it, though.
Jukka Iisakkila - Clocks And Clouds
Finnish composer and conductor Jukka Iisakkila is highly regarded in classical music circles. He was the Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Pori Sinfonietta from 2004 to 2012. From 2010 to 2012, he was regular guest conductor of the Danish Radio Chamber Orchestra. Iisakkila has won numerous awards including the Royal Music Academy Award in Sweden 2006.
Clocks And Clouds represents a different artistic direction and is Iisakkila’s first foray into prog. He draws heavily upon many of the classic sounds of prog and fusion and frequently utilises a range of stylistic norms associated with those genres.
The style of this instrumental album sways between symphonic prog and politely arranged fusion. There are plenty of solos involving soaring guitars, bouncy piano embellishments and squeaky synths. The tunes contain sections that have interesting tempos and enjoyable prog elements. The majority of the tunes have a running time that exceeds six minutes and this gives enough opportunities for exploring different paths.
Much of the music has the feel of something created by a single musician in the studio. Consequently, the album does not exhibit the vitality that a set of live interaction musicians can bring to proceedings. However, Iisakkila’s proficiency as a multi-instrumentalist is apparent and his mastery of a number of instruments is on evidence throughout. His guitar and keyboard work is particularly notable. The rhythm section is noticeably less impressive and does not have the sort of imposing presence needed to give the release an extra oomph.
The tunes are attractive, but I found that the majority of the hooks and motifs used were not particularly memorable. However, the recurring riff of Inner Universe Fever and Darling We Have Made a Mess were enjoyable.
The stripped back instrumentation and cascading keyboard that prominently features in the quirky Interludes provides an enjoyable point of contrast to the tightly spun arranged nature of the other pieces.
The title track is probably the most impressive of the tunes on offer and begins with an excellent synth guitar effect. The fleet fingered flow of the guitar solo in the pieces latter stages also provides some genuine excitement and reaffirms that this track is probably the best composition of the album.
Whilst Clocks And Clouds will probably appeal to many prog fans, I found it to be a predictable pastiche and as such, it contained little that was truly innovative and even less that was able to excite, or quicken the pulse.
Overall, Clocks And Clouds is a pleasant album. It is neither intrusive, nor particularly demanding. At times, its polite carefully composed nature veered too much towards Muzak and in this respect, the album would provide excellent background music.
After listening to it on a number of occasions, I decided that its manufactured mixture of familiar sounding arrangements and stylings held little to make me wish to return to it frequently.
Talitha Rise - An Abandoned Orchid House
Talitha Rise is a musician from Sussex, whose full-length debut album is An Abandoned Orchid House. It is an intimate album of shadowy prog-folk that is haunting in its melodicism and atmosphere. It is the musical equivalent of telling stories around a campfire as it dies down and the darkness creep closer. Stories of isolation, of abandoned places and spaces, and of how ‘to make a friend of the dark’.
The musical weft and weave of this exquisitely crafted album comes from Talitha Rise’s otherworldly vocals, as well has her guitar and keyboards. Alongside her is Martyn Baker (drums, multi-instrumentalist) with whom she forms the core of the sound. There are additional contributions from guests; Juldeh Camara (Gambian Riti), Peter Yates (guitars), Arnulf Linder (Cello) and Rory MacFarlane (bass). These guests have worked with people as varied as Robert Plant, KT Tunstal, Katie Melua, Fields Of The Nephalim, Shriekback, Marianne Faithful and Billy Bragg.
But even with this disparate group Talitha Rise forges them to her singular vision. Giving rise (sorry) to an intriguing mix of world music, strings and guitars that breaks open any preconceptions that the prog-folk tag implies. On An Abandoned Orchid House you do get fleeting hints of Talitha Rise’s influences if you listen hard, but she has more than transcended those and made them her own.
There are Clannad-like layered vocals that build on Incantation and on the superbly ethereal Chapel Bell. There is a gorgeous a-capella intro to the string driven Valley. The album, though, keeps well clear of any new-age wallpapery-ness, even in its few whispery sections. The piano and voice ballad Bloodfox channels a less flamboyant Tori Amos (a good thing in my book) and is topped with subtlety-controlled guitar feedback.
The drone that underpins the dark fairy tale of Hungry Ghost is disturbing but the sombreness is balanced out by a lovely bass line. If you are looking for a way in to An Abandoned Orchid House (which really shouldn't involve any hardship) then have a listen to the catchy Peter Gabriel-esque prog world-music of River and the prog-tastic The Lake, which is like a spooky version of the folk side of Big Big Train. It is just fabulous.
There are hints of Sandy Denny’s phrasing and I promised myself I wouldn’t mention Kate Bush in this review – oops! I would rather refer readers to the acoustic bonus disc that came with Ambeon’s Fate Of A Dreamer re-release that came out a few years back, or even to Renaissance acoustic orchestral density. That is if you need a guide.
Talitha Rise’s An Abandoned Orchid House has melodies to die for and interesting personal lyrics. So the songs more than meet Talitha Rise’s stated intention that she "wanted them to feel like a personal and intimate conversation between myself and the listener". She achieves this goal with ease. An Abandoned Orchid House is a cohesive album, full of purpose and following a personal direction through the dark and shadowy woods towards the sunlight. Talitha Rise is a class act.
Richard Wileman - Veil
Richard Wileman is the founding member of Karda Estra. A multi-instrumentalist playing common instruments like guitar, bass, keyboard, and percussion, he also plays a variety of other instruments like bouzouki, rastrophone, kalimba, dulcimer, and glockenspiel. With his wife Ileesha he made about fourteen albums under the name of Karda Estra. With him being the main man behind that band, I am interested what the reason might be for putting out a solo album while he could put all his musical inspirations in Karda Estra.
The music on his solo album differs on a few aspects from his work for Karda Estra. Veil sounds more acoustic and there are less instruments which makes it sound more cosy and smaller. For this solo album, Richard had help from Amy Fry(clarinet, vocals), Jo Court (bass clarinet, alto saxophone) and Lauraine Phelan (trumpet). A setting for classical music meets prog.
The music on Veil comes in of styles that differ from acoustic guitar to some happy tunes to classical music, and everything in between. Wileman still succeeded in keeping this a coherent album even with this variation in styles. It is a journey on many fine melodies.
Opener Ghost is a very mellow track with acoustic guitar and a thin vocal voice by Richard. Last Grain is a very happy song that, curiously, reminded me of the Love Boat theme. The Sea Witch is a very classical sounding song with lovely melodies on the clarinet. On Mephisto Portrait the style of the opening song continues but with that also continues the variety of styles.
Veil is mainly an instrumental album, but the few songs with lyrics have some nice vocals by Amy Fry. Wileman does a fine job too but his vocals on the first song are a bit too fragile. When you listen to this album and have the same feeling about the first song, remember that and just continue listening.
The album continues with mixing mellow acoustic and classical songs. I play guitar myself so I really enjoy songs like Andromeda Variations For Guitar. I do not play the clarinet or play a lot of music with clarinet, but I surely did enjoy Chaos Theme For Clarinet.
The two songs at the end of the album are not my favourite. The Tinker Of Rye is a bit too childish and Golgotha Dancers is a very heavy classical piece that is just a bit too much classical music for me.
Richard Wileman has done a fine job on his solo album Veil. Compared to the music of his main band Karda Estra, this solo album mainly is gentler. A limited amount of instruments has been used and it has more of an acoustic feel to it. I think it will sound very familiar to fans of Karda Estra and they will certainly like Veil. For me this was the introduction to Richard Wileman and a positive one. I think people who enjoy the occasional break to a more classical style of music will agree with me.