Reviews in this issue:
Anti Clock Tower - Tic Toc Turmoil
Anti Clock Tower is an musical project by German guitarist Max Fuchs. After composing songs in Germany, Scotland and the Netherlands he gave them to collaborator Federico “Freddy” Spera from Liverpool (England) to add the final touches of roaring bass (hopelessly lost on the MP3s used for review, I’m afraid). Mixed at Red Light Recording Studios in Frankfurt am Main by Fuchs and Stefan Vardopoulos, they were finally mastered in Melbourne, Australia. Quite a journey to record a self-produced album this way, but certainly worth the trip for it’s a rather nice joyous, spontaneous ride in progressive sceneries with metal surroundings.
The nine instrumental tracks definitely show promise with a diverse display of several musical styles like AOR, jazz-rock fusion, progressive metal and crossover progressive rock. Occasionally with a slightly psychedelic edge to them like for instance in Baltopus , where the addition of saxophone by Balto! results in unconventional Madness-prog.
In compliance with the graphic artwork Gaint Shrimps starts of cinematic displaying skillful solid playing and shredding by Fuchs. The thematically constantly shifting Rush inspired track flows by gently, creating anticipation for the rest of the album. This is continuously fulfilled and even surpassed through Edges And Corners part 1 and 2 containing delicate touches of jazz-rock with divine guitars in vain of Steve Morse and John Petrucci.
Incorporated with oriental sounds, funky sparkling keyboard solos, constant rhythmic breaks, odd signature rhythms and virtuous playful guitars we furthermore get a healthy dose of frisky progressive metal reminiscent of Dream Theater, Steve Morse Band, Haken and Semantic Saturation. Additional ambient moments in Astral Pastures and jazzy mellow spaciousness in Ocean Whiff give the album just the right balance adding an even bigger variety to this lovely, albeit short, enjoyable album.
Feeling fresh and dainty the album brought back summery feelings, and I recommend it to all who prefer inventive guitar driven instrumental progressive rock / metal.
The CSides Project - 10 Days
The CSides Project are Allen McCarthy (lead and backing vocals, bass) and Sian Elson (lead and backing vocals), Martin Rosser (guitar and backing vocals), Kevin Dawson (keyboards) and Allan Mason-Jones (drums), a Welsh prog band who have previously released two albums We Are Now in 2017 and some years before, Devitrification in 2011, although judging from the complete lack of mention of this album on the band's website they seem to have all but disowned this first album.
The third album is a concept based on the tale of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman (1864–1922), better known by her pen name, Nellie Bly who, in 1887, volunteered to be committed to a New York insane asylum for 10 days as an undercover journalist to report on the treatment and management of patients. Her report, and subsequent book, brought about substantial reforms within the asylum system. If that was not enough, the following year, Bly endeavoured to try and replicate the fictional travels of Phileas Fogg from Jules Verne's Around The World In 80 Days, a task she successfully accomplished with eight days to spare. Truly a pioneering woman.
There is a nice mixture of songs and instrumental compositions which display the talents of the band to their full. The first four tracks are duets between McCarthy and Elson, whose voices blend together very well both in the heavier tracks such as opener Day 1 - Far Away Minds and the more gentler numbers like Day 2 - Before I Fall. There is rather too much repetition of the main vocal line during Day 3 - Crawling Back in my opinion, but all is redeemed in the marvellous, and somewhat creepy Day 4 - Low Throws, which is mainly sung by McCarthy.
As befits any decent concept albums there are familiar themes and chord progressions that appear throughout the album, although frequently disguised and not always obvious. This is first evident in Day 5 - Fitting In which although arguably is more repetitious than Day 3, is enhanced by a nice vocal arrangement and robust backing.
There are plenty of additional recordings added throughout, voices of wardens and noises from inside the asylum, including a fantastic winged insect (sounds like a bee, but probably meant to represent something less savoury!) Days 6, 7 and 9 are brief instrumental tracks, with Day 6 - Altered State being my favourite for the keyboard solo, although the other two pieces are not to be sniffed at as both are fine pieces of music.
Day 8 - Silent Friends is pure Magenta which is not too surprising as some of the band members were in an early version of that band and the album is released on Rob Reed's WhiteKnight label. However, it is a great song and really showcases Elson's voice, those Welsh can really sing! Day 10 No Regrets has a slow start but gradually builds with McCarthy making a reappearance in the vocal department all leading to the finale of On Reflection which, as the title may suggest, is a contemplation of the time spent within the confines of the asylum. With a lovely guitar sound and superb vocal from Elson (which when doubled on the chorus sounds eerily similar to the wonderful Happy Rhodes) it brings the album to a quiet and (lyrically) thought-provoking end.
10 Days is one of the few albums that I can listen to repeatedly and still remain engaged. A well written and excellently performed album that contains a multitude of delights and recommended for your listening pleasure.
Texel - Zooming Into Focus
When I was in my final high school years in the mid-seventies, I played the organ in a “music collective” (we weren’t really a band) formed with some classmates. We rehearsed in the attic of my parent’s house (without a drummer as my parents could not stand the noise and were too classical-music-minded to appreciate what we did). We dabbled in playing songs of bands we admired, mainly Uriah Heep and Pink Floyd.
I recall that we also covered the song Sylvia by Focus (it took me ages to determine the organ chords Thijs van Leer played to accompany Jan Akkerman’s guitar melodies). During the 40+ following years of my progressive rock appreciation, I would listen to my old Focus LPs every now and then.
In reviewing the many other prog rock releases I’ve listened to throughout the years, I feel I haven't come across that many bands who use the Dutch progressive rock masters of the seventies as their main source of inspiration. No wonder then that I was attracted by the opportunity to review the first release of a band whose name and album title both clearly hint at their musical archetype.
Texel are a musical project formed by UK guitarist Neil Gowland and Danish keyboardist Steffen Staugaard, together with Max Saidi (drums), Phil Wood (bass guitar), Thorstein Quebec Hemmet (flute) and Gerard McDonald (flute on Impressions). Not unlike similar projects, the music on this release is not the result of joint musical sessions, but the various parts and sequences have been recorded individually, exchanged and worked on through the internet and then centrally mastered and produced by Neil Gowland.
Reviewing this CD, the easy option would be to sum up Texel’s music as a cross section of Focus’ first releases up to and including Hamburger Concerto (in my opinion their most creative era) and to conclude by recommending it to every fan of intelligent and skilfully played, slightly jazz-rock influenced instrumental progressive rock. Doing so however would label Texel as a mere Focus-clone and undermine their excellent musical capabilities and their ability to emulate Focus perfectly whilst still sounding original. However, given the expressed intention of the musicians to devote their record to the work of Focus (who celebrate their 50th anniversary this year) the resemblance is so obvious that this review somehow bears the character of an essay on “Similarities and differences of Focus and Texel”.
The high-class musicianship comes across from the very first bars of album opener Medusa which starts with swirling Hammond sounds before a guitar and flute melody kick in, sending the listener back in time to the early seventies of Moving Waves. The excellent interplay between guitar, Hammond organ and flute throughout the entire album is the main element of Texel’s style. Guitar and flute share the role of lead instrument in a well-balanced way. The music is full of breaks, rhythm changes, melodies, twisted organ chords, borrowings from classical music and jazz-rock influences.
Texel refrain from the use of vocal extravaganzas and gimmicks à la Hocus Focus or Round Goes The Gossip and keep their music entirely instrumental (except for some guitar talkbox in the track 1975). I also find Texel’s music slightly more accessible and easy to listen to especially compared with the complex and lengthy structures of songs like Eruption and Anonymous III. Whilst being quite vintage in the use of its instruments, Texel’s music doesn't come across as old-fashioned, sounding fresh, modern and upbeat.
I haven’t found any real weak moments on this record. With an overall LP-friendly length, each of the seven tracks has its own individuality, with a good mixture of more mellow songs such as Organic and Kingmakers Parade, jazzier tunes such as 1975 and rock-oriented numbers such as Ambitious. This provides a high degree of variation. My favourite songs are Organic because of its groove and the Hammond chord sequence towards the end, Ambitious because of the great organ and flute interplay and Modus Operandi for its Hammond outburst in the second half.
Thumbs-up also for the production, the sound quality and the mixing are perfect. The cover is not my cup of tea - but there’s no accounting for taste. I recommend this release not only to Focus aficionados, but also to progressive rock fans looking for accessible, intelligently played and varied instrumental prog with a touch of jazz-rock. Oh, does that conclusion sound like the easy way out mentioned above? Well, why make things more complicated than they are? To put it simply, this album is very good.
Thumpermonkey - Make Me Young, Etc
This album has been in and out of my player many times over the past month and still I can’t seem to get to grips with it. And as I have a deadline looming I can no longer put off putting pixels to screen, so deep breath and here goes.
Thumpermonkey’s Make Me Young, Etc is the first album of theirs that I have heard. On paper it ticks all my prog boxes. First, it is a concept album trying to answer the question raised by a fan, namely “if you knew tomorrow was the end of the world, would you be able to let go of all your regrets, and live differently?”. Then there is the cover art of a pair of quintessentially English deckchairs set out for a good view of the meteor that is about to cause the apocalypse. Tick!
Second is the music. Thumpermonkey appear to be an art rock band moving into proggier territory. Expert musicianship and a singer who has a fabulous voice with an extraordinary range. Michael Woodman, who also plays guitar, has an effortless sounding falsetto that puts Muse’s Matt Bellamy to shame. The interplay between him and the keyboards of Rael Jones, both of whom are underpinned by the excellent rhythm section of Sam Warren (bass) and Ben Wren (drums) give the music depth, power and complexity. Tick!
Then there is Michael Woodman’s stream-of-consciousness style lyrics that seem to pour out of him in the way Peter Hammill’s did in prime 70s long-form Van der Graaf Generator songs. More interested in telling a story in a prose-poem way than in any traditional song structures. On top of that Michael Woodman has an ear for a phrase that makes you sit up and take further note. Tick! Tick! And indeed, tick!
So now you are thinking - well what’s my problem with this album? Well I’m not sure that I have a convincing answer to that question. At times in listening to this album I have thought wow that’s brilliant, then on a return to the same passage I find it leaves me with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. It’s not that I dislike it on a return listen, it’s rather that I seem to get overwhelmed by the outpouring of ideas, lyrical and musical, that slam out of the speakers. I find that I am overwhelmed by different things on Make Me Young, Etc at different listens.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a band releasing a challenging listen. So, hats off to Thumpermonkey for releasing an album that will sit alongside, for me, other challenging listens that I still haven’t got a handle on like Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. And like those albums I will persistently return to it until it clicks with me, as Make Me Young, Etc should tick all my boxes.
I should point out that Thumpermonkey’s Make Me Young, Etc has been well reviewed elsewhere and has appeared in a number of 2018 best of lists. This reinforces the feeling for me that, like the way many of my relationships have ended, that the most relevant phrase in this context is “it’s not you, it’s me...”.
World Service Project - Serve
Have you ever attended a gig not knowing anything at all about the band that were playing and by the end of their set being absolutely in thrall of their music and performance?
It has happened to me on a few occasions, most recently when I trundled down to free concert given by World Service Project as part of the 2018 Lancaster Jazz Festival. Their performance was full of humour, clenched-fist aggression, sinister role-playing, verve and energy.
The whole set possessed an edge of the seat spontaneity that was invigorating to witness. Their mixture of high-energy rhythms and memorable motifs satisfied a primitive urge to gyrate and gurn. Whilst their impressive instrumental skills gave, aspects of the performance a cerebral air to satisfied the mind. At the end of the show, I felt compelled to buy their latest album Serve.
World Service Project is led by keyboard player, vocalist and principal composer Dave Morecraft and on Serve, he is assisted by Tim Owen - saxophone, Raphael Clarkson - trombone/ vocals, Arthur O'Hara- bass, and Harry pope - drums and percussion. Serve is the band's fourth release and is their second album to appear on the Rare Noise record label.
The band’s music is at times brash and fiery and at other times melodious and sophisticated. It has sometimes been described as punk-jazz, but I see their overall approach, energy and style as an extension of aspects of the exciting in-your-face, no-holds-barred jazz styles that Spirit Level and Loose Tubes were experimenting with in the 80's.
For those readers who would like perhaps a more recognisable stylistic signpost, then World Service Project might be compared to the Waka Jawaka or Grand Wazoo era of Frank Zappa, but cranked up to breaking point with lots of extra energy and an edgy sharp clawed rawness.
The band display a raucous passion for their art throughout the release and this is no more apparent than on the trio of tunes including Runner, To Lose The Love and_ Plagued With Righteousness that most keenly display the influence of Zappa.
Whatever labels might apply to World Service Project’s music, their mixed approach and conglomeration of styles ensures that there are aspects of Serve that might interest a wide audience. It is certain that the band's overall style of jazz-influenced music would alienate many more jazz purists than it would attract. Similarly, their overall sound is not likely to appeal to prog fans whose musical tastes venture no further than classic prog bands of the 70s.
The album is mostly instrumental and on the occasions when chanted vocals are used, as in Dai Jo Bo, or spoken word vocals appear, as in the case of the sinister Mr Giggles, and similarly in the evocative and magnificent Now This Means War, they have a distinctive role to play in the message, or mood of the piece. The album has an identifiable anti-war stance and many of the tunes emphasise the benefits of respecting each other.
The release begins with the pseudo big band sound of Plagued With Righteousness. In places and during a casual listen, it could well be mistaken for an outtake from Zappa's Grand Wazoo. It is a strong opening piece that delivers a frenzied but structured cascade of sax squeals and trombone burps. Some portions of the piece are on the face of it, slightly more free form and anarchic and sit uneasily with the more tuneful loosely spun elements that are prominent in most of the arrangement.
In this respect, Plagued With Righteousness portrays the tension that can exist between composed sections of music and improvised parts. However, the battle between melody and dissonance is never lost and any tension that might be apparent is skilfully resolved. Overall, this piece and indeed the album as a whole, has an infectious melodic appeal.
Plagued With Righteousness has an impressive middle section, which includes a keyboard flourish, which takes on the role of a guitar solo. On a number of occasions, Keyboards supply and mimic the distorted effects that are often associated with a lead guitar. A number of the tunes including Ease and Dai Jo Bo use stop start sections to good dramatic effect. Dai Jo Bo is particularly atmospheric. It possesses a stonking bass sound and features some strident ensemble blowing that is full of huge aggression.
There is a hint of a twisted vaudeville approach in the disturbing tale of Mr Giggles. It is a disconcerting and unsettling experience live, but arguably does not have the same powerful effect on record. Nevertheless, the instrumental sections and glissando trombone parts have the power to rattle false teeth, raise the eyebrows, jumble the senses and quicken the pulse.
Whilst Mr Giggles is a disturbingly ugly tune that makes a heartfelt racket and has a serious message, the album also includes some moments of sublime melodic beauty. The recurring motif in False Prophets is just uplifting and is redolent of some the great British jazz-influenced bands and artists of the seventies such as, Nucleus and Neil Ardley. It’s just fantastic and ticks all of the right boxes.
To Lose The Love has a memorable theme that the introduction sounds like something the United Jazz And Rock Ensemble, or Zappa could have created. It has some inspiring solo parts. Tim Owens strident sax playing is particularly impressive although arguably his best work on the album occur during Runner. The cut and thrust of the rhythm section throughout the album is tremendous and O' Hara lays down a particularly meaty groove in To Lose The Love.
The music of the album is consistently good; however, the nature of the recording is not always to my taste. Much of the album seems squashed and the instruments sometimes lack the sonic space to be distinctive. Consequently, the dynamics of the album are not as appealing as they might have been, when compared to albums that have magnificent sound quality such as, Vasil Hadžimanov’s Lines In Sand.
However, what the recording lacks in guile and subtlety is more than overcome by the way it captures the raw power and zest of the band in a series of invigorating compositions.
Serve will probably find resonance and be appealing in listeners who revel in music that has a contemporary message to import and is fresh and progressive in what it is trying to achieve. Whilst Serve may not appeal to everybody, I strongly advise anyone who has an opportunity to see World Service Project’s live should do so. The bands infectious enthusiasm for their music is spellbinding..
You might even decide to buy their album.