Issue 2019-034

Every-so-often here at DPRP towers, we like to take a dive into one of the lesser visited corners of the progressive music universe. In this special edition, Owen Davies explores eight new albums from instrumental bands exploring various combinations of jazz, fusion and progressive music.

Consider The Source - You Are Literally A Metaphor

Consider The Source - You Are Literally A Metaphor
Country of Origin
USA
Year of Release
2019
Time
73:00
Samples
Sketches From A Blind Man (7:29), The One Who Knocks (7:43), Unfulfilled And Alienated (3:04), It Is Known (11:45), They Call Him The Smiling Assassin (7:29), Misinterpretive Dance (9:20), You Won A Goat! (7:19), When You've Loved And Lost Like Frankie Has (6:51), Enemies Of magicK (11:47)

The first time I heard Consider The Source's latest release, You Are Simply A Metaphor, a plain three-letter word summed up my reaction.

Wow!

The second time I heard it, I felt bereft of metaphors to express my feelings, and so using the maxim of safety first, decided to use a clichéd term consisting of five letters to describe the experience.

Great!

The third time I heard it, I thought that a more considered reaction might sum up my feelings.

"The way in which the band interacts to form music that reaches across and beyond established musical barriers is often nothing short of incredible," I concluded.

The fourth time I heard this excellent and frequently stunning release, I felt it necessary to outline my opinion about it in a detailed review, with a few choice metaphors thrown in for good measure.

Consider The Source is an American instrumental trio. You Are Literally A Metaphor is the band's sixth release. Their previous work, World War Trio Parts 2 & 3 was reviewed by DPRP in 2015’s issue 91.

The band consists of Gabriel Marin on guitar, John Ferrara on bass, and Jeff Mann on drums. All members of the trio are highly talented players and the album consistently illustrates their prowess and mastery of their respective instruments.

Consider The Source’s music is frequently furious. Their tunes sparkle with dazzling luminosity, as fusion and world music elements collide and joyfully coalesce. Diverse influences spin frenetically in a whirlpool of complex, syncopated sounds, which throw out a plethora of musical and cultural influences. Spiralling Middle Eastern rhythms abound. Frenetic bass lines, which boom, slap, spit and bubble, dress these sharply. In addition, astonishing, effect-laden, smooth and vitriolic guitar tones are a regular feature.

In equal measures the music exudes excitement and offers a surreal mystique. The music frequently provides the listener with the foundation for a patchwork of sunlit images that form a succession of expressive, imaginary scenes.

In the intense, thirsty heat generated by the band's flammable compositions, my eyes are tinder for the fire of the music's Arabian sunset, to relight and retune the death-like stagnation of my cold-grey, melodious core. The snarling, scaled haze of a reptile-danced oasis shimmers and salves my lizard-throated thirst.

As I wryly recall the title of the album, the metaphorical nature of the succession of images above is not a surprise. Nevertheless, there is something powerfully vibrant about the band’s music. Its ability to enter and shape the mind (if you let it) is undeniable.

You Are Literally A Metaphor is probably the band's most satisfying release so far. Its tunes are never sterile; but rather, they are innovative and highly charged, and pulsate with an emotive pull. They are able to amalgamate inventive and technical aspects of fusion, with an ability to write tunes that have memorable motifs and hooks. They are regularly able to evoke a primeval, shuffle-dance response.

During Unfulfilled And Alienated, the knee-knocking Cossack rhythms and hearty, cheering speed which drives the late-night revelling tune, satiates this basic need. It unashamedly invites listeners to perform a shocking display of limb-fling. The riveting, rocket-fuelled pace, wailing guitar lines and stop/start rhythms of the ethnically-tinged You Won a Goat also offers another invitation to perspire freely and clear the dance floor of any body with a sensitive nose or disposition.

The delightful One Who Knocks has a spacious arrangement that visits a variety of genres including heavy rock, ethnic folk, space rock and fusion. It is a masterclass of how to blend diverse influences and create a satisfying outcome. Its varied nature teases, caresses and cajoles, to evoke thoughts of chaos, peace and love. The music has a powerful impact and its beautifully constructed nature is able to form intricate patterns of sound and to generate a colourful triptych of sensory images that vividly illustrate a trio of emotions. These elements intertwine and eventually unite, to construct what is, on occasions, one of the most compelling and beautiful pieces on offer.

It Is Known is probably my favourite composition on the album. Its slick changes of pace, virtuoso solo parts and anthemic quality, set the bar high. It features an ethereal melody full of oriental charm that lodges itself in the mind and stubbornly refuses to leave. Therefore mouthing or humming a stripped-down version of it when you least expect it, is a distinct possibility.

The mid-section of the tune is stunning and the introductory, muted trumpet-like guitar solo has ample space to breathe. In this interlude, Marin produces what is probably one of his most emotive solos on the record, although arguably, his extensive solo parts in You Won A Goat and When You've Loved and Lost Like Frankie Has are equally rewarding.

His extended solo during The One Who Knocks is interspersed with Ferrara’s pulsing and frenetic bottom end interventions. Marin’s skill ensures that the listener experiences a mystical excursion that is full of fretted peaks and string-based howls. His solo, exhibits many clever effects but also displays a full range of emotions. Guitar lovers will swoon over its fast-fingered surges that occur amid a joyous feast of sonic tricks.

If that is not enough to place a listener in something akin to some sort of prog-induced utopia, this is closely followed by some unbelievably fast ensemble passages, and as noted previously, a succession of breath-taking, low frequency solos, in which Ferrara's rapid, tapping bass-style excels.

The other pieces are all equally as memorable and exhibit numerous outstanding characteristics.They Call Him The Smiling Assassin, not only possesses one of the most memorable titles of the set, but is another standout tune that makes you want to get up and dance and perspire some more.

The quality of the arrangements, the range of sounds used, and the musicianship on display makes it difficult to comprehend that three mere musicians could create such a challenging and sophisticated set of tunes. To convince myself that studio trickery was not responsible, I watched a number of live performances on the web. Observing the band live was a revelation. Not only were they able to reproduce their studio sound, their live performance had an extra degree of fluidity and improvisation, which made the whole experience compelling and engaging.

The sound quality of the album is fantastic and fully complements the technical ability of the performers. Despite, the undoubted expertise and brilliance of the playing, the album has an emotive pull that underlines the band's creative integrity and a spontaneous ambience, that for open-minded listeners makes many of the tunes satisfyingly accessible.

In this respect the blues-based When You've Loved and Lost Like Frankie Has is particularly gratifying and for Frankies everywhere, it is a stargazers delight. It shows what can be done with an easily recognisable format when the musicians possess inspiration and imagination, and above all, are not reluctant to use their powers of innovation.

At a running time of over 70 minutes, Consider the Source have created an album that is value for money in every sense. It is simply brilliant from start to finish and concludes with the glorious epic Enemies Of Magick. This moving piece reprises the main theme of It Is Known and is challenging and satisfying in equal measures. It is a fitting way to end the album, as it encapsulates so much that is admirable about the trio's work.

Progressive instrumental music does not get much better than this!

Maybe, all I really need to say is: "Wow!"

Far Corner - Risk

Far Corner - Risk
Country of Origin
USA
Year of Release
2018
Time
63:00
Unapproachable (2:18), Fork (3:52), Flim Flam Man (6:45), Myopia (5:06), Past Deeds, Present Treacheries (7:53), The Chickening (3:24), Fireplay (0:37), Laboratory Missteps (3:56), Summit (9:25), SolonEye (2:40), Oracular Intent (6:36), Night Of Odds (0:59), Alea Ludere (9:20)

I watched in disassociated disbelief as my prized under-13 winners hockey shield danced a dangerous pas de deux with my wife’s much loved miniature china owl, as they both bounced and teetered towards the precipice of the mantelpiece. Visions of the past rasped through my mind. Sloth-like, I leapt to avoid the calamitous scene that was unfolding.

Too old for quick-paced action. Too old to cry!

It is a risky and emotionally fraught business listening to vibration-filled bubbling bass lines when they form a prominent part of twisted progressive chamber music. A word of warning: if you wish to hear Far Corner’s Risk at window rattling volume, then I urge you to move any treasured objects away from the edge of any shelving. Whilst observing the intricate, tap-toed dancing of innumerable objects might be a surreal experience, the results can be catastrophic.

Not with-standing its effect on any objects not tethered down, Risk is a magnificent album. It has an ability to grab an unsuspecting listener from the moment it begins. That tightly-held grip continues and is still forcefully in place, even as the album concludes. It contains so many admirable characteristics that it is difficult to classify them in order of significance.

One of the most striking things about the music is the way that it comes across as being fresh, spontaneously performed and full of energy. The quality of the recording is superb and this ensures that the listener has little option but to be actively involved in the sonic experience on offer.

Risk is the band's third album. Their last album, Endangered, was released in 2007. Despite the passage of time, Far Corner has not lost any of the traits that made their previous albums so compelling. In fact, Risk is probably the band's best release yet.

Despite being tightly composed and arranged, the album was recorded with the band playing live as an ensemble in the studio. This helps to explain the palpable energy displayed in the release and the way in which improvised sections blend into more structured parts. Individual components seamlessly meld, to create something that is bigger and more grandiose than its parts.

This album sounds huge. Its twisted mix of thunderous bass lines, magnificent percussion, moody cello strikes and array of vintage, retro-sounding keys will fill the room and create a need to fill-in household insurance claims.

Risk is one of the finest instrumental progressive albums I have heard in recent years. No doubt, some stylistic signposts might help describe what a listener might expect to experience if they check this album out. Whilst, the album bridges both classical and prog music, the power of rock shines through and underlines the music in bold. Whilst listening, there were occasions when artists as diverse as King Crimson and Frank Zappa came to mind.

However, the prog band that I most frequently think of is Anglagard. This is chiefly because of the prominence of the bass in the mix and the tones that were chosen, but is also because the keyboards are employed a similar choral effect, to provide a dramatic backdrop or a far reaching range of atmospheric colours.

Various keyboards play a part within the ensemble's rich arrangements. The use of a Hammond organ provides some fiery moments, and the delicate use of piano to underpin some of the cello parts adds to the range of moods that the band are able to create and shift through with ease.

For the most part though, the album is heavy and dark and possesses a compellingly dense and almost disconcerting nature. It is strangely malevolent and unsettling. Risk contains the sort of music that will gain you a concerned look, or a sympathetic glance from a friend if you are discovered listening to it. It is ugly and beautiful, distressing and uplifting, predictable and unpredictable. It is an example of progressive music at its best.

There are some wonderful virtuoso moments in the album. Bassist William Kopecky must take great credit for his shining contribution throughout. The music is rhythmically demanding and intellectually challenging. It contains many ethereal moments to stimulate the brain, and raucous interludes, which fly off in different directions, to demand the rattling of limbs and spirited torso twisting.

Risk, as its name suggest, is not an album for the faint hearted. Its exciting blend of rock aggression, progressive complexity and classical themes will not enthral all listeners, but if you enjoy music that delivers unexpected twists and turns that often leaves you on the edge of your seat, then much of this album might appeal.

I love it, but have to stop playing this album now. I have lots to do, and must first get the dustpan out and clear up the fragments.

Oh and I had better replace the owl before the wife returns home!

Forgas Band Phenomena - L'Oreille Électrique - The Electric Ear

Forgas Band Phenomena - L'Oreille Électrique - The Electric Ear
Country of Origin
France
Year of Release
2018
Time
55:00
Samples
Délice Karmâ / Karmic Delights (10:00), Septième Ciel / Seventh Heaven (10:04), L’Oreille Électrique / The Electric Ear (12:01), Crème Anglaise / Custard Sauce (9:37), Pierre Angulaire / Corner Stone (12:33), Délice Karmâ / Karmic Delights (sample / radio edit) (5:21)

Have ever encountered a similar situation?

The scene was set. The ingredients were right. The barbecue was aglow. Thirty minutes elapsed and the food is ready. Despite the best intentions, something went awry and the result did not live up to expectations, even though all of the individual components apparently performed well and as expected.

As I listened to Forgas Band Phenomena's latest release, events like this ambled across my memory. I mused that sometimes, for something to really work or succeed and become memorable, it needs an extra and often undefinable ingredient.

Call it "the Wow! factor" if you like!

On the face of it, The Electric Ear contains all of the ingredients that constitute what should be an outstanding release. The ensemble playing is excellent. Individual members of the band handle their solo parts with great assurance. There are numerous occasions when the interplay between the musicians is simply superb.

The arrangements display craft, precision and skill. They enable listeners who appreciate complexity and those who enjoy tuneful melodies, to discover different aspects that might satisfy. The tunes are lengthy and give many opportunities for a mesmerising groove to be established or, for subtle changes of mood and pace to occur.

Despite an array of excellent characteristics, something about this release refuses to, or just does not connect with me. This is unsettling, as I have enjoyed this band's work in the past. My favourite is Soleil 12 released in 2005.

I have tried to feel positive about The Electric Ear's many good points, but I must be honest, the sum of its parts generally fails to either excite or satisfy me. This is somewhat disconcerting, as the album exhibits many of the musical characteristics that I usually enjoy.

The Electric Ear proudly presents a fusion of jazz and prog in a series of carefully constructed and skilfully executed tunes, in a manner that befits the style and panache that is readily apparent in the band's other releases.

At first, I thought that the reason this release does not quite gel for me, was due to the principal role that violin has within many of the arrangements. Superficially, this gives a number of the pieces a similar style and ambience. I nevertheless, quickly discounted this opinion, as the violin was also was a significant voice in Soleil 12.

On further reflection, I think it is more likely that one of the major reasons for my lack of connection, is that the band, on this occasion, has a tendency to extract every drop of life from the recurring phrases and motifs that play a significant part in The Electric Ear. The effect is often alluring, but is occasionally as engrossing as observing a tightly-gripped mangle, squeezing a water-sodden cloth dry.

This tendency to relentlessly pursue a particular theme or groove has the advantage that many of the pieces on offer possess an organic, developing quality. It also has the disadvantage that any twists and turns are predictable, rather than unexpected, and in this respect the hairs on the back of the neck are rarely raised or troubled, and spine shivers are often imagined, rather than realised.

Nevertheless, the album's opener raises expectations for what is to follow. Karmic Delights is one of the most interesting pieces of the album. It features an eye-catching, slow riff in its middle section. The use of a variety of reed instruments and brass gives it at times a Waka Jawaka vibe. The guitar parts are particularly ear-catching and its engaging motif has an hypnotic air that gives the piece a memorable quality.

My favourite piece on the album, is probably Seventh Heaven. For the most part, it is a slow and mournful tune, where a fine piano introduction gives way to some particularly emotive violin playing. The whole thing ends with squawking, squealing reeds and some excellent, vibrantly-expressive guitar work. The crunchy bass parts that dominate the bottom registers and underscore the piece with extra muscle, power and bite, are also equally impressive.

The title track of the album also contains some excellent interludes, but as a whole did not really break free from its reliance on following a relatively straight-forward path. Whilst its opening moments wear a garland of funky rhythms and an up-tempo pace, it rarely moved my knuckles to tap out a rhythmic pap or pip, and it was certainly not able to convince me to shake my hips.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy the manner in which the piano lurked beneath the violin, to create its own delicate and intricate accompaniment. Similarly, I was appreciative of the way in which the mood and the pace of the title track changed in its latter stages, as each instrument has the space and opportunity to breathe.

Some of the best moments of the album occur during Cornerstone. During various sections of the tune, the guitar powerfully occupies the lower registers with distorted aplomb and expansively soars in the higher registers with fluidity, skill and panache. Cornerstone also includes a delightful piano solo, which brightens up the mid-section of the piece in an expressive manner to illuminate its jazz party hat and its ivory-clad heart.

Whilst I am not totally convinced by everything that The Electric Ear proposes to a listener, there is much more about this release to admire than to criticise. The playing is excellent and the recording quality of the album is clear, precise and beautifully balanced.

I am sure that I will play it frequently, as it contains a number of impressive characteristics. In the course of doing so, I hope that I will discover several more satisfying aspects to appreciate and will be able to reassess my initial reaction to what it has to offer.

Kuhn Fu - Chain The Snake

Kuhn Fu - Chain The Snake
Country of Origin
Netherlands
Year of Release
2019
Time
43:00
Samples
Marco Messy Millionaire (4:45), Gargamel (6:47), Sonic Manah (5:26), Oswaldo's Waltz (4:30), Gustav Grinch (6:12), Traktus (10:24), Wolf's Muckenkogel (4:29)

The multi-national Kuhn Fu band describes themselves as a prog punk jazz group. Certainly, there is a snarling humour and spitting rawness running through many of the album's tunes. Their mix of rock and jazz frequently crosses barriers and smashes pre-defined assumptions about genres. At times, its infectious rhythms and its invigorating ability to tread its own path, are enchanting.

Guitarist and band leader Christian Kuhn wrote six of the seven compositions, which feature in Charm the Snake. The rest of the band consists of Ziv Taubenfeld on bass clarinet, Esat Ekincioglu on double bass and George Hadow on drums. Kuhn and Taubenfeld wrote one of the compositions, the ebullient Gustav Grinch. A live version of this tune is available on the link provided.

Some of the tunes are fast-paced and are full of raw exuberance. In swift pieces such as Marco Messy Millionaire, the band tread a similar lively path to bands such as Bordelophone and World Service Project. Like these bands, the rawness is merely a front, as the players are all technically adept and are accomplished performers.

Humour is important to the band and this can be gleamed by the album cover and in many of the song titles. This is emphasised by the way the music is frequently arranged. Many of the loosely formed tunes give scope for humorous improvisation with room for light and shade, occasional spoken or chanted vocals and tongue in cheek choruses.

This is particularly the case in the hand-clapping, back-slapping, and ale-swilling polka melodies of Wolfs Mucken kogel. It is undoubtedly a hearty crowd pleaser when performed live.

The first track on offer has an irreverent ambience that reminded me of some of Frank Zappa’s work. The spoken interlude tells the tale about a millionaire who asked his workers to complete ridiculous tasks. It features some fine interplay between the ensemble. The jangly guitar parts that interact with some gorgeous clarinet phrasing are especially evocative.

Some of the tracks such as Traktus reveal that the band can display a reflective side. Its mix of quick and slow, contemplative and disconcerting moods, occasional shouted words, raucous power chords, and its overall gentle, bittersweet nature ensures that it is altogether quite alluring. This piece contains tap-along-to moments, some impressive rhythm guitar accompaniment and occasional bouts of off-piste clarinet belching.

This tune is adeptly able to meld disparate moods in its mixture of styles and tempos. I can imagine myself listening to this track in a variety of fitting situations, such as by a riverbank as the sun sets, or as witness to a changing scene as a speedboat powers by to upset the calm.

The bellowing, burping, buoyantly-deep tones of Taubenfeld’s bass clarinet, which features prominently throughout the album, is thoroughly enchanting. His playing is thoughtful and full of emotion. The deep resonance of his instrument is very gratifying. The use of a bass clarinet as a principal instrument gives the album a unique and arguably unusual sound, one that is often missing from bands that employ a more usual arrangement of smooth saxophones or sliding trombones. It works well and is one of the album's standout features.

My favourite piece is the slow-shuffling Oswaldos Waltz. The bass introduction and precise guitar accompaniment is quite beautiful. However, the tune has a certain tranquil darkness, enhanced by the melancholy sound of the clarinet. There is a lovely, gently-evolving call-and-response styled section that is totally captivating and it’s this sort of quality that at times makes this album's mix of styles very interesting.

Whether much of this album will appeal to fans of prog music is debateable. The album is relatively straight forward (I say this in the context of somebody who listens to left-field progressive fusion music regularly). It may appeal to listeners who may find its frequently brash, no frills approach satisfying. Its combination of uninhibited rock and jazz stylings has a certain earthy quality that will no doubt captivate and enthuse many in a live setting. However, the relatively few challenging sections, or virtuoso soloing or explicit avant-garde intervals will leave a listener scratching their head and wondering what the music is all about.

I enjoyed much of Chain The Snake, but if I want to hear this sort of progressive punk jazz approach, I personally would probably reach for albums from bands such as Bordelephone or Word Service Project. Nevertheless, Kuhn Fu's Chain the Snake is a satisfying addition to a roster of very good bands and albums that travel creatively in a similar artistic and stylistic direction.

Hedvig Mollestad Trio - Smells Funny

Hedvig Mollestad Trio - Smells Funny
Country of Origin
Norway
Year of Release
2018
Time
36:00
Samples
Beastie, Beastie (5:54), First Thing To Pop Is The Eye (8:56), Jurášek (4:00), Sugar Rush Mountain (4:05), Bewitched, Dwarfed And Defeathered (4:39), Lucidness (8:13)

A friend of mine gains great pleasure from sniffing things. Over time, I have concluded that he has some sort of heightened olfactory awareness. Even the most innocuous of scents creates throes of delight, and enough nasal excitement for him to hold court and wax lyrical about the subtle pungent qualities of many everyday objects.

His sensory reaction to the fragrance of how music is packaged is notable. Wearing an excited expression, he salivates at the prospect of experiencing the cloying smell of a newly-polished vinyl record (who doesn’t?), or when sampling the sweet-smelling, clasping chemical delicacy of a plastic CD case. The warm whiff of a newly ejected pen drive can even charm him. He often revels in the fresh-pulped delight offered by a cardboard inlay sleeve.

Hedvig Mollestad Trio's latest release is Smells Funny. I have yet to witness my pal’s reaction to this album, but I am certain it will be memorable.

The aroma that seeps out from its packaging will undoubtedly be caught or captured, and then carefully sampled in his nasal passages. One thing is certain; it will be a source of delight. Despite the album’s title and whatever granite-hewn tang it emits, it no doubt, will not smell funny to him.

During Smells Funny, the trio deliver a set of six forceful and often vociferous rock-ready instrumental tunes. The album has an ability to shake, shuffle and roll untiring limbs. The relentless riffs, meaty bass runs and head-rocking solos that are at the heart of many of the tunes, consistently underline this characteristic.

Fans of guitar-based bands such as Plankton will adore this album. However, it has enough uniqueness about it, to entice and capture those who enjoy the introduction of fusion elements into what is otherwise essentially an album of face-gurning, deodorant-challenging, hard-hitting rock.

In this respect, First Thing to Pop Is the Eye is a fine example of the merits of mixing raucous dissonance, that has similarities to some aspects of King Crimson, before amalgamating it with a bulging, bulbous bass line and an hypnotic groove.

It’s no-holds-barred approach is particularly impressive, the quick-fingered, guitar-based aggression that is a feature of the piece is reminiscent of some of Shawn Lane's best work with Jonas Hellborg. This style of playing is combined with a succession of jangly guitar effects, that in places disturbingly sound like a twisted progressive version of Hank Marvin’s work with The Shadows. Such an unlikely mixture works well and simply adds to the piece's molten atmosphere and fiery furnace of charms.

Jurášek is much more straightforward, and is on the face of it, is a delightful blues-based piece. It offers no surprising twists and turns, but provides a moment for reflection before the band's throttle hits max once more, and the turbo charger kicks in, to herald the exciting blast of the retro-filled Sugar Rush Mountain. This piece unashamedly clasps and squeezes tightly, as it delivers four minutes of open-mouthed, unfettered, fast-paced rock. It is full of aggression, with little room for either finesse or subtlety.

The hip-swaying bass lines and scattergun, distorted guitar lines of Bewitched, Dwarfed and Defeathered surpass the aggression of Sugar Rush Mountain. This tune captures the essence of what this album is all about. Its effect upon the senses is suitably disconcerting. The clear and precise quality of the recording wonderfully captures this and throughout the album, it manages to convey the raw excitement that the trio are able to generate.

The smile on my friend's face said it all, as the music ended and he held the album close to his nose.

Smells Funny is fresh and brash. It exudes a hard-hitting, hard-nosed rocky attitude that is very engrossing. Like my friend, I also found it difficult not to succumb to its strident, unsubtle pull, and especially its pungent, long-lasting aroma.

Graham Costello's Strata - Obelisk

Graham Costello's Strata - Obelisk
Country of Origin
UK
Year of Release
2019
Time
77:33
Samples
Obelisk (9:25), Stoic (9:32), _96 (10:17), Jade (7:51), Ocelot (14:01), Sole (12:03), Sapphire (9:04), Fly (5:03)

Superlatives cascade, torrent and collide in a frantic rush to describe the music on offer in Obelisk.

It is by turns,

talented, thoughtful, refreshing, exciting, striking, notable, invigorating, and clever.

Above all else, it is inspiring.

The album will fit snugly in the jazz section of most collections. However, this album owes more to the inventive British jazz rock movement of the 70s, rather than to the late night / dawn breaking sound of darkly-lit, soulful New York jazz clubs. If you like bands such as Nucleus or Brotherhood of Breath, then much of Obelisk will be endearing. The band's approach to performance and composition will also be alluring if you appreciate the rhythmic style of bands such as Snarky Puppy and Njet Njet 9

Obelisk is probably the most satisfying album that I have heard this year. I am smitten by the knuckle-rapping groove and imaginative licks of Graham Costello's Strata.

Obelisk is never formulaic, trite or clichéd. The release includes glittering musical intervals, where creativity and improvisation are handled with charm and heaps of progressive flair. It also rocks hard, with bubbling gusto but its sensitive moments have the touch and warm caress of a velvet glove. It is impressive in every respect. The enthusiasm and skill that the musicians bring to the album, illuminates almost every note played and every solo and ensemble part delivered.

Drummer and composer Graham Costello leads Strata. He is one of the younger generation of jazz musicians who have an approach to composition that crosses many genres. He formed Strata with the aim of bridging a gap between jazz and the European Independent music scene. Although Costello studied jazz at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, his varied experiences as a musician are apparent in the cross-genre influences present in Obelisk.

Costello began his musical career by being involved in Glasgow’s underground / independent scene, first with his noise rock duo Young Philadelphia, then with the electro-psych krautrock band Outblinker.

Costello’s compositions are full of unusual twists and turns. He has a great awareness of how rhythm or tempo can affect the mood of the music. Obelisk is littered with powerful kit work and deft percussion flourishes and challenging polyrhythms, which emphasise the importance of his role within the band's overall sound.

The sound quality of the recording is superb and this helps to accentuate the subtlety and the controlled aggression that Costello is able to bring to his work.

The rest of the band are made up of Harry Weir (tenor saxophone), Liam Shortall (trombone), Fergus McCreadie (piano), Joe Williamson (guitar) and Mark Hendry on electric bass. All of the players have an important role in ensuring that the music sounds vibrant and fresh.

However, special mention should be made of the contribution of pianist McCreadie. His elegant frills and charmingly-crafted solos frequently add to the album's appeal, to raise the bar and move it to an ethereal level.

Whilst McCreadie adds a touch of stylish grace and sophistication to proceedings in tunes like Stoic, the opposite might apply to Williamson. His skilful and often flamboyant ability to make the guitar sing, grunt and groan gives Obelisk a much more earthy sound, whenever appropriate. The absorbing contrast between the beautiful refinement of the piano and the beastly distortion of the guitar is one of the many highlights.

The dual approach of the saxophone and trombone creates a powerful voice and gives the ensemble a full, larger than life sound. If you like the pseudo big band sound that Frank Zappa was able to create in the Grand Wazoo and Waka Jawaka, then tunes such as the title track and the engaging melodies, dirtily-distorted guitar rhythms and glitzy glissando trombone soloing of Jade will tick many boxes.

The title track is particularly impressive and its catchy mix and match of styles, flamboyant guitar, sax, trombone and piano soloing and memorable set of recurring motifs will put lovers of progressive jazz fusion in an euphoric state. It is complex and suitably challenging, but cleverly exudes and maintains a punk rawness that is reminiscent of World Service Project. It is a great and explosive way to grab the attention, and the album does not then let go for the rest of its lengthy 77 minute duration.

In contrast, Stoic is much more broody. Its emotive bass lines and wide-eared, cinematic qualities help to build a track that sobs and simmers with resolute emotions, and possesses a heartfelt atmosphere. It contains a mesmerising sax solo. The piano provides a perfect, genteel undercurrent to the bawls, wails, howls and yelps of Weir's superb virtuoso performance, as the tune ambles in a masterly fashion to its stunning conclusion.

The rest is equally mesmerising and I could go on and on about the respective merits of each piece. _96 is fantastic and includes passages that display a minimalist sound and a math-rock ambience within its structure. This moves the band briefly away from some of the more usual conventions associated with jazz fusion. In contrast, it also contains one of the most flowing piano and expressive guitar solos of the album. _96 should appeal to any listeners who have an affinity with inventive progressive music that pushes boundaries.

Ocelet is imaginative and explores how percussive elements can be integrated and developed within a sax -dominated track that, in its early sections, magnificently channels some of the broody mystique associated with Jan Garbarek’s brand of Nordic Jazz. Its latter-half is frantic and chaotic and is crammed full of improvisation, off-piste invention and muscular rawness.

The final piece on the album explores similar territory to that trodden by Big Bad Wolf in their outstanding debut album. Fly has a mix of styles, which includes math rock and jazz, but it resists all attempts to precisely define or describe what is going on. It works vibrantly well and the arrangement possesses a contemporary ambience that firmly anchors the track in the present, rather than the past.

However, my favourite piece on the album is undoubtedly Sole. Its happy, offbeat disposition and gorgeous arrangement includes bright piano lines that weave in and out of the delightful ensemble accompaniments, to create a moon-smiled tapestry of sounds. It just jogs along contently and organically, with neither extravagance nor gaudy artificial radiance. It is totally captivating, and I have played it repeatedly.

Obelisk is simply a wonderful album. I am glad that I have had an opportunity to ramble on about it and share my enthusiasm and insatiable appetite for its platter of delicious tunes.

If you like music that has an undeniable jazz core, but also has a wider appeal that visits a number of genres, I urge you to check it out.

It is progressive. It is fresh. It is engaging. It is skilful. And it is superlative in every way.

The Tronosonic Experience - II: The Big Blow

The Tronosonic Experience - II: The Big Blow
Country of Origin
Norway
Year of Release
2019
Time
40:28
Samples
The Big Blow (5:19), Coup De Grace (6:06), Voyager Pt.1 (5:55), Voyager Pt.2 (1:44), Rasputin (4:34), Maelstrom (slight return) (1:12), Iron Camel (3:48), 50 Let Pobedy (6:15), Lost Highway (5:35)

In fashionable, or in musical terms, the wearing of a jazz-party hat with a pair of rock-ready leather gauntlets and a studded jacket (embroidered in multi coloured yarns with the names of classic prog rock bands), does not always garner admiring glances, or knowing winks.

On the evidence of II: The Big Blow, Norway’s The Tronosonic Experience have managed to pull off the not-so-delicate balance of creating an album based upon accessible rock rhythms, bulbous bass lines and head gyrating riffs, with copious amounts of raucous reed playing.

Consequently, it is an album where the saxophone parts often have a principal role to play in the band's overall sound. The instrument's squelchy burps and trembling squawks confidently display a variety of freely-formed jazz inflections throughout the album. Ole Jørgen Bardal assuredly delivers its prominent role. His contribution is earlobe-friendly and warmly accessible. He rarely blows with subtlety, and seldom forgoes the boisterous, bottom-shaking power and enthusiasm that the knee-trembling grooves of reed-inspired rock can bring.

In this respect, there is an enjoyable rawness that pervades many of the saxophone parts, and as such, this lively, relatively straightforward approach to jazz shares things in common with punk-jazz bands such as The World Service Project and Kuhn Fu.

The result is a release that delivers power, energy and an infectious groove throughout much of its 40 minute playing time. It is accessible and brash enough for listeners to enjoy superficially, and on occasions it has enough zest, to imagine the recipients of its recurring aural delights to leap around with clench-fisted abandon. However, on detailed examination, it contains a number of less-obvious layers and it might be possible to appreciate these in a more reflective way. In this respect, the album contains two short ambient pieces that swirl and drone gently to act as a contemplative bridge to the band's enthusiastic ensemble tunes.

If you have limited time to check out this album, I suggest that you listen to Iron Camel. In its sub-four minute running time it encapsulates much of what this album and this band is all about. It is on the face of it a straightforward piece, but the quality of the players shines brightly. It has admirable energy, and has a live, in-your-face feel that is present in the excellent sound quality of the recording. This is not surprising, as the band recorded the album live to tape. The spontaneity and creative verve that this enabled, is fully apparent throughout the album.

The members of the band all have a collective role to play in delivering what is overall a very satisfying album. The bass parts provided by Per Harald Ottesen are particularly impressive and provide the album with a finely-woven underlay, upon which a succession of crunchy guitar parts, delivered with aplomb by Øyvind Nypan, can flourish. These ingredients provide a near perfect platform for a succession of flamboyantly structured sax solos to have centre stage.

Whilst Iron Camel is straightforward and easy on the ear, and consequently pleasant to knuckle rap along to, Voyager part 1 is more challenging and arguably more rewarding. Its bittersweet amalgam of jazz and prog works particularly well. It has more twists and turns than some of the other pieces on offer, and is, alongside the excellent opener and title track, one of the standout tracks.

The introductory bass line and mournful, gentle, distorted wailing of the guitar creates an alluring atmosphere and provides a perfect platform for the saxophone to take on a freer role as the tune unfolds into a fast-paced, spiralling, jazz rock extravaganza that fans of bands like Colosseum are bound to appreciate. Predictably and aptly, the tune's opening phrases come to the fore again, as it fades to grey.

Rasputin is one of the heaviest tunes on offer and is an excellent contrast to the short-lived, pulsing ambience of Voyager Part 2. Despite its straightforward and somewhat predictable nature, Rasputin manages to sound excitingly fresh, and this is due in no small way to the way in which the album has been performed and recorded. This ensures that even straight-forward tunes such as this, have an enviable, open-ended, organic quality, which gives room for the various members of the band to interact empathetically and to deliver solos that have plenty of room to complement the basic structure of the piece.

I enjoyed much of what II: The Big Blow offers. I will probably play it whenever I wish to hear something that is easy on the ear, but also retains some of the complexities of prog and jazz.

Whether, it contains enough different styles or expansive varied dimensions to keep listeners who enjoy a more innovative and experimental style of fusion satiated in the long term, is probably debatable.

However, this album is very successful on a relatively straightforward rock jazz level. Overall, it offers more than enough that is satisfying, interesting and accessible for a variety of prog fans to enjoy in many different ways.

VAK - Budo

VAK - Budo
Country of Origin
France
Year of Release
2018
Time
59:00
Samples
Budo (27:28), Hquark (23:03), Au Fond des Creuses (8:19)

There is something about the combination of a wordless, female vocalist (who uses her voice as a principal instrument in its own right) when they joust and jostle with the other instrumental performers in a band, that just sets my heart soaring and quickens a resting pulse.

In this respect, my favourite performer is undoubtedly Norma Winstone. Her work with Azimuth and her contribution to Michael Garrick’s albums such as Troppo and Home Stretch Blues, draws a dew-drop tear to my eye even today. Similarly, Pepi Lemers' work with Turning Point also never fails to impress.

Many other artists can be added to this tongue-trembling, throat-thrusting roster of bands and albums that feature scat and wordless vocalese vocals. Many of these never fail to shiver the spine, and include amongst others Ikarus' excitingly progressive albums and such gems as Zeptelar’s excellent El Color de las Cosas and parts of Saena’s impressive self-titled album, and aspects of Media Banda’s output.

Move-over old favourites and make room, a different voice-box has arrived on the block, and what an expressive one Aurélie Saintecroix possesses!

Her sweet warbling’s and wordless chanting lie at the heart of much of Vak's music, to give it an emotional warmth and grand human touch, which offsets and perfectly complements the relentless, deep vibrations of the bass, and the deft percussive rhythms, the delightful keyboards, the expressive guitars and the occasional flute and saxophone flurries which consistently impress during this superb Zeuhl-styled release.

Vak were formed in Paris 10 years ago and Magma is cited as a major influence. The style of the music can indeed be compared to aspects of Magma, but personally I find this album equally as enchanting, and probably more so, as any of Vander’s much-lauded and critically applauded work.

Whilst it is easy to recognise this influence, because of the undoubted Zeuhl elements which are present, to my ears, although using different principal instrumentation (the sax is used by Vak sparingly), much of this album sounds like a more frenetic-on-steroids version of Turning Point (who themselves also cited Magma as a significant influence).

Vak’s earlier output, documented in their 2015 Aedividea release, has a more forthright, metallic tinge. Budo is their latest album and it is a masterclass of organic, thoughtful progressive rock. In it, numerous and often disparate styles combine and meld purposefully, to create something that is satisfying and often unique.

The album consists of three compositions. Two of these are extensive in scope, length and breadth, clocking in at over 20 minutes each. The extended duration of these pieces enable a number of interlocking themes to emerge and re-emerge, and for an interesting and often imaginative and innovative exploration of a wide range of sonic possibilities. The voice of Saintecroix is a consistent high point and her wide range ensures that the music is never dogged by a sterile or clinical, uninviting sound, despite its often challenging and complicated nature.

The opening piece has it all: slow, meditative rhythms, haunting vocalese melodies and a gurning bass line that encourages the listener to mouth low-end sounds and gyrate spontaneously. The tune's engrossing and subtly changing manner is very riveting. Repetition is used to good effect, but is neither predictable nor monotonous. In fact, the way in which the band incorporates so many peaks and valleys into its music by using a variety of stylistic approaches, ensures that what is produced is totally compelling. It is an edge-of-the-seat and somewhat surreal experience.

There are some gorgeous melodies and harmonies to experience along the way. The tune is gift- wrapped in a gloriously complex arrangement and is driven relentlessly forward by a rhythm section that is consistently pushing out the envelope and raising the bar.

With music that is so complex and driven, it would be easy for the subtle nuances of different instrumentation to be lost in a mass of noise. Thankfully, the opposite is the case. Despite its intensity, the quality of the recording (mastered by Udi Koomran) gives lots of room for the individual instruments to breathe. In this way, each instrument and component part of the arrangement supports the tune, either when in solo mode, or as a part of the ensemble, and consequently the overall result is quite outstanding.

The second tune is entitled Hquark and it invites the listener to experience more of the style revealed in the opening composition. In some ways, Hqark is even more impressive. The shape-changing qualities of the band’s music is very much to the fore, as a succession of moods and atmospheres are unveiled.

Hquark is progressive in every sense and is a stunning amalgamation of jazz, avant-garde and prog elements. Both melody and dissonance have a part to play, and there are opportunities to experience ferocious, intense passages of music, as well as interludes of gentle subtlety that soothe the senses and clasp and caress the heart.

Budo has been a constant companion since I first heard it. I whole-heartedly recommend this excellent album to DPRP readers. If instrumental music, tinged with a human voice appeals , then I am confident it will not disappoint!