Reviews in this issue:
The Far Meadow - Foreign Land
If you look up the meaning of nostalgia in a dictionary, one meaning would be; “a wistful affection for a period of the past”.
This was the one thing I felt after experiencing the latest release from The Far Meadow. According to the press release for the band, this is their third album, but this is my first opportunity listening to the band. The band have performed along side Caravan, Gong and Focus, and this gives a bit of an indication of what to expect from this disc. The band are very active on the live scene, and appear to be an almost regular act at many UK prog festivals. Once I heard the album, I could understand why they would be popular in a live festival environment.
When seeing the release consisted of only 5 tracks, I thought this would be a mini album. However, with the timings of the tracks: 18, 11 and 5 minutes, and 2 tracks over 8 minutes, it became apparent this was not the case.
I was intrigued by the extremely familiar names (to those who listen regularly to prog) of two of the three recording studios, used for recording of this release. There is Thin Ice Studios which is owned by Karl Groom, and many classic prog related releases have been recorded there. Then Aubitt Studios, founded by Rob Aubry, whose client list reads like a who's who of prog rock greats. So I was expecting high production values, given the quality of the studios the band had used.
The albums first track entitled Travelogue is the longest and it has, apparently, already become a live favourite. So I assume that it has been fine tuned by being played live prior to recording. If that is the case, then the band have done a magnificent job. The beginning reminded me of something that I just couldn't put my finger on at first, but with further listening it suddenly came to me. It was that the way the keys, and guitar interlinked was reminiscent of latter era Jadis.
The vocals are handled by Margurita Alexandrou, who has a very distinct voice, and displays throughout the album a wide octave range. The song includes a lyric I never thought I would hear; “I remember every car you sold me”! The song goes through many phases, and provides some great atmosphere. This is particularly so in the passage that evokes the feeling of a seedy, smoke-filled jazz club, with the piano providing accompaniment to a wonderful jazz bass solo al a John Patitucci. Travelogue then leads directly into a very Camel type guitar passage. Keyboards throughout the track are reminiscent of ELP. The production on this track is excellent, and made for a very enjoyable listen, and I look forward to returning to this song often, as it rightly deserves many more plays.
From this point onward, I found the rest of Foreign Land a disappointment, particularly after listening to Travelogue. The second track, Sulis Rise, had a down turn in production, suffering from a strange sounding mix. Whether this is due to the fact the preview album was provided in MP3, I'm not sure, but the production on the previous track was so much better. The song itself reminded me of one of Yes' slower tracks, but unlike Yes, Sulis Rise just never seems to get going, and remains very mellow throughout.
The third track Mud suffers by being overly dramatic at times. Starting with church organ, and sample choir voices. It features a section of what appears to be sampled flute (the notes provided don't mention any guests on the album) which is very Jethro Tull, and a keyboard solo reminiscent of Rick Wakeman. While all the musicians on The Far Meadow are obviously very talented, I found it frustratingly like that at times I was listening to a high quality covers band. The band has so much more to give, if they tried something more unique or modern rather than pulling ideas from the past.
The fourth track emphasises my criticism the best. Titled The Fugitive, it appears to tell the tale of someone on the run, no problem there, but the chorus mentions “virtual reality". Even with repeated listens, I can't find any reference in the rest of the lyrics to the chase described as not being real. The bass playing on the song is puzzling too, going from a Chris Squire-type driving bass line, then suddenly turning into a slapping section, and subsequently to a jazz section. The song, for me, was just not cohesive.
The final song, the album's title track, at last pulls back credibility for the band. It is mostly due to Margurita Alexandrou's wonderful vocal gymnastics, which are at times reminiscent of Kate Bush. Alexandrou's vocals when mixed with the rest of the bands fluid playing, makes the song far more enjoyable. This proves that when the band try to be experimental they can produce something successful and contemporary sounding,while still having at its heart in the classic era they so enjoy.
So, here we have a five track album: two of the songs are excellent, but for me the other three are too close to nostalgia for my liking. As I said before, I can thoroughly understand why The Far Meadow are a successful live act, as the nostalgic side of their music will appeal to festival goers. But listening to the band and their music in isolation, it at times treads a fine line between taking inspiration from the past, and recreating it.
The Far Meadow's Foreign Land will appeal to listeners who like their music influenced by the bands of the 70's and 80, but anyone hoping for something modern will be mostly disappointed. However, I would highly recommend everyone giving Travelogue a listen, this I am sure will be among my top 10 tracks of the year.
Mad Fellaz - III
For many prog fans, Mad Fellaz third release may well be the bands most satisfying release to date. The album arguably completes a transformation of the band's style from an outstanding instrumental band with wide ranging influences (beautifully executed in their self-titled debut), to a much more accessible, at times main stream, prog band with more concise tunes and tonsil shaking male vocals in their current guise.
In retrospect, their previous album, which featured for the most part, lengthy complex tunes and the sparkling female warbling of Anna Farronato, acts as a bridge between these two styles and incantations of the band. Thankfully, the band has still managed to maintain a large degree of the glittering and gratifying instrumental aspects of the band's earlier sound. They attempt to insert and incorporate challenging instrumental sections into the album III work very well.
These occur within tunes that offer more precise song writing than in the band's last album. The compositions contain some typical elements that the majority of prog fans might enjoy. In this respect, much of what is on offer is often pleasingly accessible.
The album features one delightful instrumental. Fumes From The Ruins is a short, tranquil tune. It offers time for reflection and the instrumental interlude it provides, also creates an interesting contrast to what precedes it and follows it.
The opening three minutes and concluding section of "Es"/Frozen Side show that the band have lost none of their instrumental prowess. This ability to surprise and excite shines through in various instrumental sections throughout the album. The concluding section of Leaf has a particularly rewarding instrumental passage.
There are some excellent contributions by flautist Rudy Zilio on a number of tunes. His charming accompaniments within Leave Under These Clouds, Liquid Bliss and Frost help to give the album an extra ethereal and pastoral dimension, that contrasts successfully with the more extravagant multi-instrumental sections on offer.
Similarly, the release contains some blistering and earthy guitar work. There is a magnificent legato solo in Liquid Bliss. Paolo Busatto and Ruggero Burigo take guitar duties. This gives some parts of the release a gutsy rock aggression that is emphasised by the impressive rhythm section of Marco Busatto (drums), Lorenzo Todesco (percussion) and Carlo Passuello (bass). The synth work of Enrico Brunelli in the lengthy instrumental section of Liquid Bliss is particularly notable, and helps the tune to sweep, flutter and flow seamlessly between its various sections.
The album has numerous charming moments. The acoustically tinged introductions to Under These Clouds and Sweet Silent Oblivion are particularly noteworthy.
Sweet Silent Oblivion is the concluding piece; it features a number of guest musicians and it is one of the most interesting tracks on the album. This impressive tune has numerous flamboyant instrumental sections and some of these are supplemented by an arrangement that features amongst others, violin, viola, cello, oboe and French horn. These eclectic elements give a distinctive edge, to supplement and add to the electric elements of the tune. The final ensemble section is outstanding and exhibits a raft of unusual tones and hard-hitting rhythms.
Liquid Bliss is probably one of the standout tunes of the album. It manages to scaffold the chasm that exists between accessibility and complexity. It is an example of how the art of carefully crafted song writing when combined with complex free flowing playing can be effective and rewarding. Its lengthy instrumental section combines prog and fusion elements successfully.
Whilst there is great variation on display in III, and many of the tunes have gratifying elements, the decision to combine exhilarating instrumental sections full of genre busting complexity, within what are essentially relatively straightforward vocal tunes does not always work fully. There were times when I felt that the vocal sections and melodies, which accompanied these sections, sounded unremarkable and in essence had traits, which identified them as just another prog band.
The vocal delivery of Luca Brighi was expressive and his overall range was for the most part very good. However, the vocal sections in many of the tunes were occasionally somewhat predictable. Consequently, there were times when I lost interest in the vocal melodies and vocal sections and wished that the band would return to the style of their previous albums.
However, I can fully understand the stylistic road that the band has travelled and III will arguably gain the band many more admirers than either their instrumental debut or the imaginative mix of styles that featured in their second.
The songs on offer and Mad Fellaz current approach will certainly appeal to many prog fans and III will no doubt feature in a number of best of lists at the end of the year.
Check it out, whatever your prog tastes, you may well find that it has something for everybody to appreciate!
Alan Parsons - The Secret
Alan Parsons has earned his musical legend status for both his production work (The Beatles, Pink Floyd, etc) and the many excellent Project albums that he created with the late Eric Woolfson. Since 1993, Parsons has released four solo albums, but it has been fourteen years since the last. Whereas that album (A Valid Path) strove to be modern with its focus on electronica, The Secret is a clear throwback to the sound of the Alan Parsons Project.
This is not unique as most of his solo works have attempted to recapture that magic. The first few even utilised many of the same musicians and singers. However, the key missing element was Eric Woolfson's talents as a songwriter. The sound and personnel was there, but the material just wasn't as strong. The Secret, faces a similar challenge, but there are songs on this release that can stand proudly next to classics from the Project years.
The album opens with an interesting, though curiously disappointing interpretation of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Featuring Steve Hackett on guitar, Nathan East on Bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, I am certain that some listeners will really enjoy this rendition. I found it to be adventurous and well produced, but it just never jelled. Plus, it feels like it is on the wrong album. The results is that The Secret is missing a standout instrumental track, which was a staple of all of the great APP recordings.
Miracle, featuring pop singer Jason Mraz, quickly moves things into more familiar territory. Sounding like a restructuring of Eye in the Sky, the song sets the tone for what is to follow. As usual, Alan utilises various singers throughout the album to strong effect. This includes Foreigner's Lou Gramm, who brings a theatrical style to the ballad Sometimes. Also, Parsons himself provides impressive vocals on the reflective and swan song like, As Lights Fall.
The album's strongest moments (As Lights Fall, One Note Symphony, Soiree Fantastique, Years Of Glory, I Can't Get There From Here) are compositionally strong and present the lush production values and wonderful orchestrations that Parsons is famous for. It is also nice to hear long time Project guitarist, Ian Bairnson on a few tracks. Like an old pair of slippers, this album provides a very comfortable feel for any long time fan of Parsons work.
Ultimately, The Secret is very entertaining, but the retro sound of the album can also be deceiving. Upon first listen, the familiarity element is stirring, but a peeling of the layers (ie: repeated listens) reveals the results to be a bit less than the previous work it emulates. By comparison, it lacks the songwriting strength and the cohesive themes that the best of the Alan Parsons Project possessed.
As an example, magic is the theme utilised here, but it feels inconsequential much of the time. Regardless, one can only be celebratory about this release. Considering his esteemed career, Parsons has no need to prove anything at this point. The fact that he is still driven to produce new music is fantastic. When the results are as good as the majority of this album, it is a gift to music lovers. It is doubtful that The Secret will make anyone forget about I Robot or Turn Of A Friendly Card, but that's OK. It is nonetheless a worthy addition to a musical career that is filled with excellence.
Bjørn Riis - A Storm Is Coming
A Storm Is Coming brings the number of solo albums from Bjørn Riis to four, equalling the number of studio albums issued by what increasingly seems to be Riis' alma mater, Airbag. Mostly written, performed, produced and designed by Riis himself, the album also features Henrik Bergan Fossum (Airbag) on drums and appearances by Oak's Simen Valldal Johannessen on piano, Ole Michael Bjørndal on guitar, Wobbler's Kristian Hultgren on bass and Mimmi Tamba on guest vocals.
The album has a very contemplative and reflective vibe, verging into sadness and regret at times. Not surprising as the key themes of the album are the tensions and frustrations that can arise within relationships as well as loss and abandonment. Despite the heavy subject matter, the music maintains a somewhat light and breezy air, although it won't have you dancing in the aisles, neither will it leave you in the pits of despair! Riis has stated that the album contains 'a lot of musical references throughout that are sort of a homage to my influences'. This is immediately evident from the opening of When Rain Falls, the first four minutes of which channels Black Sabbath, dishing out riffs that Tony Iommi himself would be proud of. In a neat twist the guitar is replaced by Johannesen's piano which fronts the atmospheric introduction to the vocal section. A lovely bass line, by Riis himself, and some perfectly judged drumming from Fossum creates a smoothly flowing passage into the guitar solo with its, pun intended, echoes of Pink Floyd.
Icarus, the well-known Greek tale of hubris, is the most consistently heavy track with hints of Stephen Wilson about it. The juxtaposition of acoustic and electric guitars is masterfully produced with a memorable series of chord changes that elevates the song. The next three tracks are really the heart of the album, where the aforementioned themes come to the fore. You And Me is the perfect demonstration of less is more as there is really not a great deal going on throughout the song, yet it is entirely captivating. Seven minutes has never passed so quickly.
Album centrepiece is Stormwatch, a 'dialogue between two people who experience the violent tension and frustration in a relationship'. Of course, it would be impossible for a single person to fully portray a dialogue so in order to work it needs at least two participants, the female half of the dialogue is portrayed by the Norwegian singer Mimi Tamba. I am unaware of any previous recordings featuring Tamba but if there are any out there, irrespective of genre, I would love to hear them as, boy, what an excellent voice she possesses! The lyrics are not set out, as one might expect from a dialogue as a 'call and response' type scenario, but instead features the two vocalists singing the same words that emphasises and highlights the frustrations. Tamba also provides some wonderful vocals following the first vocal section, the inspiration for which can only be Clare Tory and The Great Gig In The Sky. At exactly the midway point there is an explosion of electric guitars breaking away from the predominantly sedate nature of the piece thus far. Again, the layering of electric and acoustic guitars provides a marvellous contrast.
As Epilogue is essentially an instrumental refrain of When Rain Falls, This House is the last song on the album. So, onto the regret: "How did we get here? How did it all fall apart? How did it all turn to dust?" There is an inherent sadness in the lyric as the singer waits for the return of his loved one despite realising that the relationship is, in fact all over. Riis has missed a trick here as it would have been a nice touch to have Tamba sing the distant vocalisations emphasising the separation and distance that has come between the two protagonists. Whatever, it is a lovely piece of music and the romantic in me refuses to believe that it is finally the end and some form of future reunification can occur!
A Storm Is Coming is a totally gorgeous album, in which one can immerse oneself in the atmosphere and melody inherent in each of the tracks. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the subject matter can be rather terse and foreboding but somehow Riis has encapsulated the sadness in a calmness that, on the whole, exudes positivity. A mature and intelligent album that deserves a huge audience.
Kev Rowland - The Progressive Underground, Vol 1 [Book]
Between 1991 and 2006, Kev Rowland was a reviewer (and secretary) for Feedback magazine. There had been several attempts at magazines that focused on prog in those days, most of which didn't last beyond a few issues. However, Feedback, like Background Magazine based in the Netherlands, did last.
Rowland, now living in New Zealand, has collected all of his reviews and is publishing them in three volumes, the first of which was released in April this year, covering artists A - H.
Publishing a book may seem strange, but Gonzo Multimedia have this slogan "There is still such a thing as alternative publishing". I love them for it. Rowland and Gonzo have done a good job. The book is of a good size for reading this kind of material, colour photos of every album reviewed, a readable font is used, and it has a great cover image by Martin Springett (which I remembered from an album by Canadian band Coney Hatch).
Thousands of reviews of albums, and even demo cassettes, are included. Many of the bands didn't make it past a debut release and sometimes not even beyond those demos.
First I started opening pages at random, triggering some oohs and aahs when seeing the covers of albums I am sure I once owned or had written a review of as well. Then I decided to read it from start to finish to make sure I wouldn't miss anything.
So many bands I have written reviews about myself (Ageness, Ezra, Fruitcake, Grey Lady Down, Höyre-Kone), the bigger names in this small world of prog (Ark, The Flower Kings, Galahad, Haze) and the ones that made it outside of that world (ELP, Fish, Gentle Giant, Steve Hackett), Then there are the bands I had forgotten about (Finneus Gauge, Freewill), some I was surprised to see to make it into the UK (Anabis, Chandelier, Egdon Heath, Everon) or bands I didn't know about (well, there's quite a lot of those, actually).
Real little treasures lie in reviews of the demos. Like Citizen Cain or Big Big Train's first demos. There can't be many of those around.
After reading all the pages, I know for sure I will still return to it now and then. When I hear about a band from the covered era, I want to see if Kev has had an opinion about it. I will cherish this as much as File Under Symfo, the reference book on Dutch prog bands by Carsten Busch.
Rowland has a writing style that is easy to read, although the audience was of course British and some words might not be known to those with English as a second language, but the context always makes it clear enough for anybody that has average knowledge of English. Several references here and there expect you to know more than a prog noob, but one should always accept that as an invitation to broaden one's horizon some more!
Whether you use this as a reference work, or as something on the coffee table you browse through every time you feel like it. Or want to learn about bands you have never heard of, or read it from start to finish - if you're even slightly interested in the history of progressive rock in the 1990s and beyond, this is simply essential material. Bring on Vol 2!
United Progressive Fraternity - Planetary Overload, Part 1: Loss
CD 2 (Romantechs: Reimagine). Fall In Love With The World (6:11), This Time (5:08), Loss To Lost (4:17), Seeds For Life (8:27), Rebirth (2:11), One More (1:46), Cruel Times (3:59), Forgiveness (1:39), The Great Reward (5:33)
The United Progressive Fraternity (or UPF for short) must be the first band to have a mission statement, viz: To produce great music, as a collective concept, whilst conveying a message of peace, hope and global awareness which they aim to achieve by fostering collaboration and shared ideas with other musicians, artists and writers, and to encourage participation and association with the core band.
They certainly have got the collaboration bit down pat with 55 individuals contributing to the album which includes excerpts from speeches from some prominent international environmentalists (of the calibre of Dame Jane Goodall and Sir David Attenborough none the less) as well as the Fraternity Symphonic Orchestra. The heart of UPF is somewhat slimmed down from the debut album Fall In Love With The World and is centred around Australia's Mark Truack (Unitopia) and American Steve Unruh (Resistor, The Samurai Of Prog, solo artist).
In many ways the genesis of Planetary Overload stems back over 15 years to the first Unitopia album More Than A Dream, and in particular the song Slow Down with its questioning as to what are we doing to the planet. Unfortunately no one was really listening to the message at that time and, environmentally, things have gone from bad to worse. The majority of Planetary Overload is composed by Truack and Unruh with notable contributions from other members of the Fraternity. As with The Samurai Of Prog, a lot of the additional composers are keyboard players, and it is particularly good to see Nick Magnus make a couple of contributions.
Indeed, these tracks are probably the best numbers on an album full of highlights. The first, Stop Time the music of which was co-written with Unruh, is a gloriously overblown piece with shades of King Crimson, a memorably emphatic chorus and drumming royalty The King Of Agogik (Hans Jörg Schmitz) hitting everything all at once but keeping perfect time. Marvellous. Seeds Of Life sees Magnus link up, although undoubtedly virtually, with his one-time boss Steve Hackett in an epic number that has everything: soaring solo violin, lushious backing vocals, immense soundscapes as well as a couple of sublime nylon-string guitar solos from Mr Hackett himself.
The strength of UPF lies in the diversity of playing styles and matching the right musicians to the right songs. For instance, any number of guitarists could have played the acoustic parts on Forgive Me, My Son but it is doubtful if they would have taken the approach adopted by Alex Grata. Similarly, seven different drummers are employed over the album with only two of them appearing twice (which, as the mathematically minded amongst you will realise, some of the tracks don't feature drums at all). The addition of trumpets, flugelhorns, trombones, saxophones, choirs, a variety of ethnic instruments and all manner of other instruments as well as eight different keyboard players spread across the album. This means there is always something different to listen out for, resulting in an album that, despite the nature of the message never disappoints, is always enlightening and exemplifies all that is great about Prog.
The good news is that part 2 of Planetary Overload, more positively entitled Hope is planned for release at the end of the year or early next year. In the meantime, you should really check out Steve Unruh's back catalogue as in my opinion he is one of the most complete composer, multi-instrumentalist, mixer and arrangers working in the genre today.
As a bonus, a second CD entitled Romantechs: Reimagine is included which sees Truack's desire to create songs with a more romantic air as a contrast to the progressive overloads. The Romantechs are the trio consisting of Truack on vocals, Christophe Lebled on keyboards, soundscapes and arrangements and Steve Unruh on everything else (violins, flute, slide guitar, steel and nylon string guitar, sitar guitar, mandolin, percussion and backing vocals). Most of the tracks are re-imaginings of songs on the main album with Rebirth being a version of Dying To Be Reborn and Forgiveness a variant of Forgive Me, My Son. Three of the tracks are reworkings of older songs: Fall in Love With The World originally appeared on the first UPF album and The Great Reward and This Time were originally on Unitopia's Artificial album.
Playing this CD immediately after the main album creates a contrast that is rather too great to take on board immediately as the pieces sound somewhat hollow and, dare I say it, bland. However, taken as a stand alone album and listened to in a more relaxed and mellow frame of mind the songs come into their own. Of particular note are the more prominent vocal arrangements with fine performances from Grace Bawden, Jon Davison, Claire Vezina, Lisa Wetton and Michelle Young. Even if you are a cold-hearted, non-romantic soul, Unruh's playing on the instrumentals Rebirth and Forgiveness and the sweeping and soaring violin on The Great Reward are well worth hearing. The Romantechs will return with another collection of romantic reinventions included with the second Planetary Overload album.
Finally, a nod to the supremely talented Ed Unitsky who has captured the theme of the album perfectly in his brilliant cover painting.