Reviews in this issue:
Celeste - Il Risveglio Del Principe
The prince finally has awoken. Having been prince for just one day (some 43 years ago) and asked to find a place to rest and dream, he must have fallen asleep. But now he is back. Sounds weird? Well, a look at the band's (recording) history sheds some light on this mystery.
That history dates back to 1971, when the band Il Sistema split up and led to the foundation of the bands Museo Rosenbach and Celeste. Il Sistema drummer and multi-instrumentalist Ciro Perrino was the one who gave birth to Celeste in 1972. During its existence, the band recorded just one real studio album in 1976 entitled Principe Di Un Giorno or Prince for One Day. A CD-version was later released under the name Celeste. Soon afterwards the band split up in 1977.
At the time and still nowadays amongst lovers of progressive rock from Italy, this release was considered to be one of the most important ones from the seventies Italian prog scene. Besides the further publishing in the nineties of two albums with demos previously unreleased, nothing was heard of the band. Thus, Ciro Perrino gathering new musicians and officially reforming Celeste in 2016 came as a surprise to the Italian progressive rock scene.
The release of Il Risveglio Del Principe (The Prince's Awakening) took place in early 2019. Thus, the prince for one day did not sleep as long as The Sleeping Beauty, but still for nearly 43 years. All jokes aside, this album is another one of the come-backs we have seen many times, not only concerning RPI, and it sounds just like the songs were composed together with the ones of Principe Di Un Giorno.
The seventies-version of Celeste existed as a quartet, plus some guest musicians. The reformed version is much more numerous, consisting, besides Ciro Perrino (keyboards, percussion, lead vocals) of Enzo Cioffi (drums), Mauro Vero (acoustic and electric guitars, backing vocals), Francesco Bertone (bass), Sergio Caputo (violin), Marco Moro (flute, saxophone), Massimo Dal Prà (pianos, harpsichord), Mariano Dapor (cello, backing vocals), Marzio Marossa (percussion, backing vocals), and Andrea De Martini (saxophones), and guests.
Celeste's music comes across gently and softly, in a symphonic way with influences from classical, chamber and folk music. The guitar mostly is played in its acoustic form. Keyboards represent the backbone of the songs, with scarce but effective use of piano and a healthy dose of Mellotron, some organ and very little synthesizer. The focus is on rather long, instrumental passages with flute, violin and saxes taking care of the soloing, often interplaying nicely within the same song. The vocals are discrete and perfectly adapted to the overall calm mood of the music.
I hear some similarities with the works of early King Crimson (especially in the use of the Mellotron), PFM, Estato Di San Martino, and Höstsonaten. The music overall radiates peace, tranquility, and contemplation. I particularly liked the song Bianca Vestale with its melodic sax, flute and violin solos. The problem is that Statue Di Sale very much reminds me of Principessa Oscura, which also sounds like Fonte Perenne, which in turn hints at Giardini Di Pietra and so on. In other words, the form and structure of each song appears to be fairly similar. This, as such would not present a problem, if only the songs were a bit more lively and less shallow and sweetish to my ears. Consequently, a certain feeling of fatigue crept over me after repetitive listenings. Other listeners might value the perception of cooling down and inner calmness generated by the songs.
I must admit, though, I can't do that much with this album. It is a bit too uneventful, harmonic, pastoral, and homogeneous for my ears. Too "celestial" in a way. I am missing dynamics, variety, complexity, hooks, breaks, alteration of harder and softer parts, keyboard and guitar solos and catchy moments (those goosebumps-producing moments).
Let's be clear: there is no positive correlation between a bars-per minute/degree of complexity ratio and the quality of a release. However, I would have preferred more "vivacissimo" instead of a constant "largo" concerning the musical style. Yes, I am subjective, but that's what music-loving is all about, isn't it?
Celeste has committed itself to this kind of progressive rock, and that is perfectly fine by me. This release has its positive elements, some beautiful melodies, excellent sound quality, and vocals perfectly matching the music. It is an album for the progressive rock fan looking for easy to listen to music, calm and relaxing. I can imagine that one might like to enjoy this by candlelight and with a glass of wine. I like both, but would nonetheless not necessarily revert to this release under such circumstances.
Rob Cottingham - Back Behind The Orchard Tree
Rob Cottingham is best known as the keyboardist/songwriter in the bands Touchstone and Cairo. This album is a reimagining of his first solo release from 2001, Behind The Orchard Tree. Although I was unfamiliar with the original, I did listen to it upon receiving the new version. The 2019 edition adds one song (Out Of Time) and deletes another (Find Me In A Jazz Club).
The differences between the two versions don't end there. In terms of sound and quality, the original isn't bad, but the songs sound like demos in comparison to the polished new versions. The improved production of Back Behind The Orchard Tree brings a whole new dynamic to the compositions. Also, John Mitchell (Lonely Robot, Frost*, Kino) provides impressive guitar work throughout, which is another significant improvement over the original release.
The album is proggy to an extent, but songs like Phoenix, Hero and All We've Done impress with a more simplistic, accessible approach. The Peter Gabriel-ish, Hear Me, is also a highlight.
Although this release is the work of a keyboardist, Cottingham doesn't seek to marvel with flashy playing. There is a Tony Banks-like focus on melody, and the entire album provides a nice, comfortable listen. There is a soft-rock, prog-lite feel to much of the material. Out Of Time, though quite good, feels a bit out of place as it is more of a guitar-driven rocker.
Ultimately, Back Behind The Orchard Tree is an entertaining album and a testament to the idea of updating material. Though there is much for a prog fan to enjoy, the songs aren't complex in terms of multiple chord progressions. Its success comes in the form of good songwriting, excellent performances and attention to the beauty of a strong melody.
The Inner Road - The Majestic Garden
Entering into a new body of music with no idea what to expect is a nervous thing. Will I like it. What will I say if it has no appeal to me? How can I be critical but constructive at the same time?
Before playing the digital album supplied to me, I did a few searches on the good old web to get some background on The Inner Road.
The Inner Road is an instrumental symphonic progressive rock project, masterminded by Steve Gresswell. The search came up with many listings indicating Steve has been around for many years as keyboard player, songwriter and producer. He has been involved in many different projects, including using his music to raise money for charity.
The Majestic Garden is the fourth release under the name of The Inner Road. Two of these, Visions and Ascension have been previously reviewed on DPRP both receiving very positive reviews.
There appears to be a consistent formula for each Inner Road release, this being the use of a different, highly accomplished guitarist on each new album. The only thing I could not discover is if the chosen guitarist has any input into the compositions on the album, or whether they are used more as a session musician.
The chosen guitarist for this release is Carl Anthony Wright. Searching his website, it is clear Carl has been around for many years, playing for various rock bands in his local Birmingham area. The bands on this list that most stick out for me, are Mel Galley's Phenomena, and most recently Shy, a band I am very familiar with from my long distant youth, and who toured as label mates with Twelfth Night back in the 1980s. (May I take this opportunity to send my best regards to Shy singer Tony Mills who announced very recently he was battling with terminal cancer). This is not the first collaboration between Steve and Carl, as they have worked together on The Steve Gresswell Project's 2017 release Monotrophus.
Onto this new release and The Majestic Garden consists of nine tracks all between seven and nine minutes in length. Approaching a new album, only knowing that it is all instrumental, is quite daunting, and I purposely did not read the previous reviews, so I had no preconceptions about what I was about to experience.
The opening track takes the album name, The Majestic Garden, and the opening bars quickly alleviate any concerns I had about this album. The opener is reminiscent of the type of celtic rock that the Horslips did so well in the 1970s. It is both uplifting and joyful, and immediately pulls you into a journey through the Garden. This opening quickly leads into a guitar riff that is so damn catchy, you will have it running through head for hours after.
I found it surprising that Steve Gresswell, the man behind this project, and keyboard player, allows a lot of the melodies to be played on guitar, many of which could have easily been played on the keys. Credit goes to Steve for allowing his chosen guitarist to shine, and for Carl to take centre stage as well as he does.
Looking at Carl's history, you could be excused for expecting his playing to be full-on hard rock/metal. However, it is actually very tuneful throughout. Where he plays solos, they are mostly very tuneful, and reflect what Steve must have been aiming for. Carl's playing for most of the time is far from the typical Steve Vai clones, that seem to have dominated instrumental rock music over the recent years.
The production on first listen appeared to be very under-produced. After repeated listening this may be due to me having become accustomed to over-produced studio albums, which is now expected. With closer listening to the guitar tracks, you can almost hear the plectrum hitting the strings. This actually makes the listening extremely enjoyable, as all instruments are easily discernible.
The tracks on the album have an occasional neo-progressive sound. Fire Of Life has bombastic sections reminiscent of The Sentinel-era Pallas, and Lost Land has passages which could almost be sections IQ forgot to include on some of their releases.
That said, none of the tracks ever lose the classic rock vibe. The driving bass lines in Call Of The Spirit and Wind From The Reeds will guarantee to have you at least tapping you feet, and the guitar solos will have you reaching for your air guitar, and sliding on your knees across the kitchen floor.
Texture throughout the album is provided by occasional voices, which are sometimes female. These add a particular ethereal touch, or sometimes chanting reminiscent of Arabic music. At the beginning of Lost Land, a male choir provides an unexpected introduction, before the church organ leads us into the song itself, giving it a monastic feel.
Standout cuts for me are the title track and Lost Land. The surprise in the latter track is the previously mentioned hook in the opener, which makes an unexpected return. So if you think you are going to get it out of your head, think again!
If I have a criticism, it is that on occasion the changes of tempo during the passages of music sometimes feels forced, and out of character with the song. However, this is only a very minor issue, in what is overall an excellent release.
Will I listen to it again? Too right I will! For me this is ideal music for those reflective times in life, or for driving. Should you choose to listen to this in the car, you may find yourself stared at by other drivers while nodding your head with a silly grin on your face. This is all due to the joyful and uplifting nature of The Majestic Garden coming across the speakers. All in all, I am very grateful for the opportunity to have travelled through The Majestic Garden, and look forward to many more visits.
This album has left me wanting to explore The Inner Road's previous releases. I am sure I read when searching the net, they may be playing some gigs later in the year, and this might be worth a trek to see Steve and his band in a live environment.
So, if you want to experience some classic instrumental rock with hints of neo-prog, that will leave you with a rare happy feeling, then The Inner Road are well worth your time.
Metaphor - The Pearl
The Pearl is the fourth release by Metaphor, after a hiatus of 12 years to their previous effort The Sparrow. Taking so long hasn't affected their line-up which consists of Jim Anderson on bass, Greg Miller supplying drums, Marc Spooner administering keyboards, Malcolm Smith playing guitars and John Mabry applying his vocal skills. It also hasn't affected their musical playground, which is still firmly based on progressive rock, with a veil of Genesis surrounding it.
Now let me go out on a limb here by stating Genesis were never a big part of my musical journeys. Once I embraced IQ, Pallas, and Twelfth Night (among many others) in the early eighties, I obviously quickly checked them out. And although these bands contain many Genesis influences, Hackett and company simply didn't touch me in the way many of the UK neo-progressive rock bands in the 80s did.
This hasn't changed much over the years, but every once in a while it so happens that I encounter an album heavily influenced by Genesis progressiveness, but that inserts different elements and contexts, making me actually like it more than it's influencer. Metaphor have managed to do exactly that with this conceptual album, telling the tale of a young man in quest of retrieving a pearl from a dragon. Why they didn't include the lyrics and only forward us to their website is beyond me. It weakens the conceptual impact.
With expectancy in neutral gear and CD in the stereo, it took some time to fathom Metaphor's eclectic music, but along the way, this rough cast diamond slowly lost its edges to reveal a semi-smooth, conical, multi-layered sphere, in compliance with its title. Filled with diverse shards of 70s proggy deliciousness, coming not only from the UK (which they are "accused" of in earlier reviews), but also from their mainland and Canada.
The overall feel is towards Genesis during their Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering period. No surprise when realising that they started out as a Genesis tribute band 20 years ago. The arrangements, the relatively long and complex songs, and the use of instrumentation, give it a distinct 70s prog feel, which is enhanced by odd time signatures, sudden rhythmic changes and melancholic segments. The vintage production emphasises this further, highlighting every instrument, which in the case of the drum cymbals occasionally sounds clinical and oddly out of place, in sounding too modern.
With the bass playing a prominent role, like it does in the music of Yes, the quirky, playful-yet-strange time signatures remind me occasionally of Gentle Giant. The feeling of Crack The Sky on tracks like Bruises And Blisters and Remembering actually feels more accurate. Here the vocals by Mabry resemble those of John Palumbo from aforementioned Crack The Sky, always manoeuvring within the boundaries of the music; never out of tune but not exceptional either.
Some passages might have fallen straight out of the textbook written by Hackett and Banks such as on The Open Road containing melancholic guitar, interactive piano and supportive keys, reminiscent of Nightwinds. Several tracks have wondrous Yes and jazzy Max Webster influences (The Mist Of Forgetting) or driven IQ parts (The Love Letter and Romancing The Wurm). The virtuous and gracious use of keyboards, on multiple display throughout, is unmatched on Robed In Glory, where halfway down they turn into a symphony of superb neo-progressive Quasar alikeness.
The Eagle, The Voice, The Light captures Metaphor's sense of lovely, intricate, flowing melodies with refined acoustical guitar in a nutshell. With keys resembling a flute, this is a joyous, uplifting mini-suite.
What pulls this album out of the common prog box is Lying Down With Dogs. Opening heavy on keyboards, it soars straight into seventies pomp-rock with lots of reverberating synths and rocking guitars. It immediately fixes my thoughts on Astral Projector by Zon. With a progressive middle section of luscious guitar and complex alternating time frames, a fabulous track glides by. If only there where more of these.
I have to admit I quite like their progressive approach and if they continue to incorporate more American and Canadian superbness into their music, they can certainly count me in. I'll gladly place this next to contemporaries like Iluvatar and other eclectic obscurities from the past (Babylon). Having listened to this album for some time now, I do feel the urge to listen to the original Genesis after so many years. It can be strange this way we walk in prog.
Monograf - Nadir
Monograf are a band that have twisted the post-rock formula into something different, by the inclusion of progressive folk and rock elements, as well as proper lyrics and good voices to sing them. Hailing from Oslo, they channel Norwegian folk-like melodies and drones into their sound, using folk instruments such as the nyckelharpa and fiddles.
Monograf produce music that doesn’t go as far down the dark folk path as fellow Norwegians Wardruna. Even with the album being called Nadir (the bottom of someone’s fortunes,) you still discover light and hope there. Monograf are wandering the forest in search of a way to brighter glades, rather than the dark woods of their compatriots.
Over the course of five tracks, Monograf blend ambient sounds, drones, folk and heavier guitar/bass/drum sections. The album does divide between two folk-prog ballads in the shape of the title track and Intermission. Both make use of warm acoustic drones and other acoustic instrumentation in their gentle, folk-like melodies that feel both ancient and modern.
The other three tracks mix ambient and folk with heavier electric guitars, bass and drums. On my first listen to Grails, I expected the slow-build, post-rock template to be followed, but Monograf disrupt that expectation with organic strings off-setting the electric instruments. Add in Anekdoten-like Mellotron, organ, and vocals and it builds to an emotional release of which Anathema would be proud. They ramp-up the power on the terrific Golden Calf but still leave room for the violin to take centre stage.
The closing track, Horde, gives us a multi-part epic. It moves from the ambient drones of the opening, through a vocal section where the guitar and violin soar effortlessly. There is even an a capella section of delicious harmonies, underpinned by vicious bass chords. It repays repeat listens, as does the rest of the album.
Monograf’s Nadir is a release that isn’t afraid to wander around the paths in the forest to find melodies and sounds that have an emotional pay-off. A pay-off that is often missing from the more cerebral post-rock styles. I look forward to hearing more from these guys.