Reviews in this issue:
Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso - Transiberiana
To ignore the Anglocentric nature of symphonic and progressive rock is as misguided as to deny the importance and influence of their Italian counterparts, the best of which measures up to anything the so-called “Big Five” UK bands ever produced. So, for every Close To The Edge there's a Darwin!. Unfortunately though, there's also a Buone Notizie for every Invisible Touch. It goes without saying that most of the 70s classic bands went through a creative rough patch in the following decade, and that's no more true than for Italian titans such as PFM, Le Orme or the band we're dealing with here, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. Their 80's releases veered from beauty and complexity to fall prey of pop blandness and even a "dangerous" penchant for Italo disco (a fun genre in its own right) stylings.
It's also true that, after a period of dormancy (if not disbandment), most of these illustrious legends came back around the turn of the millennium with renewed energy and the will to rekindle past glories. Now, it was virtually impossible to make a new Per Un Amico for the 21st century, but it was just as feasible to produce better music than anything from the 80s period. The result was (still is) a bunch of decent-to-enjoyable releases and there's PFM's Emotional Tattoos, released by Inside Out Music, to prove it.
Enter Transiberiana (also under the German label's umbrella), Banco's first release since Il 13 in 1994 (eat your heart out Peter Gabriel), and the first one without charismatic vocalist Francesco Di Giacomo, who sadly passed away in 2014. Before dying, Di Giacomo gave his blessing to Tony D'Alessio, who had the unenviable task of replacing a legendary (at least in Italy) singer. Did he succeed? Well, let's say his voice is an acquired taste to say the least, and I still haven't warmed to it, but you never know. After all, Nad Sylvan has his fans so who can say.
Led by the keyboards of veteran founder member Vittorio Nocenzi, the music presents an interesting balance between the acoustic and the electronic in an attempt to bridge the band's classic sound with more contemporary sensibilities. The album mostly succeeds in doing this, but I believe it is detrimental to the songwriting, which is not particularly memorable and ends up being a bit samey even if it tries to avoid traditional song structures.
This is not to say there aren't any highlights; among these, the majestic serenity of Il Grande Bianco is probably the best, but there are other good pieces to be found here. Stelle Sulla Terra and Eterna Transiberiana share the same melodic figures to weave a nice modern prog binomial, while Campi Di Fragole and the piano led sonic trinket which is Lasciando Alle Spalle represent the more intimate, acoustic side of the band. Also, as a nice bonus for the prog wistful, included are live renditions of two Banco classics, debut album gem Metamorfosi and Il Ragno from Come In Un'Ultima Cena, both performed with authority.
This Transiberian metaphor for life is, I guess, as good an album as it could have been, meaning not great but worthy of the Banco canon, and a pretty entertaining listening experience in its own right. That's something Yes can't say of their latest releases.
Huis - Abandoned
There's a few sayings in the Netherlands emphasising the importance and strength of the word Huis (‘house’ in English). The one I'd like to start with here is when in music something is expertly done from start to finish and is basically an all-round solid execution. We then say "Het staat als een Huis" which could be translated to "a rock solid" performance (in light of the strong foundation of bricks used in houses).
Huis to me stands for ‘Home’, a familiar and comforting environment, giving you rest, strength and comfort. A place to return to, abandon hectic life sometimes forced upon us, to get a minds rest and to contemplate and embrace feelings. A beckoning retreat filled with emotions, fondness and memories. A place where we grew up in, took our first steps and learned important lessons of life, shared inner thoughts and closely bonded and interacted with family and friends. A safe environment, ultimately relaxing and soothing, where you can always rely on coming to terms with day to day life and finding peace and harmony.
A melancholic birthplace, a comfort zone where we remember loved ones, remember presumed long lost forgotten memories and enjoy the engaging company of loved ones, close relatives and in my case most certainly music. Huis (the band) have somehow excelled in incorporating all of the above factors on their third album Abandoned. Whilst listening to the album some of these forgotten, cherished and mournful memories flooded back, evoked by touching, contemplative lyrics and exciting, dynamically fresh, yet familiar sounding compositions.
A conceptual album, it deals with topics like loss, abandonment and alienation, involving matters like mourning and separation. Many of these subjects happen in life and are lost over time (parents, friends, childhood, one's heritage, favourite places to name a few in my case). Heartfelt nostalgic memories will always remain though, to give you hope. Or to reconnect and support a new way of life, a new beginning or effectively bounce you back on your feet. The profound lyrics on Abandoned address these uplifting issues as well.
On to the music where during the first hesitant sounds of Abandoned, Huis paint picturesque patterns of a landscape lonely and deserted much like its artwork, filled with the sounds of Dutch neo-progressive band Marathon. Lovely touches of guitar from Michel St. Père (Mystery) follow, reminiscent of Alex Lifeson's work on Rush’s Grace Under Pressure and Test For Echo. Sylvian Descôteaux's vocals immediately carry the song onward with his calling card of strong, clear and emotive singing and his distinctive tone of voice deeply colouring the music. Gradually, solid foundations are built where the harmonizing guest vocals of Gabby Vessoni (Fleesh) broaden the sound. Towards the end, the somewhat melancholic flow alters into a stream of superb symphonies with keyboards soaring high in the end section with some gracious and captivating solos. Especially noteworthy is the superlative last one, giving goosebumps at every turn.
With four members handling keyboards and drummer, percussionist William Régnier responsible for programming, one would expect keys to be the dominant musical instrument. This album however is more balanced than their previous records and manages to glide closer to the style of Mystery. Much of this can be attributed to the more prominent role of St. Père, laying down some momentous solos, refined hooks, strong melodies and melancholic movements.
We Are Not Alone for instance could have just as easily featured on either one of the last two Mystery albums. Delicate piano by guest Serge Locat (ex-Harmonium) and soft flute passages by Jean Pageau (Mystery) combine with dynamic, rhythmic drums and bass arrangements, accentuated by caressing guitar and keyboards. It slows down with touches of Journey style AOR, gradually picking up to reveal a gorgeous and seductive, yet gentle melancholic solo, followed by expressive, moving vocals.
The epic Caducée, written by Michel Joncas (bass, bass pedals), has the same warming, comforting feel and chemistry as Mystery's Lies And Butterflies album. Surrounded by divine Lifeson-like guitars, uplifting keys and beautiful arrangements, it suddenly feels like I'm running a marathon longer than the one mentioned in the title track Abandoned, through the open air, past the chemical plant, and into the woods.
The forceful bass and heavenly church-like atmosphere that opens Oude Kerk III (Oude Kerk I and II featured on the Despite Guardian Angels album) instantly recalls neo-progressive rock, such as early eighties IQ. Having seen IQ at Paradiso, Amsterdam (an old converted church now turned concert hall) in 1986, fond childhood memories instantly come flooding back. Guest vocals by Éloïse Jonacs add serenity, caressed by superb synths and delicious Marillion-esque touches on keys. Driven forward by a dynamic, rhythmic section similar to Knight Area, it ends with soaring guitars.
The instrumental Solilude is a refined interlude, thoughtfully positioned between the complex, epic neo-progressive tracks. It has a deceptive simplicity and a touching melody, rather like the instrumental track Section 60 by Kansas. Chasing Morning Glory glides gracefully on emotional vocals and light neo-prog with a bridge containing melancholic guitars adding depth. The middle section engages with some nice guitar touches, but ultimately the track could have been more concise and falls a little short. The same can’t be said of Haunting Days, another instrumental that sees the band successfully try their hand at glorious, keyboard driven prog filled with hard rock, organ, riffs and complex rhythms embracing elements of Saga.
They excel at this style earlier in the album with the magnificent The Giant Awakens, a fast paced feast for any fan of keyboard driven hard rock and Le Roux styled AOR. Within seconds, I was transported back to my favourite, now drastically changed, pub 't Hoekje in Bussum, listening to Survivor's Too Hot To Sleep or Uriah Heep's Raging Silence. Passionate soaring vocals, sublime harmonies, spine chilling solos, strong melodies and invigorating up-tempo rock. Time to order a new round to keep it going.
The same can be said for Stolen, opening with rhythmic drums, keys and lead guitars, erupting into heavy synths and keyboards played by Johnny Maz. Tantalising Rush style riffs and complex drums and bass reminiscent of Clockwork Angels, move into Saga and IQ territory and the more modern neo-progressive, symphonic sound of Arena, with enchanting flute, intricate harmonies and melancholic melodies in a Mystery vein.
In conclusion, Huis have taken the next logical step and created their best effort to date. A very cohesive, solid collection of inventive, playful songs filled with beautiful arrangements and strong, emotive melodies. A brilliant showcase of melancholic and nostalgic neo-prog music, captured with a pristine, modern production.
It’s an album that sounds admirably more retrospective than innovative that I’ll happily revisit on a regular basis as it opened up many inner doors retrieving memories I thought lost. A feeling that simply can't be beaten so therefore it gets my vote as a definite contender for my top 10 list of 2019. A sure recommendation that’s worth checking out.
Ikarus - Mosaismic
When vocals feature as an instrument in their own right, the effect can be beguiling and even bewitching. In the case of Ikarus' unique synthesis of improvised, wordless vocals and ever-shifting complex polyrhythms, the effect can also be slightly surreal and occasionally somewhat disturbing.
Consequently, Ikarus must be one of the most easily identifiable bands around. They sit in pole position at the top of a roster of artists such as Trondheim Voices and Signe, who also use improvisation and wordless vocals (albeit in a very different stylistic context) in an innovative and inventive manner. Their latest album Mosaismic is absolutely mesmerising and the voice of Anna Hirsch in conjunction with the expressive tones of Andreas Lareida is very captivating.
Ikarus reside in Switzerland and apart from the two vocalists the band consists of Ramón Oliveras (composition, drums), Lucca Fries (piano) and Mo Meyer (upright bass). Mosaismic is the band's third album.
The way in which the band develop the tunes that will eventually appear on their albums is interesting. When they are created, they are composed and quite rigidly arranged with a carefully written structure. Over a long period of live performances, the tunes are improvised, developed and any flamboyant excesses cut, before eventually finding their way into the recording studio. This process results in a minimalist style and approach that comes across as being highly polished but also freshly performed with an air of spontaneity.
The album is a masterclass in how to create exciting yet calmly meditative, post minimalist music. It has a stripped down feel where each note and each part of its complex, ever evolving multi-rhythmic core has a position in the arrangement to achieve maximum effect. The tunes constantly rebuild the musical space they occupy and whilst doing so, demonstrate a flexible feeling of elasticity where no one rhythm or sound is tethered to one space for too long. It is the sort of album that you can close your eyes to and journey with it to the very limits of your imagination.
Repetition and the recurrence of ever evolving themes have an important part to play in Ikarus’ music and in the music of other exponents of Swiss minimalism or Zen funk such as Nik Bärtsch. Ikarus’ music is characterised by the emotional pull of warm voices placed within a spacious rhythmic tapestry and persuasive piano parts, where superfluous elements are discarded, so that the methodically complex, yet structured, beating heart of the music has centre stage. Consequently, each piece on Mosaismic comes across as a sort of organic living, breathing entity.
Bärtsch’s Ronin Rhythm Records release and distribute Mosaismic. The sound quality of the album allows the music to breathe. Its super pristine production values ensure that every nuance or slight change in direction sounds natural. The full range, tones and colours of the engaging voices and other acoustic instruments is present across a clear and fluid dynamic spectrum, where subtlety and gentle shifts of volume have an integral part to play.
Some of the above might be slightly interesting to a selection of readers, but I guess that it’s time to cut to the chase. What are the tunes like?
In short, they are very distinctive and very engaging. Even though the emphasis is largely on rhythm, and contrasts of sound rather than melody, they are very memorable. Some are punctuated by stop-start sections and have spacious interludes woven into them. Others like Iridium have an almost ecclesiastical air that conjures images of wizened, grey-slated, tonsured men in white coated habits. As the music envelops them, they deftly side step the misty wisps of pungent incense that shuffle around and land upon their ink black shoes.
Some tunes like Cirrus, which concludes the album, possess a fragile beauty that delicately soothes jagged senses and provides a contemplative balm for the spirit. Other tunes like the magnificent Saiko are simply fascinating and defy any attempt to offer a meaningful description. Listening to it is rather like observing rural seashores on each day of the year. Just like the drift patterns of the sand and the changing tempo of the sea, Saiko reveals something new on each occasion. The most upbeat tune is undoubtedly Mondrian; it bounces along with great enthusiasm offering some wonderful scat vocals and a delightful bass interlude.
Mosaismic is excellent in every way. It offers a refreshing contrast to many other forms of music. It is progressive in every respect and although its unique style may not suit all, its delightful and innovative use of the human voice provides the album with a unique charm that makes much of it an irresistible and unforgettable experience.
Lucy In Blue - In Flight
There is no doubt as to who one of the major influences is for Lucy In Blue and that is Pink Floyd. However, instead of the usual mid-period classic progressive rock era, the Icelandic band favour the more psychedelic post-Syd Barrett earlier period where the sadly missed Rick Wright was a major, if not the key purveyor of the Floyd sound. In Flight is the band's second album following on from the self-titled 2016 debut release with the quartet consisting of Steinþór Bjarni Gíslason (guitar, vocals), Arnaldur Ingi Jónsson (keyboards, vocals), Kolbeinn Þórsson (drums) and Matthías Hlífar Mogensen (bass, vocals).
Alight, Part 1 sets the mood and right from the first chord the image of Floyd comes to mind. The band are not copyists though, part 2 of Alight shows the true nature of the group's own sound. Throughout the album there is the allusion to the late 1960s/early 1970s psychedelic prog era. Not wild freak-outs but a more languid approach focused on creating soundscapes largely via majestic sweeps of synthesizer with interjections of Hammond organ and tastefully played guitar lines. Respire is the epitome of this approach with a fluid, mellow bass line underpinning the keyboards leaving lots of space for Gíslason to make his mark. The switch to a piano section is a nice touch with the echoing and expansion of the piano melody taken up by guitar which guides the song to its conclusion.
A steaming, growling Hammond introduces Matricide, an interesting composition with its off-beat snare drum providing clever syncopation and an incisive guitar solo. One gets the feeling that this piece could easily have been extended and the abrupt end is somewhat of a surprise although a nice one as it demonstrates the band have the confidence to go their own way and not take the 'easy' route of extending a grove.
Nùverandi is, for me, one of the highlights of the album, a brilliant instrumental that encapsulates the period focus of the favoured era perfectly, starting with acoustic guitar and some floor toms à la Nick Mason. The switch to a more electric sound is very subtle with the introduction of first the bass and then the keyboards being perfectly judged. The keyboards borrow some old tricks that reflect the more psychedelic aspects.
A change to a faster tempo reflects the nature of Tempest although the calming layered vocal intonations quell the storm for a while before the opening fusillade is repeated with a vengeance leading to a crescendo and another abrupt ending. Title track In Flight is most reminiscent of the early Floydian sound and in a couple of places could even be a reincarnation of that great band. The flow of the piece is somewhat compromised by the switching between different sections not always being as smooth as it could be but on the whole, it’s a fine composition. The album concludes with On Ground which has a lovely, building introduction leading to the vocal section before calmly fading out.
This is a fine album by a young band that despite referencing a key time in the development of prog does so with a fair amount of elan while maintaining their own identity. Some lovely soundscapes and a generally mellow mood makes this a great, relaxing album that is well worth hearing.
proAge - MPD
Hands up who likes a damn good concept album? If you have not put your hand up, then I advise you to skip this review, because proAge have delivered one here.
Poland has produced many great progressive rock bands, and with this release, we can add proAge to an ever expanding list. The band have just last year celebrated their tenth anniversary but MPD is only their second full length album.
The first thing that strikes you is the disturbing cover image. This being a reflection of a face in a fractured hand mirror. This is a part of the album concept, MPD stands for Multiple Personality Disorder, and the listener is taken on a journey discovering a man's 24 different personalities. With the album's concept I was expecting a difficult listen, but was grateful to discover proAge's sound anchored to the neo prog stable with tips of the hat to the classic rock sound.
The album has been released in two versions, one sung in their native Polish, and the version I have been sent to review, which has been translated and sung in English. The only slight downside is that due to English not being singer Mariusz Filosek's first language, he does sing with a heavy accent which at times makes it difficult to hear what is being sung. But due to Mariusz's theatrical delivery, this does not cause too many problems. His vocals are reminiscent at times of Geoff Mann, and this makes the band at times sound like early period Twelfth Night.
The album took a number of listens before I slowly began to fully appreciate what a stunning work of art I had in my CD player. This should rank somewhere near the greats of concept albums, up there with Pink Floyd (enter your choice of album), Dream Theater's Scenes From A Memory, Operation Mindcrime by Queensrÿche, and Misplaced Childhood. I've suddenly realised there are so many amazing concept albums, and MPD deserves to be added to this extensive list.
The album begins with Homecoming which transitions through so many phases, to describe it would take far too long and I would have difficulty finding enough words without repeating myself. You get mellow keyboards, heavy metal guitar riffs, melody delivered with dynamics that left me breathless, and this was just the first eight minutes.
Next is Stolen Time which is one of several short musical bridges which help to maintain the fluidity of the album. They are all totally different, varying from mellow acoustic guitar to an exceptionally accomplished classical piano piece.
The album title track MPD gives the band's rhythm section an opportunity to shine. Bass player Roman Siminiski is a classic progressive bass player in the tradition of John Jowitt and Pete Trewavas. His playing is always clear in the mix of the album and drummer Arek Grybek displays his obvious talents throughout.
Is It My Mind takes you through a number of changes from a funky bass driven beginning with guitar producing soundscapes and keyboards producing dynamic fills, before slowing tempo and Stawomir Jelonek delivering the best guitar solo I have heard for some time. It’s tuneful and emotional in a way only the greats such as Steve Rothery or David Gilmour can deliver.
Entrapment, the epic of the album at ten minutes plus, is where the band really let rip in a way only Deep Purple manage. The intro is reminiscent of Purple's Perfect Strangers, Hammond organ played in a way John Lord was legendary for with a classic rock guitar riff pulling you in. This is the track where keyboard player Krystof Walczyk shines. His Hammond playing is exceptional and demonstrates an understanding of the instrument I have not heard in a long time. He delivers an instrumental section that could have been written by Paganini.
Profane is where singer Mariusz begins his full theatrical delivery, sadly missed in the prog world with only Peter Nicholls and Paul Manzi still embracing the character presentation at present. With this, the band deliver a suitably manic backdrop. From here we go to Concrete Spring, which is a doom laden track full of Black Sabbath style riffs with a more theatrical presentation from Mariusz before a King Crimson like instrumental closing section.
My Name's Twilight closes the album in a suitably laid back way to enable the listener to come down after the trip proAge has taken you on. Laid back does not mean any lack of musical quality; for a slow track, the playing of all members is breathtaking. If you listen to the track you are drawn in by so much playing, it’s stunning and provides a fitting close to an absolutely amazing album.
For anyone who likes neo prog at its highest, this album is a must. I can't recommend this highly enough. But be prepared to devote a large amount of time giving the album multiple listens to fully appreciate what proAge have delivered.
Nad Sylvan - The Regal Bastard
The Regal Bastard is the third album in Nad Sylvan's vampire trilogy that began in 2015 with Courting The Widow. Best known as Steve Hackett's live vocalist, Sylvan has built up a respectable solo discography. Joining him on this release are guests such as Guthrie Govan, Nick D'Virgilio, Jonas Reingold and Tony Levin. With that caliber of support, it comes as no surprise that this album is filled with magnificent performances.
Although there is a modern edge to Sylvan’s music, his allegiance to the melodic and sweeping origins of progressive rock is always evident. I Am The Sea, Oahu and the excellent title track display a varied and epic musical grandeur.
The sea shanty style of Oahu initially plays a bit too much like a novelty song, but it is redeemed by an entertaining second half. The dramatic nature of each song is accentuated further by effective lyrical storytelling.
Other, more accessible moments are equally compelling. In particular Whoa (Always Been Without You) and Meet Your Maker, both of which reminded me of some of the great 90s recordings by Fish.
Also of note is the ballad Leave Me On These Waters which perfectly segues into the memorable instrumental Honey I’m Home. These last two songs include some typically wonderful guitar performances by Govan and Steve Hackett.
This is another impressive release from Nad Sylvan. There is a consistent flow and high level of quality to the material that establishes it as the best of the trilogy. The Regal Bastard confirms that his confidence as a solo artist has been fully established.