Reviews in this issue:
Tony Banks - Banks Vaults: The Albums 1979 – 1995 [Box Set]
The enormous success accomplished by the members of Genesis, outside of the band, is nothing short of miraculous. Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford have all enjoyed hugely successful solo careers while the dedicated fan-bases of Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips have followed them through many years. The one astonishing exception is keyboardist Tony Banks. From 1979 to 1995, he released seven solo albums, none of which made much of a dent in the music charts. This fact is not lost on Tony himself, who mentions his lack of solo success multiple times in the publicity for Banks Vaults. This newly released box set gives his discography a well deserved opportunity for re-evaluation.
In retrospect, the lack of attention paid to Banks' solo work isn't completely shocking. At the height of Genesis' commercial success, many of Tony's compositions still maintained his penchant for multiple chords and musical complexity. This applies to his solo material as well and often his attempts at "pop" songs included his ornate and quirky songwriting style. Also, Banks attempts at a solo hit generally avoided the more cloying characteristics of some Genesis singles at the time. That perhaps alienated many of the band's more commercial-minded fans, but what is surprising is that more of the prog based audience didn't show interest.
The prog fan-base seemed to enjoy Banks' debut, A Curious Feeling and it remains his most recognised solo recording in progressive rock circles. As exceptional as that album is, the later releases that are housed in this collection contain moments that are equally as proggy and certainly as worthwhile. Songs such as Man of Spells, Charm, Thursday the Twelfth, Still It Take Me By Surprise, Another Murder Of The Day and the majestic, seventeen-minute An Island In The Darkness, can stand proudly next to Banks best work with Genesis. Though the prog quotient is strong throughout these albums, it is also clear that Tony was vying for commercial success. Overall, there is a focus on accessibility and these releases are more comparable to later Genesis material than to their 70s output. That said, the influence that Banks had on their earlier sound is abundantly on display in the Banks Vaults.
Though there is an 80s and early 90s production sheen to some of the recordings, they have held up quite well. The new remixing or remastering of each certainly helps in that category. As with any retrospective of this type, certain albums and songs stand out, but I can find little to criticise. From the choice of singers and guest musicians to the final results, it is obvious that Tony was dedicated to creating work of substantial quality. Though his band mates may have garnered more attention, the best of Banks solo albums often exceed what his peers were releasing at the time.
Tony has recently found success in orchestral recordings. That direction was influenced by his soundtrack to the 1983 film, The Wicked Lady, which is also included in this set. Banks enjoyed hearing his compositions performed by an orchestra, but the most entertaining aspect of this album is the half in which he performs solo keyboard versions of the movie's themes. In this area of performance, Tony displays a style that is unmistakingly his own. It would be fantastic if like Rick Wakeman, he recorded a new solo keyboard/piano album.
Each of the solo releases contained within Banks Vaults is well worth owning and the best of them, (Still, Strictly Inc and A Curious Feeling) are a must for fans of Genesis. For those unfamiliar with Banks' solo rock recordings, this is an excellent opportunity to own them all. For the already initiated, this collection provides the chance to hear improved remixed/remastered versions. Judged as a whole, this is an essential collection of underappreciated recordings from one of the absolute greats of the progressive rock scene.
Hasse Froberg & Musical Companion - Parallel Life
In his work with the Flower Kings, Hasse Froberg often brings an old school classic rock element to their sound. Though this, his new side project recording is certainly prog heavy, it also pushes the more straightforward 70s rock quotient even further. This is by no means a bad thing. The album captures an essential vibe of that era and includes some really tasty guitar riffs and catchy choruses.
The almost 22:00 minute album opening title track would fit very securely on a Flower Kings release. It displays a similar style to that of Froberg's other band, but with more of a hard rock kick. Beginning an album with an epic can be a risk, but it's a good move here because the track is strong. Though it follows a traditional long form structure, the song is nonetheless impressive. Filled with diverse musical themes and with instrumental moments that are particularly spectacular, it is an excellent centrepiece to the album. Like most successful epics, it works as an overall piece of music rather than playing like a collection of patched together songs.
Inevitably, the album becomes more accessible in its second half, but it still presents an effective mix of prog and old school hard rock. Sleeping With The Ghost, immediately sets this tone in motion with its driving rock guitar licks and proggy keyboard work. Other highlights include the Deep Purple-ish Friday, the upbeat All Those Faces, and the Yes-influenced, Time Waits. Also of note is the touching Rain, which is about the passing of Hasse's father.
Parallel Life is the fourth Hasse Froberg & Musical Companion recording and the best that I've heard from the band. It is filled with infectious songwriting and great performances, with special mention in this category going to the excellent guitar work throughout by Froberg and Anton Lindsjo. Ultimately, this is an extremely enjoyable prog/hard rock album and one in which earns a definitive recommendation.
Hemina - Night Echoes
Australia's progressive metal scene has been thriving for many years now, with bands like Voyager, Chaos Divine and Caligula's Horse putting out consistently great albums over the last few years and gradually gaining worldwide recognition in the process. With their fourth album, Sydney's Hemina absolutely deserve to jump straight to the forefront.
Although I've been familiar with the name and followed their Facebook page for some years, Hemina were just one of those bands I'd never really given much time to. The first thing that jumped out at me a few months before the album was even released was the incredibly eye-catching and futuristic artwork, which prompted me to give their back catalogue a much more thorough listen. On listening to Hemina's previous album, Venus, I was met with one of those "How on earth did I miss this?" moments. It's a monumental, 83-minute masterpiece of progressive metal, a multi-layered roller-coaster full of hard hitting riffs, complex vocal melodies and huge synths, and for such a long album it really keeps your attention.
On browsing the track-listing for Hemina's latest album, Night Echoes, I was surprised to see a collection of much shorter songs this time around, which is sometimes a red flag in the prog world. When a band goes from long, complex compositions to an album of short, simply structured songs, they can often lose the very part of their sound that made them special in the first place. Fortunately, Hemina have produced an album of such well crafted, memorable and superbly written songs, that on my first listen of Night Echoes, every doubt in my mind instantly went away. The band have taken the best parts of their sound over their previous three albums and condensed it into a more approachable package, without losing the parts that ultimately define them as Hemina.
Opening with The Only Way, all of Hemina's hallmarks are here, huge leads, down-tuned riffs, lush keyboards and a pounding rhythm section. The song soon moves into an infectious chorus where the vocals of Douglas Skene and Mitch Coull, who also both handle guitar duties, are blissfully accompanied by bassist Jessica Martin. This melodic, three-way vocal attack is something that runs throughout the duration of the album and, like previous efforts, is the main draw of Hemina's sound for me. It's this vocal approach that sets them apart from other similar bands and gives them their own unique and recognisable sound. This sound continues through the first three songs, What's The Catch has another great chorus, which towards the end of the song is accompanied by some absolutely breathtaking backing vocals from Jessica, mixed cleverly enough that they almost sound like keyboards. We Will follows up with a beautiful opening, another killer chorus, slightly subtle gang vocals and some more great melodies from all three vocalists.
Track four, One Short, is where the album starts to change, and the band try some new things. Sounding like Steve Vai, Neal Morse and Devin Townsend got together to write a musical, this song is simply fabulous. It absolutely blasts through its four-minute run time and leaves you wanting much more. Flat is a slower number, the vocals at the start remind me of Frost's Jem Godfrey in their quiet delivery. The song opens up into a heavier section with a beautiful guitar solo and then moves into a wonderful layered vocal section before coming to a slower end. Everything Unsaid is the albums shortest track and serves as a passage into the last three songs, also stringing some of the story together.
So far this album was really getting under my skin. Its unwillingness to follow the same long song structures as its predecessor was something I was initially sceptical of, but the band manage to keep the listener hooked with the amount of variety, and they're not done yet. The final three songs on this record are not only the best songs on the album, but will hopefully serve as an indication of where the band want to take their sound in the future.
Nostalgia is where the album starts to become something really special. It opens with an incredibly catchy riff and slow vocals, building to some of the albums best vocal melodies and one of the most unusual choruses I've heard in a while. It's a very strange sounding song, but it somehow fits perfectly, throwing the listener off at times as any good progressive album should, while remaining both musically and lyrically approachable. When bands throw a curve-ball like this into an already great record and get it just right, well, it's just so satisfying, one of those goosebumps moments that as I get older, I find myself experiencing less and less.
In Technicolour is the albums longest track at just over nine minutes. This one took a little while to grow on me but once it gets under your skin it is a truly infectious progressive metal epic in every sense. The opening keys almost sound like the beginning of a lullaby, the song then explodes into a huge riff, surrounded by a waterfall of synth and strings before erupting into another huge guitar solo. This song is the most reminiscent of Hemina's previous album and has probably become my overall favourite on the record. The vocal melodies are at their very best here, the song ebbs and flows wonderfully and builds to a superb climax before ending with an acoustic outro.
The album closes with Flicker, which is also the heaviest track here. This is more straight up prog metal, it brings to mind bands such as Redemption or Evergrey. This song contains one of the few passages where we get to hear Jessica Martin's vocals by themselves. It's quite apparent that she is one very talented singer with a huge range and my only slight gripe with this whole album is that there are not more occasions where she is allowed to take the lead with the vocals, rather than just the backing vocals. This is still a great closing track and a suitable conclusion to the album musically.
With Night Echoes, Hemina have managed to blossom from a good progressive metal band into a group of mature musicians who truly seem to have a vision and a clear idea of how they want their sound to evolve. This is a wonderful album that has the potential to reach a much larger audience than just the progressive metal crowd. It sounds musically uplifting, despite the overarching concept being one of a boy losing his father and struggling to find meaning in life. It's certainly one of the highlights of the year for me and I'm sure this will find a place in my top ten, possibly top five albums by the end the year.
Hitherside - Blue Lotus
It may be a stretch to call Antwerp-based metal duo Hitherside progressive, but fans of progressive metal often appreciate the more approachable side of metal. American vocalist Jennifer Summer and Belgian multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Sam Oerlemans started this band in 2011, and they have released two albums to date. Although they have a few more members for touring, the official band is just Jennifer and Sam. Dirk Verbeuren from Megadeth guest drummed on Get It Back as well.
Hitherside have a pretty heavy crunch to their riffs, and even though the songs are short, they each build and develop. Summer's voice is exceptional. It is smooth and melodic. The female-fronted nature of the band will appeal to fans of that, but this is female-fronted more in the vein of Evanescence, Halestorm, or Flyleaf than it is Nightwish. Honeydripper particularly reminded me of early Flyleaf, a band that really can't be called progressive. Knock 'em On Back reminded me very much of a Halestorm song.
The guitar work keeps the music itself sounding fresh. Instead of being just riffs and vocals, there are spots in these shorts songs for guitar solos and more delicate guitar licks. That helps keep things interesting, and it separates them from the more popular female-fronted metal bands typically heard on American rock radio stations. Musically, there is very little to complain about. Dirk Virbeuren's drums on Get It Back really launch the song into a more progressive zone. There is a lot more intricacy to his drumming, even though he plays with such a heavy style. Overall, Hitherside play relatively simple hard rock/heavy metal and they do it well.
Hitherside's lyrics aren't up to the same standards as a more traditional progressive metal band, but I'd say they are better than some of the trashy lyrics from bands like Halestorm. Some of the lyrics sound a little risqué, such as on Unsanctify Me, but considering some of the lyrics produced by female-fronted popular metal bands, it is all pretty tame here. Hitherside's lyrics aren't painfully obvious, which makes them interesting enough for repeated listens.
While I wouldn't go so far as to label Hitherside a progressive metal band, they do have certain commonalities with the sub-genre. The guitar solos and the shifts in styles of playing definitely keep the music varied. This band is highly suited to radio airplay and energetic live shows. If you have any passing interest in female-fronted metal bands - either popular metal or progressive - check them out.
Maximilian Latva - Nekyia
Listening to an album such as this is a truly challenging experience; reviewing it isn't a piece of cake either, believe me. The thing is, probably that's the whole point of it: to challenge, to agitate and defy any possible preconceptions you might have before even experiencing a second of it. Now, I'm no expert in ambient and electronica, and I guess many of those who are in that same position regard both as being cold and sterile. Works like Nekyia exist to prove them (us) wrong, as what you hear is made from the guts rather than the brains and it surely has a visceral impact, regardless of what you think of it.
This is no easy listening, that's for sure, and when one first approaches such a daunting task bafflement is sure to crop up. Now, to be completely honest with you I still don't know what to make of it after repeated listens (my rating is reflecting my confusion rather than musical opinion), but what I do know is that every listening has revealed new details, hidden melodies and noises, in a similar way a stone is slowly chiselled to reveal a more defined figure. The credits say Maximilian Latva plays guitar and percussion on the album, and while opening track Diabolus Silvestrum might strike the listener as pure electronic mayhem, by the time you get to the 11 minute closer Katabaasi I swear you'll clearly hear the guitar and the percussion. All this is to say that Latva's music takes its time to reveal itself, which in my book is always a good thing.
Also, even if I normally like to just let the music be the source of inspiration and stimulation of the senses, in this particular case I strongly recommend to experience this piece of music along with the video pieces made specifically to accompany it (you'll find them on Youtube). A collection of both abstract and naturalistic images where the earthly but also the spiritual are intriguingly portrayed (think of early David Lynch, if you know what I mean).
Nekyia is not as extreme as the "aural terrorism" of artists like Merzbow, but it requires your full attention and good will, so prog purists stay well away (your loss, sorry), but adventurous listeners might find a treasure trove of intriguing delights.
Steve Unruh - Precipice
It's certainly been a busy year for Steve Unruh, what with Omnibus and Tori No Kaze released by The Samurai Of Prog, the first CD Planetary Overload by United Progressive Fraternity, and contributions to the last King Of Agogik album After The Last Stroke and Catharsis, the forthcoming, and long awaited, new album by Nick Magnus. Somehow amongst all that and alongside writing and rehearsals for the next Resistor album, he has managed to write, record and release his 10th solo album (wellş ninth if you don't include 2014's Music From Air Soundtrack).
Aside from that release, it is unbelievable to think that it is nine years since Challenging Gravity hit the streets (or more pertinently these days, the internet). As with that album, Precipice favours Unruh's more acoustic side with just bass and keyboard requiring electrification.
However, don't be fooled into thinking that Precipice is a collection of mellow folk songs as there is some top-notch prog on display within its grooves (I really must update my references!). This is immediately apparent from the first track Luxury Denial with its driving opening, guitar/vocal/violin interlude and then the epic in nature second half where Unruh let's fly. A great bass groove, double tracked violin, tasteful flutes and powerful drumming sets things down with intent. Sound quality is first class with each instrument clearly defined and sufficient dynamics to all remain clear even at higher volumes. Unchartered Waters slows things down with a lovely, plaintive electric piano forming the background of the sound and flowing violin carrying the musical melody. An inventive bass and flute instrumental interlude leads to a section of vocals where Unruh hits the highest note I think I have ever heard him reach, impressive. The pizzicato strings are also worthy of a mention.
Send The Sunshine, essentially an instrumental bar the layered intonations of the song title, must have been a real challenge to write and record as the complexity of the lines played by the individual instruments and how they all interact requires a level of forethought that is quite astounding. Reckoning is a more idiosyncratic piece. The sparse, almost medieval, central section providing the bulk of the narrative all leading up to a fine conclusion. The brief Suspension is a rather sweet piece featuring kalimba, flute and percussion, including an angklung. (If you have no idea what that particular instrument is look on YouTube for an angklung orchestra performing a version of Bohemian Rhapsody!)
The album concludes with two strong songs. Constellation remains totally alluring despite it's relative simplicity. A superior melody and perfectly juxtaposed flute and violin along with a lullaby-like demeanour adds to the attraction. All the instruments are wonderfully played and the repetition of the melody on various instruments ties everything together. The a cappella opening of the the title track is a nice link into the meat of the piece which in many ways reprises the best elements of what has gone before. With the music being of such a high quality the oft intriguing lyrics can be easily overlooked although they are worth listening to particularly as the pleasing vocal arrangement adds another dimension to the song.
With all that Unruh has been involved with over the last nine years it is great to hear that his personal musical vision pertaining to his solo output has remained intact. His collaborations with fellow musicians in his other musical endeavours seems to have paid dividends in terms of his arranging skills and hopefully his greater profile will stimulate interest in his excellent back catalogue. There is no better place to start than with this new release, a true solo album of breadth and diversity.