Reviews in this issue:
Ape Amplitude - Escape Routes
The two members of Ape Amplitude, Achim Wierschem and Peter Zahn, appear to be greatly concerned with the current turmoil that mankind is experiencing. The video they have produced for A Long And Painful Path contains statistics relating to the plight of refugees in Germany, their home country. Other song titles such as Dopeland, The Drinker and Requiem For A Dying Planet continue to demonstrate their concern with the political and human toil currently being experienced on a world scale.
The problem I have, is that the instrumental music Ape Amplitude have produced on Escape Routes, is so middle of the road and pedestrian, that the passion of the band's convictions is totally lost. While both musicians have a long musical pedigree and an obvious passion for their music, it lacks any depth or feeling. There are no stand-out moments; no passages where I went 'wow'; nothing I felt was new or in fact related to the titles given to the musical passages. Camel, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Yes are cited by the band as influences for their musical output, but I struggle to find any real references within their music to the bands cited.
I did find the music enjoyable when driving, but at the end of my journeys, I found it difficult to actually remember anything I had been listening to. I hate to use the phrase "elevator music", but Escape Routes is the epitome of what I imagine the term having been invented for. It helps to pass the time, in a way that the emotions are relaxed enough that the actual passage of time becomes irrelevant.
The packaging contains some imaginative illustrations based upon the album's concept of trying to escape reality, but this does not help the lacklustre music contained within. As value for money, Ape Amplitude have filled almost all the available space on a CD, but quantity does not mean quality.
As Ape Amplitude try to get across the troubles and negativity with the world, I feel there is too little time to spend dwelling upon the global problems the individual cannot solve. I much prefer using my available time listening to music with a message based upon hope and positivism; that humanity can solve its problems.
I apologise to Achim and Peter for struggling with this album, but while they have obviously spent considerable time and effort in the making of Escape Routes, it is just not for me.
Faint Signal - Formula
Faint Signal claim to be the only prog band from Cincinnati, Ohio. I am in no position to dispute this. The band came together when Randy Campbell posted on the web asking: “Is Prog Rock dead in Cincinnati?” My limited knowledge of American prog excludes me from knowing whether it has ever been alive and kicking in the first place. In response to the post, Henri Eisenbaum appeared as saviour, with lashings of musical ideas under one arm, and a defibrillator under the other, to resuscitate the Cincinnati prog movement; whether the unsuspecting public wanted it or not.
Having had the opportunity to listen to Formula on a number of occasions, then the citizens of Cincinnati should be more than proud to have Faint Signal represent them as their only progressive rock band. Randy and Henri have gathered a troupe of other musicians from the Cincinnati area to help them in delivering Formula. Whether these other musos were told they would have their names attached to a prog rock production is unclear, but their contributions have helped to deliver an extremely accomplished album.
Henri provides the guitars, keyboards and drum sequencing, with Randy handling bass duties with vocals, percussion and sequencing shared by both. Only one track, Surface Tension, features a “real” drummer. But don't be worried, the sequencing and production of Formula is that good, you never notice.
The songs are well structured and creative, and certainly tick most boxes for any fan of prog music wanting to dabble with something new and fresh-sounding. Of the bands Faint Signal list as influences, Transatlantic and The Flower Kings are the most obvious comparisons. To this I would add Spock's Beard, Kansas, and Saga, with a healthy slice of Pink Floyd.
But the comparison that kept creeping into my head was, if Gandalf's Fist were American, then this would probably be how they might sound. This may be due to the use of guest singers on some tracks, but there is also a quirkiness to the music that you don't normally hear in American prog. This adds that extra dimension which elevates Formula above the average. Check out the Faint Signal Facebook page to confirm they enjoy a bit of fun.
I can't finish this review without mention of the wonderful cover artwork. Forensic sample jars contain the heads of all the performers on the album, and when the gatefold sleeve is opened, the jars are connected to a mechanical band. How this is presented shows the humour of the band.
A thoroughly enjoyable album, the quality of which was totally unexpected. Any fans of Spock's Beard's early work, or wanting an American equivalent of Gandalf's Fist, then this should be right up your alley. A band Cincinnati should be proud to have.
Gallia - Everflame
Symphonic metal is a bold and dramatic genre of music, so my ears perked up when Gallia's debut EP Everflame opened with a confidence and power not usually heard on a first release.
This new Belgian band has all the expected elements of the style, with female vocals, fantasy lyrics, driving drumbeats, strong guitar riffs, classically inspired instrumentation, and even some vocal growls thrown in for good measure. The songs on Everflame are mostly four to five minutes in length and lean toward accessible power rock, with minimal virtuoso singing or playing.
Gallia is the brainchild of Yannick Maris, the band's songwriter, lead guitarist, orchestrator, and producer. Maris is clearly a skilled orchestrator (as well as writer/guitarist) and paints with a broad palette, from soaring strings, to French horn flourishes, and onto staccato piano passages reminiscent of Savatage.
In a genre known for dramatic, operatic vocals, Elyn Vandenwyngaert's singing initially struck me as limited in range. But upon repeated listening, I kept picking up on enjoyable nuances in her delivery, like the addition of an octave-above vocal in the build to the chorus in Frozen Sun, and a subtle, raspy edge in the chorus of Rise Of The Fallen.
The Everflame EP includes instrumental versions of each song, which I enjoyed almost as much as the regular tracks. These alternate versions give an interesting glimpse into how Yannick Maris perhaps envisioned each piece. The orchestral arrangements sometimes reminded me of dramatic scenes in film scores or perhaps the opening ceremony of a future Olympic Games. A couple of the orchestral versions are more successful than the band tracks because the melodies and rhythms feel more natural in an instrumental context.
For a first-time listener, I would recommend creating a playlist which replaces the band versions of Devil's Cry and Papercuts with the orchestral versions, in order to sample some of Maris' orchestral work. Then, when the full band returns in Fight of Fools, a vocal-oriented anthem and EP highlight, if you find yourself pumping your fist in the chorus, let me admit without shame that you wouldn't be the first person to do that.
Perhaps limited by the EP format, the songs on Everflame are simpler than those of the natural comparisons in the genre (Nightwish, Within Temptation). But if Maris and the band can expand song length, complexity, and dynamics on a full-length CD, I can hear the potential for their next release to find a place for Gallia among the bigger names in symphonic metal.
Peter Kearns - On Track... Elton John, Every Album, Every Song: 1969 to 1979 [Book]
This is a recent addition to the ever-expanding On Track series of books from Sonicbond Publishing. The remit of the series is that every album and song recorded by the artist in question is scrutinised in detail. In this instance, author Peter Kearns has restricted his coverage to Elton John's output from 1969 to 1979. For completists that might be an issue, but for me, the bespectacled piano player's best work by far was released in this period, so it's not a problem.
If you're wondering how a book on Elton John qualifies for a review on a site mostly dedicated to prog, look no further than the 11-minute Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding that opens his 1973 double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It's just as worthy of the 'prog' tag as anything released by Yes and Genesis that same year. In fact, 1973 was probably the peak year for the genre, where most every band was jumping on the prog bandwagon (Led Zeppelin's Houses Of The Holy and The Who's Quadrophenia being two obvious examples). But I digress.
The author Peter Kearns hails from New Zealand and as well as being a journalist, recording artist and a producer in his own right, he's also contributed to the Elton John fan club 'East End Lights'; so he should know his subject. It's evident from the first chapter that Kearns, like all the writers in the series, has put plenty of time and effort into the book. I know from personal experience that even if you know the artist and their music well, it takes a good deal of research, listening and writing to produce a convincing account of their work. In effect, it becomes a labour of love.
In addition to his dalliance with prog, Elton was a master of genre hopping, from his early days as an introspective singer/songwriter to folk, blues, mainstream rock, pop, country rock and glam rock. His rise to stardom in the early 70s was rapid. In November 1971, I saw him on the UK tour to promote Madman Across The Water (one of his best albums) at the DeMontfort Hall, Leicester and the place was half empty. Just 14 months later, he released Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player, which topped the album charts around the world.
1969 to 1979 was an extremely prolific period for Elton John, releasing no less than 13 studio albums, all of which are covered in the book with a chapter dedicated to each. Also included is the 1971 film soundtrack Friends (which has nothing to do with the TV series of the same name), two live albums, plus several singles and EPs. These include the early singles prior to the 1969 debut album Empty Sky. As well as an 'Introduction' which includes a short bio, the book concludes with an 'Outroduction' which wraps things up nicely.
With Elton John's bio 'Rocketman' in the cinemas earlier this year, the publication of this book is certainly well timed. Unlike the film however, the book is less concerned with his personality and lifestyle, concentrating on the songs instead. Although the On Track books follow a formula, the way in which each author approaches the songs doesn't. Some for example, describe the musical structure in detail whereas Kearns prefers to relate the story behind the song. This proves to be enlightening, particularly when Elton was writing in partnership with Bernie Taupin during the 60s and most of the 70s.
This is a superb addition to the On Track series. If you've read any of the previous books then you'll know the drill by now. For anyone with an interest in classic 1970s rock, it's highly recommended. If you're an Elton John fan to boot, it goes without saying that it's an essential purchase.
Moron Police - A Boat On The Sea
Some albums require a review that has a more forensic manner. Either to provide readers with a justification for the aroma of distaste that one has developed for its sounds, or to inundate readers with a flood of purchase-inducing adjectives.
Other albums can be covered in a more precise prose; not wishing to delay a single reader from bathing in an album's sonic sauna.
This third offering from Norway's Moron Police, falls clearly into the second category.
These dimwit detectives first appeared in 2012, when still safety wrapped in their teens. Their debut album, The Propaganda Machine, can politely be filed under "experimental". It did however provide a platform for the widely admired Defenders of the Small Yard, which drew a favourable verdict from DPRP back in 2016 for its fun-filled blend of metal, avant-prog and disco (review here).
This time they've shred their metal stylings. Instead, A Boat On The Sea focuses on a prog-pop sound that borrows regular snippets from the pick-n-mix counter of musical influences.
Amazing harmonies bounce across the heads of Scandic melancholy, fuelled by massive, hook-wielding choruses, wanton outbursts of guitar and synths, and some superlative-spitting musical gymnastics. Think of the compact pop-prog of A.C.T., a less-flowerly Flower Kings, or a less rocky Von Hertzen Brothers, with the harmonies of Moon Safari and, somewhere in the distance, the atmospherics of Soup. Put on a big happy smiley face and you have the basic formula for A Boat On The Sea.
No album in this or any other year will put as big a smile on your face as this one. It is quirky enough to be different, yet familiar enough not to be quirky. Look at the track times above. Nothing passes or even comes close to a sell-by-date, yet every song is packed with variety and delights.
Highlights? There are so many. Try the lust-for-life pace and joy that drives The Phantom Below. Or the how-the-feck-do-they-do-that verse on Captain Awkward. Or the delightful grand piano and Hammond that draw you back down a few gears in the calmer sections. Add to all of this, one of the most endearing album covers I have ever seen (I want one of those on my toilet wall!), on top of a sparkling production and some hard-hitting, socially-aware lyrics.
Simply put; this is one of the best modern pop-prog albums you will ever get the chance to hear! Guaranteed to bring a smile to your colon. Now off you trot and buy your own copy!
Scarlet Stories - Necrologies
This is an album I have been eagerly waiting for. Having heard and reviewed their EP (Resurrection) back in 2015 and been fairly blown away by the talent on it, I have been waiting for news of Scarlet Stories's debut album. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, the band have completed their full length debut album and have unleashed it upon the world.
The album was worth the wait, featuring an astounding array of hard-hitting prog metal. Everyone is on top form and the band are incredibly tight. The songs are just as catchy and melodic as on previous releases, but the whole package sounds more mature and more like a band that is standing very firmly on their own feet.
Each track is a stand-out one, mixing all the elements of their previous works, but with a tighter and more focused sound. As with their previous work, it is heavy, melodic and melancholic at times, but always dark and loud.
The focal point of the album for me would be The Gallows Tree trilogy. This is a set of three tracks, with the beginning and end being quite mellow and melancholic pieces and the central part being a heavy dose of prog. Although the single, In Blood And Limbs And Gore And Clay, is up there as well, partly with thanks to the outstanding solos.
For me, this album should be a classic and should be ranked as one of the great debuts of the prog genre. I've got high hopes for this band.
David Zmyslowski - Turning the Page
Once upon a time, due to reading a DPRP review, I learned about the band Némo from France. Thank you so much Dries Dokter! Then they played the Progfarm festival in 2008 in the Netherlands. A superb place to see the band live, meet up and talk to all band members before and after the show, and to have the surprise and privilege to see their new second guitarist on stage, called David Zmyslowski.
Like some of the others, David also started his own project, called Element V. The band had a great self-titled album out in 2014 (review of that 2014 debut album here), which is still available for free on Bandcamp by the way. After that, a second project started, called Opale. That band also produced one album, called Immensité in 2017, that was recommended on our Something For The Weekend blog. This album is still available on Bandcamp.
Now David has recorded his first solo album, Turning The Page, that offers another tastes of his extraordinary songwriting and guitar skills. Turning The Page is fully instrumental yet still keeps your ears wide open on every track. The compositions are spectacular, including coherent changing styles along the way. Your ears will most likely tell, or order, your brain to play this album over and over again.
The intro above might be sufficient enough to start listening but here are some important details and guidelines. David classifies himself as a guitarist fitting the musical universe of Satriani, Gilmour, and Lukather, and I fully support that. Next to mandolin, bass and keys, David plays both acoustic and electric guitar. Drums are supplied by Jean Baptiste Itier (of Némo fame) and sax by Jean Noel Vuidard. Thibault Maurin supports on guitar.
This eight-song album has a lot to offer. Listening to the opening track Turning The Page is the best introduction possible. Smooth, well written, with excellent playing including some impressive soloing.
Whilst on the road to the Night of the Prog festival this summer, one of my musical friends concluded, after listening to this one song, that it made David Zmyslowsky 'of Loreley class'. Each track brings its own charm, an element many instrumental bands and albums lack. His talented way of writing not only blooms in the individual tracks, but also in the connecting those tracks to build you the grand view.
The second song, Variations Of A Heartbeat is pushed forward by the bass, the real heartbeat, to give way to some light riffs. Paradise On Earth stands out for its riffing and strong melodic structure. Forget The Regards is the album's laid-back interval, followed by the slightly jazz-infused masterpiece Piece Of five. On your way through the tracks from there, brings you to the relative explosions of Some Guitars and the album closer Under The Thunderstorm.
Again, take your time as it's just one click away from here to Bandcamp in order to shape your own idea about the album. I'm convinced David Zmyslowski has produced an extraordinary and excellent piece of work. Every song and every note reflects the love and passion this music is created with and the way it is played. Highly recommended.