Reviews in this issue:
- echolyn – echolyn (Duo Review)
- Landmarq - Entertaining Angels
- Panic Room – Skin
- Kevin Kastning & Carl Clements – Dreaming As I Knew
- Rick Miller – Dark Dreams
- Cluster – Cluster II
- Chicken Shack – Imagination Lady
- Decameron - Say Hello To The Band
- Decameron - Mammoth Special
- Telesma – Action In Inaction
echolyn – echolyn
CD 1: Island (16:38), Headright (3:00), Locust To Bethlehem (5:11), Some Memorial (11:54)
CD 2: Past Gravity (7:11), When Sunday Spills (8:48), (Speaking In) Lampblack (10:45), The Cardinal And I (7:20)
Brian Watson's Review
First up, a bit of an echolyn discography for you. And the lower case ‘e’ is intentional. I don’t know why. It just is.
- echolyn (1991)
- Suffocating The Bloom (1992)
- As The World (1995) & (2005 remastered)
- When The Sweet Turns Sour (1996)
- Cowboy Poems Free (2000) | Cowboy Poems Free (2009 reissued/remastered)
- Mei (2002)
A Little Nonsense: Now And Then Boxset (2002) – the debut, the EP follow up to Suffocating, and When The Sweet Turns Sour, as well as some live and reworked ‘classic’ tracks including my personal favourite Shades.
I've lost track of how many times I've listened to this album now. Since staying up until silly o'clock to hear it for the very first time on Progscape Radio it's kind of been a constant companion. Sure, I've listened to other stuff, some of it damned fine indeed. But I always drift back to the echolyn. Whether it's on the iPhone, car stereo, turntable, brennan or CD the record is never far away.
The thing with echolyn is that they sound, well, like echolyn. They aren't homogenous, generic soundalikes. Soulless clones doing it for sackfuls of cash, for fame and for ego. It's been seven years since the last album, for heaven's sake and they’ve been writing and recording this between June 2007 and April 2012. Sure they could have rushed something out, to cash in on the surge in popularity of progressive rock music. But they didn't. The tunes, lyrics and heart of the album were crafted, and refined over the years. One gets the impression that every sound, every note was created to be the very best that it could. That the word 'filler' wasn't in the dictionary. The eponymous title of the album indicates that the band wished this to be a statement. A re-imagining, if you will. But like Abrams’ Star Trek, not Burton's Planet Of The Apes.
Indeed, if you want reference points from the back catalogue then check out Cowboy Poems Free (the hometown lyrical imagery and pin sharp social commentary), Mei (the orchestral grandeur and cinematic scope) and The End Is Beautiful (a harder-edged ode to love and loss).
Musically a note, a chord or a texture, together with the overall quality of the songwriting might put you in mind of The Beatles, Genesis, or Yes. There's the classic Marillion keyboard sound (check out Some Memorial, for example), the fluid guitar work of Yezda Urfa, and the vocal harmonies reminiscent of Gentle Giant or Kansas. But overall the sound is unmistakably echolyn.
It's a double CD, mirroring the sides of the limited edition numbered vinyl. There are 88.2 kHz / 24 bit FLAC lossless downloads on the band’s bandcamp page too and throughout you get the impression that great attention has been given to the production, and quality of the album. One listen on headphones confirms your suspicions that here is something other than the mundane and the cynical. Here is something special. Here is, dare I say it, art.
Perusing the forums and whatnot it's clear that this album resonates with an awful lot of people. It's sad that the torrenters got hold of it, because a lossy download just doesn't do the material justice. Apart from the fact that it’s wrong. Legally and, to my mind at least, morally. The vinyl, for example is a thing of beauty. And the sound? Well, mere words don't do it justice, quite frankly. But I’ll try.
First up, it's not just a random collection of songs; the tracklisting having a perfect symmetry and flow.
The epic Island is upon you in an instant, with a lengthy instrumental workout, before Ray Weston’s wonderfully evocative vocals kick in. ‘Where’ve you been, Ray?’ You’ll undoubtedly shout on first hearing this, if you’re a fan. And if you’re not then maybe, perhaps, after hearing this you will be. Throughout Brett Kull’s guitar growls, weeps and caresses, weaving in, out and through Chris Buzby’s keyboard textures. Kull takes over vocal duties temporarily part way through, offering a different vocal palette with which the band can use to further add texture and depth to the music. Add these two styles together with the backing vocals of bandmates Buzby, Paul Ramsey (drums) and Tom Hyatt (bass) and you have something truly special in the vocal department.
Through this muscular and symphonic opener, the upbeat Headright, haunting Locust... and the damned nigh perfect Some Memorial (which sees some of best guitar playing you'll hear this, or any year) disc one perfectly balances light and shade. Each side of the vinyl has two tracks, in the same running order as the CDs.
The second CD sees the smouldering Past Gravity, with beautiful organ, strings and harmonies that builds to a glorious climax; the hard as nails, bluesy indictment of domestic violence When Sunday Spills complete with lap steel and banjo; the string-drenched, beautiful (Speaking In) Lampblack. If you like Anathema's recent work then this, to my mind is as good as anything from their last two records; and finally there's the anthemic, yet discordant and melancholy rocker The Cardinal And I.
The addition of a string quartet and saxophone adds yet more layers to the sound throughout and Brett and Paul Ramsay's work with Francis Dunnery has clearly had (and is credited in the sleeve notes as having) an influence in the song writing. The space between the instruments is the thing I still find surprising. The sound is never cluttered, never too dense. As Brett Kull puts it, on the echolyn mailing list:
…“There is a dynamic in all instruments (meaning how quiet and loud they can be) if I play a guitar or drum too quiet or loud it doesn’t sound “right”. You have to find the sweet area. Good tone comes from knowing the dynamic range of what you are playing. Of course you can beat the hell out of an instrument for effect but only for a limited time before it just becomes annoying. John Bonham knew the dynamic range of the drum kit very well. He also knew how to tune it (and/or had someone that knew how to tune it for him). I had a chance to play with Robert and talk to him about this on a tour Paul and i did with Dunnery a couple years ago. He Confirmed what Francis told me, i.e., Bonham did not beat the hell out of his kit.
What I’m trying to say is that folks think heaviness comes from playing really hard. It does not. By playing hard on a kit or guitar you actually collapse the heads or strings and they loose that fullness of sound. The heaviness in Zeppelin comes from knowing dynamic range. In order for something to be loud you need to have quiet and vice-versa. if its loud all the time it’s just blah and one dimensional.
Compression and limiting these days (and over the past 10 + years) has been used to make things too loud in my opinion. This loudness comes from a “perceived” loudness, not an actual one. Going louder in regard to dB Full Scale (in the digital world) is a ceiling that has been intact since the inception of digital recording. Zero is and has been the loudest you can go in that domain. Even in the analog world there is a max before distortion occurs. Perceived loudness is attained by changing the dynamic range. As I said, instruments naturally have a dynamic range to them, by decreasing that range utilizing compressors and limiters you can give a sense of a perceived loudness. Unfortunately, as the dynamics of instruments and music is compressed more and more (to give this sense of loudness) the dynamic range is actually crushed to death.
Speaking of Death, Death Magnetic by Metallica is the famous example of going too far in this regard. You can hear clipping throughout the album and ear fatigue is prevalent because of the relentlessness of volume. When even the decay of instruments (the sound after they are played) is as loud as the “hit” you need to re-evaluate what you’re doing in the context of recording, mixing and mastering.
Music is made by us, human beings. It needs to inhale as well as exhale, it needs to breathe. Some music these days, along with many clients of mine, want the masters to be so loud there is no exhale anymore. It feels like I just keep inhaling until I fall over and turn blue”…
As I've mentioned it's through headphones that the true genius of this work can best be appreciated. I did most of my listening with a Denon D38 DAB, Little Dot Mk 3 tube headphone amp and Grado SR80i headphones. And Chord Crimson Plus cables. A Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable into Pro-Ject Phono Box helped spin the vinyl, with Pro-Ject and Chord cables.
It's hard to sum up just how good this is. Words are such clumsy, imprecise tools sometimes. I will say this, though. You just have to have this in your collection. Whether you like symphonic prog, or prog metal, or alt/prog or whatever other sub-genres are de rigueur at the moment.
As I've touched on already the overall package is top notch, and the lyrics are fantastically evocative, although you only get these with the vinyl. The album resonates on an emotional level unlike very little I’ve heard before from third-wave progressive rock music. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better sounding record.
In case you were wondering (and for the tech-heads amongst you):
“Paul used two kits on this album. A Pearl 5 piece and a Ludwig 5 piece (not played at the same time.
I (Brett) generally mic’ed them up and routed them as follows:
Bass drum 2 mics – SM7 or D112 and a home made sub mic Neotec series IIIc
Snare 2 mics – SM57 Top and KM 184 on the bottom Top-Neotec series IIIc – DBX 165 Comp, Bottom Neotec series IIIc
Hi Hat – KM 184 Neotec series IIIc
Tom 1 2 3 – Sennheiser 421s or AKG D3700 and D112 Neotec series IIIc
Overheads left and right – AKG C414 or Blue Bluebirds Neotec series IIIc – DBX 162 Comp
Room – sometimes in stereo or mono – Earthworks TC30K series 2x or Blue Woodpecker mono. Great River for stereo or Neotec series IIIc into DBX 160 Comp mono…
...If you want to hear something cool listen to the drums at 4:38 to about 5:22 on When Sunday Spills. That’s just the mono room mic (Blue Woodpecker bi directional Ribbon mic) on the Ludwig kit. Paul over-dubbed a little splash cymbal on the right to give it some movement but the kit is one bi-directional mic. It sounds amazing. That’s what the kit sounded like when I stood in front of it!”
So there you have it. My album of the year by a (Heavy Blue) mile. All that remains is for you to go and buy it. Me? I’m going to have another listen…
Raffaella Berry's Review
Pennsylvania-based quintet echolyn's self-titled debut album was released in 1991, at the very beginning of progressive rock's "Third Wave". 21 years later, another self-titled album marks their highly awaited recording comeback. This anniversary celebration of sorts is compounded by the presence of all the members originally featured on the band's debut - Ray Weston (vocals/guitar/bass), Brett Kull (guitar/vocals), Chris Buzby (keyboards/backing vocals), Tom Hyatt (bass/backing vocals) and Paul Ramsey (drums/backing vocals), with the addition of a number of guest musicians, including a string trio.
echolyn enjoy cult status in the US community of progressive rock fans, and their new album (seven years in the making) is one of the most highly anticipated releases in a year that has already proved rather generous in terms of new music. They are also one of the few US bands to have built a following on the other side of the Atlantic, helped by their 2005 European tour in support to The End Is Beautiful. In spite of that, they are still very much a cottage industry, each of their albums independently released yet holding to very high standards of quality. When expectations run so high, however, disappointment may often ensue, and the newcomer (or, as in my particular case, the relative newcomer yet to be converted) may end up thinking that the final product was not, after all, worth the hype.
When an album takes almost 7 years to produce, it often means that a band or artist is striving for perfection, wanting everything to be exactly in the place where it ought to be, and nothing less than that. Such an attitude often brings along a sense of cold detachment that mars the high formal standards of the final product: not so in the case of echolyn, although the album's initial impact may be deceptively low-key. The songs, while painstakingly composed and arranged, reach out to the listener, appealing to their experience and drawing them in by virtue of a seamless mix of beautiful melodies, heartfelt vocals and instrumental performances delivered with understated brilliance.
In many ways, echolyn flies in the face of the stereotypes of the prog genre. Though a double CD, it was actually conceived as a double vinyl album, with a running time of around 70 minutes - shorter than many single CD packages. While some of the tracks exceed the 10-minute mark, they are not "epics" in the conventional sense of the word. In fact, references to traditional prog modes are used sparingly, with an emphasis on the balance between vocal and instrumental parts, and a distinct lack of pyrotechnics - in spite of the extremely high level of technical proficiency of the band members. This results in an album that pairs pristine formal standards with deeply emotional content, conveyed through sensitive vocal performances and thought-provoking, often poignant lyrics. In spite of a format that might suggest 'concept album', echolyn is rather a collection of vignettes - based on the songwriters' personal experiences - that revisit the past and reflect on the present. Unlike so many productions that are steeped in nostalgia, this is very much a modern effort - not sacrificing to fleeting trends, but rather keeping an eye on new developments while implementing the lessons of prog's golden age.
In the second decade of the 21st century, echolyn have resumed the more streamlined approach of The End Is Beautiful rather than Mei's multi-part epic format. The magnificent vocal harmonies and string arrangements possess a strong Beatles flavour, favouring the Liverpool quartet's more meditative, wistful side, while the high-pitched yet melodic tone of Ray Weston's vocals may bring to mind Radiohead's Thom Yorke or Muse's Matt Bellamy - or even their young disciples The Tea Club (especially in the use of lush quiet-loud dynamics in their second album, Rabbit). The finely achieved balance between vocal parts - often narrative in character - and instrumental sections reminded me at times of Big Big Train (especially their outstanding 2009 album The Underfall Yard), though echolyn lack the overt references to Genesis that often abound in the English band's opus.
Opener Island (the longest number on the album at over 16 minutes) epitomizes echolyn's current direction. Its barnstorming, hard-rock-tinged intro, skilfully mixing the sharp edge of Brett Kull's guitar with the lushness of Chris Buzby's keyboard textures and added strings, introduces Weston's voice; the song, seamlessly shifting between harshness and delightful melody, displays a subtle complexity that avoids the stereotypical prog emphasis on individual fireworks. The 3-minute Headright, with its straightforward structure and upbeat pacing - a pop song with an edge - acts as a sort of interlude to balance out the weightier offerings on CD 1. The meditative, romantic atmosphere of Locust To Bethlehem (the title refers to two streets in Ray Weston's home town), enhanced by strings and glockenspiel, is supported by tight instrumental arrangement, and prepares for the emotional onslaught of Some Memorial (my personal highlight of the whole album) and its chilling reflection on death. Carried by Weston's intense yet restrained vocals - a true additional instrument rather than an attention-stealer - flawlessly assisted by Kull's guitar and Buzby's rich tapestry of keyboards, the music swells powerfully, then subsides in an almost mournful lull. Solo spots are brief and to the point, employed as accents to increase the emotional quotient.
While the first CD is bookended by two compositions of such undeniable impact, the second feels more subdued and intimate, and may therefore be perceived as somewhat anticlimactic. A strong Beatles influence coupled with modern sensibilities permeates Past Gravity, very much a vocal-based song, with instruments used as an accompaniment in a very un-prog way. The melodic mellowness of When Sunday Spills, whose nostalgic Beatlesian vibe is enhanced by strings and the gentle tinkle of a vibraphone, belies the harrowing nature of the lyrics, hinted at by the recorded voices that bookend it. Supported by Buzby's lovely piano, Speaking In Lampblack is an exercise in reflection, with an understated movement only occasionally interrupted by bursts of intensity; while The Cardinal And I, by reprising Locust To Bethlehem's line "dissolve like daylight", brings things full circle, though with a more buoyant mood than the rest of the second CD, bolstered by the authoritative tone of the synth.
Going against the grain of the prog cliché of often kitschy artwork, echolyn comes packaged in a stunningly elegant, minimalistic gatefold cover - which has already earned the album the nickname of "Windows" or "Windowpanes", and, in many ways, reflects its musical content. While the lyrics (mostly penned by Ray Weston, with some contributions from Brett Kull and Tom Hyatt) can be found on the band's website, the booklet offers magnificent photography, as well as detailed information on each track. Bringing to bear Brett Kull's expertise as a sound engineer, the sound quality is also outstanding, and makes the listening experience a real pleasure, enhancing the emotional appeal of the music. Definitely worth the 7-year wait, echolyn is one of those rare albums that transcends the endless "tradition vs innovation" debate, and is already poised to become one of the top releases of 2012.
Landmarq - Entertaining Angels
CD 1: Entertaining Angels (8:31), Glowing – i. Friends (4:05), Glowing - ii. Lovers (8:12), Mountains Of Anglia (8:56), Personal Universe (7:53), Prayer [Coming Home] (5:38), Turbulence [Paradigm Shift] (12:32), Calm Before The Storm - i. Strange But Beautiful, ii. Spiderman, iii. From The Abyss (16:11)
CD 2 ~ Special Edition Bonus: Walking On Eggshells (6:56), Timeline (5:54), Stormbrewing (2:09), Thunderstruck (13:23)
They say the best things in life are worth waiting and that’s certainly the case as far as Landmarq is concerned. The majority of the songs on this album were first given a live airing back in 2005 and subsequently captured on the Turbulence DVD and CD (released in 2006 and 2009 respectively). The studio recording however hit a major stumbling block when singer Tracy Hitchings was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 which fortunately she was able to combat over a three year period. Individual band members honouring their commitments outside of Landmarq resulted in even further delays. Viewing the Turbulence DVD it would appear that the songs have changed little in the ensuing years but either way this is undoubtedly the best collection of songs is been my pleasure to review so far this year.
For the band’s last studio recording you have to go even further back to 1998 and the The Science Of Coincidence album, their fourth up to that point. It’s ironic to recall that the main talking point at that time was Tracy Hitchings replacing Damian Wilson as lead vocalist. A tough act to follow for any singer and perhaps even more so considering the obvious gender differences. Fourteen years on Tracy remains very much at the forefront of the band’s sound, aided and abetted by the essential line-up of Uwe D’rose (electric and acoustic guitars), Steve Gee (4/5/6 & fretless basses, backing vocals), Mike Varty (piano, keyboards, violin, viola, backing vocals) and Dave Wagstaffe (drums, percussion, backing vocals).
The title track Entertaining Angels opens in unexpected but welcome fashion with a blistering guitar solo from D’rose that has a stirring, Celtic flavour. Tracy’s wonderfully compelling voice soon follows leading the song into a truly memorable chorus with staccato instrumental outbursts that sit comfortably alongside a lazy sax break. A convincingly strong opener that sets a high benchmark for the rest of the album which as I said earlier is the best I’ve heard all year. Unforgettable tunes and infectious hooks are a constant feature, a virtue for any collection of songs in my book whether they be prog or otherwise. Then there is the stunning instrumental work where D’rose’s inspirational guitar playing is matched by Varty’s lush keyboards and the pounding rhythm partnership of Wagstaffe and Gee.
The icing on the cake is Tracy’s passionate, intoxicating vocals which are very distinctive in the same way as say Kate Bush’s voice. As such her singing may divide opinions but personally I love her voice, whether she’s playing it cool and sensuous during Glowing - ii. Lovers, breathlessly energetic in Turbulence or sounding downright sinister as she does during Strange But Beautiful (bringing Caamora’s Agnieszka Swita to mind). Her performance on Personal Universe in particularly is just remarkable, a song I can’t get enough of at present.
With its weaving synth patterns, Glowing is reminiscent of Varty’s other band Credo whilst the freewheeling guitar dynamics has shades of Floyd’s Run Like Hell during the cleverly titled Mountains Of Anglia (the song is about deception - the landscape of Anglia in the east of England is almost completely flat). An achingly beautiful song, Prayer [Coming Home] is perhaps the album’s token ballad with piano, orchestral keys and superbly melodic guitar creating a real sense of longing and nostalgia. In contrast Turbulence [Paradigm Shift] really lives up to its name, from the middle-eastern flavoured intro to the gritty guitar riff that’s worthy of Led Zeppelin. Prog aficionados in particular will warm to the monumental synth and guitar volleys that enhance the song’s extended coda.
Incorporating three separate sections each composed by a different band member, Calm Before The Storm sets out as a closing powerful statement and certainly succeeds on that level. Swirling synths and a fuzzed guitar riff (reminiscent of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes) provides a compelling intro whilst Spiderman hits the ground running with its staccato instrumental stabs recalling Marillion’s Heart Of Lothian. Once again, Tracy really gives it her vocal all. The all instrumental From The Abyss brings up the rear with a whirlwind of synth and brittle guitar exchanges to end on a dramatic note.
In the context of this album the term ‘bonus CD’ is a tad misleading because the tracks that make up the second disc are all essential listening. Opening with laidback David Gilmouresque guitar, Walking On Eggshells reaches moments of epic grandeur despite the song’s relaxed pace. Timeline is another ridiculously catchy song enhanced by Varty’s stately key strings and piano. Interestingly, his long since departed predecessor Gonzalo Carrera had a hand in writing this song. The classically inspired solo piano piece Stormbrewing provides a perfect introduction to the mini-epic Thunderstruck which pulls out all the instrumental stops. Edgy guitar and fiery synths race through the song, driven by a relentless backbeat with stop-start vocals in the style of Drama era Yes bringing proceedings to a rousing conclusion.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I quite like this album. In my humble opinion it’s not just a great prog album; it’s a great album per se. Mike Varty should also be congratulated for his fine production. Landmarq’s Entertaining Angels may have been a long time coming but to reiterate my opening sentiment, it’s been well worth the wait.
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10
Panic Room – Skin
Tracklist: Song For Tomorrow (6:15), Chameleon (6:52), Screens (4:43), Chances (5:54), Tightrope Walking (7:09), Promises (5:24), Velvet And Stars (3:15), Freefalling (6:12), Skin (5:19), Hiding The World (5:19), Nocturnal (7:47)
Panic Room’s new album Skin dropped through the door the other day. On arriving home, I removed the CD from its said envelope, investigated the packaging whilst removing the disk, placing it into the CD player, pressing play, like one does. I, in all honesty was not ready for what I experienced next. Anne-Marie Helder is, well what I would call a multi-faceted individual, an individual who involves herself in projects/opportunities where she always seems to excel; make no mistake Panic Room’s Skin is another prime example of this.
As an album Skin is full of beautiful melodies that just ooze passion from the word go; the climatic guitar work of Paul Davis just sends shivers down the spine, as does the tribal and precise backline created by Yatim Halimi and Gavin John Griffiths. The fun of the fair doesn’t rest there, oh no, as this really is an album that is about the sum of all the parts. As one exercises the motion of listening, one realises how well-honed this group of musicians really is. The icing on the proverbial cake though has to be the amazing vocal tones of Anne-Marie Helder as she flexes her vocal chords creating the final piece of the picture; her sultry tones just melt hearts of stone, being the perfect complement to the whole soundstage.
I loved their albums, 08’s Visionary Position and 09’s Satellite both of which where DPRP recommended. Skin, as an album, is not so much a change in direction, more a natural progression for the band to take; their dynamic musical trademark tones are still present, pop elements, folk and jazz that is mixed with some harder edged rock stages. The band delivers these differing soundstages that are sedate one minute and rock out the next, keeping the whole affair refreshing and exciting, making it the album of their career thus far.
From the opening Song For Tomorrow you are left under no illusions that something special has been created here, the supporting cast knew exactly what they wanted to achieve, a theme that is persistent throughout. Just to pick out a few of the many highlights here, Chameleon a piano based up tempo ballad that delivers on all levels as it travels to its conclusion which features some nice jazzy guitar interactions and atmospheric violin inclusions. Screens has an unusual techno feel to it, that is again layered with Paul Davis’s stunning guitar tones and some really precise interactions from Halimi’s bass and Griffiths drums. Chances offers the band another opportunity to yet again display that they more than understand how to not only write but present classy songs.
Freefalling again sees the band using to great effect the different musical approaches, but it’s the interaction of Griffiths and Jonathan Edwards keyboards that really makes the difference here. Hiding The World shows that the band also has a harder edge, the metallic guitar adds effect as it accentuates Anne-Maria Helder’s vocals. As the album opened, Nocturnal, the album closer, is another prime example of the moody melodic approach the band take, as it brings the whole album to a beautiful and eloquent conclusion.
Skin is a very accomplished album, an album that is full of eloquence and beauty that is coherent, that rewards the listener as every note trickles from the speakers, something that makes it another one of the standout albums of 2012.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Kevin Kastning & Carl Clements – Dreaming As I Knew
Tracklist: Momentary Days (4:36), Mountains In Darkness (5:32), Water Flashes (5:26), A Different Breath, About Nothing (5:21), Whatever What Is, Is (5:30), No Longer Remembered (4:00), Nothing Here But Dreams (7:56), Voices In Light (3:58), Ahead Of All Parting (2:21), Shattered As It Rang (4:16), All The Elsewheres (7:29), Perforating The Visible (3:25), Drift Into Silence (5:32)
Both passing through the Berklee College Of Music, Kevin Kastning having studied privately with Pat Metheny, and Carl Clements obtaining a BM in Jazz Composition and Arranging, and both with long careers behind them Kastning & Clements get together on this deeply thoughtful and gently contemplative album that while seeped in meditative qualities is also a highly complex work worthy of much concentration. This is music one can unwind to or, if the mood takes you it can be music that one can get completely absorbed in.
Kevin is a highly regarded acoustic guitar player, credited with inventing variations on the standard 6-string such as the 14-string contraguitar and the 12-string alto guitar, both of which appear here, along with a standard classical guitar. He has numerous previous albums, all of which have garnered much critical acclaim.
Joining Kevin is reed player Carl Clements who plays soprano and tenor saxophone, flutes, and Bansuri flutes, an obscure family of north Indian instruments.
All of the instruments on the album are laid out in a photo on the 2-page CD insert. The first thing I noticed was that there is no percussion the album, but it soon emerges that this is a conscious decision on the part of the players so as to leave wide open spaces in the music, uncluttered by, well, anything but the dying notes of sax/flute/guitar.
Together Kevin and Carl create gentle excursions of interwoven beauty that as indicated before, while having a deeply dream-like quality in keeping with the album’s title, are also very intricate in construction. As Kevin has made over 200 compositions for various solo and chamber group combinations over a long career, and Carl has been playing for 38 years, there is a natural grace and ease in the manner in which Carl’s tenor sax blends and melds with what may be Kevin’s alto guitar on Whatever What Is, Is, to pick one piece at random.
Sounding mostly if not entirely improvised this album never meanders unintentionally, but the focus is sometimes deliberately indistinct. The first few tracks are built around Kevin’s guitar, and Carl comes more to the fore on the aforementioned song, and on Nothing Here But Dreams, which has some of the finest sax playing I’ve heard for some time. Highlighting individual songs is somewhat negates the experience of the whole album, as it is much more than the sum of its parts, for you could find yourself becoming lost in imagined landscapes and before you know it 65 minutes have passed, mostly in another dimension.
Evocative and emitting waves of calm through filtered sunsets as a sublime peacefulness descends on the listener, Dreaming As I Knew is definitely an album I will return to when in need of a deep massage of the synapses. As Kevin’s long-time collaborator, Hungarian classical/jazz guitarist Sándor Szabó says in the notes; “…this is a new reference for me in the contemporary guitar/saxophone duo music”, and who am I to argue? While not “prog” in the slightest I would recommend this as a wonderfully chilled listening experience.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Rick Miller – Dark Dreams
Tracklist: Return To Urqbar (6:19), Angels In The Forest (8:16), When The Evening Comes (3:03), Whispers (5:24), The Transcension (2:34), Quiet Desperation (7:12), Hear The Ocean Roar (3:28), Man Out Of Time (5:19), The One [Reincarnate] (4:20)
According to his Bandcamp webpage (see link above) this is Rick Miller’s sixth release since 2004, Rick describes his music as:
"This is my latest CD, in the genre of what I would call Progressive Rock. That term defining the type of music that was made famous throughout the 70s by bands such as Genesis, The Moody Blues and Pink Floyd. The music is soft, dark and melancholy because that's the way I like it."
Suffice to say that what follows is a mature, melancholic and generally laid back release, with most of the songs being mid tempo, but that’s not to say this is by any means dull or boring, in fact far from it, like with much good music this needs to live and breathe a little and get into your head to fully appreciate the subtleties and nuances that Rick explores on this release. Joining Rick on Dark Dreams are Barry Haggarty (guitars), Kane Miller (guitar & violin), Mateusz Swoboda (cello), Nancy Foote (flute) and Will (drums & percussion).
Rick Miller is a capable vocalist but it is his guitar work that stands out here, Rick is obviously very influenced by the atmospheric and tasteful playing of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour as that’s the easiest reference point here, but that’s the solo Dave Gilmour stuff really especially the On An Island album rather than Pink Floyd per se.
Like that album, this is also a collection of fine songs with some very languid yet lyrical guitar playing woven throughout. The overall effect is one of darker themes set against an atmospheric background.
The opening track lays out the tone of the album opening with a moody brooding flute and middle east sounding instruments before Rick’s guitar hits some emotive notes gaining in intensity before the whole thing changes and Rick’s vocal come in, it is a great opener, unhurried, but still with a sense of pace the song is loosely based on the idea of politics and revolution and lyrically is a sequel to The Fall Of Uqbar from Rick’s In The Shadows album.
As you listen to this album you soon realise that there are really strong and haunting melodies throughout and you warm to Rick’s laid back vocal offset against his incisive guitar work. This is shown to great effect on the second track Angels In The Forest which is actually in three quite distinct parts yet with the melody carrying on throughout the whole eight plus minutes.
Whispers is another standout track starting all bluesy and dealing with someone who has lost a loved one and can’t let go of them, sounding a little Dire Straits like (think of Telegraph Road) but turning into something a bit more guitar driven by the end of the song.
The most progressive sounding track here is probably Man Out Of Time starting out all acoustic and gently talking of how one feels with “The moonlight haunting me”. The song never really changes gear but there is an extended guitar work-out towards the end which gives an air of intensity this is set against some expansive soundscapes, quite straightforward but enjoyable all the same.
The more you listen to this disc the more you will get out of it, or at least it was the case for me. The final track The One [Reincarnate] picks up the theme of the opening song and is a good bookend to a very rewarding album indeed, on this basis I will have to investigate more of Rick Miller’s works.
Recommended for those who like Dave Gilmour or a more laid back style of album and certainly worthy of your time and investigation as this is a fine CD.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Cluster - Cluster II
Tracklist: Plas (6:20), Im Süden (12:54), Für Die Katz' (3:09), Live In Der Fabrik (14:53), Georgel (5:40), Nabitte (2:42)
Originally released on the Brain Label in 1972, Cluster's second album is the most recent object under scrutiny of Esoteric's Reactive subdivision. The band were a clear contemporary of Tangerine Dream, and this album is a slice of Krautrock at its most... krauty. The performers here are Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, two of three members left over from their first album, also on Esoteric Reactive.
The music is purely freeform and experimental, though not entirely atonal. Sometimes the sounds will provide a nice cushion for the ears, such as on the trippy Im Süden, and at other times, the noise will be darker and more intense, such as on the final track Nabitte. Whether smoking a joint or nodding off, one needs to be in a lowered state of conciousness to fully appreciate this music.
Usually I wouldn't give this album a second chance, but it was purely circumstancial how I came to like this album. I happened to be going to bed with some music in the background when this album came on and it really started to take me to a different place. The music appeared to me in solid form, and in particular a sound effect in the second track made me visualise thousands of cockroaches. This is an album that has actually given me nightmares!
As for the packaging, everything seems to be in order except for the artwork reproduction. Esoteric once again claim that they have fully restored the artwork, but a quick search on Google leads me to believe they have sourced only a single sleeve LP to base their reproduction on. In fact, there is a gatefold sleeve also, which extends the 'stars' image on the front. As a result we're only getting about half the amount of artwork that we should be getting. I'm quite shocked to see this from Esoteric to be honest. I guess we can't always get it right. On the other hand, the essay and band photos in the book give a good introduction to the band.
With electronic music, you can never be quite sure what your getting. With Cluster, I'm not sure whether the piece I'm listening to is planned or just improvised or a bit of both. The mood and the tone set by the album are dreadfully sinister, and very trippy. In contrast, I found the early Tangerine Dream albums incredibly unstimulating, boring even. A worthy electronic album I reckon.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Chicken Shack – Imagination Lady
Tracklist: Crying Won’t Help You Now (5:10), Daughter Of The Hillside (3:53), If I Were A Carpenter (6:34), Going Down (3:32), Poor Boy (5:10), Telling Your Fortune (11:10), The Loser (2:37) Bonus Tracks: Poor Boy [single version] (4:12), Telling Your Fortune [single version] (2:08)
Warning! The following album is not prog! At least, it isn’t strictly prog, but that isn’t to say it’s not enjoyable. Indeed, this historic band’s heavy take on the blues genre is particularly satisfying to the ear.
Oddly enough, this isn’t the first album by Chicken Shack, but the fifth. Imagination Lady marks the first album that the band recorded for the Deram label. This incarnation includes Stan Webb, founder and lead guitarist for the band, John Glascock on bass and Paul Hancox on the drums. I would describe the band, but Webb does it so well in the liner notes, that I may as well quote him.
“The problem with a three-piece line-up is that it can leave holes in the sound, unless you have an incredibly powerful drummer and a bassist who’s very busy. Thankfully, Paul and John had those qualities, which I believe you can hear on the Imagination Lady album.”
He’s not wrong!
In fact you only need to hear the opening bars of Crying Won’t Help You Now to hear what he means. You can click on the sample link above to do that right now. As long as you’re not adverse to the 12-bar blues scale, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The opening track itself is as heavy as it is fun. But of course, as progressive fans, we’re all interested in that eleven-minute monstrosity Telling Your Fortune. In fact, this track revolves around a dazzling but lengthy drum solo and some further noodling, but is bookended by a main theme. Those bookends are put together for the two-minute single version. Neat!
Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure Esoteric do this album justice in the art department. A quick search on Google shows that substantial cropping has been done on the cover image. Originally, the entire wood painting was shown, with a white border. Surely that couldn’t have been hard to replicate? Incidentally, does anyone else think that the guy on the front looks like Bill from True Blood?
Nevertheless, this light hearted, but incredibly satisfying album is very welcome in my collection. Just the sound of the instruments is enough to keep me coming back for more. If you like what you hear in the sample, I thoroughly recommend this fun album.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Decameron - Say Hello To The Band
Tracklist: Say Hello To The Band (3:50), Byard's Leap (7:27), Judith (3:24), Innocent Sylvester Prime (4:26), Crows (5:00), The Moon's In 'A' (4:39), Stoat's Grope [All I Need] (2:30), Ride A Lame Pony (5:22), Shine Away (2:41) Bonus Track: Friday Night At The Regal (3:01)
Decameron - Mammoth Special
Tracklist: Mammoth Special (3:48), Rock And Roll Woman (2:13), Just Enough Like Home (3:53), A Glimpse Of Me (2:43), Late On Lady Day (3:53), Breakdown Of The Song (3:06), The Cheetah (4:57), Jan (3:10), The Stonehouse (4:30), Parade (5:05), The Empty Space (5:58) Bonus Track: Twinset And Pearls (2:23)
Decameron's roots stem back to the mid 1960s and the Gloucestershire College of Art in Cheltenham where the guitarists Johnny Coppin and Al Fenn were undertaking their studies. The duo soon became trio with the addition of a third guitarist, Dave Bell, who soon established a songwriting partnership with Coppin and Decameron were born. By 1970 cellist Geoff March had joined the ranks. Regularly packing out small club gigs the band hooked up agency Fingimijig (co-owned and run by future comedian Jasper Carrott) following a date in Birmingham who opened doors to more gigs and roused the interests of several record labels. After a bidding way Phonogram eventually secured their signatures and placed them on their Vertigo label. Enlisting the support of such notable musicians as Fotheringay's bassist Pat Donaldson, Mighty Baby's pianist Ian Whiteman, drummer Timi Donald and pedal steel maestro BJ Cole (who actually contributes dobro to the album), the debut album was recorded and released in 1973.
Suppose there is no more apt way of opening a debut album with Say Hello To The Band, a gentle acoustic track in which all four members of the group take a verse each, handy having four vocalists! Unusually there is a prominent harmonica throughout the number laying down a counter melody, although no credit is given as to whom plays it. Byard's Leap is an epic folk tale that would fit seamlessly amongst anything an acoustic Fairport Convention have ever come up with. Andy Roberts contributes dulcimer which blends well with the violin and cello of March. The twin lead vocals of Coppin and Bell carry the song along in the finest folk traditions. Cole adds his dobro to Judith giving the rather simple song extra depth that complements the harmony singing of the chorus. Innocent Sylvester Prime is a fine ballad with a couple of acoustics and a strong lead vocal which is mostly solo until towards the end of the song where gentle harmonising completes the mellow nature. Things are taken to a more upbeat level on Crows, although one should not imagine that means anything approaching the heavy end of the musical spectrum! Bass and drums are more prominent in the beginning and after a concise violin solo there is an a cappella section of multiple voices with an ending that mirrors the beginning; a nicely constructed track with a fine blend of instruments.
The Moon's In 'A' is another low key number, both relaxed and relaxing before the virtual hoedown of the wonderfully titled Stoat's Grope [All I Need] which is another song that derives much of its momentum from March's violin. Ride A Lame Pony, the only song not jointly written by Bell and Coppin, Bell taking the sole credit, features Fenn on mandolin accompanying the twin acoustic guitars and really shows how well the album was originally produced (and/or how much the remastering has cleaned up the sound) as each instrument is clearly audible, even when the simple drum beat and violin enter towards the end of the song. Original album closing track Shine Away, supposedly features Ian Whiteman on organ although it is practically inaudible behind the cello that provides an alternative to a standard bass line. Bonus track, Friday Night At The Regal, b-side to the single Stoat's Grope released a month before the album, is a typical b-side in that it shows a different side to the band. This time a very energetic and, by Decameron's standards, pretty hard rocking. Actually a fine song that would have provided a bit more variety had it been included on the album proper.
When Say Hello To The Band failed to set the charts alight Vertigo declined to finance a second album but Decameron found a willing label in Mooncrest who released Mammoth Special in June 1974. By this time the group had acquired a permanent bassist in the form of future Caravan member Dik Cadbury, who also added extra guitar (as if that was needed), a second violin and the inevitable vocal contributions. The drum stool was again filled by a session musician, none other than future Rutles sticksman Barry Wom (otherwise known as John Halsey). The band also enlisted the help of arranger Robert Kirby, probably most well known for his work with Nick Drake. Although the music is largely along similar lines as the debut, there is a more of a sense of exploration and greater variety as exemplified by the opening title track, which is actually named after an item off a menu in a restaurant in Rotterdam! Upbeat and engaging, the song has a greater resemblance to Friday Night At The Regal than most of the tunes on the debut. An interesting largely a cappella version of Buffalo Springfield's Rock And Roll Woman displays the vocal prowess of the five members and is a finely honed arrangement as it was one of the numbers the band frequently sang in the van between gigs as a way or practicing their harmonies. Just Enough Like Home features a full and lush arrangement from Kirby that tends to dominate the song, although that is not a detrimental statement as Kirby's work is always worth hearing. A Glimpse Of Me takes a new tack with the introduction of electric guitars and an abrasive horn section that contributes to this joyous, musically if not lyrically, track. But the band had not forgotten their roots as Late On Lady Day has its origins in the music of the first album, with the twin lead vocals, acoustic guitars and piano, played by March. However, the arrangement and structure of the song is more advanced than anything on the debut and displays the increasing complexity of the compositions.
Breakdown Of The Song is a cutting commentary on the music industry. The band notes prefacing the song just about sum it up: "No bitterness, just bitterness...it's not easy running a sweet shop either...Hopefully you deal with people who like sweets" Ouch! The Cheetah is a clever allegory juxtaposing 'cheetah' with 'cheater'. Its starts off like many Decameron songs like another acoustic ballad but takes a surprise twist with the full band coming in to provide a heavier sound. The amazing bass sound is somewhat tempered by a rather superfluous percussion ending that is completely out of place. Violin dominates Jan, a tale about, surprise surprise, a violinist! The dual lead vocal approach makes a welcome return and the varying tempos and melodies makes it a thoroughly enjoyable track. It's back to a more folkish approach for The Stonehouse, from its largely a capella beginning to the rather low key mandolin and violin, the very up-front and dominant bass comes as something of a surprise, albeit an original one. Some great harmony singing over excellent acoustic guitar work makes this the most progressive (in the purest meaning of the word) of tracks and displays the willingness of the band to branch out into new directions. Armistice Day 1918 is the subject of Parade, although lyrically it is unlike many other songs covering the same topic. A mournful number, the choral vocals are very effective, the song bestows a suitable sadness and solemnity to the subject matter and is rather haunting in many ways. Some nice effects on the violin make this another track to remember. Original album closer, The Empty Space is a big prog-folk ballad with plaintive lead vocals and another superlative orchestral arrangement from Kirby. Bonus track, the b-side Twinset And Pearls could almost be a lyric from Squeeze's Chris Difford, and is even sung is a slight cockney manner! Musically it is far more upbeat that anything on the album and is a very jolly number, sung and played with enthusiasm and a certain amount of joie de vivre.
Again the album didn't sell in sufficient quantities to assure Mooncrest of a return on their investment so they let the band go. Their worth was such that they were immediately picked up by Transatlantic records who issued Third Light in 1975 which must had caused some feelings of regret at Mooncrest as surprisingly they paid for the recording and release of the next album Beyond The Light, also released in 1975. To confuse matters even more, the next year the band's final album, Tomorrow's Pantomime, heralded a return to the Transatlantic label! However, towards the end of 1976 the musical environment was changing and the band were finding it harder to get gigs which was the lifeblood of the band. Realising the writing was on the wall the band finally called it a day. Although not venturing too far down the progressive line, at least not as we know the genre today, on the basis of these two albums Decameron display enough of a sense of adventure to pique the interest of those who may favour the occasional prog-folk interlude.
Say Hello To The Band: 5 out of 10
Mammoth Special: 6 out of 10
Telesma – Action In Inaction
Tracklist: Intro (1:55), Shivananda (7:29), Groovinda (5:38), Beautiful Desire (8:17), Here-Now (7:30), Chain (5:37), Ascension (6:40), Action In Inaction (8:50), Solace (6:28), Tycho (3:41), Wake (6:47), White Lotus (8:01)
Telesma is a talisman or the energy with which a talisman is charged. The band’s name is very apt as Action In Inaction as an album portrays exactly that sentiment. The album is a cornucopia of varying styles, world music, psychedelic rock and trance music. The music drags you into their world that is spiritual, uplifting, stimulating and infectious, music that will have you intuitively grooving very much in the same way as say Ozric Tentacles or Transglobal Underground breaking down trans-cultural boundaries musically, which in my eyes can only be a good thing.
As a band they have been around since 2002 and are based in Baltimore Maryland and consists of Ian Hesford (didgeridoo, kubing, dumbek and percussion), Jason Sage (keyboards, vocals, percussion, programmer), Joanne Juskus (vocals, percussion, karatalas), Chris Mandra (guitar, analog guitar synth, the manDrum, and vocals), Bryan "Jonesy" Jones (6 string MIDI & upright basses, theremin, percussion) and Rob Houck (drum kit, percussion, electronic drums).
As one scans the list of instruments used to create this album, one builds a mental image that in all honesty is an image that won’t leave you too far off the mark. From what I am hearing here, the most perfect place to catch these guys would be live, more importantly within a festival setting where one could feed off the energy they create musically. This type of music really is about vibe, and the translation, which can at times be lost and sound flat on CD; live is where this music thrives and breathes as it need volume and depth to work.
There are some rather excellent moments here that really hit the mark, when everything falls into place, unfortunately at just under seventy seven minutes, the album becomes a tad, dare I say, repetitive, not musically, but thematically. This doesn’t make it a poor album, just like I said earlier, to be fully appreciated; I feel it needs to be experienced live.
The standout moments where you hear the band in their full glory are the funky bass and percussive driven Shivananda, the heavier and more guitar orientated Beautiful Desire that features the vocal tones of Joanne Juskus, the rather mesmerizing title track Action In Inaction and the rocking Wake.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10