Reviews in this issue:
- Jay Tausig - The Trip Around The Sun
- Minerals – White Tones
- Ordinary Brainwash – Me 2.0
- Mostly Autumn – The Ghost Moon Orchestra
- Plastic Overlords - Sonic Astronomy
- Janel & Anthony – Where Is Home
- Distorted Harmony - Utopia
- Different Strings - The Sounds Of Silence Part 1 ~ The Counterparts
- Bolus – Watch Your Step
- Tim Hunter - The Aura
Jay Tausig - The Trip Around The Sun
- Aquarius – The Revolutionist (60:03)
- Pisces – Vast Ocean Dream (72:08)
- Aries – The Fire Within (71:09)
- Taurus – Roots Of The Earth (72:14)
- Gemini – The Chaos And The Calm (79:08)
- Cancer – Shell Of Silver And The Beehive Heart (75:24)
- Pisces – Vast Ocean Dream (72:08)
NB: listing each individual track would have taken up a whole page, so I have linked to each listing on the album webpage.
One of the reasons I got into this reviewing lark was to satisfy an addiction for the new, the unheard. Well, this guy has made me realise that there are never going to be enough hours in the day, days in year, or years in a lifetime to do much more than scratch at the surface of the music that is out there. The reason I say that is that this talented musical polymath has a discography that makes me go “woah!” A casual glance at his website reveals he has made 7 albums since 2004, as well as numerous appearances on various tribute albums, the first being 1995’s VdGG tribute Eyewitness, to which Jay contributed three songs. I bought this album when it came out, but in those pre-internet days it was difficult to find out who these mostly obscure artists were Jay included. The fact that this appears to be the first generally released music by Jay is ironic in that until now he had disappeared under my radar. There may well be serendipity involved.
Anyway, rambling aside you may wonder why releasing 7 albums in 7 years is such a daunting prospect, and it is because added to that is his 2012 magnum opus (and if ever that phrase was justified it is now) The Trip Around The Sun, which as you can see from the listing above so far comprises 6 full-length albums, each dedicated to a sign of the Zodiac, and obviously there are 6 more to come! On top of that there is Jay’s third solo album Delirium scheduled for release this year. So much for the slacker new-age generation, then, eh? I’ll let Jay explain the writing processes involved:
The writing process for this project could be described as "Record as I Write". Getting the initial energy of a performance is very important to the way it ultimately flows, and sounds. Much of this music is built up from complete performances on any one given instrument...usually improvised and intuitive. A great deal of this is First Take.
Also, about 50 % of it is written "on the spot" this year, as we go. Whenever delving into other material from the last few years, the "timestamps" on the file allow me know when a particular song was recorded...because capturing the essence and feeling of any particular sign has turned out to be the ultimate focus and goal. The Guests are usually doing their work during their "Birth Sign" as well...Synchronicity is one of the things that makes so much of this project unique and special.
It's a journey, not so much a collection of songs, but an intuitive, highly focused, music and art road map to the myths and properties of the 12 Astrological signs...
So there you have it; the music on these albums is ever-expanding in a way akin to our universe, and you can leap in anywhere you want and trip off to your heart’s content, which is just as well, as I doubt anyone is going to sit through all 12 instalments in one sitting, unless a very long journey, real or metaphorical, is about to be undertaken. Recorded in the gorgeously named Studio Lemuria in Nevada City, northern California, Jay has composed and played nearly everything and is a more than capable drummer as well as a guitarist and keyboard player. He probably made the tea too. Assisting him throughout the series are various vocalists, such as “Rhi-Jenerate” and “Thom World Poet” to name two who contribute singing and spoken word interludes linking the star signs to the cosmic wonderment, all in a suitably otherworldly fashion. Thom writes some of the lyrics, as does Keith Waye, but if I were to list all the movers’n’shakers we would be here all night! Contributing his trademark visually intense artwork throughout is Ed Unitsky, and this alone is a trip in itself. The cover art at the top of this review is from the Pisces album and is just a sample of the lovely artwork supplied with the downloads.
The first thought that makes itself known to me, as I sit here typing away with part 6 Cancer - Shell of Silver and the Beehive Heart blasting away is how on Earth…or indeed in Space… can anyone make so much music in what appears to be a relatively short time and not run out of ideas? Well, I’m just going to have to immerse myself in the far-out world of Mr Tausig to find out, am I not?
The full title of the work is “The Art Of Ed Unitsky And The Music Of Jay Tausig - A Cosmic Journey Through The Zodiac - The Trip Around The Sun” and for once a long title does not imply pretentiousness, just a visionary ambition that is for the most part fulfilled.
The album, although keeping space rock as a base, charges through a whole range of styles from the out-and-out-there-somewhere contemplative swaying meditation of the 43 (!) minute long Om Riff that is Two Sides To Every Coin (part 2) from the Gemini album; to the dub reggae of Glorious Dubfrom the Taurus album; to the Hammill influenced angularity of Shell Of Silver and the Beehive Heart (part 1) from the Cancer album; to the math-rock extrapolations of Amethyst from the Aries album, along with helpings psych-folk and avant strangeness. Allaying my earlier fears, these stylistic changes contribute to the many and varied atmospheres covered in the first 6 albums that have so far been released, showing more than enough good ideas and imagination in the process to hold one’s interest throughout.
Some names you might recognise helping Jay out are Billy Sherwood & Bridget Wishart (Pisces), who contributed to the writing of and play on the 8 minute space-prog mini-epic Twisting The Tail which has touches of Yes swimming with Gong, like a couple of playful dolphins. Lovely! And then there’s Kerry Chicoine (aka Kerry Kompost) ex of Mars Hollow rocking out on his song Vernal Equinox from the Aries album, playing sax, guitar and bass; and Bill Berends who lends his fluid and funky guitar to Aries Fire Horse later on the same album. Steffe Sharpstrings of Here & Now fame does the drum programming on the aforementioned Glorious Dub.
Hopefully my “pick’n’mix” review has whetted your appetite, and you may be wondering how much what will in all probability end up being around 14 hours of music is going to cost? Well, follow the link above and during 2012 for a mere $30 you can subscribe to the whole lot as downloads, including the 6 albums yet to be released, which sounds like a bargain to me. There are a load of goodies thrown in too, follow the link to Subscription details for more info.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Minerals – White Tones
Tracklist: 01010110 (5:00), Last Time (3:36), Discount (4:43), Fast Forward (2:41), Is This Love (3:07), Hearts And The Sea (4:13), Fable (3:12), Mistake (4:22), Back Track (4:35), Thin Times (3:58), So Sure (3:53), White Tones (4:52)
White Tones is the debut album from a new quintet which is being hailed by many home critics as one of Poland’s most promising alternative rock bands. From the 12 tracks on offer, I would tend to agree with such an assessment.
The band was formed in Warsaw three years ago and quickly appeared on radio play lists thanks to their debut single Hearts And The Sea.
Their debut album is full of unique and quickly likeable compositions. There is an immediacy to the melodies yet a fine detail to the twin guitar playing of Łukasz Cirocki and Przemek Buchelt and a depth to Filip Pokłosiewicz’s warm vocals that warrants repeat listens. The accomplished songwriting and performances are way beyond what most bands are able to achieve on their debut. However it’s the clever dynamic precision laid down by drummer Andrzej Ratajczyk that I credit for really drawing me into this disc.
There is a spacious dreaminess and warmth to the likes of Fast Forward and Is This Love which I’ve found endearing. Hearts And The Sea is too commercial for my tastes, the jangly guitars of Last Time are a bit too obvious and Fable is one song I always skip.
The band quote the alternative British rock scene as their main inspiration and certainly fans of Coldplay and Radiohead will find much to stomp along to here. If you take your play lists for a little further back in time then Simple Minds, Talk Talk and U2 would be comfortable bedfellows.
Quite simply White Tones is an album that has provided a surprising amount of pleasure in repeat listens. I’m not really a big fan of the Coldplay/Radiohead sound but this is an easy DPRP recommendation.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Ordinary Brainwash – Me 2.0
Tracklist: Outdated (6:08), Me 2.0 (4:48), Unbirthday (7:41), Stay Foolish (5:48), Don't Look Back (3:40), Homesick (6:20), Critical Error (6:21), Something New (6:20)
Another interesting new project coming out of the burgeoning Polish post-rock scene. This is actually the third album in less than three years from the one-man project that is composer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Rafal Zak.
Rafal’s debut album entitled Disorder In My Head was released in December 2009. Ten months later and he already had its successor Labeled Out Loud ready to be heard. Having heard neither of these independently-released albums, or indeed ever hearing of this project before, I’m unable to offer any comparison in terms of changes in quality or musical approach.
The obliquely-titled third disc, Me 2.0, is an emotional, thoughtful blend of heavy progressive-tinged post-rock.
The over-arching impression is of a central melody and groove laid over quiet, introspective moods. A harder edge emerges through the aggressive use of guitar which constantly lurks in the background. Me 2.0 is the sort of album best enjoyed if you just submerge in the atmosphere and let yourself be taken along for a generally enjoyable ride.
It is an accomplished package. Having played this a few times before doing any research, I was actually surprised that this was not a full band.
The track Outdated from the YouTube (Samples) link above probably offers the best idea of what Rafal has created. There is a fair bit of Riverside and Lunatic Soul here, with Porcupine Tree and occasionally Gazpacho as other reference points.
As a one-man project, Ordinary Brainwash will never be on the same level as any of these bands. For me such projects will always lack compositional depth from not having a varied pool of influences, inspirations and playing styles that only a full band offers.
However Rafal has created plenty of variety to maintain interest whilst the emotion moves effectively between lightness and darkness. There is a distinct accent and limited range and personally I prefer Zak's more melodic voice (as on Stay Foolish) than the morbid shoe-gaze tone he utilises most often.
If you like your music on the grey side, then this is a project well-worth investigating.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Mostly Autumn – The Ghost Moon Orchestra
Tracklist: Unquiet Tears (5:27), Drops Of The Sun (3:37), The Devil And The Orchestra (3:55), The Ghost Moon Orchestra (7:01), This Ragged Heart (3:27), King Of The Valley (4:35), Things That We Notice (3:43), Tennyson Mansion (7:06), Wild Eyed Skies (5:49), Top Of The World (7:27)
With a continuous stream of well received live and studio albums (roughly 20 in all) since their inception in 1996, Mostly Autumn have become firmly initiated into the prog-rock establishment. Also fully established is singer Olivia Sparnenn with this being her second studio outing as lead vocalist following 2010’s Go Well, Diamond Heart and Heather Findley’s departure earlier that same year. Continuing the link between this and the last album is the line-up - Bryan Josh (lead guitar, vocals), Iain Jennings (keyboards), Anne-Marie Helder (vocals, flute, keyboards), Andy Smith (bass), Gavin Griffiths (drums) and Liam Davison (guitars, vocals). An encouraging sign given that MA are not noted for consistency when it comes to personnel. ‘Guest’ Troy Donockley (low whistle, Uilleann pipes) is again on hand to provide a welcome reminder of the bands prog-folk roots.
If for me Go Well, Diamond Heart fell somewhat short of the best of MA then Heather’s last recording Glass Shadows from 2008 was even wider of the mark. Whilst Josh’s role as principle song writer is never challenged, Olivia and Jennings make a stronger contribution this time around resulting in a more potent sound that leans towards the band’s heavier side.
Things get off to promising start with Unquiet Tears, jointly credited to Jennings, Josh and Sparnenn. A tranquil but instantly memorable piano and vocal theme is joined by weeping guitar before the song hits its riff driven, mid-tempo stride crowned by Olivia’s strident and catchy choral hook. One of the best opening tunes on a MA album for some time and the good news continues with the gritty Drops Of The Sun. Here Josh’s familiar raw vocal tone provides the verses allowing Olivia to cut loose with the soaring chorus. The mood continues with the apocalyptic and appropriately titled The Devil And The Orchestra where a relentless, bone crunching riff gives way to Josh’s anthemic chorus. A very powerful track with atmospheric organ embellishments and a grungy, bluesy guitar solo.
In terms of song quality it’s so far so good, although it has to be said that the band’s current hard rock style (typical of their recent albums) owes more to mainstream rock than it does their earlier brand of Floyd and Genesis influenced prog. And surprisingly the longer, seven minute plus tracks prove to be less engaging than those almost half the length as the title song and album centrepiece The Ghost Moon Orchestra testifies. Another graceful vocal and piano melody gets proceedings off to a promising start but despite the songs wind swept, cinematic feel and trademark soaring guitar solo, for me it doesn’t quite fulfil its opening promise and fades rather abruptly. There is also a dark and (intentionally) sinister undercurrent that pervades both the lyrics and the atmosphere of this song.
Better in my opinion is the pastoral splendour of This Ragged Heart, with lilting acoustic guitar, whistle/flute and a sumptuous melody proving to be a welcome throwback to days of old. One of the most uplifting tunes Josh has penned for many a year. It’s a pity they don’t do more of this kind of thing and a telling reminder that Donockley and Anne-Marie Helder are neglectfully underused on this album.
King Of The Valley is back to a rockier, harder edged MA with Olivia displaying just the right level of emotion although the highpoints are a noodly organ solo that Andy Tillison would be proud of and a brief but welcome Steve Hackett inflected solo. In contrast Things That We Notice is a relatively breezy, lightweight affair with yet another strong chorus from Olivia and a verse in particular that reminded me of Del Amitri’s Nothing Ever Happens.
It’s on the final three tracks however where the bombastic guitar tendencies get the better of the band. Whilst Tennyson Mansion opens with mellow guitar providing a platform for the evocative main theme and a lush keys backdrop, it concludes with an onslaught of guitar shredding that’s only marginally more engaging than Josh’s repetitive line “Can’t let go”. The ethereal haunting sound of the Uilleann pipes are a welcome, but all too brief addition to Wild Eyed Skies but the inevitable strident outburst around the two minute mark is formulaic MA right down to the histrionic guitar break. Likewise the concluding Top Of The World veers from a hauntingly beautiful vocal duet intro to an impressive if overlong guitar coda.
This latest from Mostly Autumn continues the trend of recent albums, remodelling themselves for the 21st century with the occasional look over the shoulder to the past. Fronting MA Olivia Sparnenn is a stunning asset (vocally and visually) but despite significant contributions from the rest of the band its Bryan Josh’s single minded determination that provides the creative direction. The sound is leaner and grittier and as result more dependent on tuneful melodies which fortunately this album has in abundance. All too evident however is the formula mentioned earlier which is conspicuous in at least 4 of the 10 songs here - tranquil vocal/piano opening sung by Olivia; edgy riff driven mid-section with catchy chorus sung by either Olivia, Josh or both; an overblown finale built around a lengthy guitar solo; fade to a brief reprise of the opening theme.
As a parting shot I should point out that although my review copy is the single disc version, The Ghost Moon Orchestra is (or was) also available with a limited edition bonus CD containing acoustic versions of 12 songs old and new. Perhaps playing the two discs back to back may at least temper some of the electric guitar excesses of the main disc.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Plastic Overlords - Sonic Astronomy
Tracklist: Star Avenger Vs. The Winged Hippopotamus (10:29), You Crumble To Bits (3:40), A Moment Of Silence For Unsynchronized Watches (8:06), The Sunburst Going Sour? (5:13), Twelve Steps To Seventh Heaven (6:18), Silver Sparks From The Holy Mountain (8:02), Your Chariot Awaits (4:43), Tea And Cake With Another Mad Hatter (12:14) CD Bonus Track: Plastic Overlords (4:46)
"For 2,000 years, the Colossi of Memnon emitted strange sounds at the stars...
Now, Plastic Overlords give you more sonic astronomy."
As I read the press release, I just thought, what? After all, you rarely see a band so simultaneously quirky and confident when selling themselves to the reviewer. More peculiar sentences came up:
"Plastic Overlords were formed in 2000 by David Noel to console himself after the sudden but expected death of his Mellotron."
Now that, I can relate to. I've never owned a Mellotron, but if I did, I know that I would treat it with love and care and bawl like a baby if it were to malfunction. Before I even listened to the band, I felt grieved to know that there wouldn't be a Mellotron, that most sacred of prog instruments, in the mix.
By this point, something was amiss. The band's press release had actually got me on their side already. By comparison, the majority of A4 offerings that I receive with CDs mistakenly boast about how the band in question is the best thing since sliced bread, or how the release of their album is akin to the Second Coming, which naturally leaves me a little cynical.
The report was informative, but not too informative, leaving an air of mystique about the band. For example, I was able to find out that the Overlords consist of John Eades on guitars, the afore-mentioned David Noel on vocals, bass and keyboards, and Brad Johnson on drums. I also found out that the tracks on this album were recorded as far back as 2000, but that most of them were shelved for 10 years, until the original masters were found, making this something of a compilation album. What I had to find out for myself was that the band's debut was actually reviewed by us on New Year's Day 2001, and that the band hail from Georgia, USA.
I stick on the album and what do I hear? Simply some of the most creative yet fun progressive music I have heard from a new band ever! The band's quirkiness spills over from the press release into their music, and the results are just fantastic. The tracks all have ridiculously long and silly names such as The Sunburst Going Sour? and Tea And Cake With Another Mad Hatter.
Star Avenger Vs. The Winged Hippopotamus begins the album, at first with a slow crescendo, suggesting Can perhaps, before launching into a fast-paced rocky tune. Midway through, things are tastefully slowed down, so the chords can be bashed out for full effect, and the song is topped off with a complex yet delightful four-minute instrumental. The title of this song recalls Rush's epic By-Tor And The Snow Dog.
Another awesome track is the eight-minute Silver Sparks From The Holy Mountain, which begins with a wonderfully proggy two minute instrumental, which reminds me, bizarrely enough, of Eloy. The keyboards definitely give us a spacey feel, while the bass, guitar and fast-paced drums keep us well grounded. After, a superbly rounded psychedelic but very rocky track unfolds, with such quirky, but mathematically correct lyrics as "Five times five/Is twenty-five."
My favourite track of the record though has to be A Moment Of Silence For Unsynchronized Watches, which Nigel Camilleri also applauded in his review. The track has a great layered structure, whereby the earlier a theme is introduced, the later it is revisited. The track begins with some Alex Lifeson-esque guitar strums, before continuing with a marching theme, making this something of an anthem. After a brisk, rhythmic 7/8 pattern, the song becomes very energetic, with the sound of bells alternating with staccato notes. Right at the heart of the song, everything slows down, and Noel delivers some blistering Squire-esque bass, while Eades plays an exquisite solo on top. The whole song sounds like a lost Rush track. One lyrical section later, and the song finishes as it started, counting backwards through all the themes used in the song. It's really quite spectacular, and you can listen to all eight minutes of it in the above link.
Give me any song on this album, and I could give a few reasons why it's a great song. A few things are consistent though: the band's skill cannot be faulted, and in particular I enjoy Noel's melodic bass guitar being high in the mix. The compositions are always light-hearted, but are still well-structured and don't lose any credibility. Each song is about as satisfying as the last, and it's easy to listen to one song on its own, or the album as a whole. The icing on the cake is the artwork, including the inner booklet photo, which tactfully suggests the band's quirky nature.
I've poured over this album time and time again, and I haven't found a single fault in the music. For an album to keep me riveted and satisfied all the way through is really quite special, particularly from an obscure band like this. I take my ratings seriously, and a flawless album like this is worthy of nothing less than the highest grade. Sonic Astronomy is an album that deserves to be in your collection, and I shall cherish it for years to come.
Conclusion: 10 out of 10
Janel & Anthony – Where Is Home
Tracklist: Big Sur (4:51), The Clearing (2:21), Leaving The Woods (5:40), Symphony Hills (1:07), Lily In The Garden (4:15), Auburn Road (0:43), Mustang Song (5:40), Stay With Me (0:51), A Viennesian Life (3:50), Broome’s Orchard (7:56), ‘Cross The Williamsburg Bridge (1:33), Where Will We Go (6:39), Finale (1:28)
Hailing from Washington, DC, cellist Janel Leppin and guitarist Anthony Pirog have known each other since their teenage years and since 2005 have been playing as a duo, recording one eponymous self-released album which has sold well at the numerous shows, and now this year sees Where Is Home, their first work for Cuneiform.
As you might guess from the track titles the album reflects the restless nature of a rootless life and a longing for home, which in Janel’s case is the family home of five generations in Wedderburn, Vienna. Not the Austrian capital I hasten to add but its namesake near Washington. This solid base forms a starting point and inspirational focus for the album which mixes Hindustani rhythms, sitar, Janel’s Saarang Maestro Dx (a digital tanpura, or long-necked North Indian lute) as well as conventional guitars and cello on the direct and jaunty rhythm of Anthony’s Big Sur, a song atypical of the rest of the album.
Strange electronica inform the some of the shorter tracks, while others go for a more organically ambient feel. The album has deep warmth of sound, probably as a result of having been recorded on to analogue tape, was three years in the making, and the obvious great care and attention to detail shines through. The ambient pieces are not merely an afterthought, they give the album a foundation on which to build achingly beautiful and melancholic pieces such as Leaving The Woods, Anthony’s liquid guitar skirting and caressing the dresses of Janel’s koto. Let this song wash your cares away.
When the electronics are stripped away to a bare minimum and the more exotic instrumentation is laid to one side, as on Lily In The Garden, a careworn soul is revealed in the interplay between the cello and the acoustic and electric guitars. On Mustang Song both players don electric guitars and over loops deliver an almost post-rock inflection that leaves impressions of early instrumental Felt before more liquid guitar runs take it downstream to somewhere else entirely.
Meanwhile, back in Vienna, VA, that ultimate prog instrument the Mellotron makes an appearance on A Viennesian Life (to distinguish it from a Venetian life, presumably) played by engineer Mike Reina in the most subtle fashion imaginable. Credit to Mike for the sympathetic and respectful treatment of the instrument, and indeed the entire recording. The theme of home is continued on Broome’s Orchard, a place of pastoral calm that includes a highly effective “bowed and struck vibraphone”; then it’s away ’Cross The Williamsburg Bridge and we are on our travels again, before finally wondering Where Will We Go, a question that needs an answer but the search for an answer is anxious, as an undercurrent of very slightly unsettling dissonance is never far from the calm surface, breaking through in waves of atonal cello and background noise, before a long sigh of an ending. The question remains unresolved. The Finale is restless and does not really restore any sense of natural order to the apparent dichotomy of the previous track and we have come to the end of a journey that while illuminating is not all that it seems. A fine piece of work from the Washington duo that leaves me wanting more.
Apparently Cuneiform had not signed a local act in more than a decade, so the capture of Janel & Anthony must indicate a mutual faith and belief. I think the duo and the label are made for each other, and hopefully their impressionistic sound palette will now reach the wider audience it deserves.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Distorted Harmony - Utopia
Tracklist: Kono Yume (8:40), Breathe (8:52), Obsession (9:11), Blue (7:24), Unfair (8:07), Utopia (12:30)
Israeli quintet Distorted Harmony were formed in 2009 by Yoav Efron (keyboards) and drummer Yogev Gabay (drums), who were later joined by Misha Soukhinin (vocals), Guy Landau (guitar) and Iggy 'Jalapeno' Cohen (bass). Their debut album, Utopia, was released in May 2012 as a digital download. Some of the music on the album (notably the title-track) had already been written by Efron in 2006, while the remaining tracks were composed during the following years, with lyrics mostly contributed by Soukhinin.
In he past few years, the Israeli progressive rock scene, while not by any means extensive, has produced a number of bands that have rightfully attracted a lot of attention. In prog metal circles, the likes of Amaseffer and Orphaned Land have received their share of exposure and enthusiastic feedback. However, unlike those two bands, Distorted Harmony do not incorporate elements of traditional Middle Eastern music or culture in their sound, following the example of another modern Israeli band, Solstice Coil, as regards the inclusion of alternative rock influences - particularly evident in Misha Soukhinin's vocal style. On the other hand, the "traditional" prog metal direction as established by Dream Theater in the early Nineties - with albums such as the seminal Images And Words and the darker, more intense Awake - is clearly recognizable in Distorted Harmony's sound. Their configuration is also in keeping with that tradition, featuring a lead vocalist and allowing the keyboards to shine as much as the guitar.
While the similarities to early Dream Theater (before Kevin Moore's departure and consequent decline in the songwriting quality) are not hard to spot while listening to Utopia, Distorted Harmony avoid the blatant plagiarism of many of the bands who follow in the footsteps of the New York outfit. Indeed, Soukhinin's understated vocals may suggest the likes of Steven Wilson, Mikael Åkerfeldt or Tool's Maynard James Keenan, rather than LaBrie's often annoying histrionics. Comparisons have been made to bands like Pain of Salvation or Haken, but in my view the most evident influence on Distorted Harmony's sound is classical music, with occasional touches of pomp rock/AOR in the Kansas mould and a pinch of jazz (an interesting addition which the band might want to pursue in future releases).
Clocking in at around 53 minutes (a much shorter running time than most albums in the genre), Utopia includes 6 longish songs that, however, do not exceed a reasonable (for prog standards) 12 minutes. In opener Kono Yume, the brisk, rippling piano is reinforced by the symphonic feel of the mellotron; then the track develops in a way more typical of the genre, with powerful, echoing riffs and acrobatic duels between synth and guitar, similar in their piercing tone . With Breathe things calm down a bit (as the title may suggest), at least in the lovely acoustic guitar intro backed by majestic keyboards, and in Soukhinin's discreet, almost subdued vocals that contrast with the heavier, riff-driven sections, and effectively convey the catchy tone of the chorus. Obsession heads into more strongly defined metal territory with its harsh, riff-driven opening, then melody kicks in with the addition of vocals, keyboards and piano; the song alternates heavier and gentler sections, and culminates in dramatic fashion. Interestingly, the guitar seems to take a back seat in both this song and the following Blue, where the keyboards play the most prominent role. Unfair (which also features saxophone, though it is not easy to pick out) veers into AOR territory for a while, then the intensity increases, with the welcome contribution of a Hammond organ's trademark rumbling sound that adds and the guitar finally stepping into the limelight. The title-track closes the album in style, its 12 minutes characterized by numerous changes in mood and tempo, with keyboards creating spacey, almost cinematic atmospheres that complement the dense riffing, a wild guitar solo and a middle section with spoken vocals accompanied by sparse acoustic guitar - quite dramatic as a whole, though a tad patchy.
Despite the band's being a practically unknown quantity even to dedicated followers of the scene, Utopia has elicited a lot of positive feedback on account of its freshness and keen sense of melody, in stark contrast with the myriad of formulaic, derivative products released on the market with alarming regularity. Distorted Harmony deserve praise for releasing a debut album with such outstanding standards of quality without the backing of a label, and for having made it available for free to the general public. The band's individual members are obviously gifted musicians, and even the ever-tricky songwriting aspect is skilfully handled - keeping track length within reasonable boundaries, and not overdoing the head-spinning tempo changes. However, for someone who, like me, is not a devotee of prog metal, it is not easy to rate the album in a way that will do it justice. Like it or not, personal taste will always be a factor in any review, and complete objectivity is something that very few (if any) are likely to achieve. Therefore, as in all honesty I found it hard to relate to the music, my rating will fall short of "recommended" status, while taking into account the album's strengths and overall qualities. Utopia is nevertheless recommended to fans of progressive metal who are looking for music that, even though not exactly innovative, avoids a retread of the old, tired clichés of the genre and affords a glimpse of intriguing future developments.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Different Strings - The Sounds Of Silence Part 1 ~ The Counterparts
Tracklist: Selfishness – Part 1 (10:28), Time And Again (5:24), Let Me Out Of Here (6:39), Victims Of Love (5:59), Trance Of Sorrow (30:34) [comprising 3:00 o’clock Overture, Another Day, State Of Mind, Playing With Fire, Mental Turbulence, Dead Calm (In Promised Land), Another Day (Reprise), Going Home]
Maltese Chris Tallia, a lover of music of all ages, was sufficiently impressed by Rush’s music that he decided to name his music making project after their song Different Strings, from their Permanent Waves album. He quotes other influences from the progressive rock world, both old and new, but the compositional strength of this album means that, in general, his music stands on its own merits.
Different Strings is essentially a solo project with Mallia composing, arranging, writing lyrics, playing all of the instruments and singing backing vocals. Errol Cutajar provides lead vocals, and Mallia is also assisted by Trevor Catania (bass on a couple of tracks) and Lloyd Stafrace, who helped him with the lyrics on Victims Of Love. It’s a system that works well: if anything, it is the lead vocal that is not as strong as the instrumental parts, and consequently slightly diminishes the overall effect of the music.
This is also a strong album compositionally, with some very fine songs taking up the first half, and the epic 30+ minutes Trance Of Sorrow the latter half. Trance Of Sorrow is the sort of composition that will divide many readers of this site: is it really one integrated composition or is it a song cycle? Perhaps it doesn’t matter, as the discrete sections are strong in themselves. The composition – let’s call it that - certainly demonstrates more progressive elements than the remainder of the album, which tends towards art-rock. Large sections of it demonstrate Tallia’s influences from progressive metal: they’re good but, for me, distort the overall balance of an album whose highlight is the strength of the melodic writing. I suspect that Tallia was tempted to demonstrate the range of his virtuosity and eclecticism, and the album loses some cohesiveness as a result. Were you, however, to listen to any of the tracks (including the sub-sections of Trance Of Sorrow) in isolation, you’d be quite happy.
Despite the proggy-appeal of a 30+ minute composition, it is the album's first half which works best. Don't get me wrong, there is variety here, from melodic to rocky to rhythmic interest, but the way that the changes occur between tracks makes for a good half an hour of art-rock and is more satisfying to the listener who doesn’t want to immerse himself in the depth opf meaning of the lyrics for the epic composition. Selfishness serves as a good start, with plenty of punchy, physical bass leading to a keyboard driven section before some good guitar during a rocky phase. Time And Again is very strong melodically, good enough to be played on pop radio: a good rock ballad. Incidentally, "radio edits" of Time And Again and Victims Of Love were released on a 2010 EP reviewed by DPRP (Victims Of Love); and the project’s previous album has also received a review (…It’s Only the Beginning).
Let Me Out Of Here perhaps outstays its welcome but can be judged, nevertheless, as a good rocker. Victims Of Love closes out the art-rock phase of the album: another strong piece oozing melody but also adding rhythmic interest and a pretty synthesizer symphonic arrangement.
As I’ve said, after being lulled for half an hour into this strong art-rock groove, the prog-metal weighting of the second half of the album then jars slightly during one listen. This, and the fact that the vocal performance is not as strong as the instrumental ones, dictates that the album misses out on a recommendation-level score, but readers may well enjoy hearing excerpts of Trance Of Sorrow or one of the four stand-alone tracks out of context. Readers of Prog magazine may get a chance to do just this as I understand that the instrumental opening to Trance Of Sorrow, 3:00 O’Clock Overture, may be included in that magazine’s next cover issue. In any case, you can check out Tallia’s website for samples, please use the link in the review.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Bolus – Watch Your Step
Tracklist: Day Of Discovery (4:44), Blockout (5:46), Shadow Stalker (3:01), Vow (7:00), Going Up (0:55), Faced (3:16), Magistrate (6:18), Never Wish Again (5:32), In Conclusion... (9:26)
This is one I’ve had for a while now. I’ve always had it in the review ‘to do’ pile but get sidetracked, often. It’s not that I don’t like it. Far from it. It’s been in the car for ages, and a number of people who have heard it have commented how good it sounds. Who’s this? They ask. Bolus, I reply.
This is, in fact, their first ever album. Originally released seven years back it was re-recorded, and re-released last year. Their star is obviously in the ascendancy, as they are playing next year’s Rosfest but you, like me I’m guessing won’t have come across them before, so let’s do the biography and band intro thang:
Following a few more years of writing and performing, Richard had decided to leave the band. Nick and Mat would continue on to record the second album on their own while searching for a new bassist. They had turned to another high school friend, Daniel Avner to take on this role. Bolus released their second album, Delayed Reaction, in November 2010, to positive reception, and followed this with local live performances in support of the album. During live performances, the members of Bolus are joined by keyboardist, guitarist, and backing vocalist Kyle Grounds. During the recording process for Delayed Reaction, it was decided that 2005 Watch Your Step should be re-recorded, so as to improve on the original’s sonic quality, and in November 2011, Bolus released the new version of their debut. Nick Karch [Guitars, Vocals & Keyboards], Mat Keselman [Drums, Percussion & Vocals], Daniel Avner [Bass, Bass Pedals & Backing Vocals]
"Bolus is a Toronto-based progressive rock band. The group formed in spring 2003 after its founding members, Nick Karch, Mat Keselman and Richard Frankel met at Vaughan Secondary School. Adopting a progressive rock style, the band began writing and performing music, taking every opportunity to present it to concert goers in the greater Toronto area. After developing enough material for a full-length record, Bolus entered Wit’s End Studios in late 2004 to record their debut album, Watch Your Step (2005)."
Following a few more years of writing and performing, Richard had decided to leave the band. Nick and Mat would continue on to record the second album on their own while searching for a new bassist. They had turned to another high school friend, Daniel Avner to take on this role. Bolus released their second album, Delayed Reaction, in November 2010, to positive reception, and followed this with local live performances in support of the album. During live performances, the members of Bolus are joined by keyboardist, guitarist, and backing vocalist Kyle Grounds.
During the recording process for Delayed Reaction, it was decided that 2005 Watch Your Step should be re-recorded, so as to improve on the original’s sonic quality, and in November 2011, Bolus released the new version of their debut.
Nick Karch [Guitars, Vocals & Keyboards], Mat Keselman [Drums, Percussion & Vocals], Daniel Avner [Bass, Bass Pedals & Backing Vocals]
The first time I heard this (I’m on about play 20 now) I got a massive Iluvatar, and Rush vibe. I still do. Which is why, I guess, I like it. In fact it’s better, I think, than what most English ‘prog’ bands are churning out right now. Because so much of what passes for ‘progressive rock music’ on these shores these days is as far from progressive rock as my arse is from my earhole.
Only the Americans and the Swedes (and two or three English bands) are truly knocking it out of the park for me at the moment. The songwriting on this record is very good, each song taking you on a journey, and not just noodling away before disappearing up its own arsehole. I really should start naming and shaming but these bands should, I hope, know who they are. I’d heartily recommend they give this one a listen before deciding to polish up the CV for a job they probably have to wear a nametag for.
I’ve listened on quite a bit of kit:
Bose car stereo: sounds a bit muddy if truth be told, but the songwriting quality remains and you end up tapping away happily on the steering wheel and, as mentioned, more than a few passengers have said they like it.
Brennan DB7 320 kbps mp3 rip; Chord iChord cable; little dot Mk3 headphone amp; Chord Crimson plus cables into Grado SR80i headphones: a much fuller sound, obviously, with good separation and Karch’s vocals are lovely and clean. It might be a bit trebly in places for everyone’s tastes but this record really puts me in mind of Iluvatar’s A Story Two Days Wide, recorded in 1999. Karch is, to me, a dead ringer for Glenn McLaughlin.
Denon 38DAB CD player; Chord Crimson Plus cables into the same amp: a much, much bigger sound, trebly still but it’s here the record really blossoms and it’s a pleasant listening experience, albeit needing a little bit of EQ shennanigans. The bass in Blockout, for example, is fat, as I believe the saying goes. As well as very Rush-like in places. Or is it ‘phat’? Oh and said song has a fantastic solo by Karch as well. Talented lad. All further insights from now on are on this kit configuration.
Cheap and cheerful stuff, but each one gives a little bit more and the listening experience is different in each environment. It’s to be remembered we sometimes have MP3 downloads only to listen to for reviewing purposes and if all you’re doing is playing it out through the laptop then your listening experience will be significantly impacted.
Shadow Stalker is a great little rock song with some lovely guitar work.
Vow showcases what Bolus do best: great choral and neo-prog keys, wonderful vocals and always the vibe, the feeling that the song is going somewhere. Some Discipline-esque guitar merely serves to segue into a great guitar workout circa BOC in the late 70s, together with vocal harmonies, and snappy time changes. This is a very good song.
The sound samples that sounded hokey on the MP3 on the 55 second long mini track Going Up, sound much beefier on proper gear, before the rocky segue into Faced. Superb musicianship, a great rock vibe, time changes aplenty and vocal harmonies all add up to a great tune.
Spoken samples around God, atheism and whatnot herald the beginning of Magistrate a much more balls out rocker than what’s gone before. There are many time and tempo changes, as you’d expect. Very Rush-like, this tune. Or if you’re after a more current reference, the Detroit band Tiles. There’s some piano amidst all the riffage, and more voice samples.
Never Wish Again is much more flowery, powery, lighters in the airy. It sounds like Rush, circa 1977.
In Conclusion is the longest song on the album, at a tad under ten minutes and is a great big dollop of wonderful neo-prog, by way of Genesis, Marillion (think Grendel) and IQ courtesy of the great wafts of synth and the rocky bottom end, and spoken vocals. ‘I have come to seek salvation’. Have you now? I said. Then headbanged. A bit. I’m 48 after all. It’s very tuneful, and melodic, with a rocky/jazzy/symphonic build up that is really rather good. It kind of wallows around a bit, to be fair, and could have benefited by some judicial pruning but it is nevertheless a pretty decent tune.
And now I do as I always do after the reviewing listening bit.
Put the re-mastered Drama by Yes (the rat bag orphan of the Yes canon, according to some; a favourite of mine) in the same player and listen through the exact same configuration. No contest, sound-wise or song-wise I’m afraid. But then you wouldn’t expect it.
So there. A decent album that’s better than a great deal of English ‘prog’ out there at the moment. The thing I like about Bolus is they’re not so far up their own arse they think they’re going to be famous. Or rich. Now I don’t know if they’ve ever supported Marillion, but they are more than good enough to.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Tim Hunter - The Aura
Tracklist: Mother Shipton (4:58), Alien Leylines (4:59), Sky Blue Realm (3:45), The Aura (4:08), Android Void Part (24:20), Home In The Sun (5:08)
This disc, The Aura appears to be Tim Hunter’s eighth release and follows on from The Pathway Of Light that was reviewed on DPRP in 2011. This time around Tim declares that The Aura is his most progressive orientated album to date, but having not heard the earlier album I cannot confirm or deny this so can only comment on what I can hear on this latest release.
Members on the album are Tim Hunter (vocals, guitars, keyboards, samples), Pat Corner Walker (drums), Phil Dean (lead guitar), Dan Mizen (additional percussion) and Rob Corner (saxophone).
The album has a feel of latter period Moody Blues or mid 80’s Alan Parson Project (Pyramid era) and is generally fairly light and easy to listen to, however I would suggest it is more Pop Rock rather than overtly Progressive in style and content, in addition the lyrics are fairly “New Age” in their outlook which may put some listeners off a little.
The opener Mother Shipton is the most strident (and possibly the best) piece on display here with some tasty guitar work thrown in the mix. Tim’s voice is not the strongest or most expressive but fits these songs well enough and this is a good opener, sadly however this standard is not maintained throughout the rest of the release.
The tour de force on this album is the six part Android Void piece which utilises a range of different moods and textures to often good effect, giving its 24 minute duration a variety that is welcome, again there is some nice guitar and saxophone work on these songs that gives an overall cohesion that is missing on some of the other tracks. The last track Home In The Sun is a pleasant enough closer but doesn’t really grab the listener either.
I’ve got to say that I’ve listened to this album several times and it does improve with each listen, but I don’t consider it to be a classic by any means. It is a pleasant well performed, recorded and presented CD but not one that I think would be played on a regular basis. There are some great ideas here but it’s not consistent enough, it needs more tracks like Mother Shipton and less like Step On Board or Going Back. Maybe next time Tim will be able to draw all his talents into producing something truly progressive or will make up his mind where he wants his music to sit.
Sadly I was a bit disappointed with this CD so can only offer 5 out of 10 for some good ideas, not fully realised and when put up against some of the excellent prog albums released in 2012 is found somewhat wanting...
Conclusion: 5 out of 10