Reviews in this issue:
- Nicholodeon - No
- Cosa Brava - The Letter
- Knifeworld - Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat
- Knifeworld - Clairvoyant Fortnight [EP]
- Twelfth Night - Live and Let Live ~ The Definitive Edition
- Corima - Quetzalcoatl
- The Prog World Orchestra - A Proggy Christmas
- Karcius - The First Day
- Bow - The Man in the Machine
- Gate6 - God Machines
- Points North - Road Less Traveled
- Cosmic Dealer - Crystallization
- Eter-K - Watching the Universe
- i.AB - Counting
Nicholodeon - No
Tracklist: Fame (4:02), Fiaba (7:15), Malamore E La Luna (4:37), Apnea (6:33), Claustrofila (6:04)
Live albums can always be a fickle institution that individuals love or hate. This can be somewhat true for bands too, as live albums are usually seen as contract fillers, an alternative way of releasing a best of album or a filler until their next release is available. I fall into the camp of loving live albums and there have been some rather excellent releases and in all honesty some not so good releases from bands with big budgets.
Nichelodeon have chosen to take the opportunity to show the world, or those that are prepared to take the time out to investigate, what can be achieved when you have a perfect complementation of individuals, a live arena and a vision. Lorenzo Semeio, the bands' bassist, certainly deserves a huge pat on the back for the stunning mixing, editing and mastering job here.
All five tracks presented here have been lifted from the highly rated album Il Gioco Del Silenzio album which was given an impressive 8.5 out of 10 by yours truly; a studio album that set the bar high for the band.
The music is a construct of keyboards, synths, wind instrumentation, percussion, bass and guitar, vocal and musical gymnastics, discordant tones that work in perfect harmony, melancholic approaches. As a band they offer a euphoric musical experience that mesmerises with its exuding passion, dexterity, convoluted passages, and out and out beauty. This really is an intense and spiritually uplifting experience that spans the worlds of Avant Garde and progressive music in the true sense of the description that should in my eyes be experienced by a wider audience. We aren't talking about flowing melodic passages here, but sombre, intelligent, compelling creations that are inflected with prose and style. Musical landscapes that undulate with clarity at times, colourful visions, beautiful weirdness that can be aggressive and dark, that stalks the listener dragging them further into their world. It is all about artistic integrity being created by visionaries that is awe inspiring that allows the mind and imagination to wander amongst the poetic landscapes created. The songs that are performed do have a slightly different character live than their studio counterparts, something that gives these creations another dimension and character, making them more powerful in their statement allowing full resplendent expressionism.
The musical annotations, the stunning multi-octave presentations of the undeniably talented Claudio Mtilano are just a pleasure to participate in. I have said in the past and will say again, Claudio Milano is one of the greatest vocalists I have ever heard. Period. he more I hear his work, the more I believe this to be the case, to add the icing to the cake; his participating musical brothers are no less inspiring.
I would like to personally thank Fabrizio Carriero, Franscesco Chiapperini, Andrea Illuminati, Luca Pissavini, Lorenzo Semeio and Claudio Milano for having the insight to create such beguiling, passionate, intriguing and stunning music. I would like to raise my glass formally and say 'Cin Cin' and 'Grazie'.
As an album, No is a perfect way to sample what this band are all about, the adventurous listener will chomp at the bit unbelieving, whilst the more conservative amongst us may just shake their heads. It isn't often that you can pick up and play an album repeatedly without thinking that there are things that could have been done better or different. No is one of those albums where everything is perfect. The cost of this pleasure...? Absolutely nothing my friends, just click on this link (FLAC).
Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained.I am sure that on listening to this album new fans will be won over. Here's to the next album, I for one can't wait.
Conclusion: 10 out of 10
Cosa Brava - The Letter
Tracklist: Soul Of The Machine (2:12), The EyjafjallajÃ¶kull Tango (6:48), Drowning (4:04), The Wedding (6:08), The Letter (3:41), Slings And Arrows (7:23), Jitters (5:13), For Lars Hollmer (8:03), Emigrants (4:06), Nobody Told Me (4:10), Common Sense (7:15), Soul Of The Machine (reprise) (2:05)
This is a truly wonderful piece of work and it deserves to sell far more than the few thousand it might aspire to. There, review over, I can go home now.
Oh, alright then, if you insist...
When Fred Frith, co-founder of RIO instigators Henry Cow, member of Art Bears and many others, composer, dance and film score writer, music professor and seasoned traveller of "the road" says that one reason for forming Cosa Brava in Oakland, California, USA back in 2008 was, amongst other things because: "I really miss what you can do with a rock band. I miss developing material through the push and pull of cooperative rehearsals, I miss what happens when you move away from 'the parts' and start formulating things with a collective ear, I miss the single-minded commitment to a group identity", then I know I'm in for a treat. However, I fully expect Fred's idea of what a rock band is to be, well, different, and yes sirree, it sure is, but in a frankly marvellous way.
The first album Ragged Atlas was unleashed on a largely unaware world back in 2010, and it was the world's loss, but those of us who bought it were delighted by its sublime songwriting combined with an expected perverse sense of the absurd, and so we looked forward eagerly to the sophomore album released earlier this year.
The band are Fred on guitars and voice, Carla Kihlstedt on violin, bass harmonica and voice, Zeena Perkins on accordion, keyboards, Foley objects (the tools of trade for that cinematic obscurity the "Foley artist" who recreates sundry sounds with found objects) and voice, Shahzad Ismaily on bass and voice, Matthias Bossi on drums, percussion, "mayhem", voice and whistling, and last but not least The Norman Conquest (what, all of it?) on sound manipulation. Fred wrote all the songs, which were then set upon, or "arranged" as the CD notes would have it, by the rest of the band and make no mistake; this is much much more than a one man show.
Zeena and Carla have both worked with Frith before on various projects, and Mr Conquest was a student of Fred's under the latter's guise as Professor of Composition at Mills College, Oakland. Shahzad has played with everyone from Laurie Anderson to Lou Reed and many others in between, and Matthias doubles up in Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. With an eclectic crew like that you get some inkling of what Fred's idea of what a "rock band" might be.
I received this CD quite a few weeks ago but wanted to listen to it properly several times before attempting, and then more than likely failing, to fully do justice to its quiet complexity, so here goes:
Soul Of The Machine introduces itself with the sound of several piano notes being hit at the same time as if to say "the trip starts here", to be followed up by a jig on the violin. The Eyjafjallajökull Tango that follows pokes its initial quiet theme through sundry small noises off, before the violin and guitar chase each other round the otherworldly dance floor, dancing on the still hot lava. The initial appearance of "rock" in any conventional sense comes along is on Drowning which also features vocals for the first time. Sounding at first like one of Adrian Belew's more off-the-wall efforts for King Crimson, that impression is soon left behind as the song slows to a repetition of the line "You only want it because you can't have it, and when you get it you don't want it anymore". An off-kilter ballad that resonates with dramatic intent without histrionics and an album highlight for me.
These are stories and sonic narratives, some with words, and some simply express their intent through skilful music making. Take a track like Jitters which could not be more self-explanatory, and it is here where the splendidly monickered The Norman Conquest comes into his own. Listed as contributing "sound manipulation", imagine if you will an avant-prog Roxy-era Brian Eno furiously twiddling knobs, or in Mr C's case more likely fingering a mouse pad on a laptop and thereby lending the piece its title definition. The song starts with and is occasionally rudely interrupted by the noise a CD makes when the laser gets stuck on a bit of detritus, and initially makes you jump for the stop button. Very clever, and yes, jittery.
For Lars Hollmer is a delightful tribute to the maverick Swedish accordion and keyboard player and composer, and I'm sure I can hear bits of Dvorak's 9th in there - for UK readers that's the old Hovis advert tune. Mostly standing in the background, Fred's guitar is a part of but rarely the focus of the songs. An exception is Common Sense where a simple but effective melody is picked out by the guitar in what is almost a conventional tune...almost...common sense dictates as much, after all. The quietly ringing tones of Fred's guitar invoke a mood of contemplation that goes through some nice changes in emphasis, and with its semi-shouted wordless choral parts sounds not a million miles from Sigur Rós in an upbeat mood; it is quite cinematic in atmosphere.
I could easily witter on for another few paragraphs about selected songs from this consummate work, but if you're still reading you've probably gleaned all you need to know about this fabulous album, and hopefully it's whetted your appetite to find out some more. Check out those links at the top, now!
The Letter, while maybe not as accessible as its predecessor is still a great slice of left-field, melodic, avant-rock that contains more than enough imagination to leave you wanting to hear it again as soon as it's over. We'll leave it to Fred to sign off... "It's been an exhilarating journey, and I still have no idea where we're going. In the end it doesn't seem very important." Buy this now!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Knifeworld - Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat
Tracklist: Singled Out For Battery (4:49), The Wretched Fathoms (3:31), Corpses Feuding Underground (2:52), Severed Of Horsehoof (6:20), No More Dying (4:10), An Arrival (3:30), Unwreckaged (5:39), Pissed Up On Brakefluid (4:30), The Money Shot (3:37), Torch (1:44), Me To The Future Of You (8:38)
Knifeworld - Clairvoyant Fortnight [EP]
Tracklist: Clairvoyant Fortnight (5:28), In A Foreign Way (5:21), The Prime Of Our Decline (7:31)
Guitarist Kavus Torabi's Knifeworld, originally meant as a solo project which has since become a fully fledged band, released their only album to date in 2009 but with the band currently in a state of regular live activity, a new EP and another album in the works,we may be very late on this but the time is right to feature them on DPRP. Having recently played a blinding set at Summer's End I'm sure that a number of the attendees had their eyes opened to the possibilities of this and other bands orbiting the Cardiacs mothership. Torabi has been a member of that particular band since 2003 and an integral part of later live shows although due to the ongoing illness of leader Tim Smith the band is currently on indefinite and probably terminal hiatus. This is a disaster for those of us who love Smith's wonderful work but it is good to know that bands like Knifeworld are out there taking elements of the Cardiacs sound amongst others and turning it into something new.
Buried Alone... featured a collection of friends, the band since coalescing into the sextet featured on the EP, with additional members added for live work where possible. Various associates are employed on Buried Alone..., including Sarah Measures from Torabi's previous band Monsoon Bassoon, with only vocalist Melanie Woods, another Cardiac, continuing into the current band. Buried Alone... is a marvellously varied album that has punk energy at its core with many competing influences that ebb and flow within a unique sound that is challenging but oddly accessible. There are many prog elements in the time changes and dynamics, the band pulling off Torabi's intricate songs with a great deal of style.
The album is a mesmerising collision of styles brought together to produce a sophisticated yet high-energy brew that is intoxicating and exhilarating. There is heaviness, there is a deft lightness of touch where required and there are the hands of skilled musicians all over this. Torabi's talent and enthusiasm make him a force to be reckoned with in terms of song writing, structuring and ringing every last drop of quality out of his songs. It comes highly recommended, please give it a listen as this band and many others outside the usual prog sphere deserve attention and support as they are doing truly progressive things unlike many of the bands comfortably placed within the genre.
There is good use of female voices, particularly from Woods on the jazzy folk of Severed of Horsehoof, to counterpoint Torabi's vocals, acoustic instruments and woodwind giving light and shade with excellent, driving drums throughout from Khyam Allami. You get a dose of punk on tracks like Singled Out for Battery and Pissed Up On Brakefluid but this isn't the whole picture as there is so much else going on. Cardiacs influences are most visible on Corpses Feuding Underground and No More Dying which also involves a more chamber orchestra feel a la William D. Drake's solo work. There is space rock, jazz and metal, overtly prog sections appearing in The Wretched Fathoms and Unwreckaged. Good God, we even get a Queen-like guitar orchestra on Torch! Most importantly this album has personality and bags of melody that makes it a wonderful recording to return to again and again.
Final track Me To the Future of You is a masterpiece of dynamics and stands as the cornerstone of the album. From dark metal guitar there is a feel reminiscent of Shudder To Think which is transformed upon the appearance of Hammond organ sounds and a lovely vocal from Woods. The drums are great and the thumping chorus takes you skywards with ethereal vocals while chattering words in the background nail the piece down in an extended tour de force finale; just wonderful.
This is such a good recording it needs to be heard more widely but this is not the end of the story as the recent Clairvoyant Fortnight EP points to the direction the band are likely to take next. Clairvoyant Fortnight itself is a wonderfully off the wall pop song, catchy as hell but with plenty of bite. There are lots of saxophones, great guitar and the voices of Torabi and Woods work beautifully together. It's worth having a look at the video (here) where snooker playing prog lover Steve Davis appears as The Face of God - I kid you not! Brilliant!
In A Foreign Way comes in on a lolloping beat, Woods and Chloë Herrington's voices harmonising beautifully. There's an insistent chorus and a gorgeously crafted section that moves through a number of phases, the wonderful sax and bassoon bringing Cardiacs, Gentle Giant and Zappa to mind in a particularly worthy mix that keeps interest levels high. The Prime Of Our Decline comes clickety clacking in on drums and what sounds like a collection of cutlery. Strident piano takes it up a gear with sax and glockenspiel giving a Zappa twist, a sinister guitar line of Fripp proportions winding away in the background. The track builds to a crescendo and everything including the kitchen sink, a harpsichord and probably any remaining cutlery thrown in for good measure. Breathtaking.
The EP bodes very well for the future of this stunning band, may Kavus' star continue to shine brightly.
So overall, pop music for psychopaths and schizophrenics who clearly have a lot of the best tunes. The music is different and refreshing and if there was any justice Knifeworld would be huge. In a word, 'Excellent'.
Buried Alone: Tales Of Crushing Defeat: 9 out of 10
Clairvoyant Fortnight [EP]: 9 out of 10
Twelfth Night - Live and Let Live ~ The Definitive Edition
CD 1: The Ceiling Speaks (8:17), Human Being (7:54), The End Of The Endless Majority (3:18), We Are Sane (12:01), Deep In The Heartland (4:28), Fact And Fiction (5:26), The Poet Sniffs A Flower (4:09), The Collector (19:42)
CD 2: Afghan Red (11:00), Sequences (17:16), Creepshow (12:27), Art And Illusion (4:03), East Of Eden (5:21), Aspidentropy (9:51), Love Song (8:37)
Whenever I see the label 'Definitive Edition' attached to a release I'm inclined to approach with cautionary scepticism. The movie Blade Runner typically comes to mind where despite the original film being a classic in my view, it spawned alternate versions each one supposedly more definitive than the one before. As far as Twelfth Night are concerned however this is the real deal with the original 50 minute version of Live And Let Live (probably their most popular album) expanded to over 2 hours and spread across two discs. It's also been lovingly repackaged with a 24 page booklet and archive photos courtesy of the DPRP's own Mark Hughes.
Recorded over two nights at London's Marquee Club on Friday 4th and Saturday 5th November 1983, when Live And Let Live first appeared on vinyl in 1984 only 6 songs featured even though no less than 15 were performed. Three songs were added for the 1993 CD release, but still far short of the full set-list. Now for the first time the entire set has been reconstructed using the best available sources. The tracks from the original release are obviously included - The Ceiling Speaks, We Are Sane, Fact and Fiction, The Poet Sniffs A Flower, Sequences and The End Of The Endless Majority. The latter was actually recorded at the Saturday afternoon sound-check and also included for the first time from the same source is Deep In The Heartland. As part of the encore Creepshow, East of Eden and Love Song appear as they did on the original CD with the remaining two, Art And Illusion and Aspidentropy, having previously featured on Geoff Mann's 2003 Recorded Delivery album. Completing the set is the previously unreleased Human Being, Afghan Red and The Collector. The first two are taken from the audio track of a video filmed on the Friday night whilst The Collector was recorded on 27th October in Watford and deemed to be superior to the Marquee versions. All songs have been newly re-mastered by Karl Groom and re-sequenced in the order in which they were performed.
Artistically speaking, UK progressive rock was in the doldrums in the early 80's and as a result the revivalist moment led by the likes of Marillion, Pallas, I.Q., Pendragon, and later Galahad and Jadis was a creative shot in the arm. Whilst I had a good deal of time for most of those bands I must admit that as far as Twelfth Night were concerned I had a blind spot. Listening to disc 1, track 1 of this collection I was reminded why; Geoff Mann's erratic, undisciplined vocals. In the process of reviewing Live And Let Live however I came to fully appreciate the importance of Mann's contribution to the band and their music. This was actually his final performances with Twelfth Night but the departure was amicable, there was no ill feeling on either side and no solo artist ego trip on Mann's part.
Geoff sadly passed away in February 1993 from cancer of the liver and if the original CD release of Live And Let Live five months later was intended as a tribute then this latest version is similarly dedicated to his memory. Whilst the constraints of the original sources are at times evident in the cold light of a good hi-fi system (the distortion near the start of Human Being for example), the sound throughout is spacious with Mann's voice suitably upfront and all instruments clearly audible in the mix. I've certainly had to endure far worse live recordings. Most importantly, and despite a few rough edges, the playing is inspired throughout. Guitarist Andy Revell is everywhere, from melodic lead solos to ringing rhythm arpeggios similar to Steve Rothery. Keyboardist Rick Battersby creates lush neo-proggy soundscapes and holding the whole thing together is the superb and very solid rhythm partnership of bassist Clive Mitten and drummer Brian Devoil.
It's the charismatic Geoff Mann however who's clearly the man of the hour as he talks, sings, shouts and shrieks his way through the songs with the devoted audience hanging onto his every word (the introduction to Fact And Fiction being a prime example). In my estimation he clearly saw himself as an all-round performer rather than just a singer, a cross between Peter Hamill, Genesis era Peter Gabriel and a humourist/mimic in the style of Peter Cook with the emphasis on political satire. Energetic and spontaneous, and judging by the enthusiastic response that greets his every gesture he was at his best in a live setting.
On the evidence here, the band's music is typical post-Genesis and Camel melodic neo-prog with Marillion, IQ, Abel Ganz, Credo and Solstice being perhaps their closest relations. From the triumphant The Ceiling Speaks that provides a fitting fanfare right through to the final encore, the poignant Love Song, the songs are performed with skill, energy and enthusiasm including some sweet Genesis style moments such as the mid-section of Deep In The Heartland. Considering that a good deal of the material was taken from the then latest Fact And Fiction album it's quite remarkable how every song is greeted like an old favourite by the enthusiastic audience who sing-along with Mann.
When Geoff Mann left the band in November 1983 Andy Sears took over as vocalist and they continued with varying degrees of success with Mann making occasional live appearances with his old band-mates. Andy Revell, who along with Brian Devoil and Clive Mitten co-founded Twelfth Night in 1978, similarly performed concerts with the band following his departure at the end of 1987. Revell, Devoil and Mitten have gone on to form The Cryptic Clues who currently perform vintage 1981-1983 era Twelfth Night.
As far as this release is concerned, if you missed out on the early 80's prog revival and are a fan of more current and polished acts like Transatlantic, The Flower Kings and The Tangent you may well wonder what all the fuss was about. If you're a fan of Twelfth Night however my final rating is intended for you and regardless of whether or not you already own a version of Live And Let Live, go out and buy what will be an essential addition to your collection.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Corima - Quetzalcoatl
Mesoamerican-Zeuhl anyone? This seems to be what this unusual but invigorating band is serving up on Quetzalcoatl, their second album, which finds a perfect spiritual home on the highly eclectic Soleil Zeuhl label.
Although apparently American, the mixed ethnicity of the ancestors of the band, with two of Japanese descent, and the other three of Central American/Spanish heritage has resulted in a highly enjoyable mix of musical styles that goes well beyond Americana, all put through the Zeuhl filter. Big on the list of influences, perhaps obviously, is Magma, along with the lesser-known (outside of RIO/avant circles) Japanese Zeuhl band Koenjihyakkei, whose leader Yoshida Tatsuya is also one half of Japanese RIO duo Ruins. When you marry that to the band's original rock leanings, what comes out the other end is far removed from the ELP/Crimsoid flavoured retro-prog the band played at their beginning, back in 2005.
That first line up from 2005 went through a fair few changes, and after recording their first album in 2007, the surviving duo of Sergio Sanchez-Ravelo (drums, vocals) and Francisco Casanova (keyboards) moved from their El Paso, Texas home to L.A., where they eventually hooked up with Andrea Itzpapalotl (violin, vocals), who had already briefly been in an earlier line up of the band; and the two Japanese members, Patrick Shiroishi (saxophones, glockenspiel, vocals) and Ryan Kamiyamazaki (bass, vocals). Somewhere along the way, a road to Damascus conversion for the Hispanic contingent to the cosmic whorl of zeuhl took place, and the sound you hear on this album (all of it on Bandcamp streaming - see link above) was born.
Using a thematic borrowed from Magma, their undoubted biggest influence, they take us on a trip through a Mesoamerican legend concerning the Feathered Snake God of the album title and his disciples, all explained in the liner notes.
An album of four parts, split into 17 tracks, Quetzalcoatl is a mix of jazz-rock influences and zeuhl aspirations, combined with Japanese and Latin-American flavours resulting in a fine concoction that is definitely more than the sum of its constituents. The early frenzied pace of Part I where fast unison vocals in syncopation with the charging music is the dominant theme is broken by Divindondiwua, which features the dulcet tones of Andrea over a distinctly Japanese flavoured ambience. Very nice indeed. Then we get to the three consecutive longer songs that constitute the last section of Part I, and Parts II and III, and these are where the band really begin to shine. Starting with Khozmikh Kavhiledrios, which melds the more Latin end of Return To Forever with the zeuhl themes, progressing through Zhuntra, which initially is a brief calm interlude before a lurking militaristic beat slowly emerges, some nice sax work trading off with the violin as the pace increases. The arrangement is tight as tight can be, but within it all the musicians are capering about in a joyously rumbustious fashion.
Then we arrive at the epic-length Tezcatlipoca, a tale of an Aztec deity whose brief includes the night sky, the night winds, hurricanes, the north, the earth, obsidian, enmity, discord, rulership, divination, temptation, jaguars, sorcery, beauty, war and strife. A very busy god indeed, reflected in the restless nature of the piece. It starts off in what now seems "traditional" zeuhl territory, and who would have thought such an individualistic genre would ever develop traditions? About 4 minutes in Corima take a left turn onto their own particular branch road and things stretch out nicely, some free-jazz saxophone squawking calming to a sort of jazz-rock symphony led by Philip Glass on amphetamines.
A slower bass pounding mid-section features overdriven keyboards recalling Mike Ratledge, occasionally joined by the sax and violin in syncopated aggression, which builds over a sax theme until coming to a suitably abrupt end. Sax and violence...ouch! Amazingly, being a bit of a guitar nut, I've not missed the absence on this album of my favoured instrument in the slightest; in fact it's only just occurred to me that there is no guitar on this record, which shows how much is going on to keep the listener's attention.
The final Part IV gets increasingly interesting, starting with the title track, another fast syncopated piece full of Latin flavour that melds seamlessly into the following three tracks with not a single let up in the furious pace until we get to the beautiful Teiknottalistli. Andrea's mournful voice and violin over a simple, and for once, slow cyclical piano motif gives everyone, band and listeners alike, time to rest and reflect on what has gone before. This must be something else live! The pace picks up again on the final two tracks, introduced by some nice jazzy electric piano overlaid by Andrea's multi-tracked violin that for some reason briefly puts me in mind of Caravan's Memory Lain, Hugh.
Taking another leaf from Magma, this story of Quetzalcoatl is a saga that according to the liner notes is "To be continued" and I look forward to more with anticipation.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
The Prog World Orchestra - A Proggy Christmas
Neal Morse - Keyboards,Guitars,Bass,Drums and Vocals
Mike Portnoy - Drums
Randy George / Pete Trewawas - Bass
Steve Hackett / Steve Morse / Roine Stolt - Guitar Solos
Christmas - you either love or loathe it I guess, all that having to be nice to relatives you detest; having to wear sweaters that some long-lost aunt knitted you based on when you were ten; that bloody turkey that could feed half of Africa for weeks; the dreadful repeats on TV of shows you'd tried to forget and everyone doing a review of the year et al. Well if that's your view of Christmas then Mr. Morse and Chums may have just released an album that will put a smile on your face and that you can play endlessly rather than those awful albums full of Christmas hits of yesteryear that get dragged out and plundered for a week in December.
Neal Morse is an artist who is both prolific and known for his strong Christian faith so obviously this is a project close to his heart, Advent and all that, but don't worry this isn't an exercise in preaching. No this is a joyous celebration of a special event in the Christian calendar and what comes across on this record is the sheer uncontrolled joy and enthusiasm that these guys had in making this album and when you have world-class musicians involved the results are always going to be interesting to say the least.
So is it any good? Well let's look at a few highlights and I'll tell you...
The disc opens with Joy To The World and straight away you can tell that this is a well-crafted and well-arranged album, in fact the arrangements are very creative and bring a freshness to these well-known and well-loved songs and pieces. Neal plays a lot of synthesiser on this one playing the melody line against a busy backing, before Roine Stolt takes the first guitar solo bursting with life and depth soaring above the rumbling bass line of Randy George whilst Mike Portnoy thumps away in the background, this is seriously going to put a smile on your face and then Steve Hackett steps up to the mark with a solo that builds in its intensity full of his trademark swells and flurries. This is no mere cash-in exercise, rather you can sense the commitment to this project in making it sound both familiar and different at the same time - Joy To The World indeed!
Track 2 and Little Drummer Boy gives Mike Portnoy a chance to shine in style. Again, a well-known song to many but delivered with real style and verve even, I bet you never thought you'd hear Mike Portnoy's double bass drum blitzkrieg on a Christmas album - well you do on this particular one. This is one of the two vocal performances on the album (the other being Hark The Herald Angels Sing), the song jaunting along nicely with lots of drum interludes. It certainly beats the Bing Crosby / David Bowie version hands down!
O Holy Night is simply played and an interlude of quiet tranquillity before the hilarious track 4, Frankincense, which is basically Edgar Winter's Frankenstein as you've never heard it before. It's so good that it will have you smiling until Easter; it is extremely well arranged and cleverly done and for me it's one of the funniest things I've heard all year and bears repeated listens as well - if you don't enjoy this one then I despair....
Hark! the Herald Angels' Sing has always been a favourite of mine and this version does not disappoint at all, featuring the ever versatile Steve Morse on some deft, liquid-gold guitar work, this is mainly played straight but with an extended instrumental section at the end. It's a very good version of a great classic carol and it's handled with reverence and care but also has those great prog touches added to make it even better.
Track 6, The Christmas Song, is very laid back with Neal playing some wonderfully emotive bass parts on a fretless bass with a good vibrato to give it that great sound and tone. It's a gentler song but still beautifully handled.
Track 9 - Shred Ride - is just that, a high speed guitar shred-fest of Sleigh Ride and Winter Wonderland with Paul Belatowicz (who played with Neal on Sola Scriptura) firing off on all six strings and with more of Mr. Portnoy's double bass drum attack it's a ferocious shred-fest that will brighten any Christmas.
The final track is also worthy of note, not least because I normally find Silent Night a real dirge and yet here by offsetting the melody to that of Transatlantic's We All Need Some Light they have brought the song a new lease of life, well for me at least, and it brings to a close a very worthwhile, satisfying and musical Christmas CD.
Really this is a very fun album and it should be taken as such. It's a Christmas album so you will probably only play it towards Christmas time but do yourself a favour get your own back on the X factor wanna bees and boy bands that your children blight the sound-waves with and play this everywhere; in the car, at work, wherever and smile as, after all, Christmas comes but once a year.
Great album, Mr. Morse - can we have a second volume next year please?
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Karcius - The First Day
Tracklist: The First Day (5:48), Hypnotic (6:35), Rest My Head (6:44), The Word (6:29), Number Ten (3:04), Why (6:25), Brother (6:15), Djoko (2:26), Water (8:17)
Hailing from Montréal, Québec (possibly the area of Canada with the highest concentration of progressive rock acts), quartet Karcius have been active since 2001, releasing their debut album, Sphere, in 2003. Though still quite young, the four members - Simon L'Espérance (guitar), Thomas Brodeur (drums), Mingan Sauriol (keyboards) and Sylvan Auclair (bass, vocals - also a member of fellow Québecois bands Heaven's Cry and Jelly Fiche), who joined the band in 2009 to replace original bassist Dominique Blouin - are all consummate musicians with a solid background and a wide range of experiences. The band has also had numerous opportunities to showcase its collective talent both at home and abroad, with appearances at high-profile prog festivals both in Europe and on the American continent - including the 2012 edition of ProgDay, where I had the opportunity to see them in action. The First Day, the band's fourth album - and the first to feature vocals - was released in the early summer of 2012, four years after Episodes.
Not surprisingly, seen by their impressive pedigree, Karcius are very accomplished, and their CD releases and live performances have earned them a loyal following in Canada and elsewhere. Their musical output is distinguished by a keen eclecticism - one of the hallmarks of progressive rock ever since its inception - that does not shy away from adopting sophisticated pop modes while keeping their jazz-rock matrix as a solid foundation. However, The First Day marks a clear departure from the style evidenced on the band's previous three albums, being definitely more song-oriented. While Episodes included a three-part, 30-minute suite, The First Day features 9 tracks ranging from the 2 minutes of the African-inspired drum solo piece Djoko to the 8 of closing number Water. Out of those nine tracks, only two are instrumental - the above-mentioned Djoko and the lovely, autumnal-tinged piano piece Number Ten - while the others make good use of Sylvan Auclair's distinctive vocal delivery, shifting effortlessly from subdued, almost conversational tones to a supercharged bellow that hints at his prog-metal background. The instrumental texture of each track is carefully laid out and skilfully woven so as to produce an effortless sense of flow, in which each instrument is clearly detailed without any of them overwhelming the other.
Karcius' bold change in direction is presented right from the start, when, on the title-track, Sylvan Auclair's warm, somewhat low-key voice kicks in after a brief, dramatic string-driven intro. The resemblance between his singing style and Sting's is undeniable, though not at all surprising - seeing as Auclair, together with Thomas Brodeur and Simon L'Espérance, is involved in a Sting/The Police tribute band named Lazarus Heart. The overall effect is sophisticated, almost romantic, with frequent pauses that enhance the atmosphere, while drums and guitar riffs occasionally beef up the sound, and Mingan Sauriol's elegant piano flurries soften the impact. The sleek instrumental interplay in the bridge, with guitar and organ injecting a grittier note, creates a connection with the band's previous output. The slightly longer Hypnotic is very much in the same vein, with an appealingly warm, Latin feel evoked by the percussion and easy, sauntering pace, embellished by a stately guitar solo out of David Gilmour's book - until things turn a tad chaotic before the end. Drums are the driving force in Rest My Head, together with piano, while the tempo ebbs and flows, and the vocals evoke Sting's more understated performances; while the band's jazz-rock foundation comes to the fore in The Word, joined by stylish classical and ambient touches.
The two already mentioned instrumentals, Number Ten and Djoko, offer further confirmation of the wide-ranging eclecticism of the band, encompassing ambient, classical and world music influences, while the second half of Why decidedly veers into prog-metal territory - not too successfully, in my view, as the fast and furious pacing clashes with the catchy, radio-friendly flavour and the melodic, Gilmourian guitar solo in the song's first half. Brother combines the elements of a sultry, jazzy ballad - masterfully interpreted by Auclair at his soulful best - with a touch of dissonance and roaring Hammond organ that add interest and variety to the song; while the Sting/Police references crop up again in Water, a generally low-key number spiced by a distorted guitar solo and almost tribal drumming.
A well-crafted, sophisticated release that spells dedication and professionalism, The First Day may disappoint those who liked Karcius' all-instrumental direction, and object to the accessible nature of some of the songs. The unexpected, though occasional, forays into prog-metal may also be a turn off to some, as they may come across as overt pandering to a modern (and popular) trend. In spite of this criticism, the album contains many fine instrumental sections that show the band's true progressive vocation. On the other hand, as I realized during their ProgDay set, I have to admit that Karcius' music does not really connect with me in the way other bands' does (a pure question of chemistry, and not at all related to the band's skills as musicians or songwriters) - and this is why The First Day though undeniably a high-quality effort by a talented group of musicians, just falls short of recommended status.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Bow - The Man in the Machine
Tracklist: I Am Machine (0:50), The Sound Of Meaning (3:14), 16,819,200 Minutes (0:30), Two Wrongs (5:30), Lights Out (0:36), Neuron Traveler (3:40), Mercury Tears (4:33), Sun On A Cold Seed (3:03), Influx (3:56), Sunya (1:51), Mirror Horizon (5:54), The Way Out (8:50), I Am Man (2:25)
Once again, the full album is on streaming on the samples link above, so why not play while you read...
Chris van der Linden is a man of many strings to his bow (sorry!). He is also a man of surprises. While chatting to him about his influences it was revealing to learn that his background is in the various labyrinthine forms of metal, particularly the funereal-paced doom variety, which has trickled through to the structure if not the actual sonics of the noise he makes today. It transpires that the main influence on his road to the left-field avant-pop of both his band Fourteen Twentysix and to this solo record was Depeche Mode's Ultra album, so the result is a mix of doomy, minimalist, Gothic atmospherics and the modernistic scratchings and bleeps of the pioneering Brit electro-poppers. The thing that most surprised me though was that despite making quite remarkable avant music, that while drawing on its influences; and I'm sure I can hear Aphex Twin in here too, although Chris may deny it; was that he had never heard of Can! Don't worry, he's let me use that; some would not have done, that's for sure. I fully intend putting that to rights by sending him a selection of tracks - a cornucopia of delights awaits - I wonder if he's heard of Popol Vuh, a fellow minimalist band from a bygone era, and like Bow, essentially a one-man project?
Back to The Man In The Machine, which is a largely an instrumental concept album musing on the blurring of lines between the human soul and the increasingly cold techno-obsessed world we live in. A heavy one, for sure, but we proggers love our concept albums, do we not? Bookending the album is detached narration from the Machine/Man relating the sum of its/his existence as a linear extrapolation of time, no more, no less, and this serves to only add to the eerie atmosphere of the record. In between the Machine invites the Man to experience its world, and by the end all delineations have become very fuzzy round the edges.
The minimalist ambient sonics serve to take us on a journey to somewhere where we would prefer not to go, for this way madness lays. The madness is writ large on Neuron Traveler as the machine penetrates deep within the psyche of our lost protagonist. Actually I can well imagine this whole album being a soundtrack to one of those existential '70s sci-fi movies like Dark Star.
There is melody here and although it is used sparsely, when it appears, as on Mercury Tears it provides welcome relief from the intentionally claustrophobic sonics that pervade the album. The track that most echoes Depeche Mode is Sunya but it is taken elsewhere by over-driven guitar and swathes of atypical synth (no cheesegrating here!) and sundry electronica. It's also almost nice... well, no it isn't, maybe conventional was the word I was looking for, and it does this in an Eno kind of a way, for this baby's definitely on fire! The instrumentation is fleshed out throughout by violin and harp as well as additional drums, and these added to Chris's guitars, keyboards, and exotic electronica make for a quite unusual sound indeed.
The allegory of "Man as Machine" is taken up again, as our hero sees himself as a production unit in an uncaring world, creeping insanity leaving its tendrils in his psyche. "A bell echoes in the far distance. A call for home?" is about as human an emotion as there is on the album, but our hero is soon dragged under again. The air of sadness is encapsulated on Mirror Horizon where our hero intones melancholically "We don't know where we are headed, but the promise of a new morning makes us carry on." - a sentiment that may well sum up the introvert's human condition... sigh. By the end the Machine has subjugated Man, or become Man, and we have been taken on a journey that while it may have been a tad over-serious was fun, in a skewed kind of a way.
Like a lot of new projects these days the making of this album was funded by the fans through one of the growing number of websites set up to do this kind of thing, this one being Pledge Music. These online co-operatives seem to be the way forward for any band that play uncommercial music, and they are to be heartily recommended.
Finally, a word on the very tastefully put together digipak, where one can tell a lot of time and effort has gone into the artwork, courtesy of Chris who has a sideline hobby with photography, and who crafted most of the graphics, and Sven Geier whose fractals Chris used in the design.
You might get the impression from my meanderings above that Man In The Machine is somewhat morose and you'd be right, but that was also probably the point, unless I've misread it completely. This is an album that, like Fourteen Twentysix's In Halflight Our Soul Glows before it, needs to be sat down and listened to; it will not work as background muzak, a fate to which most music nowadays is eventually consigned, I'm sorry to say. If you want to hear something different to the usual prog fare, then this is for you.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Gate6 - God Machines
This is a new band from The Netherlands of interest to anyone who enjoys the nation's seemingly innate ability to breed musicians who can blend NeoProg and ProgMetal into a very enjoyable hour of music.
The background of the three main players gives a heavy clue as to what you can expect. Jan Koster played guitars for Challenge and Isolation, whilst Tony ten Wolde was the keyboardist who recorded three albums with Marathon. Meanwhile singer Erik Masselink is best known for his contribution to Dutch prog-metallers Symmetry whose decent 2004 release A Soul's Roadmap still gets plays on my system.
The line-up is completed by Tony's ex-Marathon buddy Jacques Suurmond (bass) and journeyman drummer Martin Kuipers, whose bio includes Symmetry, Harrow and The Barstool Philosophers.
God Machines is of course a sci-fi concept album dealing with the digitisation of our society and the day (26th November 2042 to be precise) when the internet becomes self aware. A musical Blade Runner story if you like?
Musically Gate6 tend to stand in the precise middle ground between Neo Prog and Prog Metal. There is a certain heaviness in the sound but the listener isn't endlessly bombarded with riffs. There's a lot of keyboard to add a warm glow and the band has tried to focus on the melodies rather than complexity-for-its-own-sake.
The opening two tracks stand out as the most memorable for me. The second half of the album doesn't hold me as well as it should. In a similar way to The Dust Connection, I do struggle with the mixture of an aggressive, slightly raw metal voice with the smoother instrumentation. Nothing wrong with Erik's convincing vocals, it's just that I feel something... well... smoother would fit better.
I enjoy the mid-period Rush vibe of Killing Me but if the band is trying to appeal to the progressive audience then its songs really do need to push a few more boundaries and stretch past the four/five minute mark.
Interestingly both Tony and Jan have swapped instruments from their previous bands. Tony dug out his old Les Paul and Jan went on a buying spree and collected even more synths including a big fat Korg WaveStation and an even bigger and fatter Roland Fantom. Oddly enough it is the guitar and keyboard work which I most enjoy across this disc.
Also of note is the excellent artwork and CD booklet. The production is well above average for an independent release.
Overall this debut album will see Gate6 firmly establish themselves alongside the likes of Aeolus, The Aurora Project, Casual Silence, Cirrah Niva, The Dust Connection, Knight Area, Ricocher, Sky Architect, Ulysses. and Xystus on the seemingly endless list of Dutch bands able to please fans whose taste sits somewhere between melodic Neo Prog and lighter Progressive Metal.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Points North - Road Less Traveled
Tracklist: Vast Horizons (3:39), High Wire (4:28), The Phoenix (4:51), Grace Under Pressure (6:16), Barney (4:32), Jubilee (3:48), Steve's Morsels (4:12), The Source (4:46), Delay Song (3:44), Maiden Voyage (6:05), Sweet Solitude (6:09)
Points North are a trio making instrumental rock with a firm guitar base. Nowadays the trio consists of Eric Barnett - guitars, Uriah Duffy - bass and Kevin Aiello - drums, on the album however Damien Sisson plays the bass guitar.
Musical influences named by the band themselves are; Rush, Steve Morse, Uli Jon Roth and many others and it makes me think that Road Less Travelled is in a way a tribute to these influences. The likeness in the various songs is so incredible that I cannot make anything else of this album than a tribute album.
Stating it is a tribute album is one thing, in the same sentence telling the world that Eric Barnett's resemblance to the guitarists that were of influence to him is like listening to their spitting images is quite another. Still I dare say Barnett's playing comes extremely close to that of Steve Morse or Alex Lifeson. It must also be said that the backline of Damien and Kevin is one of outstanding class, the line-up change to Uriah Duffy and Kevin Aiello may even be a better one but that one cannot be heard on this album.
I will not tell you which song is influenced by which guitar player, I'll let you do the listening yourself, and mind you the song titles do give it away somewhat.
To conclude this short review the playing is outstanding, production solid and the music well, you decide. If you like to hear Steve Morse or Alex Lifeson or Al DiMeola play here is the guy that can stand in for them, including the bass and drums.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Cosmic Dealer - Crystallization
Side 1: Daybreak (2:07), If There Is Nothing Behind The Hills (1:19), Child Of The Golden Sun (3:45), Swingin' Joe Brown (3:41), I Had a Friend (3:58), Crystallization (5:53)
Side 2: The Scene (2:44), The Fly (2:59), One Night (0:45), Find Your Way (2:22), Flying In The Winter (3:35), Head In The Clouds (3:35), Illusions (1:58), If There Is Nothing Behind The Hills (demo - previously unreleased) (1:20)
Side 3: Crystallization (demo) (5:28), The Scene (single mix) (2:46), Child Of The Golden Sun (single mix) (3:48), Head In The Clouds (single mix) (2:44), Find Your Way (single mix) (2:24), One Night (mix 1) (0:41), Illusions (demo take 3) (2:11)
Side 4: Daybreak (demo) (2:10), Fast (live) (6:43), Child Of The Golden Sun (live) (3:27), Swingin' Joe Brown (live) (2:42), You're So Good (demo) (3:00)
The second LP reissue from Pseudonym Records features another psychedelic band who liked to dip their toes in the progressive realm. However, Cosmic Dealer were devoted to creating concise, more radio-friendly numbers and, on this album at least, don't take themselves too seriously.
On Crystallization, Cosmic Dealer are at their best when they are rocking out. Tracks like Daybreak, The Scene and the ELO-ish Head In The Clouds are amazingly fun to listen to. The Dutch accent comes on quite strong, but fortunately doesn't impede the singing. Daybreak in particular has a good opening riff that could possibly be described as progressive. At other times, the band show a more acoustic side, such as the sentimental I Had a Friend or Flying in the Winter. The vocals on the latter track remind me of Roger Chapman's bleating vocals in Family.
Cosmic Dealer were clearly heavily influenced by The Beatles. While you may not be able to make him out in the tiny picture above, the man sitting in front of the band bears an uncanny resemblance to John Lennon. Musically, If There is Nothing Behind The Hills sounds like a lost Beatles track, except in a Dutch accent, rather than a Liverpudlian. However, the biggest giveaway is the band's recreation of the 'Hold that line!' sample that concluded Lennon's frightening piece of musique concrète, Revolution 9. This time, the band shout it themselves to bookend their rather bizarre title track. This piece comes in two parts, a plodding opening section, followed by a frenetic climax, both halves featuring the incessant repetition of the album's name. It wouldn't be so bad if they could pronounce crystallization correctly.
Once again, this reissue comes loaded with another LP of bonus tracks, including demos and live tracks. Also, both singles from the album are on this disc. Inside the gatefold, Mike Stax of Ugly Things Magazine tells the story of the band, helped by pictures. It would have been helpful to point out who was whom in the pictures, as it otherwise impossible to put names to the faces.
This is an obscure, but fun record. While the tracks aren't groundbreaking, the band provide a very amicable listening experience, without pretension. If you already own this album, then the bonus LP might be worth your while for upgrading. If you don't mind a bit of psychedelic music in your life, then check this album out soon.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Eter-K - Watching the Universe
Peruvian trio Eter-K have a long history, having been in existence since the 1980s. However, the market for progressive rock in Peru makes it very difficult to sustain a professional life and the band's musicians have to find other work. This in some way goes to explain why Watching the Universe is only the band's fourth album. Since the late 1990s the band has specialised in extended space-rock/psychedelic-rock improvisational jams. This, then, is what awaits the listener on Watching the Universe: five instrumental space-rock jams. Fans of bands such as Öresund Space Collective, Blandbladen and perhaps even Ozric Tentacles may well enjoy this music.
The album gets off to a fine start: Nebula Rasa boasts some clever guitar work from Iván Santos and it's his sound which dominates this spacey, atmospheric piece. By contrast, Flying With Mihalis begins with the other two band members, Eduardo Velarde and Adrián Arguedas, setting the soundscape, their heavy bass and drums creating a fine atmosphere before Santos's guitar begins to gain the ascendancy again mid-way through. Some of guitar work is again very interesting, as Santos occasionally manages to extract from his instrument phrasing reminiscent of the pan-pipes of the Andian region: it's subtle but adds interest to the jam. Perhaps the influence here is Indian music rather than that of the band's own country, because they ascribe that source as an influence on Watching the Universe, the album's title track. This composition brings another new texture to the band's soundscape palette courtesy of guest Tavo Castillo and his flute. Castillo's playing adds beauty and interest to the opening section before the trio's extended jamming takes over in the latter half of the song.
Like a Fish in Water is perhaps the weakest track on the album, in that it brings little in the way of interest to the jam, so whilst the track might work well in a live environment, it pales on this disc, at this position in the running order. Fortunately for the album, it ends on a high, with the more urgent tempo of Collapse in the Sylvian Aqueduct adding excitement. Then, when the pace drops for the track's second phase, the bass-drums work is very good, providing a pleasing, throbbing rhythm.
The album is recorded with the intention of providing as much of a feel of the band's live sound as is possible in the studio. Despite this, it remains very difficult to convey the excitement of a jam band on disc and, whilst the band has done well to get so far as they have, there are times when, sitting and listening to this music, one wonders whether foreshortening the jams might have been a good idea. Nevertheless, Watching the Universe remains a strong album of space-rock jams that will please fans of the genre as well as those progressive music fans who enjoy searching out music from all corners of our beautiful planet.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
i.AB - Counting
Counting is the debut album by multi-instrumentalist Aaron Brown who plays drums, piano, keyboards, keyboard bass and keyboard guitar as well as singing the collection of his own compositions. Avoiding the 'one man band' tag, several guest artists appear throughout, particularly Randy Grohs (keyboards including keyboard derived guitar and violin). Also featured are Rick Musallam (guitar) and Bryan Beller (bass) from the Mike Keneally band, Skot Reed (guitar) and Dave Eichman (bass) from .end of story, Jim Matus (guitar, laotar) from Paranoise and Mawwal and Andrew Coss (fretless bass and guitar) from, well, nobody in particular. Described by the composer as a unique mix of progressive rock and the hitherto unheard of genre, by me at least, of post-prog, the 74-minute album is his debut release.
Although undoubtedly good value for money, at $5 it is 15 minutes per dollar, the length of the album is an immediate deterrent for me. An unknown artist needs to make an impact and having so much material all assembled together dilutes such an impact with everything tending to meld into one. A shame as there are some good songs included in the album, as well as a few that don't quite make the mark for me. An example that falls into the latter category is All Together Alone, a mish-mash of keyboards with a frantic drum pattern that races ahead of the vocal line, ultimately spending seven minutes getting nowhere. This contrasts with Swept Away, a much stronger number with a fuller prog sound, good counterpoint keyboard lines and a nicely blended violin added to the mix.
One of the more interesting tracks can be found at the end of the album in the instrumental Apogee 1. Here the upbeat drumming is more in tune with the keyboard work and there is a general nod in the direction of Space Rock themes at times, not a truly apt comparison but Hawkwind do come to mind in places. The style is continued in Apogee 2 although it doesn't quite come off as well. Other highlights include In Circles with Musallam and Beller adding some class to the proceedings to a song that stands out in terms of structural composition from the rest of the album and Wishing, a somewhat darker number with a lyrical edge and Musallam again providing some of the best guitar lines on the album with a nice solo thrown in towards the end.
Overall, I found the album to be rather flat and too long to maintain my attention; it was quite an effort to concentrate to the end. Undoubtedly a stronger album could have been achieved by omitting several of the tracks and possibly re-sequencing the order. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the album per se, it just didn't stand out from anything else that I've heard recently and lacked the ability to grab me and draw me in.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10