Reviews in this issue:
- Amplifier - Echo Street (Duo Review)
- Herd Of Instinct - Conjure
- Phi Yaan-Zek - Deeper With The Anima
- Lucid Fly - The Escape Stage
- Antoine Fafard - Solus Operandi
- Session 606 - No Zeros
- Relevant Discord - The Days Of Deferment & The Refrain EP
Amplifier - Echo Street
Tracklist: Matmos (8:12), The Wheel (7:10), Extra Vehicular (12:11), Where the River Goes (6:32), Paris in the Spring (8:34), Between Today & Yesterday (4:55), Echo Street (5:56), Mary Rose (7:16)
Roger Trenwith's Review
It's over two years (has it really been that long?) since the mighty sprawling sci-fi rock beast that was The Octopus, and having signed to Kscope, the label that had seemed Amplifier's natural destination for years, band leader Sel Balamir was no doubt relieved that he no longer has to spend quite the will-sapping amounts of time and effort on an album project now that he has the backing of a label that operates with its artists' interests at heart. That album and its accompanying lavish presentation was a pinnacle of independent production effort that I cannot ever imagine being equalled. Justice was done in that it gained enough rightly deserved exposure and sales to bring the band to the attention of the home of the cream of UK post-prog.
From the moment the reverb-drenched space ballad that is Matmos kicks off this album, anyone who has a passing interest in Amplifier's discography will know that the band are going somewhere different with this one. This song is Verve-like in its spacious grandeur, and there is no trace of the metallic aural assault usually associated with Sel's techno-space-metal travellers.
There is a decidedly psychedelic indie-rock feel to this record, but put through Sel's modernistic sci-fi-rock blender. Longest song on the album Extra Vehicular puts me in mind of what Ride might have sounded like if they had been into hard rock and Blue Öyster Cult rather than The Byrds. The song creeps out of the shadows and entwines its filaments round your synapses and you kind of expect it to EXPLODE at any moment. Instead it builds and builds, becomes becalmed and then builds again, to end on an extended guitar freak out at the end of the universe, never losing its simple but effective melody. I don't know where it comes from, but I'm more than happy to stay here for a while.
This guitar section blazes an emotional trail that while probably technically imperfect is something that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention, proving that vast amounts of technical proficiency in the plank spanking department are often eclipsed when a guitarist can tap raw emotion; just ask Mr. Hendrix. Rather these glorious three or so minutes than five hours of Joe Satriani any day of the week, as far as I'm concerned.
If Extra Vehicular fails to move you, I would advise a trip to the doctor's for vallium addiction treatment. This song is worth the price of the album on its own. The question is, how do they follow that? Well, they don't have to really, they just keep on keepin' on with Where The River Goes; a Spector-esque piece of rolling thunder that will make your windows rattle. Bloody marvellous!
A nice feature since the permanent addition of formerly tours-only guitarist Steve Durose from Oceansize is the frequent use of three-part vocal harmonies, with Sel and new bassist Alex "Magnum" Redhead, adding another string to the band's already impressive bow. These harmonies star on the ballad Between Today And Yesterday. Nowhere is the departure from the electrified overload of the band's past more apparent than on this song; it is hung around a lone acoustic guitar no less, and the harmonies give it a West Coast CSN&Y vibe. I kid you not!
Along with Sel, drummer Matt Brobin remains from the original line up and continues to lay down monstrous backbeats, the rhythm section taking a more conventional turn since the departure of Neil Mahony's effects-laden bass soundscapes. Not better or worse, just different, and another twist in the tale.
Mary Rose ends the album in a suitably ghostly fashion and shoes are definitely being gazed upon. Being Amplifier though, they do not stay long in the land of grey-overcoated introspection and after taking a detour through U.K. '60s psychedelia they burst forth in a righteous flare of layered chording before Echo Street winds away over the horizon.
Amplifier has confounded expectations with Echo Street, no doubt about it. Where I was afraid they may have burned themselves out with the sheer amount of work that went into The Octopus project; a feeling compounded by a rather lacklustre live show I witnessed last time I saw them in December 2011, I need not have worried. Still hungry, this band are again progressing at an astonishing rate, as they have yet to reach a plateau of success that allows them to rest on their laurels, something all but the most driven artists suffer from when they break through.
With lyrics such as "There is no such thing as fortune, only destiny", "I go where the river goes, where the river goes, I go" and "...come on, catch the wind in your sails" this is Sel Balamir at his most fatalistic and emotive. If this is where the wind is blowing Amplifier then I'm quite happy to join them on the trip, as Echo Street is testament to an unexpected and still burning spirit of adventure, and I recommend it with rock'n'roll knobs on.
Ian Butler's Review
I have only recently discovered Amplifier within the last 6 months despite them going for around 14 years and me hanging around in the DPRP corridors. My first exposure to them was with what can be only described as a must have album, The Octopus, which was well received by my DPRP colleagues. It's never far from my CD player and White Horses at Sea I still can't stop humming in my mind. The Octopus is nearly an ideal mix of post prog, heavy guitar indie art rock with interesting space rock subtle overtones. Can Echo Street live up to this? Will it follow similar lines or be different?
Well, my first impressions are that it's very different to The Octopus, but then it occurred to me that all the Amplifier albums are different in style. Echo Street features a little more 'normal' art rock songs as opposed to longer intricate pieces that can be found on The Octopus. It's not a double disc opus. It's different, so let's judge it on its merits as a new Amplifier album.
Matmos is a beautiful mellow easy going album opener. After listening again and again to this song, it's really the simplicity and various vocal hooks that make it particularly effective. I would probably hear this on the radio and say, "this is great, who is it?" You could also play this to anyone who hates 'the prog rock that you listen to' and get a favorable response! I am not really someone who is particularly hung up on vocals but there are some great catchy vocal lines from Sel. The music is interesting, but not particularly challenging, depending on what you are looking for. I already like the sound treatments of the guitars which are open and clean in the mix. It's very subtle as the song builds up towards the end. I am already being drawn towards my amplifier to turn the volume up, by Amplifier!
The second track, The Wheel, ups the pace with fuzzy treated guitars and a sweet distorted Tool-esque bass line with some fluid groove based drumming and a nice guitar riff that continues through the song. Good foot tapping stuff. Add to this some easy tuneful and melodic vocals and everyone seems happy. All very nice, but I seem to be waiting for something else to happen.
Extra Vehicluar returns to a gentler song with arpeggio guitars that pretty much use the While My Guitar Gently Weeps style descending progression. Again some great lyrical hooks - "I'd turn out the sun for you..." - and melodies on guitar and vocals. It's dark and gloomy and then rocks out with heavy guitars and some near soloing at the lower end of the guitar. It's dawning on me that it's musically a lot simpler and more concise than The Octopus, but it's the treatment, intricacy and the soul of the music that makes it more than the sum of the parts.
On the fourth track, Where The River Goes, apart from making me think of the Stone Temple Pilots many of the above comments for Extra Vehicular are applicable here. It's more of a commercial type of song with plenty of opportunity to sing along at a concert. It's got another classic rock chord sequence to begin the song. These comments can be interpreted as negative, but in my mind I was a little disappointed. The execution and sound is again fantastic, quite a crowd pleaser I would think.
Paris In The Spring brings in layers of clean guitars underpinning some harmony vocals to begin. The track progresses, now this is longer and more interesting with tactical key changes. This track seems to be a little more reflective and less linear.
Between Today and Yesterday is another change in sentiment using acoustic guitars and more than a hint of Steven Wilson/Chris Maitland type harmony vocals, not that SW invented harmony vocals. It’s a superb folky track in contrast to the heavier songs on the album. I think that this tracks is the real grower on the album.
Echo Street is easily my favourite track on the album. It sounds like a big spaced out jam, massive sounding guitars with a multitude of effects creating a big feedback spacey sound coupling dreamy vocals in the background with loose drumming and deep, slow bass. The track builds up really nicely getting louder and louder - lighters in the air and free you mind, man! To me this is like classic early live The Verve that I experienced in 1992 with their superb A Storm Made in Heaven album, before they decided to 'make some money'.
Mary Rose starts with more menacing keyboard sounds and seagulls in the background. This gives way to some sort of psychedelic weird early Pink Floyd (Syd) meets Elbow, with atmospheric bass and vocals before it turns a little more linear, but still an awesome track indeed.
In conclusion, the album made me think of an advertisement in a newspaper - "Are you fed up with rock bands playing 3 million notes a second and seeing how good they are with time signatures? Not found any good superbly well written and meaningful 'art rock' music that you can put on and lose your mind for an hour? Then this album is for you!". There's lots here for fans of Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson, Elbow, Oceansize, Sigur Ross, Opeth, [insert partly arty, melancholic rock band here].
I really think this album will be a bit hit or miss with die hard prog fans, but I also think that we are an open minded bunch. If I am very honest I thought that it was a little tame and certainly more commercially acceptable compared to The Octopus and far mellower than their excellent, heavier Insider album. Echo Street is a little more about sentiments, soundscapes and moods than epic pyrotechnics. There are some excellent moments, when you know what not to expect you can relax and enjoy the music. As I mentioned before, all the Amplifier albums have their own 'sonic paintbrush', so this is no departure. To me it's worth buying for Echo Street and Mary Rose alone, tracks to support this promising band.
Sure, I wanted a little more in the way of ideas like on The Octopus but overall I think it's a quality album delivering well written songs, superb vocal melodies, awesome layers of guitar atmospheres and textures. See you at their gig in Haarlem!
ROGER TRENWITH : 9 out of 10
IAN BUTLER : 7.5 out of 10
Herd Of Instinct - Conjure
Tracklist: Praxis (5:14), Dead Leaf Echo (3:18), Brutality of Fact (3:17), Alice Krige pt.1 (5:54), Solitude One (4:25), Ravenwood (3:27), Mother Night (4:23), Vargtimmen (4:59), Malise (3:15), New Lands (4:12), A Sense of an Ending (5:30), The Secret of Fire (5:16)
Any prog band that features touch guitar, fretless bass and a drummer who flits between real and electronic percussion is going to invite comparisons to various combinations of Levin/Gunn/Mastelotto. In this case, those comparisons are fleeting though as Herd Of Instinct soon develop their own recognisable patterns. A comparison to Fripp's boys is however writ large in the ascending chord sequence of Brutality Of Fact, to the extent where it may even be a tribute, conscious or not, to the mighty Crim.
That song is atypical of the rest of the album which following on with Alice Krige pt.1 and thereafter heads off into a new modernistic near-ambient territory for the band. This song stars some lovely trumpet playing from Joel Adair, one of a few guests who appear on the record. Other guest instruments include lapsteel (also on Alice...), fretless bass, flute, and additional keyboards. Keeping the Porcupine Tree connection from the first album, when Gavin Harrison guested, this time the fretless bass mentioned is played by Colin Edwin, although there is no significant musical similarity between the two bands.
For once the line up of the main band is unchanged from the self-titled debut, as personnel changes for bands of this size are usually unavoidable due to the small size of the audience and a need to pay the rent. The two guitarists Mark Cook and Mike Davison continue their sound paintings from before, adding occasional splashes of colour with some economic but spiky soloing, Jason Spradlin is still the subtle drummer and highly skilled manipulator of electronic beats, and they are now joined full-time by previous guest, Djam Karet's Gayle Ellet.
Gayle is a multi-instrumentalist and composer who plays all manner of keyboards and synths, including that prog must-have, the mellotron. It is probably Gayle's influence that has led the band down this more wistful and melodic path, and it is good to see a band actually progressing in the true sense of the word.
Altogether more intricate and less instant than the debut, Conjure is a grower if ever there was one. Also, if I may offer a word of advice; do not play this as background music, for it deserves to be listened to properly. There is a lot going on in the depths of this particularly interesting backwater that will be missed if you're not paying proper attention...Hey, wake up at the back, there!
Featuring much more electronic percussion than the first album gives some of the songs on Conjure a labyrinthine feel as layers and textures reveal themselves slowly, as if pulling a never ending series of gaily coloured cloths from the collective Herd Of Instinct sleeve.
Solitude One is anything but the gloomfest that title might imply and conjures (sorry!) an image of Eastern bazaars with its programmed Indian rhythms and colourings from Gayle's dilruba, an exotic Indian stringed instrument. The stage that this is played out upon is supplied by the swathes of spooky electronics, the contrast of the ancient and the modern especially highlighted at the end with a short burst of synth guitar notes. This is definitely an album high point.
The opening refrain of Mother Night would make for a gorgeous ballad if it had vocals, the doomed romance of the melody repeating itself either side of some Scandi-prog angularity, followed up with a spacey "out there" vibe. About the only thing missing from this track is the lovely voice of Kris Swenson, star of Blood Sky from the first album.
I particularly like the way that Gayle's synth (or Mike's synth guitar?) meshes almost indistinguishably with the guitars on Vargtimmen to the extent where it is difficult to tell which is which. Some nice mellotron and Hammond organ chords, probably modern but made to sound vintage, are scattered throughout the album. This lends some of the tracks a nostalgic feel, but never to the point of imitation of the greats of yesteryear, a trait all too common in today's prog world. An overall dreamy atmosphere is especially prevalent on closer The Secret Of Fire, one of the guitarists soaring away in the manner of Bill Nelson on one of his more agitated ambient pieces. Bloody lovely it is too!
Keeping up the seedling of a tradition - this is only their second album after all - but the cover artwork is as strikingly original as the debut, and evokes the appropriate air of mystery. The inner has the text on top of a dark treated colour picture of what appears to be the basalt columns of the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, familiar to anyone who owns Zep's Houses Of The Holy. Kudos to Mark Cook for the art layout.
Herd Of Instinct have proven with their sophomore effort that they are not about to rest on their laurels, and have given us an album that any true prog fan should be delighted to own.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Phi Yaan-Zek - Deeper With The Anima
Tracklist: Adventures At Midnight (5:01), Inamorata In Peril - Part Three (5:35), Corazones En Fuego (4:58), Ecstasies Of The Starlight Self (T Boy Remix) (5:54), Mariana's Deeper (Luke Bedi Remix) (5:42), Signposts 2 (5:05), Lover's Tryst (5:57), Four Daughters Of Phrygia (Café Del Malborough's Pilgrim Mix) (6:44), The Shrine Of The Augmented Weave (7:16), Wholeheartedness (5:43), At Peace (3:29)
Continuing on from 2010's Dance With The Anima, this album presents us with more examples of the consummate skill of guitarist/composer Phi Yaan-Zek. Ably assisted on keyboards by Lalle Larsson the duo along with other guests weave Phi's many-layered compositions around the pre-recorded rhythms taken from the ubiquitous Marco Minneman's Normalizer project, which has to date produced albums in collaboration with Trey Gunn, Mike Keneally, Alex Machacek and others. This time, rather than follow the drum solo as on the previous release, the rhythms have been edited and rearranged, allowing more freedom for the composer and resulting in extended reworkings, remixes and new pieces.
The adventure starts at midnight; and right from the off Phi's guitar plots Crimsoid graphs over a repeated and insistent funky groove. The Crimson influence, in the style of Gunn and Mastelotto continues into the next track, but there is much more to this album than those particular themes. Passionate and involving, we next take a trip into tango rhythms and expansive Latin flavours, followed by rushing electronica in the style of a less minimalist Aphex Twin.
Then there's the lovely jazz ballad Mariana's Deeper Dive, led by the warm rhythms of a double bass played by one "Tristian D. Rastaflange the Third", a name that wins pseudonym of the year so far, topped off by a short but exquisite flamenco guitar solo from Phi. Love Abounds is described in the press release as "a 4 minute guitar solo piece inspired by John Coltrane" and for once the publicity blurb is spot on – 'nuff said. Signposts 2 goes for an acoustic guitar-led jazz vibe, while some gorgeously sinuous bass from Bryan Beller leads Lover's Tryst into the shade of an orchard and out of the summer sun.
The earlier mentioned Crimson influences have now been left far behind and we're deep into Phi's mesmerising compositional world. Amandine Ferrari's choral vocals weave in and out of Four Daughters..., a spacey ambient symphony led by Lalle's keyboards over Marco's modernistic rhythms, occasionally joined by shards of icicle guitar. As the song builds, the guitar gets more restless, but always pulls back from running away with the thing. A truly captivating piece of writing indeed.
The darkest song is The Shrine..., a grand prix duel between Lalle's fast'n'furious keyboards and Phi's speed-of-light fret tapping and picking. I'm not normally a fan of shredding, but in the context of the clattering rhythm track it sprawls all over, and indeed in the context of the whole album it works just fine. After the speed-fest a breather is needed and the delightful Wholeheartedness allows just that. Pat Metheny is writ large in a slow wind through the idling stream. We end with At Peace, a thoughtful solo guitar piece that echoes around; the hall has emptied, it's time to go home. This is a fitting end to a long but highly enjoyable journey.
Some albums that last as long as Deeper With The Anima become hard work, but that is not the case with this delightful construct; a quite remarkable album and an inspiring take on fusion that never falls back on the sometimes prevalent clichés of that genre. It's probably going to be worth investigating those other albums in the Normalizer project too...if only I had the time!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Lucid Fly - The Escape Stage
Tracklist: DirgE (3:56), Dramatis Personae (3:32), Alohum (3:28), Back & Forth (3:31), Means To An End (3:26)
Nikki Layne (vocals) and Doug Mecca (guitar) got together in Florida in 2001 to form a band and needing a name for it they came across an old newspaper article about an American astronaut Shannon Lucid. Shannon had set a new world record having had to stay in space longer than planned due to hurricanes that made it impossible for him to return to earth, ending up spending 188 days in space. The headline on the newspaper was "Lucid Flies into the record book", giving them the idea of calling the band Lucid Fly. They got a good following in Florida in a very competitive area for local bands and in 2005 released their debut EP, Adapting To Gravity, which helped the growth of their fan base.
Nikki and Doug decided to take their music to California to win over audiences on the West Coast and in Los Angeles they met Go Nakabayashi (bass) and Arron Ficca (drums). All four of the band members had many influences and ideas and got together to start writing new material for The Escape Stage EP.
The EP starts with DirgE, not the typically sad, slow song which would be played at a funeral, the capital 'E' at the end seems to make it the opposite as this is a fast, awakening song with a driving bass throughout and Nikki straight away shows how good her voice is, supported by good harmonies with excellent drums and rocking guitars. Next we have Dramatis Personae, the phrase used to list the main characters in a work of drama such as a play. The track has good guitars, great sounding drums and driving bass which really rocks. This is followed by Alohum, Nikki stating on their facebook page that the song has a special place in her heart after the passing of her mother with its reflections on life and remembering. The track has great vocals coming across with real meaning, the guitars and bass really rock with changing tempos throughout. Back & Forth is an alternative rock number with good guitars and fine, fast, exciting drumming which had me struggling to sit still wanting to join in. The last track, Means To An End is the strongest and best track on the EP has so much going on; great vocals, fine guitars, top drumming and bass, they get so much into the song in just under three and half minutes.
Lucid Fly have been around a while with 2 EPs under their belt and have been in the studio working on a full length album in East West studios in Hollywood with engineer Brendan Dekora. Also, in March 2013 they are going on a tour for the first time with the current lineup and will include some material from the forthcoming album in their set.
I enjoyed the EP, a mixture of good rock with parts sounding dark and epic with powerful bass playing combined with good rhythm guitars, top drumming and excellent vocals. All five tracks come in under four minutes which to me was a slight draw back as longer tracks may have given more space for the fine musicians on the EP. But even so you can hear that time and detail has been spent on writing and performing the songs making a great introduction to what the band sound like and where they are heading. Lucid Fly as a female fronted band have some similarities to Evanescence but what I have heard so far of Lucid Fly I like and they come across as having their own sound. They should continue breaking into the rock scene and start to go places. I look forward to hearing the album when it is released as going by the EP it should be a good one. We will have to wait and see.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Antoine Fafard - Solus Operandi
Antoine Fafard, better known as the bass player for progressive/post rock/fusion ensemble Spaced Out, has enlightened the world with a solo offering that is going by the name of Solus Operandi.
Solus Operandi suggests that he has done the complete project all by himself but the truth is nothing like that, not even by a mile looking at all the guest musicians he has surrounded himself with. His buddies Martin Maheux and Marc Tremblay are there to help as are Eric Boudreault and Eric Brosseau. Also present is world famous Jazz drummer Dave Weckl. The instrumentation covers electric and classical guitar, drums, trumpet and saxophone as well as Fafard's bass.
Given these musicians and Fafard's own capabilities on both bass and classical guitar we are in for a treat here. A very musical one; no vocals, no lyrics just 75 minutes of highly rated Jazz-fusion at its best performed by an all-star cast lead, of course by Antoine himself who has composed, arranged and produced the album as well as playing on it.
From the first note until the last the album is one long journey of a jazz-fusion extravaganza the like of which I have seldom come across if it were not for an album of the same allure by another bassplayer, Alberto Rigoni. Where I listened to Rigoni's Rebirth and was astounded by the virtuosity of his play, I believe Fafard takes it a step further by also playing the classical guitar. The album is not one long improvisation as we often see with jazz-fusion but we actually have 17 great instrumental tracks.
Surely this is not a Progressive Rock album, but it is the magnificent debut album of a great bass player. During my many visits to this album I must say that my liking of it is particularly dependent upon my mood as I find jazz-fusion funk not always that easily accessible. I also have strong memories of one of the greatest bass players of all time - Jaco Pastorius - which results from the variation and seemingly easy play by Antoine.
My favourite tracks are Dye A Log, Acoustap, The A song and Xerochronic Blast.
I doubt this is an album for a large audience but is most definitely for people with a liking for Pastorius, Chick Corea and many of the artists who work in the Jazz-fusion genre.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Session 606 - No Zeros
Tracklist: THRTY/SXTN (3:41), The Most Fashionably Pathetic And Attractively Desperate (3:22), Straightrazr (4:42), Bones For Time (5:15), 843-3323 (4:36)
Using the tags "electrocore, progtronica, rock", Session 606 keep churning out EPs on the bandcamp.com platform - each project paying for the next. This review is for the December 2012 5-song EP, No Zeros.
Check out the previously reviewed EP Rebirth where much of what I said remains consistent with this latest release with a few substantive and stylistic improvements.
The work of Anthony Masington, Session 606 has carved a very selective slice of the electro-prog genre. It is, indeed, unique and continues to rely on rhythmically oriented prog with post-punk leanings. The sound quality has once again improved over it's predecessor (Rebirth) and the techno-laced infusions are much more palatable and interesting with No Zeros as well.
The songs, while distinct, don't leave a lasting memory until the finale, which ends on a more melodic note than the rest of the EP. A familiar thread of Session 606 is not to make melody a strong suit. Some portions remind me of the way Bjork will intentionally go from a flowing resonant piece to something more disjointed and even somewhat grating. Session 606 does not rise to the level of grating, but the heavy use of staccato and the seemingly random rise and falls of the vocals might push that territory for some.
Since I commented on the album art for Rebirth, I have to mention that the cover for No Zeros is much improved. I could almost swear I have been to the location shown in the aged black and white nature scene. I'm still not sure how it fits with the musical content, but interesting nonetheless.
Aside from the small criticisms, as I said, this is another improvement in the growing chain of EP work. The bandcamp platform makes this a very reasonable leap to try something different and worthwhile. The progress displayed here keeps me interested and I believe the next EP is due shortly.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Relevant Discord - The Days Of Deferment & The Refrain EP
An EP for review this time, the band in question is Relevant Discord with their recently released 2 single EP featuring The Days Of Deferment and The Refrain.
The music is best described as a cross of 30 Seconds To Mars, Three Doors Down, Live and Three Days Grace. Need I say more? In the least the music has a good structure, well mixed, great sound. The bass plays an important role in both the songs by really driving the music forward. Great musicianship.
Front man Nick Depew is responsible for the writing and overseeing the band's independent label.
The sound is fantastic; the material is very catchy and hits you straight away but belongs in the alternative corner like the bands I named above. They sure are worth listening though but are not as progressive as most of the bands we review in these pages.
I have done a double conclusion this time because I believe the music has tremendous potential.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10 (but for the progressive side: Not Rated)