Reviews in this issue:
- Il Giardino Onirico - Perigeo
- Humble Grumble - Guzzle It Up!
- Elmo Karjalainen - Unintelligent Designs
- Flicker - How Much Are You Willing To Forget?
- Victor Lafuente - Inside
- Taipuva Luotisuora - 8
- Autumnal Blossom - Against the Fear of Death
- Coarbegh - The Colour of Happiness
Il Giardino Onirico - Perigeo
Tracklist: B.S.D. (10:42), Utopia Planitia (11:46), Agosto (8:57), Amigdala (9:08), Perigeo (11:16)
For a relatively new band formed in the new millennium, the name Il Giardino Onirico (The Dreamlike Garden) is a curious one suggesting a hippy throwback to the 1960s but there is more to this band than meets the eye. With just five tracks all of which are instrumental (with the exception of the spoken intros and occasional choral interlude) this album has its roots in the '70s although the sound is bang up to date.
Judging by the photos on the band's MySpace site they are all young musicians but the ensemble playing suggests remarkable maturity and ability. For the record they are Stefano Avigliana (guitars), Emanuele Telli (keyboards), Dariush Hakim (synths, effects), Ettore Mazzarini (bass) and Massimo Moscatelli (drums). They are joined by Marco Marini who provides the narrated introductions (a typical Italian trait) to each song and soprano soloist Elisabetta Marchetti. Perigeo is the band's first full length CD following the 2010 EP Complesso K.
Following Marini's prologue, album opener B.S.D. launches musically with a solid riff augmented by frenetic staccato guitar and synths. Just as the phrase 'file under prog-metal' seemed appropriate they ease back for a mellow interlude with inspired lead bass playing and a heavenly wordless chant straight out of an Ennio Morricone score. The drumming is impressively articulate for the heavy bombardment that follows with soaring guitar and razor sharp organ dynamics. The next section is unashamedly romantic with lilting piano and classical guitar, enriched by synthesised flute and strings. Elisabetta's hypnotic voice returns to bring the piece to a serene close.
After such an impressive start, the rest of the album could easily prove to be an anticlimax but thankfully that's not the case. Starting off with rippling Rick Wakeman flavoured electric piano and chiming Steve Hackett-like guitar, Utopia Planitia is a slow burning piece, building over its 12 minute length with some wonderfully dexterous organ and synth playing before culminating with powerful and showy soloing from guitar and bass respectively.
Agosto is a more tranquil affair, to begin with at least, with symphonic keys underpinning a moody fretless bass solo that Jonas Reingold would be proud of. The breezy rhythmic guitar led section that follows curiously brings Tears For Fears to mind before it's cut in half by a shredding guitar volley. The closing section with its sledgehammer fuzzed guitar and menacing organ chords is prog metal at its purest and most imaginative.
Similarly, Amigdala opts for a serene opening with ambient synth and percussive effects before building a solid wall of guitars, bass and synths. A very powerful and inventive piece that demolishes everything in its path with (once again) particularly excellent drumming from Moscatelli.
The title track, Perigeo, is another gradual building and atmospheric piece that goes from a stark solo drum pattern to a sweeping Chris Fry-style guitar solo, taking in Elisabetta's ethereal soprano along the way. The tension is released by way of a dreamy keyboard soundscape reminiscent of Phaedra era Tangerine Dream and the sound of breaking waves to conclude.
As debut albums go this really is a quite a stunning piece of work. The band's collective technical ability is breathtaking utilising arrangements with plenty of contrasting light and shade and they certainly know how to write a strong melody or two. It's also refreshing that they are able to do this without drawing comparisons with the usual suspects like Yes, Genesis and Floyd. This may have something to do with the youthfulness of the individuals involved and whilst I've referenced other musicians in my review this is merely to illustrate a particular sound or style of playing as opposed to suggesting a copycat technique. Mention should also go to the wonderfully spacious production allowing every nuance of Il Giardino Onrico's intricate but never overly complicated music to shine through.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Humble Grumble - Guzzle It Up!
Humble Grumble is so named after Hungarian band leader Gabor Humble, who also wrote most of the music and lyrics, as well as recording and producing the album. The rest of the band are Belgian, and this is where this loose-limbed combo are based. Guzzle It Up! is the group's fourth album since 2005, and their second for AltrOck.
Playing a mixture of folk, rock, jazz, prog and ethnic-flavoured rhythmic space-funk, lyrically their influences display a Zappa-esque oddball humour, while musically they are probably nearer to the Euro stylings of Gong, although that does not really do them justice.
Take this gambit from track number one, Kurt's Casino, played out to a sort of Canterbury-Latino dance groove:
From time to time we shared his wife
One day after dinner we thought we'd better leave her 'cos
She looked like an empty mine"
Made me laugh, that did, although it wouldn't win a Feminist Lyric Of The Year Award, for sure, but if you think that was near the mark, just wait until you've heard Skunks!
As well as the traditional rock band instruments we have saxophone, bass clarinet and vibraphone, and a guest player contributes a joyous marimba break in the last part of this infectious opening ditty.
Elsewhere, clever wordplay and avant musical stylings mix the aforementioned Gong/Zappa influences with the Hatfields. Accidentally in San Sebastian brings all that together and even includes a rap about beer, wee, slime and mommy, before flying off at a tangent into oblique territories.
I mention the Anglo-American influences to give a recognisable base for those unfamiliar with Belgium's own alternative rock scene, and if you know your Fukkeduks you can see where Humble Grumble is coming from. Where they are going however, is anyone's guess, and they are all the better for this helter-skelter unpredictability.
As well as singing, Gabor contributes guitar, and is no slouch in the plank spanking department as the scorching solo on The Dancing Dinosaur shows. More singing is also supplied by two female vocalists whose interplay on the same song adds another layer to the band's rich tapestry of sounds. This song also manages to include a hoedown section; the whole thing is a looney tune of some distinction.
The thrillingly offensive Skunks charges along on a wave of peaked sexual energy, and if it doesn't raise a smile, you obviously need to chill out a bit. Pate a Tartiner ends the album with the by now familiar concoction of influences, and all I can say is, this band must be a blast live.
Guzzle It Up! represents yet another prime slice of AltrOck oddness that deserves to be heard by a far wider audience than it will be. Still, it's our secret for now, and if you like your wacky Gong/Zappa/Canterbury music you cannot fail to like this wee beastie.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Elmo Karjalainen - Unintelligent Designs
Elmo Karjalainenis a fine guitarist from Finland who plays in metal band Deathlike Silence where he has won some fame as one of the best rock players from that country. The band has recorded two albums, both of which have been well received with positive reviews. The band's single Six Feet Under The Ground was also a radio hit in Finland. Elmo is also involved in other projects including Conquest and Seagrave, both of which are planing new material.
Unintelligent Designs is Elmo's debut solo album and after taking some time to write and record it is now finally finished. The wait has been worthwhile though with 16 instrumental tracks in differing styles from rock, metal, fusion and jazz. There is also a good dose of humour which is seen even before you play the album as on the front of the CD booklet are the words "Parental advisory: this record contains many tunes that are over 3 minutes long and no singing, and thus totally unsuitable for everyone".
Let's look at each track in turn.
Spark Of Hope: A slow jazzy fusion number gently breaking you into the album and sounding quite Hawaiian in parts, reminding me of Earl Klugh. You could quite easily be in a dream on a far away beach with a feeling of total relaxation.
Headlight Violence: The clue on this one is in the title with some technical but quite aggressive guitar playing sure to wake you up from your dream on the previous track, classic metal ending with floating keyboards and an odd spoken piece - "Welcome to my CD, it's a pleasure to have you along and I hope you enjoy the ride".
Chromatic Tuna: Jazz fusion at its best, with a nice hard edge and a catchy funky beat throughout. Sounds of Al DiMeola and Santana can be heard, I just love the sound of the guitar making this one of my favourites on the album.
Lovely Spam: Metal elements can be heard throughout this one, but also it reminded me of a heavy version of the instrumental part of The Cinema Show by Genesis.
The Promised Land Of Roundabouts: Bass powered jazz rock fusion, with a powerful fusion guitar.
Home: Similar to the previous track but mellower, acoustic guitar driven with electric lead guitar, melodic with hints of fusion.
The Feigning Of Altruism: Heavy metal mixed with fusion really making it hard to pigeon hole exactly what style we have, but an interesting track none the less.
Jammy Jam: Just over a minute with so much packed into the jam, jazz meets metal full on.
The voices In My Head: With a thank you at the beginning for the voices in my head, a crazy track of fast metal guitar playing taking us to a winding end.
Oneself As Another: The longest track on the album at just under 10 minutes. A mixture of prog and metal, heavy to start with the sound of a needle being knocked across an LP about a third of the way through followed by a slowing down to some beautiful guitar before building back up to a climax. Another favourite.
Sanna: Jazz rock fusion with beautiful harmonised guitars. Camel fans will love this, a real highlight of the album.
Unintelligent Designs: The title track, an up-tempo piece that really rocks.
The Demise Of A Karaoke Bar: Free form rock, strange in structure with parts in a King Crimson style.
The Difficulties: A real King Crimson sounding piece with a catchy beat, heavy guitars and bass, nice time changes and the middle part features some nice sounding bass. If I had to pick a favourite on the album this would be it.
Tuire's And Ville's Wedding Waltz: Perfect title for this one with its lovely slow moving pace, nice and mellow, with a sweet sounding guitar.
Until We Meet Again: A really fitting title to end the album, a journey of more fusion and rock starting with a short spoken piece.
I found the album highly enjoyable and even after repeated listens it still had my attention. I know some people might find instrumental albums not their thing but this one is different with its many different styles, you can't help but want to know what's next. Don't let the jazz element put you off. The guitar playing is first class and really shines throughout the album. Also some instrumental albums fail because they become too samey but this one doesn't, you are pulled in different directions making for a really enjoyable interesting listen. As long as you are prepared to open your mind and give the album a chance you will find plenty to like. As stated on one of the tracks, "hope you enjoy the ride". The answer is simple, you will.
The Booklet that comes with the album matches the theme really well with its sketches, humour and information.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Flicker - How Much Are You Willing To Forget?
Flicker are a new quartet from the Aylesbury area of England comprising members Ellis Mordecai (vocals, guitar, keyboard and string arrangements), Andy Day (guitars and vocals), Peter Coussens (bass) and Vaughan Abrey (drums). On first looking at the album what is interesting is that the style and topography resembles classic album designs of the '70s, very much in the spirit of Storm Thorgerson (R.I.P.). The imagery is reinforced by the music as Flicker have an accomplished and genre-defining sound which is immediately obvious from the synth laden Intro which leads neatly into the excellent Go with its nifty riff and different vocal styles. However, the band have avoided sounding clichéd and have managed to maintain a contemporaneous sound. The piano driven Out There is a great example having a distinct early Porcupine Tree feel to it. My Empty Head takes the band's writing up to another level with a great, atmospheric instrumental section with wonderful guitar parts.
Not dropping the quality at all, things proceed in the best traditions of British progressive rock, providing haunting and atmospheric soundscapes that take in the many elements of the major bands without every sounding like a pastiche. Vocalist Mordecai has a smooth delivery exemplified on tracks like Counting Time where acoustic guitar blends effortlessly with the keyboards and sympathetic backing vocals. Although the longer tracks are well written and arranged, the immediate standout song is Everywhere Face. Anyone who wants to dismiss Flicker as living in the past and shunning originality seriously needs to hear this track. Simultaneously, haunting, energetic, melodic and exciting, the song delivers more in under five minutes than most can manage in half an hour. Having said all that, next up is Falling Down which does bring to mind elements of The Pineapple Thief. A more sedate and gentle song with a great string arrangement, presumably keyboard derived, although the cello is particularly nice. A less harmonious section leads into the guitar solo which raises the temperature somewhat and takes us into a wonderfully composed and performed closing section.
Opening a song with a Spanish guitar solo is a pretty bold move, but it sets the mood for the song Breathless. Mordecai's vocals are never better than on this number which throughout the first three minutes of acoustic music leaves lots of space making the introduction of the electric guitar even more startling. There is an almost Talk Talk intensity to the arrangement, and the varying light and shade results in an engaging song that is a delight to the ears. Closing things out is the philosophically titled Is This Real Life? which lulls the listener with a gothic-esque piano and string ballade. Back in the days of big recording budgets this song would inevitably have been recorded on a massively expensive Steinway grand piano backed by a full orchestra in a hall with exemplary acoustics and have sounded absolutely epic! Despite not having the advantages of such budgets, Flicker have pulled off the arrangement admirably, delivering a thought-provoking lyric over a lovely backing made all the more striking by its relative simplicity.
How Much Are You Willing To Forget? is a striking and bold debut album and one that stands out from a lot of new bands by its originality and freshness, despite both having been achieved by the clever incorporation of old and new elements of progressive rock. Hopefully we will hear more from this band in the future as they certainly have a lot to offer and, on the basis of these first fifty minutes are deserving of the attention.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Victor Lafuente - Inside
With Inside, French guitarist Victor Lafuente, on most pieces backed by keyboards, bass, and drums, has released a fine CD of varied jazz-rock fusion. The mostly electric music defies easy description, as Lafuente, who composed and arranged all of the music, seems equally interested in delicacy and heaviness. Making appearances on the CD are traditional jazz fusion, elements of metal, classical, and even touches of Flamenco. Somehow, though, these seemingly odd bedfellows co-exist well.
The opener, Instable Perception, exemplifies the diversity of sounds. The main guitar solo reeks of Al DiMeola with a dose of Eddie Van Halen. Next arriving are some flamenco strands, followed by some metal licks. On the whole, the song is fiery and complex, sometimes softened by some soothing vocalizations. Lafuente particularly dominates and shines on the next tune, Room 88. Slow, soaring, and soulful leads are nicely offset by some speedy runs.
Next up is The Kraken which continues the melting-pot theme: it shifts from hard chords to spaciness to spirited wailing, the last of which also evokes DiMeola during the Elegant Gypsy era. Ethereal vocals (female) add a tinge of mystery. The drums pound a bit too much on this tune, but the overall musicianship here is impressive. To say that the next piece changes gears would be a substantial understatement: Mountain View is a duet of classical guitar and flute. It's a sweet and welcome intermission. The opening melody of Simplexcity is borderline sugary, but a crying, arguably Carlos Santana-like guitar solo soon reassures the listener that this is serious music.
The title track, Inside, layers guitar solos against an atmospheric, lush background that harkens back to Happy the Man. The abrupt ending is a bit jarring, though. Percussion and female vocals add a middle-eastern flair to the bulk of the next tune, Crop Circle, but edgy interludes creep in. T.O, which follows, is a notably progressive and particularly well conceived tune that, again, sometimes smacks of Happy the Man. The flute then reappears, but in an electric context, on Just a Song. The delicacy of the flute variously blends well with and pleasantly contrasts with the shredding. Aznarepse is a wholly acoustic solo piece (except for some barely noticeable background vocals) that showcases Lafuente's notable technical expertise. The closer, Temple of Time, is best characterized as hard-driving jazz fusion, but, again, there's some metal-like, savvy shredding in the mix.
Although, as noted, the music here is diverse, this CD will appeal more to jazz-fusion aficionados than to prog-rockers. If jazz fusion is up your alley, or if you simply appreciate gutsy, skilled guitarists, you will find a great deal to like here.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Taipuva Luotisuora - 8
This is Taipuva Luotisuora's fourth album. The first was "I", the second "II", the third "IV". See what they did there? Coming out before those albums, their debut recording from 2004 was Planetaariset Ilmanpainevyöhykkeet, which throws a spanner into the sequencing, but I suppose at a mere 31 minutes long it could be regarded as an EP, and therefore does not count. And they called this album "8" and not "VIII" - pedantic, moi? :)
Minor mathematical quibbles aside, from the opening block-rocking beats of Volantum Machina it is apparent that this Finnish band has returned to its prog-dance roots after the more prog rock sounding IV, with oodles of intergalactic debris thrown in for good measure. A case of Hawkwind sparring with the Chemical Brothers, and there may well be a deus in this Machina, but not as we know it, Jim.
Kajaani stops off to refuel, a mighty nice Hammond sound rising. It is somehow fitting that I write this while sitting in Eurostar as it speeds across the flat open countryside of northern France, with TL's hard driving space rock powering along in tandem with the loco.
Their muse puts all kind of prog and hard rock influences through TL's spacey dance blender, occasionally stomping along like the Sabs in a rusty spaceship, meeting the Ozrics along the way for a swift bong.
From the band that gave us such groovy song titles as Music For Kortela Space Hood Elevators and even more convoluted examples in their native language, names this time are kept briefer, with the exception of Muovia tehdään Öljystä (Plastic Is Made From Oil). Musically, strange time signatures will pop up now and again, Eventa being one example. Here, Jean Michel Jarre meets up with the Crims on a space station of ill repute for some rest and recuperation.
Guttural synth belchings meld with big Europop sensibilities on Muovia... to great effect; this is techno for progheads, and if this band were French they would be M83's older cousin with the record collection. As well as the usual guitar (x2)/bass/keyboards/drums, extra texture is added by kantela and violin, and there is always something going on instrumentally to grab the listener's attention.
Evomere ends the album in an initially blissed-out fashion, slowly unveiling a more serious intent, and Taipuva Luotisuora have made another album that will not disappoint fans of the band, and any space rocking prog fan should have no problem assimilating these fun lovin' Finns into their CD collection.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Autumnal Blossom - Against the Fear of Death
Pia Darmstaedter is quite a busy person these days. Apart from being involved in Poor Genetic Material, with whom she recorded two albums, 2010's Island Noises and their latest album, A Day In June, she also contributed to a project called Coarbegh on the album The Colour of Happiness and recorded this first solo album under the name Autumnal Blossom. In between she seems to teach and to play in classical orchestras. Quite an achievement and even more so if these projects turn out to be worthwhile to listen to. And they are.
Apart from Darmstaedter herself who plays flute and piano and takes care of all the vocals, Autumnal Blossom consists of Philipp Jaehne (keyboards), Stefan Glomb (guitars, bass) - both from PGM - Valeria la Guidice (cello), Mark Beers (double bass) and Julia Donat (didgeridoo). Drums and percussion are almost absent, albeit that Jaehne produces some on the computer, yet this process is ideal for the music that Autumnal Blossom makes: it's rather slow, etherical, atmospheric, sometimes classical, then folky, then Iona. Most songs start off with a piano theme, soon accompanied by flute or acoustic guitar, which evolves into the vocal lines. And that is the weak side of this cd because Darmstaedter is far from a gifted singer. Her voice is limited, has a small range and is rather weak which is definitely a disadvantage in these songs that require some strength in the voice, such as in Life is a Poet's Fable. That song builds up from a piano and flute intro after which the vocals are way too hesitant to introduce the Gregorian-like chant that forms the middle section of the song. It really is too bad that her voice can not keep up with this chant. Yet her voice is clear and good on tone.
The instrumentation on this CD is great. The interplay between flute and piano or flute and guitar is very tasteful, as is the use of the didgeridoo in, for instance, Slant of Light. The music is haunting in Intro: Young and Old, folky in Intermezzo and almost poppy in Tears, Idle Tears. All music is written by Darmstaedter herself and in most songs her classical background can be distinguished. A real gem are the lyrics that are taken from famous poets from the fifteenth through to the nineteenth century. November Fog though was written by Sonja Darmstaedter-Lehwald, I assume her sister-in-law.
All in all this is a really nice album for those who like to listen to quiet, moody songs in the vein of Clannad, Iona or an acoustic White Willow. On the vocal side Darmstaedter has enough room to increase considerably, on the instrumental side she proves to be very promising. And although it may not really be prog as such, it most certainly isn’t pop or rock either. So just enjoy it.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Coarbegh - The Colour of Happiness
When you take a female jazz singer, some alternative music and a classical education and you blend all these together you may well end up with Coarbegh. All these ingredients are present on their first album, The Colour of Happiness, consisting of three instrumentals and seven vocal pieces.
On this album vocalist Pia Darmstaedter is again working with two guys from Poor Genetic Material on one track, as she also does on the recently produced Autumnal Blossom album, Against the Fear of Death. She has really been going through a prolific period lately. Yet Coarbegh is a totally different thing from Autumnal Blossom as this album is more song oriented and quite poppy in places with the majority of the vocals taken by Jutta Brandl.
A Secret Glance is a solid opener, with its very mellow intro, the characteristic (see later!) vocals and a nice guitar solo. It makes you curious what will follow but unfortunately this longing isn't fully satisfied. Most of the vocal songs are nice and quiet and very well played. The music is reminiscent of Clannad, even a bit of Renaissance with a hint of Dead Can Dance and sometimes Sally Oldfield comes to mind. But the difference is that the flute is the really prominent instrument here in most songs which gives them a nice flavour, taking the listener to places where John Hackett appears to be rehearsing with Astrud Gilberto. Nice thought, isn't it!
Another remarkable feature is the distinct inspiration for Alchemy Lodge. Anyone familiar with Tubular Bells (who isn't?!) will recognize the melody of the song as being based upon the theme just before the closing section of TB. Yet it is very nicely done.
Among the instrumental songs Cooil East is the standout track. It could have been a perfect soundtrack for a movie or documentary featuring some hot desert and a protagonist desperately searching for water. You can almost feel his thirst; it's a really good listen!
Production-wise this is a rather good album, albeit that The Lighthouse Keeper's Birds and The World Before the Fall, both nice songs, are far too short. The end of these songs comes as a unwelcome surprise after some 2 or 3 minutes while the songs are still being built up. That's really a shame.
On the negative side are the vocals, again. These are rather weak, especially in the higher regions where they almost sound false (but certainly aren't!). Brandl is simply not a strong vocalist which may work quite well in a jazzy setting but here it takes the often mellow, fluid instruments down hill. That said here and there the vocals work quite well. Chalkhill Blues is such a song that is lifted towards a totally different height and becomes one of the highlights, simply because of the improved vocals. Compared to Two of a Kind, where Darmstaedter swings all the vocals, she sounds almost reluctant in her singing. That could and should have been much better!
Yet all in all this is a fine album for all those who enjoy really nice, quiet melodies and much flute to listen to. Imagine Anthony Phillips joined by some female vocalists and you may be positively surprised. But if you like the more rocky side with strong guitars and a nice rhythm section this certainly is not going to be your piece of cake.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10