Reviews in this issue:
- Bulbs - On
- Nosound - Afterthoughts
- William Gray - Silentio
- Science NV - Last Album Before the End of Time
- Combat Astronomy - Kundalini Apocalypse
- Morph - Sintrinity
- Primitive Instinct - One Man's Refuge
- Haze - The Last Battle
- Haiku Funeral - Nightmare Painting
- Elephants of Scotland - Home Away From Home
Bulbs - On
In the now somewhat saturated market that is 'progressive rock' there are many acts screaming and shouting to be heard, however for this reviewer to hear that call, it requires a somewhat different voice. One such band is Liverpool based newcomer Bulbs who officially release their debut album on 21st June 2013. On has been in the making for a little over a year now and my initial interest was sparked last year when I heard a piece by the band entitled 517 - if memory serves me correctly.
I say newcomer, but Bulbs features a composer and musician I have grown a healthy admiration for since first hearing 3 O'Clock Sky under the name The Neil Campbell Collective back in 2005. Now at this point I could fill most of the remainder of this review with a list of his solo and collaborative achievements, but perhaps if I just mention his long term project with one Jon Anderson, then you may gather the man's credentials speak highly of him. Not all Neil's work falls under the progressive banner, however this latest excursion certainly does.
So without further delay let me introduce the rest of the Bulbs. On bass we have Andy Maslivec, drumming by Joey Zeb and Marty Snape brings in the electronics. A quartet of musicians who collectively produce a dynamic, intriguing and powerful sound. On is primarily an instrumental album, with added social comment via the spoken word, which along with numerous sound effects, challenge the listener to - well, listen. With both Maslivec and Zeb forming a tight musical rhythm section, accompanied by Campbell's oddly metered guitar loops, engaging classical and electric guitar we have a superb ensemble of musicians. Pulling this all together and adding the final ingredient is Marty Snape who provides a thick tapestry of electronics that embellishes the overall sound.
Trying to encapsulate, in a few words, the breadth and depth of music to be found on On is going to be tricky, so I'm going to cheat a little here and let the band offer a brief descriptor first.
"Over a year in the making Bulbs new album On is a 12 track tour de force of cyclical time signatures, electronic textures, dark conceptual speech samples and prog melodic-ism."
I recently spoke to Neil Campbell in which he offered an in-depth overview of the album and you can read this interview on DPRP HERE.
There's so much on offer - so I'll keep it brief. Lament as its title implies is a mournful piece with various atmospheric electronica and layered harmonized guitar. Segueing into Frankincensed I was rudely awakened, having foolishly cranked up the volume during the opener, witnessing my Tannoy speakers bouncing around on their stands as Andy Maslivec's deep, clear bass introduced the track. Joey Zeb adds his precise, busy drumming whilst Neil Campbell adds multiple layers of hypnotic guitar. As mentioned above Marty Snape adds more electronics accompanied 'conspiracy theory' type commentary. Majestic lollops in via a percolating electronic rhythm, rolling bass, steady drums and a lilting classical lead line. But not for long! The 'chorus' is in your face, replete with choirs and abrasive guitar chords. The themed solo on the other hand wouldn't have sounded out of place on any recent Steve Hackett album.
Elsewhere Injusa and Lantra are simply delightful and demonstrates Neil's delicate command of the classical guitar. Illuminate on the other hand brings Andy Maslivec more to the attention, great bass sound and at just over six minutes, time for the band to experiment. USA opens in an almost Gary Numan fashion - but again not for long! They Control The Weather gently undulates along with Joey Zeb supplying a great percussive foundation. Electronics aligned with comment introduce Switch which also boasts some fiery Al DiMeola-esque runs from Neil. A great little track which in turn leads neatly into the heavy, riff hungry Future Cities - a track that touched on some of Rush's instrumental work. At this point the album switches back to a less aggressive tack with funky wahed guitar introducing A Very Good Friday. A piece that builds and envelopes.
Sadly we reach the end of the album but there's still one treat left in 3572 Off. It employs one of those oddly metered, cyclical things that Neil does so well, laying foundation for some really fine classical guitar work. Andy & Joey once again demonstrate their empathy with the music, which despite them seemingly all playing in different meters at the same time, it comes together as a cohesive piece. Fantastic closing track to a fantastic album...
I liked this album from the first run through and it just got better with each subsequent listen. On's cornucopia of seemingly disparate and eclectic ingredients once mixed together produce a challenging yet intrinsically pleasant listen. So if you imagine combining a healthy dose of Robert Fripp and certainly 80's era King Crimson with a liberal splashes of Mike Oldfield. Add in some, Al DiMeola, Steve Hackett, Rush, Magma, Brian Eno, Ozric Tentacles and then fold neatly together - you just might have the essence of Bulbs. An album with a varied palette of sounds and textures which mesh into a cohesive and enjoyable whole. It can be sweet but it can also be bitter. Light and warm, then dark and dissonant. Fiery and delicate... well I'm sure you've got the picture. I will certainly be listening to this album often and for many years to come. Miss this at your peril!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Nosound - Afterthoughts
A short while ago we reviewed the At the Pier EP. In that review I stated that although Giancarlo Erra, Nosound's mainman, had needed some time after A Sense of Loss to regroup and rethink the overall changes of the band's sound, only slight adjustments were necessary. The same line-up that brought us the EP now serves us Afterthoughts, Nosound's fourth studio album which means that drums are again played by Chris Maitland and there is also the beautiful cello of Marianne de Chastelaine together with Paolo Vigliarolo on guitars, Alessandro Luci on bass and Marco Berni on keyboards and vocals. After repeated listens I must say that Afterthoughts is, again, a great Nosound record.
The sixth track on the album, She, really defines the new Nosound. It starts in a familiar fashion with a lonesome piano and Giancarlo Erra singing these simple but beautiful lines:-
She said it'll be alright
She tried reminding me
how it began...
She gave back my book
and waited outside
crying in the sun
I believe that this is exactly what we see on the beautiful album sleeve. The slightly louder than usual guitars give a hint of what's to come. De Chastelaine's cello opens up the process by speeding up as the song works its way to a beautiful climax. Heavy guitars and drumming are definitely new to the sound of this band but it's a good development. What a great song! And the wonderful thing is that Erra has decided to put some more sharp edges around some of the songs here. Listen for example to album opener, In My Fears (which lyrically refers to the title of the recent EP mentioned above) where stately verses are interchanged with feedback dripping choruses. Encounter is another fine example of Giancarlo Erra's art of songwriting. The combination of Erra's voice and Marianne de Chastelaine's cello is so beautiful. Great stuff!
And then there is Paralysed, a great eight minute track with a first class guitar solo, a very emotional finale with a shouting and almost crying Erra. He also sings the second part in Italian, which, if I had a say in it, he would be allowed to do more often.
But aren't there any critical things to say? Yes there are. Firstly there are only seven new songs on offer here as Two Monkeys and The Anger Song both also featured on At the Pier. Even though they are in a slightly different form I already had these tracks on At the Pier. And secondly, again something that I said in my review of At the Pier, I don't like the sound of Chris Maitland's drums on some of the songs here. The cymbals on Two Monkeys are way too loud and on I Miss the Ground they are too upfront (great guitar solo though). The same applies to the second part of Where Ever You Are, a great and exciting section but I do feel that the drums are just a bit too distracting. However, as I understand that both men expressed the intention of working together again on future Nosound releases here's me hoping they will get the drums to gel better with the music next time.
The title track seems to end the album on a quiet note but right at the end things get louder again one final time. Another positive thing on this track are the multi-layered vocals (Maitland on background vocals?). They sound beautiful and I would have liked to hear more of this.
So all in all another good Nosound record can be added to an already impressive catalogue. I like the rough edges of the songs but feel the sound of the drums needs some adjustment to better suit the music. At the moment Nosound has definitely worked it's way up to the Champions League of modern progressive rock. I read somewhere that Nosound is making use of the space left by No-Man now that that band is resting at the moment while Steven Wilson is enjoying his solo career and Tim Bowness is delivering high quality products with Henry Fool. However, I don't feel that the comparison does Nosound any justice. The band have definitely developed a sound of their own and if you haven't heard it yet you should check out Afterthoughts.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
William Gray - Silentio
This second album from Argentinean multi-media collective William Gray comes a good six or more years after their debut, Living Fossils. That album was one of the first that I reviewed for DPRP and remains a favourite so it was a pleasant surprise to see this follow-up appear after such a long wait.
The group, centred around vocalist/guitarist Sebastián Medina, guitarist Federico Ferme, keyboardist Federico Zanzottera and multi-instrumentalist Juan Manuel Tavella (sitar, piano and Hammond), have come up with another rock opera in Silentio. Opening in 1940's Buenos Aires the story concerns Tomás, a shy boy at a boarding school starts a fire after being dared by his friends. Tomás is rescued from the blaze but appears to have acquired a special gift and can now hear antique objects speak.
The thing that struck me with Living Fossils was the beautiful way in which the pieces blended rock with chamber orchestrations and traditional Argentinean tango. This is still true of Silentio and with guest players supplying flute, strings, percussion, accordion and trumpet the original blend of styles is till present although the rock quotiant has been increased slightly.
Silentio opens with the picked out piano theme and orchestration of Prelude before Crisis raises the rock banner with a good up-tempo thumper featuring metallic guitar and nice keys. A choir is introduced for the breakdown half way through with Hammond organ before the pace slows for an elegant ending with shades of Dave Gilmour in the guitar.
A simple guitar and voice introduction starts The Gift before it builds into a melodic number flavoured with piano and accordion. The latin feel increases during a dance mid-section complete with hand clapped rhythm and Buena Vista-esque piano. It all fits together rather well, developing into a lovely track with violin added towards the end. The delicate guitar theme to Medicine is picked out with electric piano support and the music is very well arranged, the introduction of trumpet adding much as the track develops to show just what William Gray can do. The chorus is epic, the verse melodic and the playing spot on. Things fall away to a quiet guitar and bass pattern, piano and drums adding urgency, all the instruments combining beautifully until a fuzz guitar and trumpet onslaught of King Crimson proportions, almost Red-like in its intensity. It's all impressively done, especially the trumpet soloing and the Van der Graaf Generator feel that inhabits the remainder of the track. Excellent.
La Burla sounds very traditional, piano picking its way towards a tango to arrive with the introduction of accordion and strings. Drums add some drive but this is a latin-flavoured acoustic piece to savour, the rhythms playing off the melody and building to a rousing finale and elegant denouement. Precious starts acoustically developing into an imploring ballad with a fine instrumental section of piano and violin coupled with a synth solo to finish before the brief, sedate and sinister piano piece, The Sorceror.
With a hint of King Crimson again in the off-kilter drum patterns and slices of metallic guitar it is a surprise that Type Machinae introduces, not completely successfully, electronic beats but as the pace falls away more lovely picked guitar keeps the KC feel before a metallic romp for the line with a well deploying Hammond. Auditorium is a real epic that sweeps in on sedate piano and builds on strings and a baroque guitar - orchestral prog at its best. The instrumentation swells and, despite the vocal struggling to keep up with it all emotionally, this is a great track. Metallic guitar and Hammond set us off on a driving rhythm, the Hammond soloing particularly well - and then the choir is unleashed beautifully, male and female vocals combining to fully convey the emotion before fading for a rolling piano section.
Dumb is melodic with acoustic guitars and accordion re-establishing the latin feel, it develops into another good song that hints at Pink Floyd. Militaristic drum beats, flutes, guitar solos - there's plenty to enjoy here before the track changes completely with a zither (possibly) and atmospheric drone with sitar that merges into the hard rocking Cursed, thumping drums and riffing guitars suggesting Led Zeppelin. The vocal works well here, ramping up the emotion in an intense and sinister track that ebbs and flows. An acoustic section calms things down before a beautiful build up with Eastern sounds and the zither-thing again, guitars picking out serpentine solos before thundering rock a la Soundgarden nails the ending.
After a brief and mournful piano interlude the final track, The Search, begins with overlaid piano, sustained guitar and searching drums. The riffs get bigger to submerge the piano as the drums pick up the pace into another metal-edged romp with vocal to match. Piano mixes things up with strings and trumpet reappearing to completely change the mood, accordion adding a tango vibe to the sudden finish.
It has to be said that Medina's vocals are not the strongest and something of an acquired taste but they do suit the music although a stronger voice with a bit more personality would be a benefit. He seems to find it difficult to fully convey the emotion and doesn't have the necessary range but his contribution is still more than solid and the music does not suffer.
This is another engaging and rewarding album from a very talented group of people. I urge you to give it a try. It's a real grower and after spending some time with it the layers reveal themselves. Not an album for a throwaway hour, it requires your full attention to let the arrangements work their magic. This is a great piece of work and I hope the delay before the next release is not as long.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Science NV - Last Album Before the End of Time
Separate tracks for The Ring Cycle: Titan (3:25), Iapetus (3:26), Enceladus (3:01), Stella Mortis (3:44)
Science NV are back with their third album with the rather ominous title of Last Album Before The End Of Time; maybe these erudite boffins know something they are not letting on? Three years have passed since the last album, but consistency is the key in the world of Science NV, not least of which is the group members: Larry on guitar and bass, Jim on keyboards and guitar, David on keyboards and Rich on drums. Musically, high quality instrumental prog, with the odd jazz lick thrown in for good measure, remains the order of the day. Centre pieces of the previous two albums have been rock interpretations of classical pieces and, to continue the tradition, the band take on one of the most recognisable pieces of classical music, Holst's Mars - The Bringer Of War. Although this number has been tackled by numerous bands, notably King Crimson, very few have remained true to the original score, just taking the original opening riff as a launch pad and developing things from there. In contrast, Science NV stay true to the original melodies and interplays providing the full electronic colour palette. The arrangement is startlingly good with layers of keyboards replicating the various sections of the orchestra with the necessary powerful drums forming the bed upon which everything else lies. If all you know of this piece is the opening ostinato then you need to hear the full rendition on this album (and then go back to the source and hear the original orchestral version).
First original number is Chinatown which derives its title from the opening synth theme which vaguely reminded the band of the music from the Roman Polanski movie of the same name - the subtitle was added later, presumably to tie in with the album title. Based on a series of jam sessions, this reflective piece has numerous melodies and emotional subtexts. Lovely guitar tone throughout with a wonderful solo (which reminds me of something that could appear on a Steely Dan album) that is perfect for the number. From the reflective to the completely energetic, with dual guitars battling it out on Molecular Super-Modeling. Some old-style keyboard sounds fits in with the space theme of the album and the jazz influences of the group are pretty evident, although one would hesitate to call the entire piece as belonging within the realms of jazz. Bizarrely, the number ends with some strange chicken sounds!
Curved Space is quite a staccato number with plenty of stops and starts. Good to hear an electric piano taking a solo with the bottom end being held down by a very deep synth. Although the shortest track on the album there is a heck of a lot going on in this number and it requires a lot of concentration to get into, indeed I am still not sure I am really in tune with this piece. Just as the band always include an interpretation of a classical number on their albums, they also have an ambient piece. This time the latter is fulfilled by Cold Sleep. Once again the band have succeeded in creating a number that is both ambient and yet contains enough within the grooves to retain the attention and provide plenty of interest. An arppegiator persistently cycles throughout, keys are kept to a minimum and a variety of percussion instruments are played over the top. Another restrained and emphatic guitar solo slices through the dreamy atmosphere and the huge synth chord delivered three-quarters of the way through is marvellous!
The epic of the album is The Ring Cycle which is not named after the Wagner opera, nor, as chemists might suspect, the indole and benzene rings, but after the rings of Saturn, indeed the titles of each section are taken from the moons of that extraordinary planet. Each section has its own dynamic quality; Titan is somewhat brash and aggressive; Iapetus more sedate (acoustic guitar and all) and dream-like; Enceladus is heavy on rhythms providing lots of exposure for the drums and bass; and Stella Mortis was derived from a compositional challenge to create a prog number with a rapid tempo that wasn't loud and over the top. And boy, I think they certainly rose to the challenge and provided an answer! (Well in the first part of this number anyway, the ending does turn up the loudness knob somewhat). Although working perfectly well as a single piece of music, the band wanted each of the individual sections to be able to stand alone and, to that end, have included each section as an individual track tacked onto the end of the album.
Last number on the album is Atmosphere Of The Mind which, for the first five minutes is a fine acoustic baroque number complete with harpsichord and string trio. Although I believe the strings are real (the cello is the giveaway) the violin does have a slightly electronic feel to it, or at least sounds like it belongs in a Michael Nyman score, which I am not sure is totally in sympathy with the piece. The introduction of guitar and electronic keyboards for the last three and a half minutes introduces a tension in the piece essentially setting up a battle between the two camps, akin to a baroque version of the final section of Jon Lord's Concerto For group And orchestra.
Hand on heart, I love what the Science NV guys do; the music is both challenging and reflective and they have struck a perfect balance between classical, prog, ambient, jazz and any other number of genres. On that front the group really is progressive and are well worthy of maintaining their 100% record of DPRP recommended releases.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Combat Astronomy - Kundalini Apocalypse
Dominated by ex-pat Mancunian James Huggett's monstrous, world-destroying fretless five-string bass guitar, the sound of Combat Astronomy is the sound of planets colliding. Mind you, bearing a title like Kundalini Apocalypse should not lead the unsuspecting down any misleading alleys, that's for sure. Yes, it does exactly what it says on the tin, make no mistake, for this is a musical journey of controlled internal energy released. Not that Combat Astronomy lacks a sense of humour though; one of the group describing the album thus on the Facebook page: "Somehow groovier and a bit more bonkers than the other albums" which is saying something!
Fans of Jannick Top's militaristic bass playing with Zeuhl instigators Magma will recognise the influence James has brought to bear here. When you add in Martin Archer's skronking saxes and haunting clarinet, some very odd electronic effects and heavily treated voices so far down in the mix they're barely recognisable as such, the end result is akin to being crushed between colliding meteors in an illogical parallel universe.
As far as I can ascertain, Martin hails from Sheffield in England. James emigrated to the States in 1998 where he has formed a long collaboration in Combat Astronomy with Elaine Di Falco. This is what initially drew me to this project; seeing that the voice on the first two offerings here was provided by none other than Elaine, who sings in her own individual and unaffected style with Thinking Plague and sundry other related projects. The pertinent word here is "voice" not "vocals" as there is no way one could hear her contribution and a) recognise it as a voice, and b) pinpoint it as hers.
On Path Finders, which is an almost seamless continuation of the first track, the marching bass deconstructs to just one note repeated with insistent brutality as the sax wails and squawks away in the foreground; the sound of tectonic plates smashing together. Eventually the whole mothership lifts off the ground in a scraping of wild electronic fancy. Before we've even had time to draw breath the repeated three chord bass pattern of Recoil is hammering a gargantuan horseshoe into shape, using the side of a newly formed volcano as an anvil.
Joining James and Martin we have probably the most natural-sounding programmed drums I have ever encountered, struggling to make themselves heard above the din. Curiously, the echoed sax on Quiet Mutiny puts me in mind of Nik Turner, but even Lemmy never got close to being this f***ing HEAVY. Did they say "quiet"? Hahahahaha!
Other more obvious influences are the heavier ends of Swans and Anekdoten, in a mash up with Japanese Zeuhl exponents Ruins, that kind of aural warfare. Combat Astronomy is often filed away under a subset of Zeuhl known as "Brutal Prog". There is no more suitable epithet in my opinion.
Having come to this directly after reviewing a Klaus Schulze album is like arising from a duck feather mattress and then being willingly and repeatedly slapped around the face. In fact we have to wait until the sixth track Orchard Of The Snakes for the unrelenting pace to let up thereby allowing us to realign our senses, the brief introduction to the mini-epic being an industrial ambient soundscape that Throbbing Gristle would be proud of. Of course it does not last, and fighting over James's soon-come tumultuous bass we have a marvellous moment where Martin's multi-tracked reeds do battle with one another like a swarm of bees armed with spears settling a dispute over hive rights. Marvellous! The "drummer" as programmed by James must come in for praise, maintaining a complex beat while WWIII blasts off all around da house. Eventually the track returns to post-industrial ambience for its final third, as the shattered remains of the song slowly scatter apart in the zero gravity of deep space, huge static charges building up. I'm liking this track more and more, it's the sort of thing to scare your friends with.
Martin initially ditches his reeds and plays some very prog organ on Sequence Seven, which seems to inspire James to get almost melodic on that behemoth of a bass of his. Not being able to resist Martin has to pick up a sax in the end, but the whole thing is looser, more organic than what has passed before. Inevitably though, by the end James is back down into a Marianas Trench of a groove, lost to the world.
The last track on the album is Cave War, which according to the liner notes includes "Juxtavoices", a choir, directed by Martin. The longest piece here, the song enters stage centre in an atonal wash of treated saxes. The wizard blows his horn, heralding a Zen mantra for disembodied voices. The mighty bass slowly surfaces through the swirling murk, hanging on one note banged out, now sped up and dancing in the ugliest pair of hobnailed boots you ever did see, encouraged by agitated cave dwellers waving cudgels while a band of dervishes blow sax and shout. A jazz party with steam hammers. Something like that, anyway. Is that the door? Invite the Jehovah's Witnesses in for a cup of tea; play them this while waiting for the kettle to boil and you'll never be bothered again. I like it!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Morph - Sintrinity
Morph are a Swedish progressive alternative rock band with just two members, Richard Sandström who plays the drums and Attila Bokor who does everything else! The duo first met in 2005 but didn't start writing together until three years later, a process that has culminated in their first album Sintrinity, a word I believe the pair have made up to fit in with the concept around which the album is based. Basically, a story of the interconnections between three people - two life-long enemies fighting for the object of their desires - an unpredictable woman with her own hidden agenda or, in other words, a trinity of sin.
Musically, the album has an assured rhythmic quality, strong melody and impressive vocal delivery with Bokor layering his vocals much as he does his instruments. Mixing elements of prog, post rock and even some heavier darker elements, Morph have quite a unique style, and sound, of their own. Lyrically, the band also triumphs with intelligent, and plentiful, words to accompany the music. Bokor carries no trace of an accent in his singing, something that impresses me greatly as someone who can't even manage the delivery of a single word in another language in anything remotely approaching a decent accent!
The concept nature of the album allows for a musical and lyrical consistency enabling a smooth flow between tracks. However, that is not to imply that there is a lack of variety on offer. Reaching For You, for example, takes essentially a very decent melodic song and conflicts the sweetness of the vocal lines with some aggressive, almost grungy guitar riffing. The contrast can be startling and musically emphasises the conflict between the two main protagonists. This ploy is also used throughout the album and particularly in Wake Up where the effect is more dramatic with acoustic guitar battling against the, at times, almost too heavy electric counterpart. But always there is an underlying surfeit of melody to carry things through. A nice use of news reports broadcast into the middle of the song enhances the story and really makes one think more about what is being sung.
Although Bokor sings and plays the guitars, bass and keyboards, one shouldn't think that Morph are a one man band with added drummer. Both members contributed to the writing of the music and lyrics as well as producing the album and Sandström's fills and rhythmic contributions certainly help to define the overall sound of the band. Stand out track for me is the lovely The Final Bow, possibly because it is a somewhat more straightforward ballad for most of its playing time. In contrast, the opening to It Feels Like The End doesn't really work for me; the first 90 seconds seem asynchronous with the rest of the album; the rest of the song is fine though! As with most albums, particularly debut efforts, there is a tendency to leave the listener with a memorable ending, the grand finale. With The Journal, Morph have opted to keep things rather low-key, focusing on a gentle conclusion. The playing on this track is excellent, although not technically demanding or extravagantly over the top, it fits in with the feel of the album bringing the album, and the concept to a fulfilling finish.
This album has grown on me and its merits have surfaced through repeatedly hearing everything it has to offer. There are very few criticisms of the album that are warranted so, as with most things in life, it all comes down to personal preferences. On that basis I have to say my rating is tempered somewhat by my preference for the more melodic aspects and not the heavier guitar riffs that enter the metallic sphere at times. Yes, I appreciate that it is part of the concept and, as mentioned, is a good way of presenting the conflict and tension between two of the characters in the story. However, I thought that at times they were a bit distracting and jarring. But then I am a bit of an old fogey these days....
In conclusion, well worth checking out and I, genuinely, do look forward to with whatever the duo come up with on their next album which, I believe, they have just started recording.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Primitive Instinct - One Man's Refuge
Primitive Instinct, or PI as they are known, were formed in Maidstone, Kent, in 1987 and have gone through many changes in those ensuing 26 years. They have now trimmed themselves down to a four piece and No Man's Refuge is their fourth studio album. They staged a special show last year to mark this album's release and also their 25th anniversary.
Now they are looking forward to several gigs this year, including two high profile ones at the Cambridge Rock Festival on Friday 2nd August and the Sexy Prog Party at the Peel in Kingston-upon-Thames on Saturday 24th August.
So what can audiences expect from PI on the strength of the songs off this album? Well, quite a lot actually, their sound falling within the parameters of say, Marillion and Barclay James Harvest, with a mellifluousness and laid-back vibe which is both pleasant and very easy on the ear.
Nick Sheridan is the band's fulcrum, writing the lion's share of the album, providing the lead vocals, guitar and keyboards with Pic on bass, Graham McGarrick on drums and percussion and Jonathan Vincent on keyboards and backing vocals.
Most of the songs here deal with the human condition in its various guises, starting off with a short telephone intro before hitting its stride with Alter Ego, a slightly downbeat song, but very representative of what is to follow, with Sheridan's strong, expressive voice dominating the mix with understated keyboards and a solid rhythm. You can almost hear Guy Garvey/Elbow as influences here.
Footsteps start the acoustically-led Falling Down, a more up-tempo song which flows along well, underscored with a strong melodic chorus line and nice fluting keyboards before it all ends with a big guitar riffing section.
Breathing takes us into gentler acoustic territory, a lovely ballad with Sheridan's voice exuding emotion and tenderness, the whole song benefitting from shifts in mood, tempo and a great balanced mix which ensures it never loses its shape.
Solitary Man demonstrates the band's feel for melody, the instrumental parts never swamping the mix and Sheridan again stretching those very listenable vocal chords and the title track, One Man's Refuge, has a poppier sound, the rhythm putting me in mind of Marshall Hain's Dancing In The City.
Back to the acoustic vibe again with End Of The Day, another pleasant enough song and then along comes the hidden gem of the collection, Cuban Melody, with its strong, throaty guitar riff and a special energy that propels it along to great effect. Can we have more tunes like this please, PI?
No Way is probably the catchiest song on the album, with a big commercial hook in its chorus and Still Finding My Way is acoustically driven with Sheridan's voice a big feature again.
Rounding off is the longest track, Regrets, with electric and acoustic guitars and synths all bubbling away in the mix underneath Sheridan's voice which does not quite have the impact here as it did on several of the previous tracks. As the album began, it ends with a telephone ring and a door shutting.
One Man's Refuge falls in that mid-range category of being pleasant and mainly easy on the ear without ever being challenging or cutting edge prog. Perhaps the mix could have majored more on bringing some of the instrumental parts higher up to counterbalance the strength of the vocals. But it would be interesting to see how these songs translate when played live. You know what? I might just go along and find out!
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Haze - The Last Battle
When a band releases its first album in 26 years it is usually cause for celebration. In the case of Haze, from Sheffield in the U.K., the event does not seem to have caught the attention of many which is a shame as any band that can reignite their creativity after such a long period is to be applauded, with the proviso of course that the results are worthy. The figure of 26 years since the last studio album is confused somewhat by the fact that two-thirds of the band became World Turtle in the mid-'90s and released an album called Haze! D'oh!
After an initial run of exactly 10 years from 1978 Haze can justifiably claim to have predated the '80s Neo revival, their sound having much more to do with bands from the original prog era who utilised a folky bias. Since their original demise there have been occasional reunions on the 20th and 30th anniversaries of the band's formation, at the latter six new songs were played and now, five years later, a new album has emerged in the form of The Last Battle.
The band wear they '70s influences with pride and there are hints of Genesis and Jethro Tull alongside Camel and Greenslade but to their credit these influences are not more than fleeting. The overall feel, as indulged in the cover art, is of medieval times, dragons and chivalrous knights coupled with the homely folk vibe of the proletariat.
"He's a King is he? Well I didn't vote for him..." etc.
The Last Battle features the original trio of Paul McMahon (guitar, bass & vocals), Chris McMahon (bass, keys, guitar & vocals) and Paul Chisnell (drums & vocals) together with Ceri and Catrin Ashton who together provide fiddle, flute, whistles, cello, viola and clarinet to give proceedings that required folk vibe but unfortunately, with all the best will in the world, this is not an album that is going to set many hearts on fire.
The performances are fine on the whole, nothing to write home about and with a slight wobble here and there and the production is probably not as good as it should have been at times. The lead vocals, which are shared between the main trio of band members, are generally strong with Paul McMahon taking the lion's share with Paul C and Chris providing a couple each. The writing is also shared out with the McMahon brothers providing the majority.
From the start the affinity to folk music is clear and throughout the material is solid without being overly exciting. The variations in the instrumentation keeps things moving and hold the attention and the album does not descend into a samey morass but it does go on too long and for me the more rocking electric sections are generally less interesting than the acoustic parts. As stated, the songs are on the whole solid without getting exciting. There are some nice tunes and decent instrumental sections but not one song here that would make me seek out any more of Haze's material.
The songs range from Olde Worlde folk, including a version of the traditional Balder and the Mistletoe, one of two instrumentals present and nicely done, through to a more classic rock feel with a mixture of both utilised at intervals. Stand out tracks include the flute led Over The River with its ominous slow melody and atmospheric vocal which adds piano before building into a more epic electric song, this latter part not quite coming off. Some elements reminded me of early '80s material from stalwarts like IQ and Pendragon but without the quality necessary to make it into something worth fully immersing yourself in.
Dragon Fly starts with a ragged and not entirely convincing Eastern feel. There is passion in the vocal but not much else and the feel of Rick Wakeman's Myths and Legends of King Arthur... in the keyboard flourishes really dates it and focuses the mind on why this album doesn't entirely work.
Classic Rock Bar is not great and at times quite embarrassing but luckily some nice guitar and keys rescues it a bit. There is a primitive heaviness to Long, Long Gone that unfortunately sounds thin and weedy alongside other recent releases, the drums plodding where they should pound. The oddly titled The Barrister and the Bargast starts with fiddle and flute folkiness with a bit of swing, getting more rocky as the track progresses and getting quite good towards the end.
Although presented with passion this is an unremarkable set of songs that has resulted in an album that will no doubt be treasured by their long term fans but passed over by most others who hear it. A shame as they have remained true to themselves and carried on doing what they do best. The problem is that so many and varied are the bands out there and with the ability to check them out at a moment's notice via T'Interwebs it is likely that Haze will languish in obscurity as there is little here to help them stand out from the crowd.
Longevity is, sadly, not enough.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Haiku Funeral - Nightmare Painting
What's up, my name is Hark. I'm a Mellotron. And I'm not just any Mellotron. I'm a Goth Mellotron, okay? Got it? I'm hauntingly melodic. Yeah, I'm old school, Xymox kiddies, and I've been that way for years. I'm so Goth I caught Joy Division on their reunion-era "Instrumentals" tour. Good times, man; that show changed my death forever. And I've never looked back since.
So listen up, kids. I'm totally into this band known as Haiku Funeral. Their new album is called Nightmare Painting, and Haiku Funeral has this whole Goth/black metal/doom situation happening. The band is made up of two guys, this Bulgarian dude Dimitar Dimitrov on vocals and some awesomely sick electronics, and this other cat William Kopecky on basses and vocals. This CD will spank your forlorn little asses, kids. It's got a variety of stuff like instrumentals, and some other tunes that have the two of these guys spitting some really sweet poetry that Kopecky wrote for the album. I mean, there's even a song in fucking Bulgarian. Like, come on, how dope is that shit?
Oh man, I remember when I was first coming up way back in the scene, you know, in 2010? I'll never forget the time when I first peeped the Haiku Funeral three inch CDR release Hell, and it was like majorly beast, as my homie Fripp would word it up. Oh, and I even used a computer afterwards to find about this other thing they had called Assassination In The Hashish Cathedral, and get this shizzle - it was a full-length that actually came out BEFORE the three inch CDR! Gawd, I just fucking LOVE getting my Goth boy on and keeping all sorts of old school.
So anyway, Nightmare Painting drops, and I'm like, no brainer, right? So I go out and buy a copy of the thing, and I look at the cover art and it's just, 'Whoa'. The artwork shows this crazy-ass chick with glowing horns or something coming out of her head. And then there's this mosquito looking thingy between her boobs that looks like it flew out of a Roger fucking Dean painting, or some shit.
I've never looked back since then. CDs are expensive, though; I wish I could buy more. I should probably stop buying purple PVC utility kilts and pick up some more hours at Taco Bell.
Yeah, so I'm like, wow, I've got to promote this new Haiku Funeral album. The song Flags Of A New Empire Born alone is a winner, offering a lot of changes in tempo including some references to late-era Ministry; it's pretty much a totally double-barrelled deployment of Kopecky's poem with him and that Bulgarian guy spitting out the verse. Add to that influences of KMFDM upon Dimitar's drum elements and Raymond Watts upon some of the vocals, and what do I have to lose, right? Promoting this album will be a piece of cake.
So I figured I'd be my own little one man street team, and head around town to some of the local venues to try and get the word out on Nightmare Painting.
So I put on my black leather pants, Machines Of Loving Grace T-shirt and my red PVC jacket, and go out into the night on my quest, the innocence of the pure white moon above delicately darkened with misery, as my Plymouth Reliant K Car set about the streets.
The first stop was Pompadour's, a rockabilly place over in the Jewelry District. I entered the club, which had a DJ booth set behind a replica of an early model Ford Thunderbird. I said to the DJ, a guy with a black leather jacket, cuffed dungarees and a cuffed white T-shirt, "Hey man, you've got to check out the new CD from Haiku Funeral. Give the eighth track on it a spin!" So he took the CD from me, put on Heavy Breasted Innocence, listened to it for a bit, then stopped the CD player. "Sorry, bro," he said, "It's just not the right groove. And the lyrics don't have any references to cars, girls or anything like that, so all the greasers and kittens won't know what to make of it." So I was like, whatever. I had to find another venue.
Where to head next? Then I'm like, fuck, I know! I'll promote it from the standpoint of Kopecky's poetry! I mean, words like,
"Gods descend / A guillotine of flies / Legs spread / Prostitute divine / Moonflowers / Your breasts / Awash with crime / Bloodshowers / Punishment sublime"
are worthy of a Pulitzer fucking Prize! You know, they rhyme and all, right? Right? So I started beating feet over to Reich Boulevard where the local dark poetry venue in town was. I had heard of the place, called Verse In A Hearse, but had never been inside the joint. I got there and went inside.
It was pretty crowded, as apparently it was poetry slam finals night, with the top four placers going on to represent Verse In A Hearse at the 2014 IGPS (International Goth Poetry Slam). So at an opportune time I took Clavichordia, the slam host, aside. I whispered to her, "Hey, you have to book Haiku Funeral as a music/poetry feature here. I mean, come on, check these words out," I said, reading to her some of Kopecky's prose from the CD booklet. "Come ONNNN girl this Kopecky dude's a riot! He's totally self-depreciating and takes a major swipe at Goth poetry via his words! Shit, Voltaire and Gary Numan got nothing on Kopecky! You gotta book these guys!" She replied, "Great work, man, but the whole thing isn't up to par. Kopecky's rhyming just isn't concise enough. Here at Verse In A Hearse, we have a policy in which only strictly rhyming metric stuff is allowed to be performed. That's because in order for poetry to be nice, it's supposed to rhyme. Always. Tightly. The literary structure has to be totally tight, man; it really is a dark corset of sorts."
At this point I really wanted a drink, but all they had was white heavy cream served by itself, absinthe with poppy seeds in it, and black coffee. So I blew that popsicle stand.
I remember this one time back in the eighties I was kicking it with some house kids in a warehouse space in Detroit, and they were talking all sorts of smack saying how they were going to pioneer this great new house music scene, blah blah blah, and I was like, "yeah, right. I'm a motherfucking mellotron, y'allz. I'm rocking a bunch of presets all up in here and I've got tapes inside me, too. Motherfuckin TAPES, dudes. I'm the real sampler, ya hear?"
But I digress. My next stop on my Haiku Funeral promotional journey was this place over in Olneyville called Astral Prawject. It was an ambient chill space that I had seen some DIY flyers for in town, but that I had never checked out. So I cruised on over there and parked my car by the old warehouse space complex where it was located. A harshly calm autumn wind exhaled from nothingness, forlorn, sending red and orange leaves in a childlike tempest of whirligig fire, a lone Terrastock 2013 flyer waltzing unknowingly alone, as a moonsketch wallflower.
I went into the building and up a flight of stairs to the space.
I approached the DJ booth and said to the DJ, DJ BeautyBlakk, "Hey, chickadee, you so totally have to get your dark chill on with Nightmare Painting, the new CD from Haiku Funeral. Give track nine a spin."
She was like, "Okay", and popped the CD in and played Your Heart A Black Tunnel. I said to her, "Check out the early Lycia influence via Dimitar Dimitrov's broodingly measured drum elements and dark bits of drone." So she replied, "Yeah, it's ok, but this Kopecky dude singing? He sounds like he's whispering; let me turn it up a little." So she turns up the house sound, and then she says to me, "Wait a minute, he's still whispering, just louder." So above the now very loud volume I yelled, "THAT'S THE MIKE VANPORTLFEET INFLUENCE OF WHISPERY VOCALS. THE VOCALS ARE SUPPOSED TO SOUND WHISEPRY EVEN IF THEY'RE CRANKED UP." So then she brought the house volume down, and zipped through a few samples of other tunes on the disc. So then this DJ BeautyBlakk says, "Sorry man, too much variety. Early Lycia's great and all, but since all their early stuff sounds the same, if anything early Lycia would be better for the sound we're trying to hit here than this Haiku Funeral stuff. Music with a lot of variety really doesn't give the chill element of our sound a lot of overall seamless continuity." I was like, wow, sweet Satanic criminy in a burrito wrap...
So anyway, on with my quest. Ladyvoid was the fetish club downtown, and I headed over there to promote the CD. Once inside the joint, I sought out the club's Headmistress, Leviathena, and said, "Yo, cupcake, you gotta get into the new CD from Haiku Funeral. Check out the second track on the CD, Blacklight Amniotic Erotica. It's one of the album's standout tracks."
So she brought the CD over to the DJ booth and had the DJ give it a listen. He stopped playing the CD almost immediately and handed it back to her with a look of disgust on his face. Leviathena, captivating my very soul with a serrated, icy stare framed by purple eye shadow and unblinking eyelids, said something to me about the music not being "pathetic bitch boy-friendly" enough. She added, "Now get the fuck out of my club, you little sissy worm. If I ever see your sorry little ass in here again, I'm breaking out the nipple clamps and Saran Wrap."
At this point I'm thinking, like, wow. Dimitar Dimitrov's relentless and groovy drum elements and growling vocals that sound like the babe on the cover of ELP's Brain Salad Surgery doing her best Nina Hagen impersonation? And ol' Elvira here just ain't feeeling it.
By this point, my lack of success in promoting the CD was having me get a little forlorn here, with just one last venue to visit before my meagre misery would simply be bleak. There was a new place in town I had heard about called BytchBend and I wasn't really sure what kind of scene they had happening over there, so I headed over to Thayer Street to check the joint out.
Once inside the place, I approached the DJ booth and said, "Hey, can you give this CD a spin and see if you like it?" So the DJ took it and gave it a listen. After a few minutes of checking the CD out, he turned and said to me, "I like this instrumental tune Death Poem; I love the way the dark drone elements almost descend over it like curtains. There's even a little Floyd-ian Division Bell thing happening; that's pretty sweet, man." He put the CD on pause for a minute, and then gestured over behind the bar, where there was a picture of Ian Curtis wearing a Nektar T-shirt. "Check out that picture of our man Ian over there," he said. "There's a lot of commonalities between progressive and Goth, so we're trying to start a new scene we call 'progothive'. You know, like a combination of the song-based stuff from Black Tape For A Blue Girl and the conceptual work of Attrition. These are just a couple of bands along with this new one you've turned me on to here that really represent what we are trying to do here."
"Hmmm, what's up with this tune Raining Nightbirds?" he then asked, selecting the CD to play track 5. "Hey, I like this," he said. "It's interesting how this Dimitrov guy's electronics drone minimally for a bit and then spiral at other times. Actually, the overall darkness of the tune tends to evoke Van der Graaf Generator, if Peter Hammill had his penis in an electric socket. I think I'll hit up Aesthetic Death for a promo copy of the album."
So then I'm thinking to myself, 'Hark, dude, this is awesome. I can't believe I finally got to promote...promote...'
I then found myself lying in bed. My mother was standing over me, saying, "Mark, it's seven o'clock in the morning. You overslept and you need to get ready for school. I think you were dreaming, because you were talking in your sleep and you kept moaning something about Saran wrap."
She then gave me permission to put on my clothes.
Stupid school. I hate school. Now where's that One Direction CD...
Conclusion: Six Circles Of Hell Out Of Nine
Elephants of Scotland - Home Away From Home
The quaintly named Elephants of Scotland hail from Vermont, New England, U.S.A., and began life a few years ago from the dissolution of a covers band, in which both Adam Rabin and Ornan McLean played. After sharing sessions and ideas, along with a few comings and goings, the duo brought in John Whyte, who had done a one man show featuring covers of Rush songs, and then enlisted Dan MacDonald.
Home Away From Home is their self-produced and self-released debut album, whose central concept is the destruction of the earth and the resettlement of the survivors via an ark which appears on the cover.
It is very obvious that Rush are a towering influence in their music but there are also hints of Hawkwind and Emerson Lake and Palmer peeping out from some of the corners of the six songs which make up this collection.
Opener Geograph sets off at a gallop with a big beat, meaty bass and some spacey synths, the latter courtesy of Rabin who also delivers the main vocals along with some tight harmonies. Whyte cuts in with a decently executed guitar solo which offers some variety and texture to the song before it returns to the synths and spoken vocals. It's a great opener and a portent hopefully for more of the same to follow.
Full Power cuts back on the high energy start, being a lush, more rounded sounding song, the piano more to the fore. However, Rabin's singing is not quite as effective as on the opener as it veers a little too much into "whine" territory, which is a shame because it is a strong tune which deserves a stronger and more precise vocal. However, there is nothing wrong with his synth playing which is deft, assured and quite moving at times as it continues climbing to its natural conclusion.
The pivotal track is the stunning Starboard which summons up the spirit of '80s era Rush in both its execution and style with Whyte stepping up to the plate for the vocal. Of the two singers on display, his is the more compelling voice with hints of both Geddy Lee and Rich Harding (Also Eden) in it. The guitar phrasing in places is pure Lifeson and the looping synth which underpins the song throughout is very well done. If they want a direction for the difficult second album, then I would wholeheartedly recommend them to stick to this style because it suits them.
This is a hard act to follow and The Seed does not quite reach its dizzy heights with its almost U2 like guitar line and a beat courtesy of McLean which plods along rather than sizzles. The title track is the shortest and rather beautifully incorporates a reggae beat which again might be a nod to Rush and their forays into the genre. A synth processed voice reciting "far away from home" gives it a slightly, other worldly quality before Whyte hits Lifeson territory again with his guitar.
Ending it is the longest track, Errol McQuisitor, and though it is constructed as one of those songs which build through repetition of the instrumentation while adding different textures, it does not quite work for me, as this makes it rather ponderous and leaves you wondering when it is finally going to take off. I suggest that they listen to a couple of albums by Saga who are past masters at laying down keyboard sections such as the one they are trying to achieve here.
Having said all that, it is a creditable first outing for the Elephants and one on which I hope they can use as a launch pad to further develop and enhance their sound, which could turn into something a bit special.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10